Colorado Review Associate Editor Anitra Ingham talks with Edward Hamlin about his prize-winning story, “Night in Erg Chebbi,” which you can read here.
Anitra Ingham: What inspired “Night in Erg Chebbi”? That is, how did the story originate?
Edward Hamlin: I’ve been fascinated for some time with two themes that come together in the story.
First, I’m interested in the Middle East because it challenges so many of the givens of our own culture. Because I find this whole notion of American exceptionalism so profoundly disturbing, I think it’s good for us, and interesting from a dramatic point of view, to encounter thought worlds that are so dramatically at odds with our own.
But—and this is the second driver behind the story—we can’t have that encounter neutrally any more. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have personalized the Middle East for Americans in entirely new ways. When Anna finds herself in the same general part of the world where her brother was killed, she can’t be a mere tourist. It guts her just to be in the desert and imagine what he experienced. So the otherness of the place is exactly what forces her to touch what’s most painful in herself, and to try to come to terms with her guilt. All this seemed worth writing about.
AI: Had you been in Morocco before writing the story?
EH: Not before, and not since. My wife and I were plotting a trip there just before the Arab Spring hit, and we decided to defer it until things stabilized. I know that Graham Greene would have hopped the next plane to dive into the thick of it, but it’s not my bent.
AI: How did you decide to set the story in Erg Chebbi?
EH: Practically speaking, I knew I wanted my couple to wind up in the desert, and Erg Chebbi is a likely point of ingress for a pair of American tourists. Dramatically speaking, the place has everything a writer could hope for in terms of imagery, atmosphere, exoticism, and so on. It’s a feast of the senses, and the senses are key to good writing.
AI: Are foreign locales or your travel experiences a usual source of inspiration for you?
EH: Certainly they’re one source of inspiration, but I can’t say they are the usual source. I’ve written about India, Brazil, Paris and other interesting places I’ve visited, but I think I’ve mined just as much exoticism from Laramie, the Ozarks, and even my old neighborhood in Chicago.
There’s always a danger that stories set in foreign locales can relax into travelogues and lose their bite. So I think the writer needs to exercise extra vigilance when writing about a foreign country they’ve visited. The little details and vignettes can be immensely entertaining, but they can disrupt the emotional through-line of the story if you’re not careful.
AI: How did you conduct the research for the story?
EH: For this one I found photos quite inspiring. It’s just such a visual place. Since we’d been planning a trip to Morocco there happened to be some travel books in the house, and our friend the Internet was of some use, of course. The little detail about the plastic-wrapped mattresses in the Bedouin tent actually came from a photo someone had included in a TripAdvisor review—they didn’t call it out per se, but I noticed it in the photo and it was too good not to use.
For basic fact checking I enlisted a good friend who’s spent significant time in Morocco. She suggested some tweaks to the atmospherics and gave me a few more little details to weave in.
AI: Can you describe the process of writing the story?
EH: The story was actually hatched inside of another one. In building out the backstory for another piece I was writing I placed my character in Morocco, and before I knew it the backstory took on a life of its own. I wrote the original piece through to completion, with the Morocco flashback intact, but I was pretty sure it wanted to be its own story. An early reader made the same comment independently, so I split it out and developed it into its current form.
This has happened to me often enough that I know to listen to my instincts and do the necessary surgery without panicking. Both patients tend to wind up stronger in the end. I wrote an entire novel in exactly the same manner.
As for the writing itself, I think the initial draft was done in two or three sittings, maybe ten hours’ work. This one came fairly easily.
AI: Did you make any major changes during the revision process that made the story click?
EH: I don’t believe there were any drastic changes, once I decided to excise the story from the original one and develop it into a piece in its own right. I suppose the most challenging aspect of the revision process was getting the emotional arc right. Anna’s disintegration had to be correctly paced and her increasingly extreme actions needed to track with it very tightly. I recall some redrafting on that score.
Her commandeering of the Zouave’s rifle is meant to up the suspense level suddenly, so that had to be tuned really carefully. I wanted to get her into the darkness of the desert, out of sight and in the throes of an emotional breakdown, with an automatic weapon in her hand, but I didn’t want to do it all at once.
Regarding the revision process itself, I tend to revise along the way because I find that getting the sentences right really helps me see where I need to go next. It also helps me discover and refine the narrative voice. Decluttering is so important. I’m the same way in the kitchen: I clean as I go.
When I’m done with the full draft I do revise it top to bottom a couple times, but it’s almost never monstrous because I’ve already got pretty solid prose by then. I can focus on the story arc and so on because the mechanics are pretty much working by then.
AI: Did you know from the beginning where the story would end?
EH: Not this time.
AI: Which authors do you read when you need a fresh perspective on your craft?
EH: I have a shelf of such authors within reach of my chair, for exactly that purpose. The cast of characters rotates often, but right now it includes Michael Ondaatje, Eudora Welty, Don DeLillo, Simon Mawer, Jim Shepard, Grace Paley, Paul Harding, Frank Conroy, Annie Proulx, Richard Stern, Rikki Ducornet, Claire Keegan, Audrey Niffenegger, Jean Giono, Stuart Dybek and Pete Orner. If I had to keep only one of those folks around for inspirational purposes it would probably be Ondaatje, Dybek, or Orner. Basically an impossible choice, I’m afraid.
Last summer I had the moving experience of visiting Eudora Welty’s house in Jackson and seeing her writing space. A key takeaway was that it’s okay to stack books anywhere and everywhere if looking at them inspires you—a lesson I’ve taken to heart. Good books are the best kind of clutter.
AI: What aspect of writing fiction most appeals to you? What motivates you to write, in other words?
EH: That’s a nearly impossible question to answer.
Writing is very hard work, but sometimes you break loose and find flow, and there’s no feeling like it. You’re a hawk finding a great thermal, and there is a sort of weightlessness about it that’s just divine. There’s another kind of pleasure when you read something you’ve written and feel that it really works, because it’s emotionally true, or lyrical, or laugh-out-loud funny, or just because it’s a dead-on bit of descriptive prose. These are all the little addictive experiences that compensate for the agonizing bits.
More broadly, I like the fact that writing fiction makes me more attentive to my surroundings. I pick up on nuances of people and things, I read field/ground relationships differently, I think more carefully about my lived experience. It’s a heightened way of living in the world.
And I am interested in any and all sorts of people. A writer’s first reaction to another person needs to be an inquiring one, not a judging one; if you exclude certain kinds of people from your world based on value judgments or your personal likes and dislikes, you’ll never be able to write accurately about them, and that will limit your scope fatally. The main work of writing is to inhabit the worlds of others, and I think that’s a pretty good way to approach life generally. It’s interesting inside there.