Interview with Alicia Erian on "Towelhead"

Alicia Erian, Author of Towelhead. Image courtesy of Alicia Erian

Alicia Erian is the author of a book of short stories, "The Brutal Language of Love," and a well-received novel, "Towelhead." Born in Syracuse, New York, Alicia Erian received her B.A. in English from SUNY Binghamton and her M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College. Her work has appeared in Playboy, Zoetrope, Nerve, and The Iowa Review, among others.

Set in 1991 at the start of the first Gulf War, "Towelhead" follows Jasira, a 13-year-old whose mother has sent her to live with her Lebanese father after the mother's boyfriend shows an interest in her.

Isolated and confused by her father's parenting methods, which consist of abusive scrutiny and neglect, Jasira falls into disturbing relationships with an African-American boy at her school, which infuriates her father, and with the reservist next-door neighbor, whose son she babysits.

Released in early 2005, "Towelhead quickly piled up rave reviews, including: "'Towelhead'...succeeds as an arch, coyly sexy book that's as nervy as its title," from The New York Times, and "Alicia Erian's compelling debut novel fits into several categories, but none too tidily. It's sad and sexy, comic and political," from the Dallas Morning News. Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under and "American Beauty," plans to make his directorial debut with "Towelhead."

Erian taught at Wellesley College. She was in Austin, Texas, for the Texas Book Festival the weekend of October 29, 2005. I was fortunate enough to grab an hour with her at the end of a busy day, before she set off to indulge her favorite vice, shopping.

Question: You've been quoted as saying that you mostly read nonfiction because there are "too many damn dull moments" in fiction. The thing that struck me with Towelhead is that it moves really well. I couldn't put it down. How did you pull that off? What is the writing and editing process like for you?

Alicia Erian: That came up in my panel today. Somebody asked, "How do you find yourself being influenced by visual media?" I said that I don't feel particularly influenced by movies, but I've been writing screenplays for a long time; I started out writing short scripts. The screenplay form is really the most efficient form of storytelling because it's so expensive to make a movie. You can't fart around, and you shouldn't be farting around in a novel just because there's space and it's not necessarily going to cost anything to print extra pages. With a script there's no back story, you can't film back story, unless you have a flashback, which is lame -- nobody likes that. So you have to stay in the present of the story. And you can't say so-and-so is angry; you can only film what they're doing and saying -- that's it. I feel like novelists and writers in general would do well to occasionally have to write a script, because then you learn how to tell a story in the present, characterizing with what's available in the present and telling your story based on images. Those are not rules that should apply only to screenwriting.

Sometimes I think it's fashionable for writers to say plot is disgusting, that plot is just for the genre writer.

I don't think that's true. I'm not a fan of genre writing, but plot isn't just for them. Plot is for us, too. We just have to be artful. I think the thing about "Towelhead" that I feel proud of is that it moves; it has plot.

Question: So did you plot "Towelhead" very carefully before you began?

AE: No, not at all. I had no idea what was going to happen. I only knew the elements. If I know what's going to happen, I'll be so bored that I won't want to write it. I want to have the same process of discovery that the reader has. I get a fleeting moment of excitement from my own work -- fleeting -- when something comes out and I say, "Oh, that's good." I'm not exactly the reader, but it's the closest thing I'm going to come to the thrill that the reader can have when the work is good. After that it dies, very quickly, and it becomes craft and you're separate from it.

I only knew I had this girl; I knew her mother was going to send her to Houston; I knew there was going to be a reservist with Playboys; I knew there was going to be this nice lady neighbor; there was going to be a problem with her dating a black boy; and the Gulf War. Then basically the story is how do those six things run together in about a billion different combinations, and something arises from all those combinations in the end. But it has to be a surprise. I'd be so bored. I think most writers do it that way. Some people do plot stuff out, but writing is organic: you can't know 100% what's going to happen. And if you're really fixed on this idea, "I've got to do what I outlined," you'll screw yourself.

Question: You started out writing short scripts. At what point did you decide to write prose?

AE: I was always writing poems and short stories. I met my soon-to-be-ex-husband here, while he was in graduate school at UT for the film program. I started writing movies for him that he shot while he was in the program. And we actually co-directed one of them.

Yeah, not a good idea. Actually, though, that was probably our best film, but still not a good idea.

But that was my first experience with the form. Then I went to graduate school for fiction writing.

Question: How did you make the transition from short stories to a novel?

AE: Well, I didn't want to. I only did it because my agent told me to. He said, "If you want to have a serious career, you can't just write short stories." I didn't like it. I did not like writing that novel. It was depressing. I don't even think three years is that long, but to me, that seemed like forever. I just found it daunting. All these characters. You can't drop the ball, you have to keep everybody's storyline moving along. You have to figure out who they are. I had some idea of who they were, but there were a lot of people to figure out. And you have to have a plot. You have to make something happen, and you have to be relaxed enough that all you're doing is character stuff and letting plot grow directly out of it.

My husband was my editor; he's an amazing editor. Even after we separated, he stayed committed to it. He was a great cheerleader. We had developed this language, this way to edit, and he would know when to cheerlead and when it was time to come in and say [that something was off]. This is the worst thing about losing my best editor.

