Interview with Longlisted Author Amin Zaoui


When did you begin writing The Idols and where did the inspiration for it come from?

Perhaps the first spark igniting the writing of this novel can be traced back to 1980, when I was a student in Damascus and heard from afar the news of the terrible earthquake which hit the city of ‘The Idols’ (currently, Chlef) in western Algeria. I began to hunt for news from friends who live in the region, including a friend with whom I corresponded regularly. He has a brother who is very like the character of Mehdi in the novel. Suddenly, communication ceased. He no longer replied to my letters. I later learned that he had died under the rubble as he was passing through the city on his way from Oran, in the direction of the capital. Maybe he had stopped there to have a coffee??? Then I forgot the matter, or buried it under the rubble of the days which passed, as natural and political earthquakes succeeded each other in Algeria (the Berber Spring, the Intifada of 5th October 1988, political pluralism in 1989, the Bloody Decade of 1990-2000 and lastly the popular Hirak Movement), until the subject abruptly returned to occupy my heart and thoughts…

Did the novel take long to write and where were you when you finished it?

I wrote the novel in seven months. I began it in Algiers and worked on it in two writing retreats at different times, in Normandy, northern France, and I completed the final draft and revised it in Algiers.

Do you have writing rituals?

I don’t write at night. Nighttime for me is for reading.

I don’t sleep before 2am. My bed is a workshop for writing. Between dreams and endless thinking, fictional worlds are formed and characters are built. When I’m at the writing stage, my fictional characters share my bed. We talk things over together. I reassign their roles and change their names. We laugh and travel together.

I usually start writing at around ten in the morning. I sit at my desk, trying to re-enter the atmosphere of the bed, and once again arrange and sift the material. I often feel that some of the characters are refusing to give up what they lost at nighttime…in this way the novel is formed, through rituals of reading at night, the workshop of the bed and editing in the morning.

What is your next literary project after this novel?

A few days ago, I began writing a new novel about my paternal aunt, a strange and great character. She was a mother of four children, three sons and a daughter. All of them died before her, having gone mad. She buried them, one after the other, but she never lost her smile or her sense of humour. She greatly influenced me, more than any other member of my large family, and I also remember her life with her husband, who was killed after he was falsely accused by those involved in the Algerian Revolution, a terrible story.