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Hala Alyan on the Quiet Moments that Comprise Her Devastating New Novel

by Brendan Dowling on March 11, 2021

At first glance, the fiercely loving family at the heart of Hala Alyan’s extraordinary The Arsonists’ City has it all. The parents, Idris and Mazna, lead a life of upper-class comfort in California, while their three children pursue seemingly glamorous careers in Brooklyn, Austin, and Beirut. Yet the family is thrown into disarray when Idris impulsively decides to sell his family home in Beirut following the death of his father. In short order, Mazna, a former actress in her native Syria, uses her formidable charm and political skills to summon her children to Beirut for one last visit to the ancestral manse. Yet once reunited, long held family secrets erupt, threatening to upend the fragile peace among family members and forcing everyone to reckon with uncomfortable truths in their own personal lives. Through it all, Alyan plumbs the interior lives of her characters with nuance, wit, and compassion. Alyan’s debut novel Salt Houses won both the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Arab American Book Award, and The Arsonists’ City has received similar acclaim. Entertainment Weekly stated that it “feels revolutionary in its freshness” and The New York Times Book Review raved, “Alyan distilled the fog of displacement and exposes the ways an unfamiliar culture can devour the traits that make us special. And when plumbing the intricacies of race and womanhood, Alyan turns paragraphs into poetry.”

The book dives into the lives of this tight-knit family over many generations. Was there a specific character who was your entry point to the novel?

It was definitely Mazna. It’s kind of a kooky story, but I dreamt the plot of her story a couple of years before I started writing it. When I was still finalizing Salt Houses, I had this really vivid dream of this woman in Damascus who wanted to move to California and become a star. I dreamt a fair amount of the plot—nothing about the marriage or the children—but just this woman in particular. Something about her and the way that her life in the dream did not turn out the way she wanted it to really spoke to me. I couldn’t shake the thought of her story. Once Salt Houses wrapped up, I kept retuning to the image of her. She was definitely the thing I started with, the story of a woman coming of age and wanting to become a star.

So many of the characters in the book have really rich creative lives: Mazna is an actress, her two younger children are musicians, and the youngest daughter’s ex-girlfriend, Fee, is an artist. What interested you about exploring the creative lives of your characters in a way that maybe you hadn’t before with Salt Houses?

I think exactly that I hadn’t was what drew me to it. In Salt Houses, the careers really didn’t matter. What people were doing with their days and their time wasn’t really the focal point of the story. It was much more their emotional landscapes, their relationships. I found when I was storyboarding [The Arsonist’s City] thinking, “What would be really fun to write?” To be totally frank, a lot of the career choices that I made for the characters were based on the fact that I think it would be so interesting to be a rock star. I think it would be really fun to think about being a successful musician and entering that world. I think it would be cool to daydream about what kind of weird art projects Fee could do without having to do them! All I have to do is describe them. (laughs)

Your last book focused on the past and people looking back on their lives over several decades. In this book, the trio of siblings are very much rooted in the present. What was it like digging into the lives of these younger characters whose lives are still very much affected by the diaspora?

Houses probably had another six or seven chapters that got cut. I write really wordy, long first drafts, and then my editors are like, “This is not sustainable! You have to cut a bunch of this.” (laughs) A lot of what got cut in Salt Houses were actually the younger generation—the present day generation coming of age, their teens, their twenties, their trials and tribulations. In a way, I had a real hunger for living in that world, that sort of modern hyphenated identity, third culture kid, going back and forth, kind of Americanized, kind of not. I had already really wanted to play in that space with Salt Houses but had to cut it, so when I got to The Arsonists’ City I was like, “I want to spend more time in the present!” It was really important to me that that the story feel a little more modern. It was really important that I spend more time in the present

To your question, it’s very true, Salt Houses deals with immigration in its urgent pressing as it’s happening to the generation in the sixties or the seventies or the eighties. What’s happening in the moment then? Whereas [in The Arsonists’ City], I really wanted to explore what happens a couple of generations later. What happens when things quiet down? These are the children of a doctor in America. Their experiences are in a lot of ways very different than mine. I spent most of my childhood in the Middle East. These are kids who were born and raised in California, a relatively upper middle class house with a parent who was a doctor. They went back to Beirut, but they always went back as visitors. They never lived there except for Najla, who makes that decision out of choice, not out of necessity, in her late teens. I thought it would be really interesting to explore it from a more modern and a little more detached view with children who are Americanized.

