One of the joys of writing is making characters say what you want them to. At times my characters express thoughts or sentiments I have had, but often they express totally opposite ones. In The Topkapi Secret, I went to great effort to ensure my characters were authentic to the country and class they were from. Some of the cultural dialogue is lifted from conversations I actually had or overheard.
There isn't much of me in a character like Mohammed Atareek. In him I tried to create a unique hero - one with a specific type of Middle Eastern personality almost unknown in the West - witty, overconfident, people-pleasing, and a bit boastful - someone apparently totally open but who may not be all he seems. I felt if I could get him right, have him leap from the page into the minds of Western readers in a realistic way, it would be a major accomplishment.
Angela shares only a few traits with me. I tried to make her consistent with the complex elements in her background.
What is the quirkiest thing you have ever done?
The craziest thing I have ever done, bar none, was to sing in Spanish loudly enough to drown out the sheik who was singing to me in Arabic. The sheik was shocked. He stopped and asked me what I was doing. I told him. He started singing again. So did I. There was no malice: it was simply a bizarre musical battle. This counterpoint might have gone on indefinitely but for my sense that we'd had quite enough drama for one afternoon. I turned and left the mosque, accompanied by the two speechless friends who had come there looking for me.
Perhaps you will say I was rude, and perhaps I will agree - but I couldn't handle it any more. I had been invited to meet with the sheik in the mosque to discuss Islam. I was modestly dressed. Since he was old and from a very conservative Arab country, I tried to be culturally sensitive and not look him in the eye. I was very polite and let him take the floor for monologue after monologue of what he assumed an ignorant American such as me did not know.
But he was rude, too. He would neither let me ask questions nor answer his. Then, when he tried singing the Koran, I snapped. I stood up and started singing as well. And here we complete the circuit of the story. What a day!
When did you first discover that you were a writer?
Now that’s a question both simple and profound. If boxes of scribblings confirm the status of "writer" then I knew I was a writer in my ancient past. But something between humility and insecurity wouldn't let me accept that I was a "Writer" until I actually heard people laughing loudly at a play I wrote just a few years ago.
Grandmother was a great storyteller. We grandchildren loved staying with her. Sitting on her bed, we heard the sounds of summer while she repeated her famous tale of "The Big Bad Bullfrog." Such a scandalous amphibian he was! Folks were still telling stories back in that time and place. My mother was good at it, too. And my friends and cousins sat together on blankets on the lawn and told each other stories. I also had a vivid imagination which helped me through some boring spots and created dreams that actually came true.
I started writing poems at age 12 and songs at age 14. In high school I wanted to be a professional poet, but soon fatigued with unfashionable epic verse, and learned from the example of starving Keats that writers needed a day job. So I wrote on the side: poems, songs, proverbs, stories, dramas, training materials, meditations and even two unpublished books.
I came to see writing as double-amazing: personally - how a few words can totally capture a memory or feeling and bring it back to life; and socially - writing transmits one's own thoughts through someone else's head. This must surely be one of the most profound things a human can do.
Tell us the range of the kinds of books you enjoy reading.
One blessing I have is a large and diverse library covering almost every subject, including Islamic collections with gleaming gold letters on green bindings. Mostly I read non-fiction, especially as it relates to what I am doing at the time. Although The Topkapi Secret is a novel, it required a huge amount of research and documentation. Taking on a major paradigm like the integrity of the Koran, I knew I would have to be accurate and document even minor statements.
I also like to read history, the arts and sciences. Biographies are great - not of the rich and famous, but of those who worked selflessly to make the world a better place or made great discoveries. These, along with inspirational writings, keep me going.
Sometimes when I am really stressed or obsessed, I do read fiction to give my mind a vacation. I try to learn even from the fiction I read, or to study it for technique. I like mysteries, adventures and thrillers in exotic settings, but thrillers that have no character development or cultural aspect leave me flat. Likewise, I suspect stories that rely much on violence or sex are trying to make up for a weak plot.
How do you keep your sanity in our run, run, run world?
I believe everything in our lives should fit into one of two categories: PEACE or PURPOSE. We get into trouble when these two essentials are out of balance.
But if we only produce, we will feel dried up and flakey, like a used expresso cake. So we need peace in our lives. There are three kinds of peace: peace with whatever you call the force of the universe, peace within ourselves, and peace with each other. The third flows from the first two.
This doesn't mean we can't do things like watch TV or play a video game. If an activity adds to our peace it is good, but if it starts to unbalance our purpose we should cut back. E=E+E. Our Entertainment should Educate or Encourage. If it does, it adds to our peace and purpose. If it makes us grumpy, we should cut it out.
For me, peace mainly comes in: quiet corners, noticing nature, thinking thanks, and Western meditation (quietly thinking restful, positive thoughts, rather than merging with the void as in Eastern meditation). Exercise, nutrition, rest, reading and laughter are also great peacemakers.
