Our author today took a different tack in writing than what we usually see on this blog. Welcome to the blog, Jonathan. What inspired you to write The Naked Earth?
One haunting image started the process: witnessing the televised beheadings of innocent Americans by terrorist captors. I began to ask myself: how can anyone come to such a depraved state of existence? How can anyone believe that such action is even remotely justifiable?
The image reappeared in my mind as my classes were reading Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower, which told a similar tale of Nazi-based atrocity. Arguably the most famous part of the work, a single SS officer, Karl, commits an atrocity so great he must seek the forgiveness of the protagonist before he dies. The question of how such evil forms is central to that work, allowing me to draw parallels to Iraq. This question led to other questions: for example, whether Karl’s remorse is deeply sincere or an epiphany motivated by his nearness to death raised the question of what would’ve happened if Karl lived? How would he live within his skin knowing what he’d done?
I thought a great deal about this and about the heroic efforts of Marla Ruzicka and other relief workers who did the opposite in the face of war.
The fusion of those three stark Muses became the character of Evan “Sindbad” Al-Mohummad and the writing took over from there.
What are the book's themes or messages?
There are as many themes as there are readers. Even larger messages or patterns in the text will have subtle variations between readers of diverse backgrounds, genders, and ages. If I had to choose the dominant theme painted across the novel’s pages, I’d say man’s potential for redemption factors in heavily. The novel takes a man with a questionable, but working, conscience, puts him in a situation that causes him to lose his moral compass, and then wrestles with whether or not man has the ability to rise above his greatest sins or whether human history will always be defined by its greatest evils. If readers get one driving message from the work, I hope it will be to rise to their potential and help in some way, even with charities for returning wounded (Freedom Is Not Free) or for Iraqi civilians (CIVIC).
Please describe the political context for The Naked Earth. Do you see it as an anti-war text, or is its content more philosophical/literary?
Reading over the book, it definitely carries a strong anti-war sentiment, but it’s a mistake to simply pigeonhole it as an anti-war novel. The work clearly examines how the tragedy of war brings out the best and worst of the human spirit, studied through the extremes of one character, Evan Al-Mohummad.
His rise, fall, and redemption, along with the civilian relief workers, a range of soldiers, some corrupt, some dedicated professionals, raises the general question of the nature of war. For that reason, I don’t see a division between philosophy and theme; the novel presents multiple sides of the war experience in an attempt to understand a complex and irresolvable issue.
The Naked Earth takes place in the ancient city of Al-Basrah, Iraq. What kind of research did you do to create the backdrop for the novel?
Most of the research came to me rather than the other way around. The backdrop suggested itself when I recalled One Thousand and One Nights while selecting a setting for the story. The mythical “Sindbad” (or “Sinbad”) started his journey there. Given the news releases relating to gang violence in the area, it suggested itself as a logical starting point for my protagonist to go on his own spiritual journey. While CNN reports relating to the area provided additional info, travel books and web forums (including one on, believe it or not, the flowers of the region) helped fill in the gaps I faced in creating the setting.
How would you describe the main character, Sindbad? What are his flaws and the motivations for his actions in the book?
Sindbad is the archetypal anti-hero. He’s divided between ethnicities (some characters refer to him as white in the book, others as brown), between lands (the US and Iraq), between cultures, and between moral polarities. Given these inner fissures, it was easy for his flaws (his anger and judgmental nature) and virtues (his integrity) to be magnified and his motivations (to find some for of peace) to become clear.
Some readers will make the connection between The Naked Earth's Sindbad and the legendary character from the "Seven Voyages of Sinbad" in One Thousand and One Nights. What parallels do you see between the two characters?
I deliberately used "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad" as a frame for the novel. Both deal with heroics and loss, discovery, adventure, and tragedy in a patriarchal construct, and both are part of larger stories that are vast and (perhaps because they depend on diverse perspectives) ultimately unknowable. The mythical Sinbad is ironically juxtaposed against the less than heroic protagonist I created, however. They share parallels, but they’re hardly the same character.
Who are your favorite authors, and why do you admire their work?
My tastes are diverse, as I admire good writing in all its forms. Classical authors as diverse as Melville, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Wharton enthrall me, as do supposedly pop writers like Hebert or Shaw. Contemporary novelists that I admire include William Henry Lewis, David Guterson, and Rick Spier, whose O’Sullivan’s Odyssey deserves a wider readership. If there’s one element of craft I continually gravitate toward, it’s style. I love language, and I hope that shows in The Naked Earth.
Can you describe your writing process for our readers?
I feel that if I could, that writing process would be dead. What I mean by that is that while I earnestly try to write a bit each night, writing is more than sitting at a computer. Thoughts, inspirations, motivations come at all hours of the day and night, often from music. No matter how regulated I try to be, my writing isn’t always cooperative. It leads me rather than the other way around; whenever I start to type, I never know what the end of the next line will be and the more adventurous part of me likes it that way.
What will your next book be about?
I’ve written two manuscript drafts awaiting placement with publishers. Both are with an agent and both are diverse in comparison to The Naked Earth. I guess what the next book will be about will depend on whether or not any of those two are ultimately placed for publication. So buy The Naked Earth and/or help a worthwhile cause today!
Thank you, Jonathan, for spending time with us today.
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