Rayyan Al-Shawaf, author of “When All Else Fails”

#YourNextBeachRead is a way to introduce you to a new author and their works in the hopes that you’ll find the next book you want to take with you to the beach, the pool, or the comforts of air conditioning.

Today’s featured author is Rayyan Al-Shawaf, author of When All Else Fails.

What’s your name and where are you from?

Rayyan Al-Shawaf. I’m not really from a single country, having spent even my formative years in several, with Malta my current place of residence. But I’m Arab-German, having been born to a Lebanese-Palestinian mother and a German-Iraqi father.

How long have you been writing? How did you start?

7-25 - Rayyan Al-Shawaf author photoSetting aside college and high school, I began with the occasional book review a year and a half after graduating from UCF in mid-2002. This was in Lebanon, to which I moved in 2003. It took some time for me to gain traction as a critic; assignments were few and far between. Things began to change in 2006, when I got a review commissioned by the San Francisco Chronicle and another by the Christian Science Monitor. Both were published, which helped me land more assignments.

Who are some of your influences?

Well, let me focus on this particular effort, as opposed to other stuff I have tried or am trying my hand at, and pare down the list to specific works! I’d say, in no particular order, Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album, Edward Limonov’s It’s Me, Eddie, Sayed Kashua’s Dancing Arabs, and Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy. Probably also some Gary Shteyngart here and there.

What is your book about?

It’s the darkly comic and faintly absurdist story of Iraqi UCF student Hunayn, whose life is turned upside down by 9/11, and who subsequently lurches from one crisis to another, first in the Sunshine State (Part I) and then in Lebanon (Part II).

Where did you get the idea?

Probably on the toilet seat or in the shower! Either way, I’ve long been painfully aware of the possibility that some of us might wake up one day to find that the ethnic or religious group to which we belong has become the object of widespread vilification.

How do you dig yourself out of such a mess? Can playing on the flip side of guilt by association, the pernicious idea that is used to demonize you, do the trick? In other words, is the notion of virtue by association, though equally preposterous, your ticket to respectability? And if so, what might you lose should you harness it for such a purpose?

How long did it take you to finish it?

Twenty-two months, though I didn’t work on it every day.

Is this your first book, or have you written more than one?

This is the first one I complete. I felt that an earlier attempt at a (separate) novel wasn’t shaping up to be good enough, so I abandoned it just short of an estimated two-thirds of the way through.

We all like to write about people we know, even if we never name them. Who are some people who inspired characters or situations?

I generally avoided using this or that real person as a model for a fictional one, more so when it came to the main characters. Borrowing real people’s traits and judiciously assigning them (sometimes after a fair bit of tinkering) to certain of my characters allowed me greater freedom, in that I could devise my own material. I borrowed from friends, acquaintances, schoolmates, journalists, and bartenders, in Lebanon, the US, and Luxembourg.

What’s your favorite scene in the book?

7-25 - Rayyan Al-Shawaf book coverProbably the one in which Hunayn, who remains in Orlando during UCF’s post-9/11 winter break, reflects wistfully on his past walks down a Christmastime Hamra Street (Beirut) in the rain.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

Hmm, not sure. Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut’s famous recommendation that one start as close to the end as possible. I tried to keep that in mind when getting started, so as not to end up with a meandering story and an unwieldy manuscript!

What’s the worst?

“Don’t write about us; nobody is interested.” This came from the father of an acquaintance of mine in Lebanon. It was meant, in part, as affirmation that I’m sufficiently Americanized to write a story that features exclusively American characters in an American setting without it seeming askew to a reader in the States. I found myself wanting to argue two points: A) Not all Americans are provincial; B) Piquing the interest of those who are is a worthwhile challenge!

Where can we buy your book?

If you’d like to order it online, you can do so from Amazon, Goodreads, or directly from my publisher, Interlink (when prompted, enter code INT2019 for a 30 percent discount). Should your preference be to purchase it at a bookstore, try Barnes & Noble or Books & Books; even if your local branch doesn’t have it on the shelves, they can order it for you.

Include your author’s bio.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a book critic whose reviews and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Globe and Mail, LA Review of Books, Miami Herald, Minneapolis Star Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Millions, Toronto Star, Truthdig, Washington Post, and other publications. He lives in Malta. When All Else Fails is his first novel.