He would know when I had taken a wrong turn and he would say, it's right here, and you have to get back to it. I would do anything that David said because I trusted him so much.

The thing that's hard right now is I don't have that, so I take a lot more wrong turns. I knew I was cheating to have someone who knows that much about my stuff and can tell me when I've f*cked up. So now I have to take many more breaks from the work. I have to get constant distance. If there's a problem, I take three days off. That never would have happened before. I don't like it. I like to be more productive. But in a way I think it's better for me. I'm older. I can't work like I used to. I would write eight hours a day -- he worked full time to allow me to write full time. I can't keep that schedule anymore. Well, you relax. You build your career. The career is built. It's started, and then you can relax a little bit. Though I feel busier now than ever.

Question: The novel expands on themes that you wrote about in your short stories: coming age, ending up in the wrong relationship, or getting into relationships for the wrong reasons. But with one exception, "Bikini," you don't write about being an Arab American and that experience.

What made you want to turn to that theme for Towelhead?

AE: Well, I only had one idea for a novel. I had always had this idea, this what-if scenario. My mother did send us to live with our father in Houston when I was eleven and my brother was nine. Not for the reason in the book...she was having difficulty and she thought he would do a good job. I think he was really overwhelmed by parenting. He had a very important new job, which is why he was in Houston, and he just didn't do a good job. It just didn't go well. So she came down and got us around Christmas time. We thought she was just coming for a visit, and we wanted to go home; I especially did. So she said one night, "Do you want to move back home?" And I just started crying. I couldn't believe it. I didn't know she was going to do that.

I said, "Daddy won't let you take us back." And she just said, "Oh, Daddy."

She was never afraid of him. I was terrified of him. I was jealous that she wasn't afraid of him. I wanted to be like her and not be afraid of this man. I mean, they could fight and she would yell at him. He wasn't someone who hit women. He hit kids. He punished kids by hitting them. Predominately me. He rarely hit my brother. I don't know if he ever did. I don't know if that was a girl thing or if it was because I was the older child and he thought I should have been more responsible in certain ways.

So then we went back with her and as an adult I always would wonder, how would I have turned out if I had stayed living with him? The what-if scenario is this idea, what if I'd stayed living with him? It seemed meaty. It seemed like something I could really do something with. And that was it. I didn't have another idea. I don't know that I have an idea now. I might, but I don't know.

Question: For the next novel? With the marine?

AE: It's sort of shifted away from that, which I figured it probably would, but you have to tell people something. And he could still figure in because he's a character I really like. I have to figure out how to do this. I can come up with fifteen short story ideas for you right now, but that long stuff, that you gotta live in -- it's gotta be just so.

I had to throw away the first 100 pages of "Towelhead," which is not the greatest feeling in the world. In a way it was fine, because I used stuff from those pages, but it sounded wrong.

Question: It was the voice?

AE: Yeah, the voice was off. She sounded like she was forty. I thought if I was going to write a novel, it had to sound really smart. Then I realized that that was dumb, so I started to treat the novel like a big short story. I had to think that it is not that different. Which it's not, really. There's just a few more elements that you're juggling.

Question: Was it hard to sustain that voice for the duration?

AE: It wasn't hard, but occasionally I would want to do some writerly stuff and then look at it and think, that's nice, but that's not how she talks, and I'd have to take it out. I liked her and I liked her voice; the only thing that was hard is you don't know what in the hell is going to happen.

You don't know if you're going to find the ending. I had nothing planned. My hope was that if I stuck to the characters like glue, I would be rewarded with a plot. That was what I thought. And it worked that way. It's a really hard concept to explain... If it ever was hard, it was because I didn't know.

I'd think, this sucks and I'm sick of this girl, and I don't even know if it's going to come out, and then I'm going to get bad reviews and I won't have a career.

Question: Did you worry, since some aspects of the novel are autobiographical, that your family or other people might react badly?

AE: I have no loyalty to them. I just don't. I feel that my family, my parents, misbehaved. I don't talk to my father, but I have a relationship with my mother. The nice thing about my mother is that she'll say, "Oh, I was such a bad mother." She'll sort of own up to it occasionally. I don't need her to at this point, but it's nice. But I feel that they behaved poorly. And I'm not trying to punish them, but I feel no loyalty, as far as the material....

It may sound romantic, but art is art. I mean, I'm going to die, my mother's going to die, and the only thing that's going to outlive us both is something that I wrote.

Question: I didn't find the father to be a flat character or a stereotypical character, but he does demonstrate some Arab male stereotypes. Were you concerned about creating a character who might reinforce negative ideas about Arab men?

AE: I did think about that. I thought, if I write this down, certain parts look stereotypical.

But all I could think was, "I'm writing my experience. I apologize if my experience is stereotypical." Everyone says there's a reason why stereotypes exist. They're real sometimes. And I'll tell you that a lot of Arab women have approached me or written and said, "This is my family. This is how my father acts."

