Alexander McNabb isn’t afraid of ghoulies, ghosties, long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night — which, as Kate Allison announced the week before last, is this month’s theme at the Displaced Nation.
How do I know he isn’t afraid? Because he is too busy tuning into other sources of thrills, chills and excitement for his books — namely, Middle Eastern politics and intrigue.
Though he doesn’t seek controversy, he doesn’t shy away from it either. His books are violent, explosive, and deadly. One has actually been banned in Jordan.
I now have the pleasure of giving Mr McNabb the floor to tell us more about his affinity for such dastardly topics. Don’t worry, he doesn’t have fangs but is a gentle sort with a great sense of humo(u)r… He is also a lively conversationalist, with his own radio show in Dubai, and a cook.
Welcome, Alexander. Shall we start out with what should be a basic question (though it rarely is for us displaced types): where are you from?
I was born in London, in Edgware General Hospital, which they have since knocked down, presumably to stop lightning striking twice. I grew up in various countryside areas north of London and was unwillingly educated at The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School in Elstree.
When did you first go to the Middle East?
In 1986. I was selling an insanely visionary software package put together by a directory publisher that had the wonderful idea of selling its information as an integrated database. I presented this to a number of puzzled Saudis who lost no time in introducing me to their most junior members of staff and leaving me there. It taught me an important lesson — Gulf Arabs never say “no,” it’s considered rude. And “not no” doesn’t mean “yes”!
How did you end up living in Dubai?
When that project and, ultimately, the company failed I got involved in the publishing side of things. And so in 1993 I moved out to Dubai to start a subsidiary of the publishing company I worked for. And got myself shut down by the Ministry of Information. But that’s another story…
We will talk about your trio of books set in the Middle East shortly. But first: do you have any other published works?
The first book I wrote was a spoof of international spy thrillers, called just Space. I re-read the manuscript a couple of months ago and it made me laugh a lot, so I published that as a $2.99 Kindle-only book. I worked for ten years as an editor and publisher and for longer than that as a writer and journalist, so there are millions of my words out there — lost and crying out plaintively…
No need for them to mourn as you’ve just now published Beirut — An Explosive Thriller, which is the second in three books you are writing that are set in the Middle East, called The Levant Cycle. The first was Olives — A Violent Romance and the third will be Shemlan — A Deadly Tragedy. Could you say a little more about the Levant Cycle?
The Levant Cycle was never meant to be — the three books just happen to be set in the same region, contain some of the same characters and be roughly contiguous. But they are very different. Olives is really a novel — the story follows young British journalist, Paul Stokes as he arrives in Jordan and quickly falls afoul of the law — while Beirut is a hardcore international spy thriller. And they’re independent works in themselves. I had always thought of a book that would form an interlinear to Olives, a telling of that story from another perspective, possibly that of Gerald Lynch, the British Secret Intelligence Service officer that Paul encounters. Beirut wasn’t meant to follow on from Olives and then it just did, sort of taking up from when Paul moves to Beirut. And of course Beirut shows a very different Gerald Lynch, because in Olives you only see Lynch from Paul’s somewhat jaundiced perspective. So the books can be grouped, but I didn’t want a trilogy — a cycle seemed more appropriate.
Are you now working on the third book?
Yes, I’m about halfway through Shemlan and loving it. It’s a great deal darker than the other two books. It’s about a retired diplomat who’s dying of cancer going back to his past and finding that past is likely to kill him before the disease does.
What does “shemlan” mean?
Shemlan is a tiny village high in the hills above Beirut. It’s a little-known fact that Shemlan was for many years home to the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies, where the British government taught its diplomats — and its spies — Arabic. A lot of my research for the book has consisted of taking friends and colleagues up there for lunch at Al Sakhra (The Cliff House), the lovely Arabic restaurant in the village. I know, it’s hard…
What made you decide to center the action of your books around the politics of the Middle East?