Once you get the concept, it is remarkably simple. Cut out everything in life that neither brings you peace nor increases your purpose. If we are doing something that is neither purposeful nor encouraging, why are we doing it?
How do you choose your characters’ names?
In The Topkapi Secret, I tried to choose ethnic names that would be easy for Americans to remember. Recently I read a novel where most of the characters had two syllable names with the same first letter. I hate that. So I try to make the names distinct enough that readers won't mix characters up. Occasionally the names have a hidden meaning: Atareek means "the way". Angela and Peter have special reasons behind their names as well.
What is the accomplishment that you are most proud of?
Getting my doctorate degree.
If you were an animal, which one would you be, and why?
I would like to be an impressive and respectable animal, but would actually be a squirrel: always busy, a little bit cute, surrounded by nuts, and when it comes right down to it, just a rodent in a nice fur coat.
What is your favorite food?
Date nut bars - my own variation of grandma's classic. The intense sweetness of dates connects us with the Middle East, conjuring up images of caravans and starry skies. Dates, the food eaten first to break the fast of Ramadan, are nice tummy and brain food. When mixed with oatmeal and nuts they make a meal in a bar - breakfast, lunch, or midnight snack.
When it comes to eating I tend to be a grazer rather than a hunter. This trait fits well with a writer's lifestyle: every hour or two we need to rise, let the blood flow and the subconscious go, while we make fresh tea or coffee and find a healthy snack. (Look for the recipe on http://www.terrykelhawk.com/)
What is the problem with writing that was your greatest roadblock, and how did you overcome it?
Being too busy and having to write late at night when I was exhausted from a full day. Most of the first draft of The Topkapi Secret, was written between 11 pm and 2 am. This means I wrote some real bloopers that had to be cleaned up later. For example, once while drifting to sleep I wrote, "The fatiha is a (family member's name)." I still have no idea what I was really trying to say. Perhaps when I remember it, I'll write another book.
Tell us about the featured book.
The Topkapi Secret is a high stakes adventure and romance novel that takes you from America, across Europe and into exotic settings of the Middle East.
There's an early Koran, called the Topkapi Codex on display in the Topkapi Palace museum in Istanbul. Researcher Mohammed Atareek believes that the Koran has been changed many times, and the Topkapi Codex could help prove it. But the risks of getting to it increase as other scholars turn up dead.
English professor Angela Hall’s life in America is in tatters. Seeking escape with a purpose, she travels to the Middle East to research women’s issues.
When Angela’s path crosses Mohammed’s, sparks fly from all directions. Her research trip has suddenly become more about escaping death for questioning long-held tradition than gathering information. Would someone really kill them for proving the Koran has been changed?
With references, research, and accomplished storytelling, Terry Kelhawk takes readers on a breathtaking journey through a beautiful—and dangerous—land.
Please give us the first page of the book.
March 31, 2006
“Ican’t see!” Angela cried out.
Angela Hall had never been in a sandstorm. Like most people, she relegated such phenomena to the Sahara Desert. She could not even imagine a sandstorm inMarrakech. So she was caught by surprise when the bright blue Moroccan skies clouded with sand.
Angela’s contact lenses were grinding the sand into her eyes, and it hurt. Sand was everywhere. It was seeping into the folds of her clothing and chafing her skin. True dermabrasion. Her face had never felt anything like this before.
Breathing was difficult. Against her will, her eyelids kept pressing down against the onslaught of the sand. Angela reached for Fatima’s arm, feeling frustrated, dependent; however, she had no choice but to rely on another. At that moment Fatima stepped into the street to flag a taxi. Angela grabbed at air. Blinking, she stumbled and nearly fell.
Once the taxi came into view, Fatima could see that it was occupied. It sped by, heedless of their plight. Taxis disappear like mirages when a sandstorm hits Marrakech. The lucky and the experienced grab one quickly or get off the streets. Fatima was experienced. But neither woman was lucky that day. By the time the sand had come, they were poorly situated for taxi grabbing.
A few minutes earlier, before the storm hit, they had ambled peacefully along, discussing the gardens of Marrakech.
“Menara’s nice, but I prefer La Majorelle,” Angela had said. “It has a lush, secluded feeling, with its paths winding through palms and bougainvilleas.”
“But Menara’s grander,” replied Fatima. “It reminds me of a small Taj Mahal, the way the pavilion reflects in the water.”
“And the way the sultans tossed their concubines into it every morning?” Angela asked, referring to the notorious practice of the sultans of Marrakech. “Did you ever wonder if they could swim?”
Interesting. How can readers find you on the Internet?
Please visit my website at either http://www.terrykelhawk.com/ or http://www.thetopkapisecret.com/. We have lots of great extras there including not only info about the book, but a thrilling video trailer, links to my articles, and freebees like recipes and travel tips. You might also want to Google my name and see what imbroglio I am currently embroiled in!
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