Hala Alyan’s The Arsonists’ City is a work of tremendous propulsion, a sprawling tale that speeds the reader backward and forward in time. At the center of this novel is a family’s messy relationship with Beirut, where Alyan lived prior to settling in New York. In her rendering, the city appears a lively yet downcast place; even birds resemble “mourners in their black and white feathers, staring down at the concrete refugee camps without song.”

In addition to publishing poetry collections and novels, Alyan writes and performs in films, and works as a clinical psychologist. When I asked if her psychology training informs how she thinks about character motivation, she began to answer and then suddenly had to go. “I’ll call you back in fifteen,” she said. One of her patients needed her.

Ben Purkert for Guernica

Guernica: Did you know how much ground your novel would cover before you began?

Alyan: I did, because I storyboarded. I took some tips from screenwriting for this. I knew what the plot was going to look like, and the structure and chronology. The time span, too.

Guernica: Wow.

Alyan: From the outside, it looks like a really big scope. But I actually find it harder to write about shorter time periods. For whatever reason, I’m programmed to think a lot about intergenerational stuff and how things travel backward and forward, especially when it comes to family dynamics. It’s easier for me to conceptualize stories that balloon rather than narrow.

Guernica: Did any books serve as a model?

Alyan: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. I remember reading that book when I was way too young to read it, but there was something about it that hooked me. It was this really sprawling, majestic piece of writing, and it touched on so many lives. By the end, you’re living through so many characters, understanding them, moved by them. That’s my favorite feeling in literature.

Guernica: Talk to me about the paragraph above. It’s from the novel’s opening.

Alyan: This was the first thing I wrote. Which is rare for me.

Guernica: How so?

Alyan: Often the first thing I write ends up not being the beginning. That’s what happened when I wrote Salt Houses, for example. But with The Arsonists’ City, I put pen to paper and it became the prologue. I always knew how I was going to open it. I knew Zakaria’s death had to be the start.

Guernica: What was your inspiration?

Alyan: I had a dream. It sounds so hokey but it’s true. I’d just sold Salt Houses and I was working on edits for the publisher and then, on a random winter night, I had this intense dream about a woman. It was super detailed, like I was both her and watching her at the same time. She was this Syrian woman who wanted to move to the US and dreamed of living in Los Angeles, becoming an actor, etc. It was the sort of thing where the whole story came fully formed, which has literally never happened before or since. I woke up and the first thing I did was pull out my laptop and type everything I could remember. It ended up being ten pages. I sent it to my brother and was like “What do you think?” And he said, “I don’t know what I’m reading. It’s like the summary of some woman’s entire life.”

I was working on a few short stories at the time, but I just kept being haunted by this figure. The stories were all about Beirut and the ex-pat community there, and my editor was the one who said, “Maybe there’s a way to tie them all together? Maybe you can connect them with this woman?” Then, one day, my brother and I were riding the elevator at my old apartment and, all of a sudden, he says, “How are they connected? Go.” We spent an hour riding up and down, and the whole plot flowed from there.

Guernica: Do you often bounce ideas off your brother like this?

Alyan: I do. He’s a writer, a poet, and a comedian. A wonderful person to brainstorm with.

Guernica: How do you know when it’s the right time to involve him in your creative process?

Alyan: That’s a good question.

Guernica: It’s sensitive, right, knowing when to let someone else in? I’m thinking about the married poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, and how they’d never share early drafts with each other for fear that feedback “become[s] attached to the words of a poem, steering it or preventing it from following its own way.”

Alyan: Totally. And I feel similarly, but not in the brainstorming phase. When I’m brainstorming, I’m a big talker. It’s a stage where I feel very open and expansive. Then I get real hermit-like and almost stingy when it comes to the writing. I’m part of a writers’ group, and one of the things I never do is submit works-in-progress. I never give anyone a chapter to read until the whole thing is done.

Guernica: Really?

Alyan: It would mess me up, and I’ll tell you why. I’m too easily influenced. I’m too impulsive to take in feedback before I feel like the stuff is baked. I need to have a complete draft in place.

If you look at the tiny draft above, you’ll see that it’s actually pretty clean. It’s way more comprehensible than my drafts are usually. The changes aren’t huge.

Guernica: I like the edits, though. Instead of a “strange melancholy,” there’s a
“peculiar staleness” in the air.

