Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Interview with Tessa Afshar, author of Pearl in the Sand

What are some of your favorite books?

Jane Eyre is hard to beat; it has everything—intrigue, romance, God, a critique of Christianity gone bad, and Mr. Rochester. Anything by Jane Austen. Most things by Dickens. The Narnia Chronicles; The Lord of the Rings Trilogy; Busman’s Honeymoon; The Princess and Curdie; To Kill a Mocking Bird. O my gosh, I think I’m running out of room; this is tragic. There’s so much more…

What’s your favorite food?

Steak and fries and anything my father makes. But don’t tell my mom; she’ll kill me.

What do you do for fun?

Hang out with close friends. Read. Read while hanging out with close friends. Watch DVDs, especially BBC period pieces. Did you know they cost around $25,000 a minute to produce? One feels obligated to watch just so the money isn’t wasted.

What’s your definition of close friends?

When you go to the bathroom, your stomach isn’t tied in knots in fear that they might hear something. That, and being able to share absolutely everything in your heart and knowing that you’ll be loved and accepted at the end of the conversation no matter what you say.

Did you always want to be a writer or is it a new desire?

I grew up in a culture that reveres poetry and literature. Living in that atmosphere, it was easy to fall in love with books. Enraptured by stories, I found myself writing them from an early age. What can be more fun than making up your own world?

What circumstances led you to write the story of Rahab?

This novel started as a short essay on the walls of Jericho. I was fascinated by the way this symbol of unassailable strength was in the end breached and vanquished. It seemed like such a sign of hope to me: a reminder that what may seem to be an impossible barrier can indeed be conquered with God.

Then during a visit to Florence, I noticed that Ponte Vecchio—the famed bridge straddling the Arno River for almost seven hundred years—had tiny shops built right into its walls. They bulged out of the sides of the bridge like odd-shaped barnacles sticking out of the hull of a ship. Walking over this bridge reminded me of the story of Rahab. The Bible tells us that she lived in the bowels of a wall too. Her house was built right into the defensive walls of Jericho. I wondered what it was like to live in a wall as I crossed Ponte Vecchio. Then I realized that we all know a little something about that. Most of us have to contend with walls in the interior places of our souls. Walls built on foundations of pride, fear, rejection, loss; walls that keep others at bay and shield us from drawing close enough to get hurt again. Suddenly I was hooked. I wanted to write about walls, about living in them, about pulling them down. I wanted to write about Rahab.

Were there any surprises as you started writing the novel?

Originally, I wrote the first three chapters of Pearl in the Sand in the first-person point of view. It wasn’t a deliberate strategy so much as a fortunate mistake! Later I was told that publishing houses preferred a third-person point of view novel from debut novelists and rewrote the POV accordingly. But writing those first chapters from the point of view of Rahab really helped me get into her psyche. As a writer, it is important for me to know my character’s motives; to know her wounds and strengths. To know the lies she believes about herself and the defenses she has erected because of those lies. So those three initial chapters were a perfect way of getting to know Rahab. She became real to me.

What type of research did you have to do in order to write a convincing novel?

Researching for historical novels can be tricky. Everything from language to customs to food and clothes has to be researched. There are so many things we don’t know about this period. For example, Rahab calls her father “Abba.” The truth is that we have no idea how a Canaanite child would informally address her parents. We have some ideas in terms of other ancient languages with the same root – like “Av” in Ugaritic or “Abba” in Aramaic. So I chose the more familiar Aramaic form, still used by Jewish children in Israel today.

We have literally no archaeological knowledge of Israel’s life during their wanderings. What information we have, comes from the Bible. But we do have archaeological evidence from Canaan and we think we know where Jericho was located. So I obtained information where I could, left it blank where possible, and made up the rest!

Did your background help with the writing of this book?

Having lived in the Middle East for the first thirteen years of my life, I had a first-hand sense of customs and topography, which I tried to weave into the atmosphere of the novel. It’s not that Twentieth Century Iran is the equivalent of life in Canaan at the time of its conquest. But there is an indefinable aura—a character to the region that I think surpasses time and cultural changes. I tired to capture that sense in the mood of the novel. For example, whenever we had guests in my childhood home, we walked them out part way at the end of the visit, and waited at the door until they were gone. Not doing so would have been considered very rude. I worked that custom into the storyline to show a glimpse of the importance of hospitality.

What do you hope your readers will take away from Pearl in the Sand?

Pearl in the Sand recounts the tale of a woman whose world was a mess, whose life was a mess, whose heart was a mess, but in encountering God, she found to her shock that her life was salvageable. More than that—it was valuable. She found that she was lovable.  Having worked in women’s ministries for the past twelve years, I have become mindful that many of us need to hear that message.

God started the most significant part of Rahab’s life by literally pulling down the walls of her home around her. As traumatic as that moment must have been for Rahab, she could not have moved on to the future God had planned for her without it. In a parallel pursuit of healing for her broken soul, Pearl in the Sand portrays a God who just as determinedly set out to ruin the walls surrounding Rahab’s heart. I think women today need to know God as the wooer and pursuer of their hearts. They need to know that sometimes the most glorious breakthroughs of life come through a vector of God-ordained pain. More than anything I hope the reader of this story will come away with a deeper glimpse into her own soul, and a more profound understanding of God the Father. Rahab learned to cling to God in the midst of her sorrows, to believe in Him more than she believed in fear. For me, that is one of the most crucial components of faith: becoming a person who gives God full access to every part of one’s soul, even if that access sometimes hurts because it involves the demolition of one’s defensive walls.

This is your debut novel. What are you thinking for the future?

I am currently researching for a novel set in Persia during the time of Nehemiah. The two central characters are fictional, but Nehemiah and several other biblical characters will play important roles in the story. Like Pearl in the Sand, this is a love story that asks some deeper questions about life. I’ve been having a lot fun working on this novel. I’ll tell you where I am stuck: I haven’t been able to find the perfect names for my central characters: a Jewish girl and a Persian nobleman. The Achaemenid Persians had some really long and hard to pronounce names!

Visit Tessa at http://www.tessaafshar.com/ or her facebook page

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