Congratulations on the award – did you think Osama had a chance of winning?
To be honest, I didn’t expect it to be nominated. I was really surprised and I did have that reaction of “Oh my god.” You get to a state of being quite jaded about awards, so I was quite surprised how emotional I was about even being shortlisted.
The ceremony was the longest two hours of my life. You don’t even care if you win or lose, you just want to get it over with. It drives on and on. I don’t think I made a good conversationalist for those two hours. It’s the very last award given out.
I’d been working on a kind of acceptance speech in my head, and it was getting to the point where my stress levels were going up. I thought “I’m never going to be able to stand up there and deliver a speech.” I ended up going up there and saying, “Thank you very much,” and walking off.
Because it was the last one, as soon as I left the stage, they called me back for the photo shoot, so before I know it, I’m standing there being shouted at, and cameras are going off. It was very surreal. You’re standing in front of people you grew up reading. Tim Powers actually won the award for Best Collection, so I’m standing next to Tim Powers with matching awards having my photo taken.
What was the genesis of Osama? Did you want to incorporate your real-life experiences (Tidhar was in Dar-es-Salaam during the American embassy bombings in 1998, stayed in the same hotel as the Al Qaeda operatives in Nairobi, and narrowly avoided both the 2005 London, King’s Cross and 2004 Sinai attacks) into a story, or were they something that gave an edge to the tale you wanted to tell?
No, it was the real life experience. I think [central character] Joe is essentially me. There’s a long speech at the end which is quite a personal one.
I wanted to write this for a long time. The first time I did, I wrote a short story called “My Travels with Al-Qaeda” and it was published in Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling’s anthology Salon Fantastique; that was the seed for the novel. I’ve always been very grateful to them for publishing it. The anthology has a very fantasy cover, but, bless them, they published a story called “My Travels with Al-Qaeda”. I feel really bad for people who bought that book based on the cover and came across that story in there.
That was the start of it, but it was actually sitting down to do it that was difficult. It’s such a sensitive thing to be writing about, especially with real victims. It’s a question of is it going to work, or is it going to be absolutely terrible? And I decided one day I’d invested enough time; I just needed to try it and see if it’s going to work or not.
How much did it alter between first draft and final?
It’s strange; I’ve just finished a novel which has been through eleven drafts but Osama was, for some reason, just the easiest thing in the world to write. It’s the only thing that I’ve written that I just wrote; I don’t think I did very much on it. It was really easy. I’d like to say that they’re all really easy to write, but this felt right. I knew where it was going, I knew the structure, I knew what was coming up. Because I’d spent a few years planning it in my head, so the writing part is after the hard work has been already done. You can say it only took six months to write; or you can say it took six years to write!
I was really going easy with that book; I was only doing 500 words a day, and writing a short section. I was perfectly happy; I didn’t want to rush it. I wanted to enjoy writing it.
Someone had a look at the book for a more commercial angle, and sent me back an insanely detailed line by line edit to make the book more commercial. But I just couldn’t do it; I couldn’t bring myself to make those changes. It was almost being a bit selfish and a bit self-indulgent in a way. I wanted to do it and get the money, but it wasn’t the way I wanted the book to be. I wanted integrity on this one, and I can always sell out on the next one!
Your sort of book, though, is more likely to have a longer shelf life than a disposable thriller…
We can hope. It’s a book that was rejected so many times. PS do great books, but they are a very small, specialist publisher. I was resigned for it to just come out and that would be that. It would sell a tiny amount of copies. But the response has been just fantastic. I couldn’t have predicted that.
There was one reviewer who did a very detailed analysis of the book and the themes. There are a few interpretations of the book that you can have: my personal one is really simple; it’s a Singing Detective kind of thing. I said that to this reviewer, and he said, “Don’t be ridiculous, that’s far too simplistic.” He put me in my place – what do I know?! I thought that was great. I don’t believe the writer should necessarily know or be the one that says what it is.
The book is made up of some very obscure references. There’s one to “Nangilima”, which is a reference to a children’s novel called The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. It’s about two brothers; one’s sick and the other says when you die, you go to another world. Both end up dying and have adventures in this other world. And after that world, there’s another world called Nangilima. There’s an afterlife to the afterlife.
Nangilima is mentioned three times in Osama, and people who pick that reference up see it as a way of reading the book and get really excited about it. My German publisher thought it made sense of it. It’s not my primary reading of the book though.
Books speak to people in different ways: a 9/11 survivor will read it differently to a British reader…
One of the things I wanted to do was not go from the 9/11 angle. 9/11 is barely mentioned in the book.
The Underground bombers was the section that struck me – it was almost like a news report.
Those sections took a lot of research; I wanted to be as specific as possible about everything. I never make stuff up if I can help it. There was a big research element to try to get the right details.
I didn’t want to do 9/11 so much because I wanted to do the attacks that no one pays attention to like the Sinai one that I was very close to personally. It wasn’t one that was particularly well reported. People in Israel knew about it, and in Egypt, but in the rest of the world it wasn’t very important. 9/11 was important because it was on American soil but for me the whole thing started from being in Dar-es-Salaam in 1998. I wanted to look at those people: they weren’t on the American side or the al-Qaeda side. They were just people in the middle of it. It’s very tricky to do. You have to be so careful when it’s real people.
I think terrorist attacks are an act of media. A lot more people die in car accidents, but no one is going to ban cars. Your chances of dying in a car crash are much higher than being killed in a terrorist attack. But a terrorist attack is unpredictable, it’s spectacular – it’s there to get media attention more than anything else – as opposed to, say an invasion of a country, where you kill a lot more people, but they’re just statistics. They don’t even make it into the newspapers.
So often it’s overlooked that the purpose of terrorism is to terrorise: it’s the effect on the society they’re attacking.
Exactly. The way that you scare people is the way they hear about it. It doesn’t really matter: terrorists don’t have to kill a huge number of people, as long as you think, “It might be me next time I walk down the street.” I grew up around that sort of thing, so I’m very aware of it on a day to day basis.
I read about ten of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books a few years ago: they’re a guilty pleasure. There’s one book [All Together Dead] where towards the end, all these vampires who have lived forever are staying in this one hotel. There’s a really dodgy package hanging around, and it ends up being a bomb that blows up the hotel. I thought, “These are thousand-year-old vampires and this is what a five year old Israeli kid knows: you don’t trust a package that is sitting there.” It was written from such an American perspective where such a thing is just inconceivable.
I did the short story before Osama, and then when I did Osama, I still had a bit of a bug. I’ve done two more stories. One is a coda to the book, published in Interzone, called “The Last Osama” which was me getting it out of my system.
I’ve just finished my latest book and sent it off to my agent, and I noticed it touches very briefly on some of the same things. There are things that repeat themselves. There’s a bit about Osama bin Laden in there, and a bit about Laos and the secret war, and a bit about opium. Hopefully a very different book where it touches with Osama.
I am planning a couple more existential thrillers, political noir things. They’ll be absolutely brilliant, or the worst thing in the world!
Thanks to Mike Molcher and Ben Smith for their help in setting up this interview.