Interview with Ezzedine Choukry Fishere
25 May 2012
About fifty days ago, Ezzedine Choukry Fishere, author of "Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge" (IPAF shortlisted in 2012) began to publish a new, serialised novel daily in the Egyptian newspaper "Al-Tahrir". Fleur Montanaro, Administrator for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, asks him about his new project and about "The Exit: Ali's unexpectedly joyful letter".
Where did you get the idea to write a serialised novel, to be published daily in paper and electronic forms, in the manner of Naguib Mahfouz and Charles Dickens. What was the purpose of this experiment?
It came from the Egyptian revolution which began to resemble a daily serialised novel, and from my jealousy of the revolutionary events which started to look a lot like the novel I had been mentally building for months. The idea of the novel - Ali's letter before a great betrayal in 2020, when he feels the need to explain his position to his son before it is too late - was born months ago. I began to plan it and build the characters, thinking about their stories, characteristics and the events affecting their lives. But daily events started to precede those of my imaginary novel. I then felt an overwhelming desire to write directly to the reader, bit by bit, as though I were standing in the Square telling the story. A type of madness, if you like, overcame me and took me over completely, a desire to begin writing this novel straight away and show it to the reader bit by bit. I remembered the novels of Naguib Mahfouz and Ihsan Abd al-Qadus which I used to read weekly in Al-Ahram newspaper when I was a child. I asked Ibrahim Issa, editor of Al-Tahrir, what he thought about the idea and he was immediately enthusiastic about it. He is the one who suggested that it should be daily not weekly, since times have changed and the pace of today means that one can't leave the reader waiting for a novel whose episodes are published weekly. I liked the idea of writing and publishing daily more than weekly because it agreed with the state of madness which I'm telling you about. So we agreed.
Do you write the novel daily or had you finished writing it before beginning to publish it in the newspaper? If it wasn't complete before you began this project, how did you plan it? Did you need a greater amount of discipline in planning the novel's structure and plot?
I write every day but not necessarily an episode a day. Sometimes I write three episodes in one day and sometimes nothing much at all. There is a plan in my mind and on paper, but as usual I don't follow it precisely and sometimes I depart from it entirely. But I stay disciplined, because I can't go backwards and change anything, which is another challenge. But I write with a strong spirit of meeting the challenges and this is an intrinsic part of my enjoyment of this novel.
Do you think that serialised writing creates a special intimate relationship between the writer and the reader? Are there other positive results of the experiment?
A fantastic relationship has developed between me and the readers, or at least some of them. Some leave comments on the newspaper website or my Facebook page and some write to me. This is something totally new for me. In the beginning I used to write, never dreaming that anyone was reading [what I wrote]. And the truth is that I am still surprised every time I meet someone who claims they have read one of my novels and I almost apologise to him for the annoyance (sometimes I actually do apologise). Before this novel, it never crossed my mind that I had "readers". Today I realise that there are real people reading this novel and sometimes I think about their reactions to its events. Once I asked permission from a female reader who had left a comment to use it in the next episode. Some comments alert me to things, to a particular way of reading the story or seeing characters or events and all this is useful. I am also aware that readers like certain characters and are affected by what happens to them. It all makes you feel that you are playing with the lives of people, not just characters, which is quite a frightening thing, but these characters attain an existence and life independent of me, the writer.
Do you think that serialised writing makes the novel more exciting? I noticed that the episodes usually end at a point of suspense (on the edge of the abyss or the edge of love), encouraging the reader to follow the story on the following day.
I think it makes the novel more exciting in its current form. But I am worried about how it will be read as a complete work when it appears as a book: what will the effect be of these daily ups and downs and will they disappear? Will they be a hindrance to the reader or make him tire of so many highs and lows? We will see.
Charles Dickens found that his serialised novels began to be read by the non-aristocratic classes, since they could not afford the exorbitant price of books. Do you expect there to be more readers of "The Exit" compared to your other novels? Could the characters' destiny be changed either as a result of their comments or because of political developments in Egypt?
I think that the number of readers increases when novels are published in newspapers and am actually re-discovering newspapers' usefulness to novels. I am not very interested in what one earns from traditional editions, especially since it is barely visible to the naked eye, being so paltry and insignificant! I have found the newspapers to be an excellent solution and hope to publish all my future novels in a newspaper and to make them available on the Internet for free, just like "The Exit", before its publication as a book.
The hero of "The Exit" is the Egyptian president's interpreter, writing his last letter (or what appears to be his last - we don't know yet!) to his son, in which he tells his life story from the 1980s until 2020. Most of the events take place in Egypt. The novel can be read as 'the story of a whole generation of Egyptians', to use the words of a reader. But aren't you afraid of making political predictions and of an overtly direct style lacking in artistic subtlety?
I am extremely afraid of it and it is another challenge I face in writing this novel. It's a twofold challenge: on the one hand, how do you write a novel whose events take place in the context of a revolution and you have to explain these events (because they haven't happened yet) and at the same time it is a novel and not an article or imagined narration of political events? The second challenge - or second risk - is how this novel will be read in five or ten years? Will it be read or will it end up forgotten when reality has taken its course and these events no longer have meaning. There are so many challenges involved in writing this novel and I have accepted them, not just because I want to take risks, but as an attempt to rise above a difficult challenge and come up with a complete novelistic narrative, with its complexity and questions about the conditions and issues of human existence and yet which has enough general application that it will still be read after one finishes with the political agenda, which appears dominant at the moment. All that under a thick covering of suspense and political developments. In summary, the challenge here is to present a novel clothed in the garb of tumultuous political events but at the same time not about these events.
When will you finish the novel and will it published as a book afterwards? Will the book contain the same illustrations now visible in the newspaper?
In June, maybe. The original plan was sixty episodes but I don't know if I will stick to it. The characters talk a lot and do things which were not in my original calculations. We will see. It will finish when it finishes and Al-Tahrir newspaper has accepted this. There is more than one plan to publish it in book form when it is completed. I really like the drawings, and in fact I don't see them before publication, but I wake up every day to see how 'Amr Talaat has illustrated the episode of that day. I would like the printed novel to contain the drawings, at least in a special edition.
Do you have any treatment for readers who become addicted to reading "The Exit" on a daily basis, or who like swallowing several mouthfuls of it, every two or three days?
I have an excellent course of treatment, which is to continue reading and I will continue writing. And when the novel is finished, they can go back to my first five novels, until I go back to them myself.