Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Arsonists' City, and for the Nasr family?
A: It sounds a bit surreal (and perhaps is), but a few years ago I had a dream about a Syrian woman who wanted to become a Hollywood star. That was the spark for Mazna's narrative, and it essentially took off from there.
I had also long been interested in capturing the expat experience in Beirut, and was excited to do that through Najla's character.
Q: The novel takes place in various locations, including Lebanon, Syria, and California, and covers half a century. Did you need to do much research to recreate the time periods and places you wrote about?
A: I did a fair amount of research, particularly at the American Library of Paris, where I was fortunate enough to be granted a monthlong fellowship when I was halfway through writing the book.
It was a fun book to research, because many of the locales hold a special place in my heart, and it challenged me to gain a deeper understanding of complex historical events like the Lebanese civil war.
Q: I've asked you this before in our previous interviews, and am curious this time too--how did you choose the book's title, and what does it signify for you?
A: Titles are ordeals for me! I felt strongly about finding a title I loved early on for this book, because it felt like such an important part of the process (versus my first novel, where I had more of a "placeholder" title for much of the writing).
I spent a few days brainstorming different imagery and themes that felt central to the story I wanted to tell. In the end, I landed on fire, which is often an element of protest, and is a symbol both of vitality/life and destruction.
Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says that "the Nasrs’ story interrogates nostalgia, memory, and the morality of keeping secrets against the backdrop of a landscape and a people in constant flux." What do you think of that description, and what role do you see secrecy playing in the novel?
A: I love that description, and I feel like the reviewer really bore witness to the heart of this story.
I do believe that secrecy is central to this book, in that many characters struggle with what to reveal or hide about themselves, which I think is a deeply common experience particularly in families that struggle with dislocation, suppressed desires and trauma.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on some code-based poetry, as well as a cultural memoir about the concept of erasure, from macro, historical erasures often endured by marginalized communities, to the more intrapersonal erasures that accompany experiences like addiction, eating disorders, codependence, and so forth.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I'm genuinely excited for folks to read this book. As nerve-wracking as it is to see your work in the world, I really loved all the time I got to spend with this family and story.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Hala Alyan.