Zoë Ferraris answers questions about her first novel, Finding Nouf, the first in an amateur detective series set in Saudi Arabia
First of all, I think people would like to know your connection to Saudi Arabia,
so they don't think you're making this all up.
Well, actually, I made it up. But there's also a lot of real Saudi Arabia in the book.
When I was nineteen, I got married to a Saudi-Palestinian Bedouin. We met in San Francisco, and I fell completely in love with him. He was hilarious and brilliant and over-the-top zany. He had come to America to study English. He told his parents that once he was fluent, he would go back to Jeddah. So he never became fluent. Learning English actually, he called it "Languish" was just going to have to take forever.
We got married and had a daughter. The day she was born, he decided that we had to visit his family in Jeddah. Just a short visit, you know, to show off his new wife and kid. We wound up staying for almost a year. It turns out that you can't just visit for a week or two. You have to stay until his mother stops having heart episodes every time you go to the airport.
So you didn't get along with your mother-in-law?
Not after she convinced me that a liberal application of henna could eliminate zits on your face forever. Thank god for the burqa.
They were a Bedouin family. Did you live in the desert?
No, they had given up the nomadic life and settled in Jeddah, in a neighborhood called Kilo Seven. Bin Laden's father built the neighborhood in the 70s as a retreat for his banished wife. It grew into a crowded, multicultural place with a lot of Sudanese and East Asian immigrants, but it retains a deeply conservative quality even today.
Women weren't allowed to leave the house alone. If you did, you'd get chased around by the religious police, maybe smacked with a camel whip. One guy went after me with his shoe. When I caught the shoe and ran in the house, he stood at the window and asked for it back.
How did Finding Nouf evolve out of this?
The biggest revelation I had in Saudi Arabia was learning that men were just as frustrated by gender segregation as women were. My ex-husband's best friend tried for years to find a wife. It surprised me to realize something that should have been obvious: if you're not allowed to speak to the opposite sex, how do you meet a mate?
So you and your husband are now divorced?
Yes. After we came back from Saudi, we spent another year together and then he moved back to Jeddah.
Did he manage to meet another mate?
His mother found him the perfect cousin.
Your main character, Nayir, is a devout Muslim man. What was the inspiration for his character? Was your ex-husband devout?
Not at first. He hated devoutness. But we knew plenty of men who were.
At first I wanted Nayir to actually be a religious policeman, but then I realized that chasing women down the street is never going to be a modest occupation. Modesty is so important in Islam, and I wanted Nayir to be the real thing.
He is actually a compilation of three other men I knew in Saudi, all of whom were looking for a wife and none of whom were successful, mostly because they were good guys who didn't want to break the rules by talking to strange women.
What would have happened if they'd spoken to a strange woman?
They might have been harassed by the religious police. Or by their mothers. And then later by their mothers-in-law. Or they might have realized, after talking to the woman, that she wasn't virtuous, because what sort of woman goes around talking to strange men?
Why did you decide to write about murder?
The first time it occurred to me was at a jacket bazaar in Jeddah, where my ex-husband bought a "Columbo" coat and proposed setting off to solve mysteries. I liked the idea of a Muslim detective who loves Columbo. But the story's main mystery evolved as I began to realize that, because Nayir is so proper, something very drastic would have to happen such as murder in order for him to justify prying into a woman's life.
How did you get to see the parts of the city you describe in your novel?
If I gave him enough grief, my ex-husband would take me out, but we always had to take the whole family. There were about 45 of us, including children. We had a lot of picnics, which is the outing of choice in Jeddah. We had picnics at the zoo, the marina, and any old sidewalk we could find. We used to picnic at the airport because it was the only place in town with privacy AND trees. If the airport workers caught us, they'd turn on the sprinklers and we'd all run off dripping wet.
It's interesting that you chose to write a novel instead of a memoir.
Well, I figure a novel is the best of both worlds. I get to write about Saudi, but I also get to have my characters do things I want them to do, as opposed to everyone just doing what they want to do. Like most writers, I put in an application to be God and then framed the rejection slip.
So back to your mother-in-law. How do you feel about her now?
In an introduction to his novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, Mario Puzo writes an homage to his mother in which he tells her that she was the inspiration for his greatest achievement the creation of Don Corleone. When I think of my mother-in-law today, I imagine that someday my pen will do her that same kind of justice.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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