Author Paul Alkazrji has caused a bit of a stir with his new book The Migrant. Taking a moment out of his busy blog tour, Paul joins me to tell us more about the background to The Migrant and his writing life. I laughed when he said his reading included authors such as Alistair MacLean. I grew up devouring thriller/mystery/suspense novels, which is probably why I like the genre too.
So, Paul, The Migrant is a work of fiction that involves very real issues. How do you find the balance between fact and fiction – between entertainment and harsh reality?
The Migrant is quite a gritty story. It portrays racist violence, riots on the streets of Athens, and people-trafficking from Albania. They are harsh realities in these countries. I hope, though, that because of my own faith framework the reader will not be left feeling bleak or sullied by what passes before their eyes. At perhaps the worst moment in The Migrant the camera turns away. The reader knows what happens, and the fact of it is shocking enough, but it is not depicted. Scenes are not as graphic or gratuitous as some that can be found in mainstream fiction. I personally have a low tolerance of it, though, like everyone else, as entertainment in the mainstream pushes at that line, the danger is we become increasingly desensitised to it. The fulcrum of ‘acceptable’ harsh reality vis-à-vis entertainment is moving.
Not everyone may be comfortable reading The Migrant, but so far the novel hasn’t been criticised for the harsh realities it portrays. I hope that people will trust me enough as a writer to walk with me through troubling and dangerous places that I will bring them out of. Jude is a good character in whose company it is safe to travel, despite the people and events around him.
You write in a very specific genre. What made you choose this area?
The genre of thriller/suspense/adventure has been a favourite in my adult life, including authors like Alistair MacLean and Frederick Forsyth, which have had their influence on me. I very much enjoy reading and watching documentaries about current affairs and more recent history. As a writer, I’ve understood that to create a captivating story a key way is to keep your characters in some kind of intriguing situation from which they will move on to another. It could be a state of physical danger, or something as intangible as the fear of a dream, but there should always be a kind of dilemma or knife edge of drama close at hand, even if it is only a delusion in the mind of a character. That said though, I’m not interested in tension solely for thrills, but as an absorbing effect around the lives of Christian characters and their worldview. It’s so important to me that a story fleshes out those realities.
Aspiring writers always want to know where a good plot comes from. How did you find and develop the idea for The Migrant?
Quite simply by giving my protagonist, Jude Kilburn, a compelling desire to find and help the character of Alban, and then by throwing all kinds of obstacles in his path to thwart the realisation of that. The obstacles came quite naturally out of the local context of Albania and Greece, and all that has truly happened there in recent years.
Characters are central to a story. How did you develop yours?
By profiling the major ones and giving the minor ones a memorable characteristic that singles them out from the rest of humanity. I sketched all this out before placing them in the story, then tried to make sure they acted consistently with the characteristics given them, maybe even changing the plot if it became at odds with their personalities.
For example, with Donis Xenakis the antagonist, a member of the Greek riot police and Neo-Hellenic Front sympathiser, I set about using five key ways to characterise. (1. Physical attributes. 2. Clothing or the manner of wearing it. 3. Psychological attributes and mannerisms. 4. Through actions. 5. In dialogue.) Donis has heterochromia: one brown and one green iris. He wears mirror-lensed sunglasses with the classic elliptical aviator shape. He thinks he’s as irresistible to women as a saucer of milk to a thirsty kitten. He casts bureaucracy aside to give food to an old Greek man sleeping rough because of economic austerity. He says of migrants in Athens: “I’m sick of them … pushing their trinkets and love bracelets in my face.” The minor character of Ervin loped and ‘always seemed to duck his head when he moved, as if he were dodging punches’.
How do you believe that your experiences have influenced you as a writer?
In every way they are the raw material I’ve drawn upon to make works of fiction. They provide the central casting agency from which I populate a story. They are like the wide angle lens through which I can pan across the landscape of the Balkan region. They give me the spiritual compass by which I’ve navigated the direction the story will travel: from darkness to light, separation to restoration, enslavement to redemption.
How do you get into writing mode?
I treat it as an office worker treats their job. I go to my desk in the morning with a cup of coffee and soon become absorbed in it. I stay there all day until just before dinner in the evening. That way I get it done.
If The Migrant was adapted to film, who would play the lead role and why?
In the BBC’s recent adaption of John le Carré’s novel ‘The Little Drummer Girl’, actor Alexander Skarsgard plays the agent ‘Gadi’, who works with a team of Israelis pursuing a terrorist cell from Greece to Germany. I think Skarsgard could play the strong, risk-taking yet compassionate male character that Jude Kilburn is… very well.
Paul, very many thanks for joining me today in what has been a fascinating insight into your creative process. I, for one, would love to see Alexander Skarsgard play Jude in a TV or film adaptation!
The Migrant was published by Instant Apostle in February.
The author Paul Alkazraji in the Albanian mountains close to the border with Greece. Pic by Andrew LaSavio.
Chapter 1 of The Migrant is free to read here:
On Twitter @paul_alkazraji