No one else was writing fiction centered on this region. There hasn’t been an interesting Middle Eastern spy thriller since Eric Ambler’s The Levanter. Olives was intended to introduce a Western audience that doesn’t care very much to some of the more complicated aspects of life in that part of the world — to some of the human issues that lie behind the glib headlines.
I presume you aren’t afraid of controversy?
Bring it on! Actually, I was amazed at the “controversy” that Olives provoked because of my having depicted Muslims drinking alcohol and Arab women having sex with foreigners. These things never happen in the Arab World! And then the Great Naming Scandal, when my use of a real Palestinian name (Dajani, for the Palestinian family Paul gets involved with) was deemed by distributors in Jordan to make the book too hot for them to handle. It still can’t be sold there!
How about Beirut?
I was truly blown away when the UAE’s National Media Council granted the necessary “Permission to Print” for Beirut. I’m sure someone, somewhere will find some aspect of the book controversial, but I think that’s more a product of the lack of narrative literature in the region than it is any quest for controversy on my part. And yes, you do actually have to get permission to print a book here — and government clearance to import books into any country in the region.
What audience did you have in mind for Olives?
Olives was written for a British audience but has appealed broadly across Europe and the US as well as in the Arab World. I’ve been more than pleased at Western readers who have enjoyed Olives and said, “I didn’t know about all that stuff.” And, because I thought I might lose Arab friends, I have been truly overjoyed that so many Palestinian and Arab readers have loved it.
At one point in Olives, Paul, the British journalist, becomes romantically involved with his Palestinian coworker, Aisha Dajani. Do you think Westerners can have successful relationships with Arabs and live happily ever after?
I really don’t see it as a “Westerner/Arab” thing at all – it’s an awful cliché, but love transcends nationality, culture and, yes, religion. I have seen relationships founder on that particular rock, where the partners can’t clear the hurdle of converting to or from Islam, but I have also seen couples deal with that. And, of course, there are still a great number of Christians in the Arab world and Muslims in the West. East and West doesn’t have to be about Islam, even if it often is.
Did you base the hero, Paul, on anyone in particular?
Paul Stokes is modeled on a number of callow Brits I have encountered arriving in the Middle East over the years, most of them journalists. You get a lot of credit in the Arab World for having tried to understand things, for actually bothering to learn something about the region and its people before you go leaping in blindly, as Paul does. I have often been highly amused at the way Arab friends have reacted to the behavior of British people new to the region — funny little things like different approaches to generosity, family, children and manners. I remember once walking into the office to be met by horrified glares from the girls, all trying to catch my attention and draw it to the new Brit who was happily — and loudly — clipping his nails at his desk. Or the British staffer who labelled her things in the office fridge. To the Arabs, you just share and if we’re out of something, you get it — someone labeling a bottle of milk was a source of appalled amusement.
Paul becomes “localized,” even becomes a smoker, which is why he is so torn between “home,” represented by his girlfriend Anne, and “away,” which of course is Aisha. And she, of course, is the hero of the book. You’re not actually supposed to like Paul, really. Perhaps sympathize with him…
You characterize Olives as a “violent romance.” What does that mean exactly?
The book’s working title for years was just “Olives.” The problem with that is that when you google “Olives,” you get Crespo, cookbooks or restaurants. So I decided on a defining subtitle — and nothing else seemed to suit other than “violent romance.” Olives is both a romance and a spy thriller. Thriller readers would find it too slow or romantic, romance readers would find it a little rough was the general concern. I hate how publishing brackets and pigeonholes us like that. The love story part of it has been popular, for sure — but a lot of people didn’t know about the region’s water crisis and learned about it from Olives, which has been cool.
Will Beirut attract the same readers?
Beirut is a totally different book and I was perhaps a little gleeful at how Olives readers would react to its much more hardcore spy thriller nature, particularly female readers. I was also a little scared, because I was setting out to kill what little fan base Olives has won for me. Readers, including females, have loved Beirut so far, which has me slack-jawed to be honest. But then it shows how wrong those traditional publishing preconceptions are — women actually reading a thriller? Oh, the shock of it all!