Many of the characters seem to be torn between taking active control of their life versus being swept along by the events around them. What was intriguing to you about exploring characters who were faced with such a choice?

I really enjoyed writing characters who took their fate a little more in their own hands with this book. Again, in order to do that, you start to see how much choice is a privilege and a luxury and sort of a misnomer. It was really hard to give a lot of choice and agency to the older generations in Salt Houses, because frankly, they did what their circumstances demanded of them. They were pretty privileged too, they were also upper middle class, but because of the war and the displacement, their choices were narrower. In this book, as a writer, I experienced so much more breathing room and expansion. I had more freedom to have them do things that would have been impossibilities [in Salt Houses]. In Salt Houses there was more geographical limitation, financial limitation, and logistical limitations. Whereas in this book, they just had more freedom, which had a lot to do with the upward mobility. Again, the more space there is between you and the immigration, the actual act of dislocation, often times the more agency there is.

Sections of the book take place in Beirut and Damascus of the 60s and 70s. How did you go about recreating those cities from that time period?

It was hard, I was really lucky in that the writing of this book coincided with several residencies, pockets of time, where I could work on stuff. I did some of the storyboarding for this at Yaddo. I was really lucky to get this fellowship at the American Library of Paris. I spent a month in Paris where I was literally surrounded by books and time and could daydream, think of plotlines, and then do a lot of research. I really lucked out in that the year and a half to two years it took to write this, there were chunks of time where I was uninterrupted and able to work on the research.

For me, there was logistic research and historical research. The civil war in Lebanon, like most civil wars, is really complicated and nuanced. You’ve really got into get into the nitty gritty of what happened. Frankly, if you ask a bunch of different people in Lebanon what started the civil war, you’re going to get a bunch of different answers. It’s not a clear cut history to study. A lot of it was reading primary and secondary sources, talking to people who were there at the time, and getting a sense of the sociocultural moment. What were people wearing, what were people listening to, what was the music like, what were folks reading? I also feel really lucky because I had access to all the places to try to get the atmosphere and environment right. I lived in Lebanon for a long time, I visited Beirut while I was working on this book. I visited Austin while I was working on this book. I lived in Brooklyn I was able to go to spots and make sure I was getting the geography and the streets right.

I was looking at our talk from four years ago about Salt Houses, and I was wondering what were the things you learned from writing Salt Houses that you were able to apply to The Arsonists’ City?

Everything. Salt Houses was a disaster to write, or rather it was really fun to write and a disaster to edit. (laughs) It was fun to write in that I had never written a novel before. I also didn’t know it was a novel, to be fair to myself. I kept writing these short stories, and they were getting longer, and who knows what they’re going to be? I gave myself a ton of freedom to be like, “You know what? Every day, write your thirty minutes, but write whatever scene you feel like writing. Today I feel like being in the seventies, tomorrow I feel like being in the eighties. Today I feel like writing that art exhibit scene, tomorrow I’m going to write that birth scene.” Then I had hundreds of Microsoft word documents. Putting them all together was just a hell of an experience. It was so not fun. I cursed myself on an hourly basis. (laughs)

When it came time to work on the second novel, I was like, “I’m not doing what I did before.” I took a note from how people write screenplays, because I have some friends who are filmmakers. I thought, “I’m going to storyboard it.” I got a piece of cardboard, different colored notecards for each character’s narrative, and really storyboarded the hell out of the story. I was worried that was going to take away from the spontaneity, which is what I loved about writing Salt Houses. Even with the structure, these characters did whatever the hell they wanted. (laughs) They still misbehaved, there were still surprises in the writing. I still had that spontaneity, but I always had a larger frame. Part of the problem with [writing] Salt Houses was I didn’t think about things like, “How is this character going to get from here to there?” Logistical stuff that I had to iron out afterwards. With The Arsonists’ City, I always knew this is the larger frame: this person is meant to be here at this time, how we get them here doesn’t matter. That part you can have fun with. It really helped.

