Out of the blue, Allan Stratton, one of my favorite authors (known for CHANDA'S SECRETS, which we have featured on readergirlz twice as a postergirlz pick, and others!), emailed me to say, "Hey, we have the same editor!" I was floored and flustered and very pleased, first because I've always admired his writing, and second, because it confirmed my opinion that my editor is brilliant and wonderful. :)
Then I found out Allan had a book coming out in March, so I asked him to share some story secrets about BORDERLINE, coming out this week! (Read more Story Secrets from YA authors here)
BORDERLINE is a coming-of-age mystery/suspense/thriller. The hero is Sammy Sabiri, a funny, gutsy, Muslim American. Sammy has problems with a bully at the private boy’s school where he’s been stuck by his over-controlling father. But these problems are nothing compared to what happens when the FBI and Homeland Security swoop in and arrest his dad, claiming he’s part of an international terrorist plot. Aided by his best friends Andy and Marty, Sammy risks everything in his struggle to discover the truth about his dad and save his family. It’s a roller coaster ride in which nothing is ever what it seems.
First, tell us BORDERLINE's story behind the story.
Three life experiences almost certainly fueled BORDERLINE:
My mom left my dad when I was a baby. Growing up, I was soon aware that the father I knew was very different from the father my half-brother knew, and even more different than the father my half-sister knew. As a teenager I thought, “If I can’t really know my dad, how can I know anyone? How can anyone know anyone?”
The second experience happened to me when I was eight. I was hiding under the picnic table and eavesdropping on a conversation Dad was having with my grandparents about capital punishment. I remember breaking into a cold sweat, overcome with the certainty that one day I’d be executed for a crime I didn't commit. The idea that life isn’t fair has stuck with me ever since -- and that horrible sense of how helpless we are in the face of rumor, gossip and fear.
Finally, there was growing up as a gay kid in the 1950s and 60s. Unable to be open even to the parents and friends who loved me, I instinctively learned to hide who I was in order to survive. I learned about the borders that keep us from each other, about the lines that separate and shape us. And I learned that ‘The Truth’ and ‘The Whole Truth’ are very different things.
In fact, come to think of it, these three experiences connect to the thematic passions in all my work – to my obsession with secrets, loyalty, betrayal, justice, and the absolute importance of living with truth.
What have been some of the unexpected consequences of writing BORDERLINE?
I’ve always been interested in the spiritual side of life, and in exploring different faith practices. I was raised in the United Church (a Canadian Protestant amalgamation of Presbyterian and Methodist denominations), but have also attended worship at Baptist, Quaker, and Pentecostal churches, as well as Catholic masses (Roman and Eastern Orthodox), Jewish Reform and conservative services, and even undergone a Santerían purification ritual in rural Cuba, witnessed an exorcism in Botswana, and met with spirit doctors in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia.
I’ve also visited many mosques in Egypt, Turkey and Spain. (The imam at the Mosque of Quaitbey in Cairo was kind enough to let me climb the minaret to see the surrounding City of the Dead.) But work on BORDERLINE introduced me to a range of Muslim congregations and prayer services, both conservative and progressive, where I was reconfirmed in the obvious: that there is an equally wide range of religious interpretation and observance in Muslim congregations and individuals as there are in Christian and other faith traditions; and that the media has done a great disservice in reinforcing only negative stereotypes of Islam, rather than exploring the progressive elements of the faith as well.
That said, I must stress again that this is a character-based, coming-of-age mystery/thriller. By the time one starts writing, all one’s research should be internalized so that the reader isn’t aware of it. Characters and story are paramount: they must be gripping. Research can help root a novel by giving it a more authentic voice; for the greater the human truth of a novel, the greater the spell it casts on its audience.
In terms of writer’s voice, oddly enough, this is the first novel I’ve written from a first-person male perspective, although as a playwright I’ve frequently written male characters and voices.
Who inspires you, in life and work?
Easy. My mom. She is unconditional love. Mom left my dad in the early 1950s when I was a baby. At the time, divorce was considered a scandal, and women didn’t progress very far into he work force. Despite those obstacles, Mom raised me as a single parent to be proud of myself, and at the same time broke the professional glass ceiling, becoming the first female inspector of schools in our province (outside of girls’ phys ed), and finally assistant to the deputy minister of education and a major developer of school curricula. Mom is the reason I write such strong female characters. I absolutely love her to bits. When I face a tough moral choice, I always ask: What would Mom do?
How did BORDERLINE evolve as you wrote and revised?
It took me about six months to research with friends in the Muslim community, as well as with law enforcement, the ACLU, and a guy who was a hostage at the American Embassy during the Iranian hostage crisis. Then it took another nine months to write the first draft. There were two other drafts, each of which took about three weeks apiece. I should add, though, that my first drafts go through revisions on a daily basis. I read everything aloud: rhythm is very important to me.
As always, I had an outline of the story when I began that acted as a safety net. But again, as always, once I got going I let the characters take over. So much happens that I never imagined at the outset. Those times when characters say and do the unexpected are the times when I feel most alive as a writer, laughing, weeping, discovering things at the same time as they do.
Who do you trust to read your work first?
I keep my partner and three close female friends up to date, generally by reading them chunks of new material. They’re all very strong readers and listeners: If they point out a problem to me I listen; they’re always on to something real. Also, I find reading material aloud helps me to gauge when my audience is with me and when it’s drifting.
Thank you, Allan!
Post a comment below on why you'd like to read BORDERLINE - deadline is 5pm PST Monday, and please include a way to contact you. Happy posting!
By the way, CHANDA'S SECRETS is being made into a film right now - Allan traveled to South Africa for the filming, which he blogs about here. It's pretty fascinating. And check out BORDERLINE's Reviews and Stars!