Where Did it Start?: An Interview

Romantic woman using laptopI’m asked a lot of questions about writing, inspiration, and where it all comes from, so I thought I’d answer typical questions here in a post and share. Enjoy!

 

Where does your inspiration come from? I’d love to know.

 

You grew up in Bakersfield, California. What was that like?

I can’t imagine growing up anywhere else. We called it Nashville West, since Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were topping the country charts. I still go back to visit friends and stop by Dewar’s for ice cream and taffy. Living in the heat well-prepared me for life in Saudi Arabia too.

You married and moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 1979. Did you have to veil?

Not at all, and I didn’t cover my hair, but I dressed in modest kaftans. Saudis were welcoming and hospitable. I fell in love with Saudi Arabia: with the people and the desert landscape and the Red Sea! It was like going back in time, except it changed daily. Mud-walled palaces came crashing down and new shiny marble ones rose up because of the money flooding in from the Oil Boom.

And this adventure planted the seed for your debut novel Unveiling?

I just had to capture this time of upheaval, the time when oil money and mechanical cranes threatened to destroy more than buildings— they erased heritage and culture. It was also a time when Saudi women spoke up and called for change, which led to sections of the university opening to women and protests for the right to drive, but change takes time. My middle grade students don’t understand that, until they learn about the civil rights movement. I tell them about my mother (b. 1919), who was dissuaded from a professional career of substance. She wanted to be a doctor, but her parents forbid it. After raising three daughters, she returned to college. Back then, there was also age discrimination. The college would not accept her into the nursing program due to her age, but she found a back door and became a nurse. She graduated at sixty, and that taught me that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams. And never give up! I returned to college in my forties.

Would you say Saudi Arabia is more resistant to change than in the West?

I would say it takes longer there, but it does happen. Despite the Kingdom’s progressive stance, each step forward incites protests. I was in the Kingdom when the Grand Mosque in Mecca was taken over by zealots who saw the Saud family as too progressive and friendly with the West. Unveiling traces the history of two such groups of religious zealots. Such groups threaten peace today, and they thwart women’s advancement. But women have always found a way, and courageous men have supported their growth—the largest women’s university in the world opened in Saudi Arabia in 2011, thirty women were seated on the Shura Council in 2013, and women were allowed to vote in municipal elections and run for office in 2015. That’s incredible change!

The main character of Unveiling, Sara, struggles to pursue her passion for art and follow traditions that demand she veil her eyes. But she cannot sketch what she cannot see. I understand that the main character was inspired by a real Saudi artist:

Yes, Safeya Binzagr sparked the idea for my character, Sara. Safeya has worked tirelessly to capture her country’s heritage in art. She opened a museum, gallery and school in Jeddah to promote art in the Kingdom. I can’t say enough about her. I admire her so much.

What makes Unveiling literary? Was that a conscious decision?

It’s what the novel demanded. I wanted to capture the feel of 1001 Arabian Nights, so there are stories within stories which make it literary. The ancient stories of the family ripple forward and affect Sara in the present day, which I believe history can do. History touches us like ghosts from the past, which is why Unveiling incorporates real historical events where Sara’s ancestors appear. And I included three pieces of calligraphy in Arabic. Since my character is an artist, I really wanted this art form to be part of the novel. It’s an art of words, which is a powerful concept. When I worked on these pieces, I let Sara do the work, something like an actor assuming a role. I don’t consider myself an artist when it comes to drawing, nor am I Saudi. It’s demanding to write about a culture that you’re not born into, and I took that challenge seriously. If I couldn’t get it right, I was willing to scrap the novel. Besides massive research, I was fortunate to find Lina Karmouta, who earned her MA in Arabic Literature from King Saud University, Riyadh and who taught in the Kingdom. She critiqued the novel, and I can’t thank her enough for her valuable advice which led to numerous changes of the final draft of Unveiling. I’ve had positive feedback from the Arab community, for which I’m grateful.

The inspiration for the Warriors and Watchers Saga hits closer to home. After completing your double masters at Chapman University, you accepted the position of lead middle school instructor at a Montessori school. Do you enjoy teaching?

I love it! Every morning, I barely set one foot outside of the car and someone shouts ‘Good morning, Ms. Sandy!’ You can’t have a bad day with that kind of a start. Each child’s needs are unique, and I love helping to prepare them for high school, but it’s about more than academics. Middle school is two or three compact years fraught with physical, social, emotional and hormonal changes. It’s angst and joy, a time when boy sees girl and vice versa, and I try to help my students through it, fostering social skills and a strong sense of self. Each year ends with my feeling that they gave me as much or more than I gave to them.

You teach math, English, and history. Which is your favorite?

I teach Rhetoric and Debate as well, which teaches students critical thinking. I love all of them in some way, but I tell my students that history is so cool, because it’s real stories about real people. Since my Saudi experience, I’ve thirsted to travel and meet people around the world. I don’t intentionally interject history or mythology into my novels, but they always seems to creep in, so it’s clearly a part of me.

The Warriors and Watchers Saga is about seven teens, ranging in age from fourteen to eighteen, but some of them have physical challenges: blind, deaf, paraplegic. How did that come about?

I once helped out at a Special Olympics type of event, and I was amazed at the joy, talent and fortitude of the athletes. Talk about heroes! When writing a series with teen heroes, they stepped forward in my mind and leaped onto the pages, and they continue to raise their voices and be heard.

Do you use any of your students as characters?

I’m asked that a lot. No. I can’t write about people I actually know, but sometimes a real person is a jumping off point to creating a character.

The seven-novel Warriors and Watchers Saga is an Epic Mythological Fantasy. What do you love most about this genre?

Anything goes! I can let the creative mind explode. Some of the characters and places in Evil Speaks have blown me away. I didn’t see them coming, which sounds odd, because I outline the plot points and scenes, but sometimes a scene changes course and the ideas flood so fast that my fingers have a hard time keeping up. And I type fast. Evil Hears is plotted and the writing has begun. It, too, is a wild ride!