Today it's my pleasure to welcome Yusuf Toropov into the spotlight as the latest stop on the blog tour for his debut fiction novel Jihadi: A Love Story.
Yusuf Toropov is an American Muslim writer. He’s the author or co-author of a number of non-fiction books, including Shakespeare for Beginners. His full-length play An Undivided Heart was selected for a workshop production at the National Playwrights Conference, and his one-act play The Job Search was produced offBroadway.
Jihadi: A Love Story, which reached the quarter-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, is his first novel. He lives in Ireland, and seeks to create ‘the possibility of harmonious acceptance in the Middle East, USA and Europe via literature and a global conversation about coexistence’.
A former intelligence agent stands accused of terrorism, held without charge in a secret overseas prison. His memoir is in the hands of a brilliant but erratic psychologist whose annotations paint a much darker picture. As the story unravels, we are forced to assess the truth for ourselves, and decide not only what really happened on one fateful overseas assignment, but who is the real terrorist. Peopled by a diverse and unforgettable cast of characters, whose reliability as narrators is always questioned, and with a multi-layered plot heaving with unexpected and often shocking developments, Jihadi: A Love Story is an intelligent thriller that asks big questions.
Complex, intriguing and intricately woven, this is an astonishing debut that explores the nature of good and evil alongside notions of nationalism, terrorism and fidelity, and, above all, the fragility of the human mind.
Can you tell us a little bit about your debut novel Jihadi: A Love Story?
It's about a former US intelligence agent accused of terrorism and held in a secret overseas prison. His memoir, discovered in his prison cell after his death, suggests a more complex picture. A series of annotations to his manuscript, from a brilliant but erratic psychologist, purports to set the record straight once and for all.
Where did the inspiration come from to include two different competing threads to the narrative?
I'm a big fan of Vladimir Nabokov, and the preface to Lolita was a big influence, as were the notes from the academic in Pale Fire.
Can you describe Jihadi in one sentence?
Yeats once observed that ‘All empty souls tend toward extreme opinions’, and though I read that quote after finishing the novel, I think it's a pretty good summary of the book.
How did your writing journey start?
I've been writing plays, poems, or fiction since I was about fifteen. I had a great high-school English teacher, David Esselstron, who gave me extra credit for finishing what I now know was a really terrible play. I pulled my first all-nighter working on that play. That was the point at which I caught the writing bug.
How long did it take to write Jihadi before you submitted it to your agent/publisher?
I started it in 2007. I made the final revisions to the version I sent out to Bob Diforio, who became my agent, in 2014. The first five years were terrible. I had a good opening, but I kept waiting for inspiration to strike. Actually, what I was doing was avoiding finishing it so that I wouldn't have to be held accountable for the quality of the piece. I had to decide to move into the risky area of taking action every day to get it across the finish line, even if I didn't feel particularly inspired. I started taking daily word counts seriously toward the end of 2012, and that's when the novel finally started to come together.
Are you a plotter or do you let a book take its own direction?
Definitely a seat-of-the-pants writer, not a plotter. Martha Alderson, whose book The Plot Whisperer made a big difference for me, makes the argument that writers tend to fall into one of those two camps, and once you know which kind you are, you have to compensate for the weaknesses. In my case the weakness was organization. I had to make a conscious effort to plot it out, to identify which scenes represented the various plot points she identified. It took some doing.
Several reviewers have called it a ‘modern classic’. Does this surprise you, or do you think the highly contemporary, relevant subject matter and the original format make it an obvious candidate?
I've been very excited by the reviews so far, but I think anyone who sets out thinking that he's writing a classic, modern or otherwise, is probably riding for a fall. After struggling with it for seven years, I was just trying to finish the thing, and in the end I figured out that that meant listening to where it wanted to go, as opposed to dictating my own opinions about what should happen next. I don't know how modern that is. Writers have always done that.
You portray events in an almost detached manner. Is this a conscious device to encourage readers to make up their own minds, and to allow them to feel/see horrors without your voice or opinions influencing them?
You're not the first person to express that view of the novel. It's odd for me, this question, because when I think of how I was feeling as I wrote it, I don't remember wanting to make readers experience any sense of objectivity, of distance from how I felt, from some of the more horrific events that show up. I felt I was expressing my own perspective. Then I go back and I look at some of the passages, and I see why people are saying that. I certainly do want people to make up their own minds, but I think it's probably more honest to say that I made a decision as I was writing it – semi-consciously, let's say – that understatement could sometimes be more effective than shouting about things. All the shouting has become a bit of a cliche when we talk about extremism. It's pointless.
Your characters are extraordinarily memorable, and as readers we are sympathetic when least expect it. What was your inspiration?
That's a very nice thing to say. Some of the initial inspiration came from news reports, but ultimately every important character in the book ended up having his or her own voice for me, and would become someone who talked to me about what needed to happen next. That sounds a little schizophrenic, I know, but that was in fact how I ended up finishing the book. By listening to some very strange people talk about strange events connected to the so-called ‘War on Terror’ from their point of view. Not judging them. Just listening.
Are you/were you worried about how the Muslim population would respond to this book?
That's a little like asking whether I'm concerned how Christians will react. There are all kinds of Christians and all kinds of Muslims. If people from any faith system, or no faith system at all, find something that's interesting and useful in the book, I'm happy. If they don't, I hope whatever emotion they do feel can be part of a global conversation about coexistence. We need that conversation. I make no apologies for writing the book from what I felt to be a Muslim perspective. I am curious how other Muslims will respond to that, but I'm not worried.
Do you have designated writing hours or is it a case of writing when you can fit it in around your work/home life?
I fit it in wherever I can. I aim for 1000 words a day, six days a week. I don't care when or where they happen.
Have you treated yourself to something special to celebrate publishing your debut novel?
The printed books just came in this week! As I opened the box they were shipped it, I realised I had never printed out any manuscripts in full, over the long period that I wrote this book. So holding the finished book, which looks just stunning, was the first time I had ever held the whole story in my hands. That was a celebration in itself. But yes: I am planning to go out to dinner with a friend tonight to celebrate.
I'm working on some short stories, some of which may end up being part of the second novel. You can find one here: bit.ly/a_deal