I was delighted when Bull Spec poetry editor Dan Campbell bought one of Sofia Samatar‘s poems, and we worked to sneak “The Year of Disasters” into issue #7 last year as her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, was due that summer. Buzz was already building and Small Beer Press soon released a multiple chapter PDF preview which I happily devoured, waiting for more. But, as sometimes happens, the book was moved to this year’s publishing schedule instead. Released to some fantastic reviews early on (Library Journal gave it a starred review, and Locus praised its “elegant language” and “revelatory focus”, calling it “the rare first novel with no unnecessary parts … the most impressive and intelligent first novel I expect to see this year, or perhaps for a while longer.”) it has remained a book of interest; Strange Horizons published Newcastle University’s Nic Clarke’s review just last month. And this week, after some months of growing impatience on my part let me tell you, the book was released in audio as well. Now, for the guest column series The Hardest Part, Samatar writes about her 13-year struggle with the book’s 7th chapter. Who believes in lucky numbers, anyway?
By Sofia Samatar:
The hardest part of writing A Stranger in Olondria was Chapter Seven.
At the end of Chapter Six, Jevick, my main character, sees a ghost. This is a young man enjoying the pleasures of a foreign city—he’s a merchant, a student, an amateur philosopher, a wanderer in bookshops and cafés. The first six chapters of the book have an even, contemplative tone: Jevick’s story is part memoir and part travelogue. Then a ghost starts haunting him, and his whole world changes. My writing needed to reflect that change. How?
Our islands are full of ghosts. They come from the flowers and from the water. They are those who are always waiting, outside on the paths.
I wrote those words in 1998. They open the paragraph which is the only thing in Chapter Seven to survive 13 years of rewrites.
I rewrote that chapter so many times! I don’t know how many, and I don’t want to know. The problem was that certain things needed to happen: my distraught, near-delirious narrator needed to change his travel plans, drop his companions, and get inside a palace located on an island, and he needed to be suffering the entire time.
He decides not to go home. No. He decides to go home, but is too sick to make it. He visits a priest. No. A dream reader. No. He does research in a library. NO.
My basic problem was what Virginia Woolf called “this appalling narrative business of the realist—getting on from lunch to dinner.” All those stupid-but-(apparently)-necessary, boring-to-write bits of wiring that would help the reader understand how Jevick was getting from A to B, even as Jevick—the one telling the story—was not thinking from A to B. His thoughts at that point were not linear. They were smashed.
The best piece of writing advice I know, the one that’s been most helpful to me, is from Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient. It’s not actually writing advice, it’s bomb-disposal advice, but it works. What happens is that a young sapper is working on defusing a German bomb of a type that no one on his team has seen before. They’re stuck. They don’t know what to do. Their usual method isn’t working. And then somebody says: “If you are in a room with a problem don’t talk to it.” And the young sapper realizes that that’s the solution. You don’t talk to the problem. You never even face the problem. You ignore it, and go around.
This seems to me like a pretty accurate description of the method used by Michael Ondaatje (a writer I admire hugely). He doesn’t do a lot of appalling narrative business. He skips around, glosses over the dull stuff, leaps from A to G in a single bound. In my poor, worn out, repeatedly written Chapter Seven, the solution of the leap, rather than the line, came with an extra advantage: it mirrored Jevick’s state of mind.
When I sent my manuscript to Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link at Small Beer Press, Chapter Seven was the only part of the book I still wasn’t happy with. Their advice helped me see that I could break that chapter down even further, and give it more urgency, by using diary entries. Chapter Seven—now one of my favorites in the book—is called “From a Somnambulist’s Notebook.” It combines fragments of recollection with journal entries, jottings from other books, and newspaper clippings. It begins: “Our islands are full of ghosts. I wrote those words.” That’s Jevick remembering what he wrote when he was haunted by the ghost, and it’s also me remembering what I wrote back in 1998, when I was haunted by Jevick.
The hardest part is the best part. It’s the part that makes your book yours, that makes you a writer. It’s the part you remember.
Sofia Samatar is a fantasy writer, poet, and critic, and PhD in African Languages and Literature. She wrote A Stranger in Olondria in Yambio, South Sudan, where she worked as an English teacher. Her poetry has appeared in several places, including Stone Telling, Goblin Fruit, Bull Spec, and the anthology The Moment of Change. She reviews fiction for Strange Horizons and Islam and Science Fiction, blogs, and is working on a second novel.