Interview with Sofia Samatar, author of A Stranger in Olondria - April 16, 2013
Please welcome Sofia Samatar to The Qwillery as part of the 2013 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. A Stranger in Olondria will be published on April 30, 2013.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery.
Sofia: Thanks for having me!
TQ: When and why did you start writing?
Sofia: I started when I was a child, because I loved everything about it: words, images, secrecy--even the way my handwriting looked on the page.
TQ: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Sofia: My process so far is to write a very long book and then throw away half of it.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Sofia: Pantser. Too much of a pantser! I'm trying to reform.
That's not entirely true--there are things I love about writing without plotting, like the way it allows a story to grow organically. But it takes an enormous amount of time to find the story. I spent two years writing the first draft of my novel, and a decade revising it! That's a huge amount of work.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Sofia: Writing exactly what I want to, without worrying that it's too strange, without telling myself that nobody writes that way, without making up a nonexistent reading public who will reject me. Building up my nerve, every day, and believing that I have something to say.
TQ: Describe A Stranger in Olondria in 140 characters or less.
Sofia: A young man from a non-literate culture travels to a place where there's a literate culture, and is haunted by a ghost from his past.
TQ: What inspired you to write A Stranger in Olondria?
Sofia: When I wrote the first draft, I was teaching high school English in southern Sudan, in what's now the country of South Sudan. I'm half Somali, and had a master's degree in African Languages and Literature at the time, so I went to Sudan with a deep sympathy for African cultures in general, and oral storytelling traditions in particular. Well, there's a sort of contradiction there: when you find yourself teaching English, teaching reading and writing, your two favorite things, in a context where you're afraid of participating in the suppression or even destruction of oral traditions. In part, my novel grew out of that conflict.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for A Stranger in Olondria?
Sofia: I read! The novel is about a young man who learns to read, loves reading, and lives on books. I read everything I could get my hands on. And I lived, of course, in a place where communication was largely oral, not written.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Sofia: Jevick, my main character, was the easiest to write. His voice seemed to come out of nowhere, and just flowed.
The hardest character? Probably the priest, who is both a friend to Jevick and an antagonist. His beliefs are extreme, even fanatic. It was a challenge to empathize with his world view enough to write him well.
TQ: Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in A Stranger in Olondria?
Sofia: One favorite scene is where Jevick learns to read: the moment when the letters stop being a bunch of squiggles, and become language. That was based on my own experience of learning to read Arabic.
My other favorite is when the ghost appears to Jevick for the first time. He's completely shattered, dismantled by the experience. I love the sense of a fractured world: something new, even if it's terrifying, that the character has to come to terms with.
TQ: What's next?
Sofia: I'm revising the sequel!
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Sofia: Thank you so much for having me.
About A Stranger in Olondria
A Stranger in Olondria
Small Beer Press, April 30, 2013
Hardcover, Trade Paperback and eBook, 300 pages
Jevick, the pepper merchant’s son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home—but which his mother calls the Ghost Country. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick’s life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. Just as he revels in Olondria’s Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl.
In desperation, Jevick seeks the aid of Olondrian priests and quickly becomes a pawn in the struggle between the empire’s two most powerful cults. Even as the country simmers on the cusp of war, he must face his ghost and learn her story before he has any chance of freeing himself by setting her free: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that most seductive of necromancies, reading.
A Stranger in Olondria was written while the author taught in South Sudan. It is a rich and heady brew which pulls the reader in deeper and still deeper with twists and turns that hearken back to the Gormenghast novels while being as immersive as George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.