Is that why you are self-publishing The Levant Cycle — because the books do not fit in traditional publishing categories? I ask because quite a few expat authors we’ve featured on The Displaced Nation have self-published their works.
Let’s start with 250 rejections from agents for, respectively, Space, Olives and Beirut. When London agent Robin Wade signed me, it was for Beirut. I thought I was made, I really did. 250 rejections — and then an agent comes along and makes like a scrooch owl! Robin shopped Beirut around to 14 top publishers (there’s an image of the list I had of them, one after another struck off as the news came in, posted up on the Beirut site) and they, to a man, rejected it.
Why do you think that happened?
The ignorance about the Middle East from agents and editors alike has been shocking: “We have terrorism here at home, I don’t think people want to read about that” and “This novel, set in war-torn city Beirut” were two low points. But the worst was the editor who praised Beirut’s pace, setting, style and dialogue, compared it to Le Carré — but said he didn’t think it would fly in supermarkets. After that, I decided to see what readers thought without waiting for the gatekeepers. I am so glad I did.
Funnily enough, I discovered your books last month, when the Displaced Nation was dedicating itself to a series of food posts and I happened upon your collective blog about food, The Fat Expat.
Blogging became an outlet for me between frustrated bouts of writing. My partner in foodie crime, Simon “HalfManHalfBeer” McCrum, and I tried bringing others on board — but in the end The Fat Expat was doomed to tempus fugit failure. Still, I loved it while it lasted. I used to run a food magazine so am quite experienced in food preparation, photography and so on — and I love cooking.
Last month we were asking all of our interviewees: would you travel for food?
Damn right I would! Sweden this year, stunning food at stunningly high prices but you haven’t lived until you’ve eaten sour cream and crayfish on toast for breakfast. Estonia last year, a gorgeous holiday of art, museums and culture interspersed with the world’s largest, cheapest Martinis and top class cuisine — pelmeni in chicken stock, venison in red wine! But you want to really eat? There are stunning restaurants in Jordan — puffed up flatbreads fresh from the brick oven, potato pan-fried with egg and Mediterranean herbs. And, of course, Beirut — French food that makes Parisians blush alongside mountains of mezze, splashes of Armenian spice and of course Lebanese wines. I had to edit out my descriptions of Château Musar from Beirut because they crossed that threshold between what matters in a book and what readers need to know. But Musar is one of the world’s great wines. And the rosé from Château Ksara? Barmy, quite barmy. Do not, if you have the chance, neglect Massaya — a lovely wine from the achingly beautiful Bekaa Valley.
Next month’s Displaced Nation theme will be expats and politics — in honor of the U.S. elections. Do you have a horse in that particular race?
Obama. I don’t think anyone should forget that the people behind Romney are the people who took America to war against Iraq for no reason other than profit and dominance. There were never any WMDs and there was no link whatever between the murderously secular Saddam and the New Caliphate of Al Qaeda. Over a million people have died, the Middle East is lurching from crisis to crisis — and those old men are still doing three-martini lunches and planning their next move to make the world a safer place. At least Obama represents a hope of inclusion and reason.
Do you think expats should stay in touch with their home country’s politics? Do you?
Living in the Middle East, US politics are something you tend to follow because it pretty much shapes the region. I follow British politics to a degree, but it’s hard to be passionate about a system that has become so centrist and messaged. It’s something of a sitcom really.
What’s next, after the Cycle is finished?
I can’t even begin to think about what’s next, but there are plenty of contenders for next project, including a book set in Ireland and one about a traumatized teacher coming back from Iraq. Neither feature Mr. Lynch.
Readers, why not give those witches, ghosts, zombies, werewolves and vampires of yours a break and try Alexander McNabb’s wonderful cocktails of romance, intrigue, and high-stakes international politics instead?
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
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Images: Alexander McNabb author image and book covers.