Tuesday 4 September 2012

About the Author | Meet G. Willow Wilson

In the inaugural edition of About the Author, I introduced you to Tom Pollock, author of The City's Son, one of my favourite first novels of 2012 to date.

Today, it gives me great pleasure to welcome the wonderful author of another such novel to The Speculative Scotsman: a tour-de-force debut that I made no bones about adoring in my review. In fact, it's safe to say Alif the Unseen may feature in my roundup of the year's best books, when the time comes to make such declarations. It really is that good, guys.

In the interim, if for some mysterious reason you're still not convinced, perhaps the fascinating chat I had with G. Willow Wilson will tip the balance in the correct direction. You need only read on, readers!


A very good afternoon to you, Ms. Wilson. I’m Niall. Pleased to meet you – and doubly so to have you here on The Speculative Scotsman.

It’s my pleasure! Thanks for the invitation.

First things first, then: could you tell us a little bit about yourself? For those folks not yet in the know, who are you, and how did you come to be here?

Let’s see: one of the questions I get asked a lot is “What does the G stand for?” the answer to which is ‘Gwendolyn.’ I’m about to turn thirty. I was born and grew up in the United States, but after university I moved to Cairo, Egypt, where I spent most of my early and mid-twenties. I got married and built a home there, and the city, as well as the wider Middle East, remains one of the primary inspirations for my work. I’m about to have my second child. I was a latecomer to video games, but now I love them. I think that covers the critical stuff.

Though it’s been available in the United States for some time, your first novel proper, Alif the Unseen, came out in the UK late last week. I’m of the opinion that everyone with eyes should buy it, but why? What do you think makes your fictional debut distinct?

High praise! And that’s a good question. When I finished writing my last book, The Butterfly Mosque (which was nonfiction), I wanted to do something completely different, giving free rein to both my pop cultural sensibilities and my interest in politics and religion. Alif was what came out. I suppose what makes it unique is the free mixing of low-tech mythology and high-tech computer culture. Djinn using wifi. Djinn ex machina. I don’t know that that’s been done before.

Given the opportunity, which I know many marketing departments deny their authors, how would you blurb your book?

A young Arab-Indian hacker in an unnamed oil emirate falls in love with the wrong girl and goes on the run from a shadowy state security apparatus known only as The Hand. Plus genies, the Islamist girl next door, a car chase through the desert, and much speculating about the place of myth and religion in the modern world.

As I’ve alluded, Alif the Unseen is a debut in technical terms, but it’s very far from the first piece of work you’ve had published. Could you talk a little bit about the many and various other things you’ve written?

Gosh, there’s a lot. I worked as a journalist for several years while living in Cairo, and then got into comics pretty seriously — I’ve written a graphic novel, one monthly series and several miniseries for DC Comics and Marvel, the two biggest comics publishers in the US.

Your first ongoing comic book, AIR for Vertigo, about an acrophobic flight attendant who becomes caught up in a terrorist plot to take over the skies, ran for 24 issues before being cancelled in mid-2010 due to low sales. That is, if I’m to believe Wikipedia.

Should I? Or is there maybe more to the story?

There isn’t more, I’m afraid. AIR garnered a fair amount of critical praise — it was nominated for an Eisner Award — but it just never sold very well. It was born into a soft market, and it was a very, very weird book. But it’s had a bit of a second life in the backlist. Someone sent me photos a couple of years ago of a woman cosplaying the main character at San Diego Comic Con. That made me feel I’d arrived.

Two years later, how do you view AIR today? I’ve been reading the first few trades in readiness for this interview, and this is no slight – as of the third collected volume, I’m enjoying the series a great deal – but AIR is very much a product of its time, isn’t it?

Very much so. I joked with Karen Berger, who edited the series, that in ten years AIR would look like a period piece. AIR was a response to a very particular post-9/11 moment in American history, when we came to see air travel not as this luxurious, jet-setting mode of transport, a la the 1960s, but as a threat to national security, a hassle, and the symbol of a changed world. Something in the American character really altered, and AIR is a sort of psychadelic tribute to that.

Is Alif the Unseen, equally? A product of its particular period, I mean.

Not intentionally! When I started writing it, no one had any inkling that the Arab Spring was right around the corner. I knew change was afoot in the Middle East and I knew that young computer savvy hacktivists were a big part of that, but I had no idea it was going to blow up the way it did. I frankly thought I was overselling the importance of the digital youth movement in the Middle East. But I wasn’t.

Getting back to the matter at hand, might I ask how the new book came about?

I don’t rightly know. I wanted to talk about the digital underground, and while I was mulling it over a hacker friend — upon whom Alif is very loosely based — disappeared from the internet. Like disappeared. And I thought, how might one go about that? And suddenly there was a book in my head.

You’ve spoken before about how Alif the Unseen was born out of rage. Could you explain what that means here?

I was tired of being forced into boxes. Pre-Arab Spring, people only seemed to want to hear about a handful of things when it came to the Middle East: terrorists, the exotic undeveloped Orient (which no longer exists), and The Crisis Of Muslim Women, about which most honest-to-God Muslim women are somewhat perplexed. Even for nonfiction, there was a script, a narrative one was supposed to follow. The fact that Arab youth were not only adopting cutting-edge technology, but using it in revolutionary ways, was not interesting to people. It didn’t fit the script. It didn’t involve camels or gender segregation. It was very, very frustrating. So I said screw it, I’m writing a novel. And then came the Arab Spring.