Alyan: It’s a different tone, I agree. But I have to admit something.

Guernica: Oh?

Alyan: I hate editing. I don’t enjoy the process. Some writers talk about how their work blossoms in revision, and that’s not me. I find it so tedious. The magical part of writing is that first draft spilling out of me, but everything after is just me trying to make it something another human being could comprehend.

Guernica: Another small edit I notice, you’ve italicized “makloubeh” in the early draft but not in the final.

Alyan: That’s a good catch. In my first novel, I used italics. But when The Arsonists’ City was getting ready to be published, I decided not to italicize any Arabic words. If it’s a phrase or piece of dialogue, fine, but that’s different.

Guernica: What motivated the change?

Alyan: I got sick of translating myself to people. I got impatient, which happens with age. You know what I mean? There’s something about the first book where you’re like “Oh my gosh, I just want it to be readable!” But then you grow hardened a bit, and you’ve been at this longer, and you realize that you translate other people’s work all the time. I’ve engaged with and read and taught work by white American or European authors since the beginning of my reading history. So I don’t know. I think people can do a little bit of work. It’s okay.

Guernica: In your Adroit interview, you said that “if what I’m trying to say feels incomplete in poetic form, it means it’s time to try prose.” I’m curious, does it ever work the other way around?

Alyan: One hundred percent. Sometimes I realize I don’t need the amount of space I’m taking, that it can be said in a more concise way. That’s usually when I know I’m working on a poem.

Guernica: Do you ever resist that, or is it an easy move for you?

Alyan: There are times when I’ve been really resistant. But I’m getting better at figuring out what battles to fight with my writing, and trying to be more grateful. If the writing is telling me something about what’s working or not working, rather than pushing back against that, I want to say, “Thank you. You’ve just saved me time and energy.”

Guernica: Can you talk about your work as a clinical psychologist? How does it inform your writing, if at all?

Alyan: I find the two practices are quite compatible. There’s a seamlessness in going from working with someone else’s narrative, and the fragments of their life, and trying to make it all cohere and figure out where things went awry, and then puzzling through a writing project. A lot of similar questions regarding intention, desire, and fear. Something I love about being a clinician is that I’m always thinking about how someone’s story is unfolding, and what might be getting in the way.

Guernica: Do your patients know you’re a published novelist?

Alyan: They do. I don’t announce it, of course. In this day and age, everyone googles their therapist. I’ve had situations where people come into therapy knowing much more about me than I know about them.

Guernica: Does that complicate your work with them?

Alyan: It can, yeah. I think having clients know things about you is always going to be tricky. Maybe it would’ve been different if I had done clinical work for a decade and then published a book. But my first poetry collection came out when I was 25, so I was still in the doctoral program. I was a trainee. Anyway, it’s a conversation I’m adept at having because I’ve had it for a long time.

Guernica: Your novel is very much centered around Beirut. What’s your personal relationship to the city?

Alyan: It’s a very complicated one. In my novel, no character has a straightforward relationship with the place, and I think that speaks to the nature of the city. It’s a place that inspires lots of emotions in people. It can be maddening. It can be infuriating and disappointing. It’s also a place that can be uplifting and incredibly haunting in a very magical way. It’s also a place that has been the source of much exotification for many decades around the world.

For me, it’s one of my homes. On the one hand, I felt very outside of the place when I was living there, because my dad’s Palestinian and there’s a lot of complicated history around that there. I definitely came across anti-Palestinian sentiment while I lived there, and yet it’s also a place I’d arguably consider more my home than anywhere else in the world. I want to live there forever, I never want to see it again. I love it, I hate it. It’s that kind of fiery intensity.

To read more interviews from our Back Draft archive, click here.

Ben Purkert

Ben Purkert's debut novel, The Men Can’t Be Saved, is forthcoming from Abrams/Overlook in 2023. His poetry collection, For the Love of Endings (Four Way Books, 2018), was named one of Adroit’s Best Poetry Books of the Year. His writing appears in The New Yorker, The Nation, Tin House, Poetry, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at Rutgers University.

Hala Alyan

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, POETRY, and elsewhere. Her poetry collections have won the Arab American Book Award and the Crab Orchard Series, and her debut novel, Salt Houses, won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Her second novel, The Arsonists’ City, was recently published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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