I am an accidental author. Though I’ve been reading since forever, and writing since I was seven years old, I’d never thought of myself as a writer. I am a nurse and an aid worker, and it wasn’t until I began writing articles, which chronicled the stories of my aid work, for a nursing journal that I began to wonder if maybe I could do more. When I was in Iraq providing humanitarian aid shortly after the U.S. invasion there, a freelance reporter with the New York Times told me that I should write a book, and, thoroughly besotted with the very idea, I began to scribble out notes. Months later, while I was in Darfur, I was lucky enough to be tapped to write a series of stories for the BBC News Online (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4007353.stm) about the situation there, and I knew a book was in my future.
I tackled first a non-fiction book taken from the journals I so diligently kept during each aid mission, but found that without a formal writing background, I had no idea how to create the story arc that publishers and agents wanted. My manuscript was a mess, and I wasn’t sure how to fix it, so I simply abandoned it to write a novel. A novel, I was sure, would give me the freedom to use my imagination to create a story that readers would want to read.
Lipstick in Afghanistan, my first novel (even that phrase still sends a tiny thrill through my veins!) was published by Simon & Schuster in 2010, and though based on my own experiences in Afghanistan after 9-11, it was purely a work of fiction as was my second novel, The Bracelet, which was also published by Simon & Schuster. I made up my stories as I went and I felt, as so many authors do, that my characters were guiding me, almost writing their own stories. Because current events were woven into my novels, I had to be sure of the facts I was presenting, but other than that, I simply imagined, wrote, edited and re-wrote.
Somewhere in those heady days of discussing book ideas with my agents, I spilled the beans about my non-fiction manuscript and both were keen to have a look. I balked initially. “It’s a mess,” I said. “Let me have a look first and see if I can fix it.” And so, I opened the heavy file in my computer and read it again, this time from the perspective of a novelist, and for the first time, I saw the flaws clearly, and felt confident that I could use my novelist skills to create that all-important arc. I tackled the pages and the corresponding entries in my journals, then I cross-checked my statistics, pored through photos and finally began the arduous task of editing and cutting. My initial manuscript was 130,000 words, and I needed to slash it down to a more acceptable and manageable 100,000 or less. But, what to cut, and where to start?
To me, it seemed simple—this was a story about refugees—their struggles, their spirit and ultimately their resilience, and I focused on them, much to my agents’ and then my publisher’s chagrin. “You need to be in the story. You’re the thread that holds it together. Go back and try again.” And so, reluctantly, I did. And that was the most difficult part. I didn’t want to be the main character, I wanted the refugees to have that role, but I knew that my agents and publisher were right and so I went back to work and shared my own story, my own heartbreaks and my own fears, and when Footprints in the Dust, was released three weeks ago, I held my breath and prayed. When readers don’t care for one character or another in my novels, I never take it personally. Those characters are, after all, only created in my imagination. But this time, myself and the refugees, whom I so love, are very real and though all of the reviews are positive, I still worry that someone, somewhere will take a poke at me or my beloved refugees. I am sure that I won’t be as thick-skinned as I am with my novels.
And for me, that is the biggest difference between fiction and non-fiction—the courage to write from the heart and to share my own perspective, because ultimately, fiction or non-fiction, the same old worries will pile on. Will people read my book? Will Oprah call? (If you’re wondering, she hasn’t, at least not yet. But, ever the optimist, I still believe that anything is possible.) And, these days, I have little time to ponder those questions –I’m busy promoting Footprints in the Dust, and working on my next novel where at least I can sit back and let my imagination tell the story, and the thrill of it all hasn’t faded yet. Thanks to readers, I can’t imagine it ever will.
So the next time you curl up with a fabulous book, whether a wonderful or a heart wrenching memoir, that keeps your eyes glued to the pages, I hope you’ll pat yourself on the back, and know that somewhere an author is whispering thank you.