Fast Times in Palestine is a great title! Was it the original title or did it change along the way?
I came up with the title almost six years ago, when I first came back from Palestine. I knew I wanted to write a book, and I wanted to target it to mainstream audiences. When this title popped into my head, it struck me as not only fun but also very apt. When I was living in Palestine, there was always too much to absorb, too many great stories, too much beauty and horror. As a friend of mine put it, “The absurd and the sublime, constantly together.” It was just non-stop.
So I had the title, but I was terrified because I didn’t know how to write a book. Didn’t even know where to start. And I had to get a job, which sapped all my energy. Still, from that moment, I had the title in mind, and the idea for a novel-like book about Palestine that anyone in America could enjoy and learn from without feeling intimidated. But also without dumbing anything down. The reader learns everything at the same speed and in the same ways I did. I knew nothing at all when I first traveled there.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Have you had other jobs along the way?
You’ll read in Chapter 1 that I graduated from Stanford with a physics degree, then realized I couldn’t deal with the thought of any more years stuck in a physics lab. I love physics, but doing it as a job wasn’t for me. I didn’t know what else to do, though. I knew I loved to travel and write and study politics and foreign languages, but I didn’t know how to translate that into a job.
Basically I wanted to be a writer since I was very young, but in the same way a kid might want to be a professional soccer player. I didn’t think it was realistic. So I bartended for a year and saved money and set off traveling. And I landed in a place whose stories begged to be told. Eight years later, this book is the result.
As far as other jobs, I worked as a journalist in Palestine, then I worked as an analyst at a Defense Department think tank in Washington. It was my attempt to try to understand the bowels of Washington, the reality behind the politics, and why our Middle East policies are so screwed up. I learned a lot. But that’s another book!
What scene or bit of dialogue in the book are you most proud of and why?
My favorite scenes are in the olive groves. I’ve never seen anyone really capture what it’s like to harvest olives in Palestine. It’s a whole different universe, it’s calming and useful and beautiful and funny and… just so hard to describe. But I think I did a pretty good job.
Also, there are a few times in the book when I’m afraid for my life. That’s another thing that’s hard to describe, those moments when you’re afraid they may be your last, especially when it’s because of violence or the threat of violence done by weapons paid for by your own tax dollars. That’s really something else.
Be honest, how many drafts did you have to write for this book?
So many. I would label the drafts A, B, C… and then I’d get to Z and have to start labeling them Z1, Z2, Z3… And then when I’d get it to nearly final form, I’d start over again with A.
I thought I was a pretty good writer before I wrote the book, but writing a book is a completely different world than writing blogs and articles. It’s the difference between building a great sand castle and building a cathedral. There’s a whole structure to it. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it took more than three years.
It helped that I had a really good and patient literary agent from the very beginning, and several friends who were kind enough to read and comment on it honestly. I had to develop a very thick skin and an instinct for figuring out which constructive criticism would help the project and which to ignore.
Thinking way back to the beginning, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned as a writer from then to now?
To put the success of the project ahead of my own ego. There’s something strange about writing a book. After a while, it starts to take on a life on its own, as if there’s a form that already exists and wants to be created. At a certain point you have to get out of the way and not resist what wants to be written, even if it scares you or deviates from your original ideas or doesn’t seem to fit any existing mold.
But really the main thing is: be brutally honest. Don’t hide behind pre-conceived notions. Write things as you actually experience them, even if no one’s ever written it that way before. Especially if no one’s ever written it that way before.