In a one-off column for Vertigo Voices, way back when, you wrote: “Once upon a time an observant therapist told me I had categorized and self-analyzed my subconscious so well that I could talk for hours without revealing anything about myself.” How then does Alif the Unseen speak to who you are?

I said that? How pretentious. Well, it’s true. And in that vein, Alif is the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written, and I’ve written an autobiography. Alif is a pretty good image of what my head looks like. I don’t perceive a proper line between the seen and the unseen, or between high culture and pop culture. I live a very odd life — I’m a comics and media junky living in a very conservative religious community, shuttling between civilizatons. Alif contains elements of all those things.

They say home is where the heart is. If I may, where’s your heart, Ms. Wilson, and how has that factored into your fiction?

Home for me is one place: Boulder, Colorado, which is a little university town in the Rocky Mountains.

It’s where I went to high school; my parents still live there, and I make yearly pilgrimages to see them and catch up with old friends at my favorite cafe. But like Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings, I can’t quite go back to living in the Shire, much as I might want to. I've seen too much of the rest of the world, and living in a small town involves a lot of pretending that the rest of the world does not exist. I suppose the profound psychological displacement that entails must have an impact on my fiction, but other people are usually better at detecting it than I am. To me, being unsettled is normal.

As a comic book writer, a journalist, an American Muslim, a successful memoirist and now (if I may) a genre novelist, I think it’s fair to say you engage with some significantly different audiences. Is there a hope that Alif the Unseen will perhaps bridge these gaps? 

Come to that, the book’s been out in the US for a few months. Has it?

One can always hope. That was one of my big goals with this book. Comics fans are very loyal and will follow one into whatever genre one pursues, but the reverse is less common. Will people who like reading nonfiction pick up a book like Alif? Butterfly Mosque seems to have resonated most intensely with women (I’ve done many a reading to a 100% female audience) and Alif is absent a lot of the qualities of personal intimacy and reflection that attracted those readers. It’s a little more action-y, and involves young men doing stupid things. There’s a whiff of comic book about it. So it’s difficult to say.

What would you say to people who think “genre” is a dirty word? And how does hearing Alif the Unseen described as such sit with you?

I’m perfectly happy to hear Alif described as genre. I think people need to get over the idea that genre fiction cannot have literary merit or political relevance. In fact, with trends being what they are — look at the success of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire — I think that’s already happening. Let’s not forget that genre fiction started out as a way to sneak cultural commentary into a highly censorious environment. (I’m thinking of the great sci-fi pioneers of the 1950s and 60s.)

Changing gears, are there any particular authors or novels that have been an inspiration to you?

Neil Gaiman; Neal Stephenson; Peter Milligan’s graphic opus Shade: The Changing Man, which I consider the best comic book series ever written; Umberto Eco — especially Foucault’s Pendulum, to which I feel Alif owes something; EM Forster, who never wrote a bad book; and a lot of 1980’s high fantasy, particularly Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders.

Meanwhile, how does it feel to inspire others in turn? Even if you aren’t convinced that it has as yet, I don’t doubt that your work will, Ms. Wilson.

I never know how to respond when readers say I’ve inspired them--it’s such an intense compliment that simply saying “thanks” seems inadequate. If you’ve written me a fan letter saying as much and I haven’t written back, that’s why. The most important thing is to go out and use that inspiration, because it’s precious. Where it came from almost doesn’t matter.

I dare say it’s about time we closed the book on this interview, but before I let you off the hook, how can people keep up to speed with all things G. Willow Wilson? I’ve already made reference to your blog, but I do believe you tweet, too!

I tweet like a bandit. That’s probably the best way to get in touch with my directly. I’ve become a very bad, neglectful blogger, but I do post when I can. My website also has info on upcoming appearances and links to buy books.

Speaking – albeit briefly – of tweeting, is social media going to bring down the world as we know it? I’m referring here to your essay entitled Who’s Afraid of Pop Culture?

Social media isn’t going to bring down anything, except perhaps work productivity. People used to be afraid of the printing press, but that didn’t turn out so badly, did it? Yes, there are intensely stupid conversations on Twitter and Reddit and Facebook, but there are intensely stupid conversations in real life. Listen to the idiot in front of you in the checkout line at the grocery store. That’s Twitter. That’s life.

With which, what’s next for you? Another novel? Will you be going back to comics? Or is mum the word at the moment?

I’m in the midst of another as yet untitled novel, set mostly on the high seas. Fans of a particular long-haired lothario djinn from Alif will be pleased to see him again. There’s nothing on tap at this very moment comics-wise, but I’m sure there will be before long.

Last but not least: in the spirit of the secret world that features in Alif the Unseen, tell us something about yourself that no-one knows.

I never wear matching socks. This is not a reflection of my profound iconoclasm; only the disarray of my sock drawer.

And that’s that!

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Ms. Wilson. Getting to know you a little bit better has been an absolute pleasure on my part, and I'm sure the folks at home feel the same way.

Thank you!


G. Willow Wilson was a great sport agreeing to speak with me in the first place, and I'm deeply in her debt for answering even the most inane of my questions. She was last seen (by me) in the comments section of my review of her book, so if for instance you've already read Alif the Unseen and you'd like to tell her how much you enjoyed it... well, by now I warrant you know what to do.

Coming up on The Speculative Scotsman shortly, my thoughts on The Underwater Welder by comic book mastermind Jeff Lemire, and the first flush of fun new feature wherein I ask that eternal question: is this sex scene Hot, or Not?

We'll all be talking dirty tomorrow! :P

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