Writers have it all wrong. They think they need to learn about
other writers. I studied English literature at Oxford University
and I read all I could find of the sort of literary criticism that
makes a novel seem like a piece of East German economic analysis.
Three years later, I hadn’t learned a thing — except that it was
fine to have a room you could take a girl to without having to
sneak past your mother, Guinness isn’t good for you, and the
deputy bank manager at Lloyd’s on Broad Street with the goatee and
the bald head didn’t just /look/ like Ming the Merciless.
Then I read Dashiell Hammett. Before he published novels, Hammett
was a Pinkerton detective. What he wrote was real. I could smell
the places he’d been for the Pinkertons, feel the punches he’d
taken, think the way he’d had to think to outwit true criminals.
I’d been reading Marxist critical theorists on Daniel Defoe and
French deconstructionists whose scribblings about the
“stereographic plurality of significances” were intended to tell
me that whatever I thought a book was about was, indeed, what it
was about–except that it wasn’t, was it. Or was it?
It was the kind of stuff only a pretentious 20-year-old ought to
like. It wasn’t going to take me far in life, and it didn’t help
me figure out what I wanted to write about.
“The Maltese Falcon” gave me the sense of how real experiences
lead a writer to the soul of his subject, and to the soul of
himself. Anything but that soul isn’t worth reading about, because
it’s just lies.
University is where you go for other people’s lies. Novels are
where you go for their confessions.
The best novelists are the ones who don’t care if you like them,
because if you can’t handle who they are, you belong back in
school where you can pretend to understand subjects that aren’t
worth knowing about.
When I began to work on the Omar Yussef Mystery series, I knew
that I wanted to use real events I had covered as a journalist
among the Palestinians for the previous decade. I took my
characters from people I had known, and known well.
I set the first book in Bethlehem, which I can see from the window
of my apartment in Jerusalem. I weaved together a series of
stories I had uncovered as a journalist. Everyone in the book is
based on someone who stood before me and talked to me, willingly
or grudgingly or with outright hostility, to tell me what they
thought about the killing and corruption that tainted their town.
The result isn’t journalism. It’s a novel.
What’s the difference? Journalism is fiction.
Don’t believe me? Open a newsmagazine and you’ll be expected to
believe that a given Hollywood star is actually a nice man, that
you can drive everywhere and not get fat provided you lay off
fruit, and that the latest development in the Middle East gives
hope that things there will get better: well, of course, he isn’t,
you can’t, and it won’t.
That is to say, it’s fiction. We don’t necessarily think of it as
fiction, because fiction’s supposed to be interesting, and that’s
more than can be said for most journalism.
So why did I turn from journalism to mystery fiction with the Omar
Because I wanted to write the truth.
My experience as a journalist taught me that there are serious
limits on what a journalist can convey to his readers. That’s
somewhat because of libel laws. It’s also because a journalist has
to counter the expectations of his editors, trying to bring them
along with him to reach the same conclusions and then watching to
see that someone else’s ideas don’t overtake the story during the
editing process. But mostly it’s because journalism even at its
most worthy skirts around the essence of man.
It was only rarely during a decade as a foreign correspondent that
I was able to write about what happens inside the head of a
Palestinian. Mainly I had to say what the latest incident of
bloodshed meant for the “peace process,” even when there had
clearly ceased to be peace and such process as remained was
entirely orchestrated for politicians to play to their domestic
Journalism took me to places I’d otherwise never have visited, or
even known existed. It gave me an understanding of people I’d
never have known and at the same time let me understand myself far
more deeply than I would have done had I not met them, had I
stayed at home in the world to which I was born.
I wrote the first Omar Yussef novel with a sense of liberation.
Not liberation from the truth. Rather it was a freedom from the
strictures of journalism. I had found the best way to tell the truth.
Not everyone can see the places I saw and meet the people I met as
a journalist. But now at least they can read about them in my novels.