Interview with shortlisted author George Yaraq
Where were you at the shortlist announcement and what was your reaction to the news?
I was laying in bed on that cold rainy morning, moving between the sites of different newspapers. I knew that the shortlist would be announced in less than an hour, or maybe it had already been announced. I hesitated whether to google it. I only had to google the words “2016 Booker shortlist” to find out. But I feared losing hope and the joy of waiting if the shortlist appeared without my novel on it. This hope and joy have accompanied me since the novel made the longlist. I was distracted. I was reading one article after the other without grasping anything. By the way, my phone was out of service.
When it had passed noon without anyone calling to give me the happy news I thought this might be a bad sign. So I finally decided to face the music. I typed in the aforementioned words in the google search engines. I found news headlines of the shortlist announcement without a list of the chosen novels. I clicked the link and three book covers appeared. My novel was not one of them. My feeling was indescribable as I scrolled the page until the tips of the other three novels appeared. I continued to scroll, still slowly until I realized from the blue cover in the middle and the circular letter of my two publishers that my novel is shortlisted.
I was overjoyed! It was a feeling I haven’t experienced since university, maybe when we used to await our final results posted on a big board and then search for our grades in the small boxes. I got a grip over myself and became calm again. I left my bed and went outside where my mother and sister were. I told them softly and coldly, but they didn’t believe me. I got my iPad and showed them. Then they believed it and were happy. In the evening, my friend held a feast at his house for the occasion.
What does it mean to you to be shortlisted?
A number of things. First: Raising the level of responsibility for me in the future. Second: Acknowledging that the Arab booker is a respectable prize. Third: Reviving the idea that good literature is appreciated. Fourth: opening up access to publishers. One publisher has agreed to reprint Night (2013) under the condition that he publishes my next novel. Fifth: doubling the sales of my novel and expanding the scope of my readership. The second and third editions came out after the novel made the long and short lists. Sixth: spreading some joy in my family.
Do you have writing rituals?
Daily journalistic work has enabled me to adapt to writing in all conditions and places. I have only to channel my sense of inner isolation to separate from my surroundings. Then I can write wherever I am. My third novel (which will be issued at the end of the year) was written in its entirety on the beach among swimmers and sunbathers. Sometimes I write in my car or at a café. Just before writing I read for 30 minutes – anything I can find on my mini-pad, which holds nearly 1,000 books on it. With this little gadget – which fits in my pocket – I only need the urge to write. No papers, pen or table. The three things that can prevent me from writing are the same things that would keep one from sleeping: fear, hunger and a bladder infection.
My writing rituals in the winter are different from those in the summer. In winter, I can stay at home for a week, sufficing to go out to the balcony. I turn on a DVD on mute and begin writing. I read and write all day. In the summer I cannot write at home. I go to the beach where I practice my two most favorite hobbies: walking and swimming. And I write there too.
Why do you write? And for whom?
The answers of most writers to these two questions overlap – with some differences. Reforming society, not being good at anything else, fighting time, etc. have all become clichés. When I worked in journalism I wrote to make a living. Writing was my profession. Since my early teenage years, I swore I would only make a living by writing. At the time, I was burdened with the profession of literature. I am still faithful to that oath despite all the obstacles. Today, when I have been forcibly removed from journalism, I used my unemployment to write my debut work Night, thus paving the way for writing the TV drama series. Some personal reasons prevented me from writing the series and at the same time my first novel was well received by the readers and critics as it sold 300 copies in one famous bookstore branch in Lebanon. This is a number even famed novelists don’t reach according to the head of the Arabic section of said bookstore. All this led me to write Guard of the Dead.
That this novel made it to the longlist and the warm reception accompanying that then making it to the shortlist are all additional reasons to proceed in fiction writing without giving up writing for television which could be a source of livelihood. After all, only few writers are able to live off fiction writing.
Which writers have influenced you, as a novelist?
All the great writers are my teachers. I have learned something from each of them. I have also learned from poets, playwrights and linguists. I will refrain from mentioning names and titles for fear of the fake exhibitionism that fills some interviews. And I have also learned from the manuscripts I read as an editor and proofreader two important publishing houses in Beirut.
One critic wonders that Aber always declares his aversion to violence and war although he becomes involved in these acts, even if just as a spectator. The critic asks, “Can coincidences alone possibly make someone who detests violence and killing and everything related to them become involved in the militia then in the morgue?”
It seems that this critic is not very familiar with Aber’s character. Watching a war is easy, but those who have lived a war, with its scenes and nightmares like Aber has, understand the extent of the suffering of a foreigner in a city on the verge of exploding. If Aber had remained outside the party he would have become a thief or a criminal. The barracks protected him.
He remained pure although he took part in the battles and in some special operations. When he was chosen for sniping, he refused to kill people. He kept busy solving crossword puzzles, reading and aiming at paper planes and pictures of leaders. While sweeping enemy territory, he saved a fighter from death by shooting him in the leg. He did this because his fellow fighters wanted to attack the runaway enemy. He convinced them that it was more useful to take him as a prisoner of war so that they don’t kill him.
I will add that Aber was not a spectator but a witness and that in his testimony he condemned the party and its ugly actions, and the behavior of some of his colleagues who fought not for the cause but for small ends.
But Aber was polluted by his work at the hospital. How can a diligent worker see the management of a hospital stealing the donations made to help the poor and continue to maintain his purity intact? This reality, in addition to his human weakness, led him to commit acts he would have never committed had he stayed in his village.
It is inevitable that coincidences change destinies. How many coincidences have opened doors and closed others? The evidence for that is plenty. Many theories in medicine and science originated from coincidences. No need to go far; I am one of those people whose destinies were changed by coincidences. Even those who survived the war did so by coincidence, as it just so happened that they weren’t at the wrong place at the wrong time.