1. Your story has been years in the making; the plot must have been through many changes. Are there any details or twists that didn’t make the final cut, which you regret?
A Road to Damascus is about fear and desire, hope and regret. Those feelings are born out of the specific place and time in which we live. Through the story, the reader and I share an emotional connection. Whatever isn’t in the book, I cut out because I’m indifferent towards it, which means the reader will be indifferent too. It’s now irrelevant to our connection.
2. When you reveal the narrator’s name, it comes as a surprise. Also, one of the main characters writes the acknowledgments at the end of the book. Why does your novel blur the lines between fact and fiction? What would you like the reader to take from this experience?
Often the only way to change a situation is to change the way you look at it. When you experience something from a distance, you acquire a new perspective onto it, and therefore see it more closely. We write fiction to arrive at a deeper truth about the real world. What may be experienced as a blurring between fact and fiction, I see as a charged tension between the imagination and reality, a positive tension that generates dialogue for change. Rather than provide the reader with answers, I hope to leave her with the curiosity to ask her own questions and to create her own answers.
3. Which character was the most fun to write? Were there any characters you disliked?
I especially enjoyed writing from the perspectives of the cat and the tree. None of us has ever been a tree. There are no characters I dislike. I may not agree with their actions, but I always relate to the motive behind them. Action is the royal road to character: we know someone not from what they say, but from how they behave. At the core of everyone, whether in life or in fiction, is a piece of ourselves.
4. If you had to come up with a slogan for your book, what would it be?
A murder mystery in search of the self.
5. You were adamant about not situating the story in any specific period of time. Why is that? Do you think there’s a risk it would make it less relatable?
The contemporary history of Lebanon has moved in waves and cycles, like the refrain of a song: It’s always the same, yet always different. There’s some truth in the notion that history repeats itself, but I believe there’s more to it than that. We repeat ourselves. The primary source of our knowledge is experience. We tend to face an unknown future armed with the lessons of our past. Time emboldens us, yet makes us more vulnerable. Therefore, it was important to me to set A Road to Damascus in a Beirut that’s (re)living its own history. Sure, there is a risk involved in telling the story this way, but it’s my hope that the reader will connect with the emotional meat rather than the surface layer of objective facts, which are just the seasoning.
6. You turned your novel into a script. Which difficulties did you encounter? Which version do you prefer?
I’m currently working on a feature film adaptation of A Road to Damascus with my mentor Daniel Pyne, who wrote The Manchurian Candidate. I have a simple question written on a Post-it attached to my screen: Why must this film exist? Every line I write should bring me closer to an answer, otherwise there’s simply no point. Too much of the literature we read today feels like it’s written as “producer-bait”, for the sole purpose of paving the way to a film or TV adaptation. A Road to Damascus is not that, and therefore the novel and film must exist as satellites in the same universe. Some of my favorite films, such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, were adapted from books that were considered “unadaptable”. Those films work so well because rather than slavishly translate the story for the screen, they depart from the book, elaborate on it, improvise, and enrich. It’s much like a jazz solo that carries a musical phrase into exciting and mind-altering territories. In my particular case, the challenge has been packing the layers of the book into a single surface, that of the film screen, where words become images, backstory becomes behavior, text becomes subtext, and the imagination becomes poetic texture.
7. The main character in A Road to Damascus is a botanist, and the science of trees plays an important role both thematically and narratively. How accurate is the science in the book and how did that aspect of the story come to be?
The Lebanese flag expresses three ideas: The white of freedom, the red of sacrifices made for that freedom, and the eternal green of the cedar tree. Beautiful as they are, the white and red are abstract. But the tree is a concrete, physical image. That made me wonder: What is a tree? What is tree-ness? What if we lived like trees? That idea spun into a character who lives much like a plant, or rather like we think a plant lives: silent, stoic, resilient. That is, until he realizes that a tree is much more than that: it has an intimate relationship with its surroundings, nurtured by and nurturing of its environment. The social expression of that behavior forms the arc of the story. To steer that arc, I had to make sure that it’s not only expressed on the metaphorical level, but that it’s propelled by scientific fact. For many years, as I wrote and rewrote A Road to Damascus, I lived, breathed, slept, and dreamed the Acacia tortilis, the species of tree that the Professor researches and befriends in the book. In that process, botanist Dr. Lisa Delissio from Salem State University in the United States was an integral collaborator. She allowed my imagination to run free, without shackles, but also made sure it was always, invariably, unwaveringly grounded in fact. If the story is a kite, Lisa is the string.
8. You’ve been described as “a man with many hats”. Why is that? And which “hat” is your favorite to wear?
Whenever I hear someone say, “I want to be a filmmaker. I want to be an author. I want to be an architect,” all I hear is “Be. Be. Be.” I want to ask, “Why don’t you make a film? Write a book? Design a building?” Do. And so wearing those hats is really just me, like many amazing people around me, doing those things. (Or at least trying to do them. But then that’s already doing, because there’s no success or failure. There’s only doing or not doing.) The one hat that I’ll always wear is: Father. I enjoy wearing that hat most of all.
9. You say you’re inspired by “the absurdity of beautiful things”; what’s your definition of beauty?
Beauty is anything that has arrived at the purest expression of what it is. It expresses the craft of its creation, without ornament or embellishment. An overcast sky is beautiful. The joint between two pieces of wood is beautiful. A pure expression of ugliness is beautiful. A pure expression of naiveté is beautiful. Even a pure expression of evil is beautiful. And when you experience that beauty, when you realize that even something repulsive can be beautiful, you realize the absurdity of beauty, that it expresses itself not through a pretty surface, but through a sublime, often disturbing, core. A plastic rose is tacky, but a rotting piece of cheese is profoundly beautiful. Think of what we say when we see a beautiful baby. “I just want to eat you!” That’s the absurdity of beauty.
10. Where do you find inspiration to write? To shoot movies?
I wrote the first draft of A Road to Damascus one November in the deep end of an empty pool. The sea was a few meters away. The waves would crash and I would write. For thirty days, there was no one around, so my mind wandered: to places I’d been, people I’d known, words I’d said and been told. Inspiration comes from the spaces between those things, that surface that connects them all. I’m confident it’s the same for everyone. Our skin is a porous membrane between us and the world, and through traversing this membrane inwards and outwards, in the friction of that movement, an idea sparks. Then it creates more sparks, until they connect and they’re no longer distinct points but rather a charged and flowing surface, like those waves.
11. The characters in your book have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with Lebanon; do you feel the same about the country?
To hate something, someone, or somewhere is to shut it out. It’s like closing a door. It’s simple and it’s easy. To love is to open up, to invite in. It’s complex and it requires a lot of courage. Whenever I hear the idiom, “Home is where the heart is,” another one by Carson McCullers plays in my mind: but “the heart is a lonely hunter.” Like me, the characters in A Road to Damascus are in a love-love relationship with Lebanon. That love expresses itself in a wide variety of ways, beautiful, ugly, even terrifying. That’s the nature of love.
The event will include a Q&A between Meedo Taha and Nasri Atallah, a reading and of course the book signing.