Ottawa International Writers Festival: Omar El Akkad grapples with the dislocation of success

Omar El-Akkad. Photo: Michael Lionstar

When Omar El Akkad was writing his bestselling book about a fictional civil war in a future America, he didn’t have an agent or a publisher.

“I didn’t have any expectations that it would see the light of day.”

Well, that’s sure changed. American War was the runner-up on CBC’s Canada Reads and it has been reviewed favourably around the world, including by the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani.

“For a book that I never thought would be published, it has been a surreal experience. This is the fourth novel I have written. The first three I finished and I didn’t think they were any good so I didn’t show them to anyone.

‘I had sort of come to terms with the fact that this was going to be my writing career. I would churn out novels purely for myself and that would be the end of it.”

He felt better about American War, which is a novel set in a near-future U.S. ravaged by climate change in which a second Civil War has broken out over the use of fossil fuels.

“I sent the third draft to my agent and she sent it to a publisher and he bought it. It went from nothing, something I was writing in my spare time for myself, to effectively being an acquired manuscript by Knopf in New York.”

It was zero to 60 in a hurry.

“I haven’t had a chance to wrap my head around it.”

El Akkad explained that he had had a hard day at the Globe and Mail where he was a reporter.

“I felt that I was just rewriting press releases. When it’s good it’s really good and when it’s bad, it sucks. So I hung the phone on the managing editor and thought, ‘To hell with this’.

“I emailed a literary agent in Toronto whom I had met by chance six years earlier and said I know it must be a literary agent’s nightmare when a journalist has a novel for you, but I have a novel for you. Could you take a look?”

She did and she liked the book. She even had a publisher in mind. So she sent it to Sonny Mehta the president of Knopf-Doubleday Publishing Group in New York. A few months later Mehta sent a note back saying “I like it.” A few weeks after that El Akkad had an offer.

It was reviewed almost immediately by Kakutani.

The review made a huge difference.

“Someone sent me a link showing sales from day to day. The day before the review came out my Amazon ranking was 74,000 something. The day after it was 74. That’s what a New York Times review does for you. It lasted about 15 minutes before it dropped back, but it was a life changing review. The next thing I knew I my phone was blowing up.”

He’s been swimming in that twitter stream for a long time now trying not to get too swamped.

“I’m trying not to turn it into a weird back-patting avalanche. One of things I have had to do over the past year is to come to terms with how different it is to publish a book than to write a book.

“Those are very different things. For me I am most comfortable when I am alone working on my writing.”

His Canada Reads experience was equally confounding.

“I didn’t listen to any of the debates because my anxiety levels are high enough as it is. I had to listen to the last 15 minutes because they had me in a studio in Portland in case I won.” He didn’t. A book called Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto did win.

“When the finalists met in January, Cherie Dimaline, Sharon Bala and I were in a room together and we all agreed anything would be fine as long as you didn’t end up the runner-up.” Oh well.

These experiences are all things he didn’t expect.

“You never wonder, ‘How am I going to react in the middle of Canada Reads?’ It’s not a thing you prep for.”

The book American War has been labelled dystopian by many reviewers.

“It’s not a word that was ever in my mind when I was writing it. The word I prefer to use, and it’s a very pretentious author word, is dislocative. I took things that were happening to people far away and made it happen to people close to home.”

He also finished the book before Donald Trump even announced he was running to be president.

“The dystopian label,” El Akkad believes, “is because it has come out when it is easy to believe the book is much less allegorical and much more literal than I intended. But it was never my intention to write dystopian book. I didn’t make a lot of this up. It just happened to people far away.”

El Akkad, as a journalist, has covered the Middle East and Afghanistan and the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

He was born in Egypt and raised in Qatar. His family moved to Montreal when he was 16.

In a way, his own journey was dislocated.

“When we left Qatar in late summer, it was about 50 degrees. Within three months in Montreal, it was -40. Then, it was two very hard years of becoming the human being I am now. That’s the sort of experience that fundamentally informs the book. I understand that it’s easy for people to see time spent (reporting) in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay as the chief drivers of the novel, but really it’s that sense of being unanchored.

“I have been a guest on someone else’s land since age five. The book takes the idea to extremes but it is about this notion of not knowing where you belong.”

Setting the novel in the U.S. “felt necessary because the story I wanted to tell was contingent on taking things that are very easy to ignore and making them very difficult to ignore. It’s another pretentious author thing to say when you have a book called American War but I don’t think of it as a book about America.”

This is an allegorical America, he says, adding that that fact has been hard get across.

“I needed the book to take place in this part of the world. I was not trying to predict how a second American civil war might happen. If I did,” he says, “the book would be consumed by the debate over race.”

El Akkad says one of the most common and legitimate criticisms of this book about  Americans going to war with each other is that it seems to forget race. He says that fact proves the book isn’t about America, but that’s a pretty nuanced point.

A couple of weeks after the book was published, he and his wife welcomed their first child into the world.

“It’s been a busy year.” He says he has resumed writing a new novel but he’s only about 50 pages in.

These days he lives in Portland Oregon where his wife is a chemistry professor at Portland State University.

“She is much smarter than me. None of this would have happened without her.”

He says he misses Canada.

“Portland is a great town and the literary community has been very kind, but Canada is the closest thing I have to a home country and Toronto is the closest thing to a home town. It’s difficult for me to feel anchored but I do feel most anchored in Canada.

“In places like Portland, you think you are insulated from other parts of America, but it does feel like a deeply fractured country. It wasn’t that long ago that two people were stabbed to death on train because they tried to stop a man from harassing a Muslim woman.”

“I am reminded frequently that I live in America, this very loud place where it’s difficult to find your bearings sometimes.”

El Akkad is “fairly secular. I still fast for Ramadan though,” he says. He has a lot of family still in Egypt where has has gone back a few times.

“When my father died he wanted to be buried in the family mausoleum in Cairo.” So El Akkad complied.

He has been back since. “You never know what is going to happen when you go there. When I show my passport and they see the name, they ask why I’m not speaking Arabic.

“Immigrants have sense of going back to the old country where you have this sense of being at home and being alien all at once. It’s a strange thing to experience.”

El Akkad misses journalism, but “writing fiction is all I ever wanted to do in my life.”

Omar El-Akkad will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Friday at 8:30 p.m. on a panel with Cherie Dimaline and Timothy Taylor. Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.