And a lot of women don't have fathers like that. Arabs are very, very warm people. They're very emotional; I love them. I love my family. My father is different from his family, and sometimes their attitude is, "We don't know where he came from."

I was afraid to meet his family. I didn't meet them for the longest time. They live in Egypt and they would occasionally come to this country. Everyone wanted me to come to Egypt, the extended family, but I just associated them so closely with my father.

I just didn't want to meet them. But I finally went, and they're just so sweet...but my father moved to this country. It's very stressful to be an immigrant. I think it would be more stressful for an Egyptian man than for a Swedish man. It's a very particular experience to be a dark person in this country. Anything that's not white. Of course it gets more stressful the darker you are.

Question: How did the Gulf War come in?

AE: I'd written 100 pages prior to September 11, and then September 11 happened and I got a little nervous about the material in the book, and I thought, "Who's going to want to read about Arabs now?" I had lunch with my agent, and he said, "It doesn't matter. The book isn't political." When he said that, I thought, "Why isn't it?" He said it to be supportive, to make me not worry, but at the same time, I thought, "It should be.

This is a political situation."

So that comment struck me and then we invaded Afghanistan. So all these Gulf War people were on TV, you know, Colin Powell, etc., and I was watching TV and thinking, this is so strange, they were all the same players from the first war. Then I started thinking about the first Gulf War. I would speak to my father -- we were doing OK during that period. My roommate and I would get scared about the war. I mean, do you remember? We didn't know anything about a war.

Question: Especially if you were of draft age.

AE: Yeah, what could happen? What does this mean? So I was just freaking out and I would call my father, because he was so gung ho about the war. He was like, this is great. I thought he was kind of crazy, but I was intrigued. I mean, my father, when he is right, he's right. Even if he ends up not being right. He's so certain, it can be comforting, if you need to be comforted.

So I would call him and he would say these crazy things, how he hated Saddam, and I started thinking about that, and I thought, that would be interesting to have a guy who, like my father during the Gulf War, who had this kind of Pro-American attitude....

And I'm really glad you say that about that character, because I really like Daddy in the book.

I think he's charming. He has specific ideas; he does a very bad job of implementing his plan for his daughter, and how she should grow up, but at the same time, I think he has some sympathy for her and he has moments of pain, and he defends her at times -- granted, it might suit his purposes. And he gets overwrought at the end. He doesn't know what to do. I wanted to come up with a character who looks at a young girl's sexuality and says, "I don't know what to do. This is just not something I know anything about. And it makes me very uncomfortable." Meanwhile, the more uncomfortable he gets, the lonelier she is. And lonely kids are a bad idea, because that's when they start making bad decisions. And that's what the first book is about: women who make bad decisions.

In some ways, I think "Towelhead" is a kind of prequel to the book of stories. What would one of my characters in that first book, what's one example, one possibility for how someone could turn out like that? That they wouldn't take care of themselves. They would make decisions based on short-term gratification. Jasira is completely and utterly in need of constant short-term gratification. She has no ability to see long-term; she's in too much pain.

She's too depressed. So every decision, she may know it's not a good decision, but that doesn't matter. She would like to have love and affection, and she would like to feel that someone doesn't find her disgusting, and the neighbor and Thomas, disturbingly, fill those roles, those needs.

But I remember in my own life, having to learn about long-term thinking. I'm about to do some short-term thinking. That's my last vice. I shop like a maniac. It's soothing. It calms me. I don't even have to buy anything...It's very strange. I've got to stop doing it.

Question: Seem like a pretty minor vice. Especially if it's window shopping.

AE: Well, it's not always window shopping...But I work really hard. I'm working on a movie script right now, I just started this other novel...

Question: The script for the movie of Towelhead?

AE: No, Alan is writing the script himself. In fact, he's done. He's finished a draft. I'm writing a script for Miguel Arteta, who made the movie, "The Good Girl." He read the book of stories and wrote to me and said, "I'd like to work with you on a project." He said he wanted three months to work with someone in person.

I had six weeks before school started. I said "I've got six weeks, do you still want me to come out there." He made it happen in like two weeks, which is totally unheard of for Hollywood. So I went out for six weeks. I lived in a great house, we worked together part of the time. I mostly worked on my own, but he had an outline from a previous writer that I worked off of. And that was an amazing experience. That script has to be turned in Tuesday; he gave me an extension. I'm still forty pages away.

Question: So did shopping help get you through the depressing years, living with Jasira for three years?

AE: I didn't have the money then to shop the way I wanted to. Now I have more money....

[But] those were bad years. I was deeply, deeply depressed. Those years were awful. I think back on those years and think, I never want to be in that place. I'd go to they gym, a twenty minute walk, there and back, come home, do dishes, do laundry, go to the library, write this book I didn't like writing, come home, do some more chores.

And I'd get up and do it again. There was nothing there that made me happy. But I kept telling myself, you will be happy. Make this book, and you'll see. It's hard to think like that. It's not my natural way of thinking. But you have to think like that. If you don't, then you won't get anywhere. Then once you start to get somewhere, then you can start to relax.

But you have to put in those hours, and that sweat, or you'll get nothing. You've got to put out so you can get it back.