Monday, May 08, 2017

12 or 20 questions with Hala Alyan

HALA ALYAN [photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan] was born in 1986. After living in various parts of the Middle East, she completed a doctorate in psychology and is now in practice at New York University. She has been published in Guernica and other literary journals, and is the award-winning author of three poetry collections. SALT HOUSES is her first novel. Alyan is also a seasoned performer, and her TEDx talk and appearances can be viewed at She lives in New York City.

1 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I’ve always adored reading and my family moved around a lot when I was growing up, so I turned to storytelling as a way of making sense of all the upheaval. The first things I remember writing were definitely fiction, although I do think I started writing poetry simultaneously soon thereafter. I feel lucky to be able to use both forms of writing as means of expression, depending on what I need most in the moment.

2 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
My writing process is a mess, although I’m trying to get better at it. For SALT HOUSES, because I refused to admit I was working on a novel (I never used the word until I was agent hunting), I worked chaotically, a little bit on one chapter, then moving backwards in time, then returning a few months later. It was an overwhelming beast to edit. My first draft definitely doesn’t look remotely legible, as I like to use “X”s as placeholders for better-suited words, phrases or descriptions.

3 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
My first poetry collection was definitely a combination of many random pieces, but I’ve started to work on more cohesive projects over the years; it helps keep me focused and motivated. A lot of my poems actually begin with the endings: I’ll suddenly think of a phrase or line and know that I have to work towards it. Much of my fiction has begun in daydreaming or actual dreaming. I’m grateful to be a very active sleeper!

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do! I’ve always liked performance and when I was younger it was more centered around theater, whereas now it’s generally expressed in readings. I love meeting people and my favorite thing, hands down, about readings is hearing other people perform.

5 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
To focus on the act of writing itself, rather than the outcome. I think that’s true across the board in life. The process should be intrinsically gratifying, otherwise it’s too easy to be discouraged.

6 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Like I mentioned earlier, I’m a vivid dreamer, so sometimes I’ll try to set an intention to dream about a certain topic or writing scene. I also feel like walking and running are incredibly meditative for me, as is actual meditation. That’s usually a good way of resetting. More than anything else, I think reading something that I love and am inspired by is usually a good way to get me exciting about going back to the work.

7 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of jasmine.

8 - What would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?
I want to own a home someday. It sounds silly but I want to live in a place where I can paint the walls whenever I want. Also—I want to improve my singing ability to tolerable.

9 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Perhaps acting or filmmaking? I’m also a clinical psychologist, which to me feels like a perfectly complementary thing to be. Both worlds are involved in narrative-constructing and reconstructing.

10 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing has always been an instinctual act for me, and I’m always beholden to it. I think I do it because I simply can’t imagine not. More than once, writing has been the thing that’s gotten me through life.

11 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book was ALL MY PUNY SORROWS; I highly recommend it. The last film that blew me away was MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. I’m a sucker for movies that break my heart.

12 - What are you currently working on?
I like to work on two projects at once, so I’m working on a new poetry manuscript and a new novel about a Lebanese family of expats that return to Beirut to sell their ancestral home. It’s tentatively titled THE ARSONISTS’ CITY.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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