You also talked about how writing Salt Houses was in many ways cathartic for you. Was there a similar feeling for catharsis for you writing this book?

Salt Houses felt more monumental. It was more, “This is my book about Palestine and Palestinianism and diaspora.” It was the book I wanted my grandparents to see before they died. It felt like an important, scary, and terrifying topic to tackle on a very personal level. I wanted to keep a certain legacy alive through writing the story. With The Arsonist’s City, there wasn’t that pressure—and again, this was pressure I put on myself—so I had a lot of fun writing it. The catharsis came from exploring these quieter family dynamics and these questions of why do we keep secrets? Why do we lie to the people we love? What does it mean to have success in a  family where not everybody has it? I was able to tackle themes that felt less charged. I don’t mean “charged” in a bad way, they felt less intense and monumental. I had more fun with it.

So many of these characters are carrying these heavy secrets. How did you go about imagining the inner lives of people who are concealing so much?

It started with Mazna. I started with her as the anchor and then worked forward and backward. Backward in the sense of what would need to happen to a character for her to make these decisions? And then forward in the sense of what impact would that have on her children? If you had a child who you know something really enormous about them and you keep this from them, every single day of their life you’re going to look at them and be reminded of that secret and of that lie you’re telling. Then the question becomes what does that do to that child? How does the child pick up on that? How does the child respond to that? What does that do to the dynamic between the parent and the child? Mazna’s really enormous as a character. She has a lot of far reaching effects. Her choices travel. Starting with her actually helped break open the motivation and the reasons that the other characters did what they did.

Initially I found Mazna so funny. She’s larger than life and flagrantly manipulating her children. But I ultimately found her so heartbreaking once I realized the source of her behavior.

There’s some pain there. She is really funny. I was very intentional that I wanted her to be introduced to the reader through the children. I wanted the first scene you saw of her to be in present day. She’s a mastermind and she’s lying. When she’s called out on the lie, she’s like, “You don’t even love your mother.” It’s very intense and hilarious. I wanted to start with her as a really intense, lying, manipulative, funny mother and then ask, “How did this person get like this?” To start with that and then work our way backwards.

She’s a heartbreaking character. She’s done horrible things, but she’s also had horrible things done to her. She and Idris have hurt each other in immeasurable ways. In some ways, I wonder if that’s what keeps them together. They’ve done unforgiveable things to each other, but at least they’ve both  done them. I think that becomes its own kind of bond.

We also see the real love between them when they first meet. It made so much sense to me that they would have this relationship.

I think there is a real love there. Their relationship reminds me of arranged marriages. In some ways it’s a love built on necessity or familiarity or  practicality. They have experienced things together that nobody else in the world shares with them. That’s a kind of bond. It’s not the healthiest bond, but it’s a kind of bond. (laughs)

Last fall The New Yorker published your poem “Spoiler.” How does your poetry affect your novel writing and vice versa?

I think fiction affects poetry in that I’ve developed a pretty good discipline of writing fiction. I think the more you write one thing, the more likely you are to write the other thing.  The more you’re living a life where writing is involved in it, the more you’re going to be doing that in other areas. Being a consistent fiction writer in the sense that I do thirty minutes a day has helped me write poetry pretty consistently. It’s also helped me play with form and not be afraid to experiment.  In the end a lot of stuff I write is cross genre anyway. I think it’s helped me be bolder in genre choices.

I think poetry affects fiction in that poetry, to me, is really detailed and granular and specific. Poetry asks you to find the specific moment or emotion or memory, hone in on that, and capture that in a piece. That’s useful for me in fiction because fiction—for me, at least—is a series of that. It’s just doing that over and over again. Which is why in my novels and stories you’ll find these moments that are really quiet and you might think, “Do they have to be in there?” Then you add them up and they make sense. Poetry has asked me to pay attention to details in a way that has been useful for fiction.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.