Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Q&A with Joanne Leedom-Ackerman




Joanne Leedom-Ackerman is the author of the new novel Burning Distance. Her other books include The Dark Path to the River. She is a vice president of the organization PEN International.


Q: What inspired you to write Burning Distance, and how did you create your characters Lizzy and Adil?


A: I was living in London with two sons at the American School in London when the First Gulf War broke out. One of my younger son’s friends was the son of the Kuwaiti ambassador and another was from Iraq. We recognized that this friendship was in jeopardy, and in fact the Iraqi student didn’t return to the American School that fall.


I observed how many of the students at the American School were in fact children of parents who were in the world as diplomats, government officials, business people. (The European Union was in its early years, and the Soviet Union had recently begun to crumble).


I began considering the novel through the eyes of these students, who grow up in the novel. The protagonist Lizzy has lost her father in a plane crash in the Persian Gulf, and Adil Hassan, also a student at ASL, has lost his mother in a bombing. (Fuller narrative of the genesis of the novel is in the Author’s Note at the end of Burning Distance.)


After the First Gulf War, I began to research all the weapons and the components for the weapons of mass destruction that were part of the buildup to the war and the suppliers of these, many of whom lived in Europe and some in the U.S. Many passed through London. I folded the research and story into the narrative.


Q: The writer David Ignatius said of the book, “Burning Distance is a double helix of a book, carefully plotted and beautifully told. It’s a spy story interwoven with a love story, and the strands fit together in a way that moves the reader effortlessly from chapter to chapter...” What do you think of that description, and how did you balance those strands as you were writing the novel?


A: I am grateful David Ignatius read and appreciated the complexity of the novel. It took draft after draft and many years to be able to weave these narrative threads together. It was also a challenge to take the language of the weapons trade and transform it into the language of literature.


Because the novel took decades to get published, I wrote several other novels along the way, each one honing my skills as a novelist and each draft I think drew these multiple threads into a tighter, more coherent narrative.


Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: No, I didn’t know the ending. The novel took many years to write and part of that process was a revelation of the story to me. I knew parts of the story, but each day I saw another piece so in the beginning, I was on a journey of discovery. I then had to weave the whole together.


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the book, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I did considerable research, reading dozens of books and hundreds of articles about the weapons trade and the pattern and flow and purchasing of the components of weapons, particularly the components of weapons of mass destruction.


I had one very moving interview with a man who had been one of Saddam Hussein’s ministers who had been responsible for acquiring the components that could eventually be used to create an atomic bomb.


However, when he refused to direct the research for that purpose, Saddam put him in prison. He escaped during the first Gulf War. I had the opportunity to interview him in London.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have another novel—The Far Side of the Desert—coming out next year. It is set in the Sahara and in Europe and also Washington. I am putting finishing edits on that, and I have just finished another novel.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have been writing for decades, and now, the novels are coming out, so I hope you’ll get to read a number of my books in the years ahead.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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