Interview with author Yusuf Toropov

jihadiI am absolutely delighted to be hosting day 2 of the blog tour for Jihadi A Love Story, written by Yusuf Toropov and published by Orenda Books, and it is a privilege to be doing so with an interview with the author himself.

I have to admit that this is a conversation that could have gone on and on, I loved the novel which is both thought provoking and entertaining, and have enjoyed discussing it with Yusuf himself.

Hopefully what follows will enhance your own enjoyment of the book and also give you a small insight into the man who wrote it.

What do you like to read yourself for entertainment or for learning?

I may be reading five or six books at any time. At the moment, I’m really enjoying Mari Hannah’s thriller THE SILENT ROOM, and a collection of superb American short stories called CONTEMPORARY FICTION, and Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA, and Hardy’s TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES. I also read the Quran every day.

toropov 120215 copyWhich writers would you say influence your work the most and how?

There are a lot of books from great writers that served as master classes for me. Some of them are: Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, which plays with time and with questions about morality and destiny in a seemingly humorous way, but which has serious things to say about the dehumanizing effect of war; Nabokov’s PALE FIRE and LOLITA, which are masterpieces that defy description so I won’t try to describe them; and Hugo’s LES MISERABLES, which is basically a 1400-page reminder of what Hemingway said about not trying to write an epic if you really want to write an epic.  He was warning writers about the importance of mastering the art of painting little pictures before you try to paint big pictures. You need the little pictures if you want the big pictures to work.

Jihadi is a complex novel that is rooted in real events that we have lived through from different perspectives (and continue to). How do you go about writing such a novel and making it authentic?

Every time the book pushed me to write about an area I didn’t know about – and there were lots of those — I would go looking for information online.  I kept looking until I found something that happened to pull me in. The Raymond Davis affair was one of those stories. He was the American held in prison by the Pakistanis after killing a couple of people in broad daylight. I started asking myself questions like, “Okay, here’s a guy who is not well disposed toward Islam — what would make someone like that decide to eventually become a Muslim?” And then I had something to write about. So I used real events as writing prompts to get closer to the characters, to figure out what they were up to, what they were thinking, what their obstacles were.

The subject matter is potentially quite controversial and I imagine that people will project all sorts of interpretations onto it. Is there a key message you are trying to put across or were you just trying to write a great thriller?

I think it’s a little dangerous for a fiction writer to start trying to tell people about the message behind the book. It takes the focus off the book and puts attention on some little soapbox speech that the author wants to make after having finished it. Once I’ve said that, though, I can say this. It’s been obvious enough to me and to any Muslim who happens to live in the United States that we’ve had a very strange time of it over the past decade and a half as citizens of the country leading the so-called “war on terror,” and that strangeness was definitely one of the topics that presented itself.

Is it hard to write a character in a way that refuses to dehumanise them no matter what they do?

There were a couple of characters for whom I didn’t particularly want to do any transcribing. But I had to. I went on the theory that the solution was going to come to me if I listened to what the characters wanted to do and say, even if I didn’t like them very much. It was a little schizophrenic, and I’m not entirely sure why it worked, but it did.

The public debate around the whole mass of issues surrounding the “war on terror” and offshoots from it has been monopolised by very black and white extremes of “them and us”, which seem designed to ensure division rather than reconciliation.  In the novel these two extremes are represented but there is also a strong core of what I took to be your expression of true Islam. Is that a fair interpretation?

Absolutely. I make no apologies for writing the novel from the perspective of a Muslim, because that’s who I am, and I don’t apologize for presenting Islam in the way I believe it is meant to be conveyed. I think it’s a little odd that people would be taken aback by that, which some definitely have been. I think some people are threatened by the very existence of an Islamic perspective. Nonetheless, most people accept that writers who come from an atheistic perspective or a Jewish perspective or a Christian perspective can be valued and important and worth celebrating. In my beloved LES MISERABLES, the protagonist is quite obviously constructed in such a way as to mirror exemplary Christian values. Not only that, that he goes on a journey that strongly evokes the Christian conception of Jesus Christ, peace be upon him. And it’s brilliant.

 Thinking about the “strange time” that you mentioned earlier, a friend of mine once said to me that with everything that is happening in the world perhaps the most radical thing that we can do is be a good neighbour. Is that ultimately how we break down the barriers that others would have us build?

Any practicing Muslim would have to agree with you. This is Islam 101: Be a good neighbour. We need to be better neighbours, and we need to be more visible and make better contributions to our local communities.

Whilst Jihadi clearly raises some major themes of both current affairs and philosophy, it is also a beautifully written novel that shows you to be an adept author. Can we look forward to reading more novels from you in the future?

You’re very kind. The next novel is called Freed, and I’ve got about 120,000 words in the can, half of which I really like. That’s pretty much how the first novel started. I’m hoping this one doesn’t take eight years to finish. But you never can tell.

Thank you for your time Yusuf and for your thoughtful answers to my questions.

You can read my review of the book by following this link: Jihadi A Love Story Review, and you can continue to follow the blog tour by using the guide below.

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Jihadi: A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov

jihadiA former intelligence officer stands accused of terrorism, held without charge in a secret overseas prison. His memoir is in the hands of a brilliant but erratic psychologist who has an agenda of her own, and her annotations paint a much darker picture. As the story unravels, we are forced to assess the truth for ourselves and decide not only what really happened on one fateful overseas assignment but who is the real terrorist. Jihadi: A Love Story is an intelligent thriller that asks big questions.

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I have been looking forward to reading Jihadi ever since I heard that Orenda Books had agreed to publish it, despite knowing very little about it beyond that striking, likely controversial, title. I expected to be challenged by it and anticipated that the divisive and destructive Western narrative about Islam would be challenged as well. I probably also quite enjoyed the prospect of supporters of that narrative having their hackles raised by a controversial interrogation of their rhetoric.

But having now read it, what I love about Yusuf Toropov’s novel is that the reality of his challenge is not rooted in more confrontation but rather in understanding and as a result he has maybe revealed to this reader a little of the true nature of a much maligned religion.

There is also no sign of preaching, Toropov does not beat you over the head with his message but rather blends it seamlessly into the beautifully written narrative of an entertaining, heartbeat quickening, page turner. Jihadi is not a manifesto. It is a top class debut novel that tells an exciting and engaging story about people caught up in crazy situations. It is painfully relevant at this particular moment in time, but whilst that makes it an urgent read it should not detract from the fact that it is also a rollicking good one.

The empathy that the author shows to all of the book’s characters is exquisitely realised and ensures that the reader builds a relationship with each of them, whether they like them or not. In a novel that could well be greeted with a broad spectrum of reactions and which deals with people who in the global media are portrayed as separate and divided, this is crucial. Whatever a character does, and some of those things are horrific to contemplate, they are not reduced to those actions, they remain human.

So what we end up with is a genuine thriller that excites and enthrals but also calls out for us to think. We can sleepwalk through all of the meaningless distractions that modern life wants to throw at us, we can be overwhelmed by the decisions taken far above our heads by powers that we feel wholly unable to influence or we can try to the best of our ability to consciously walk a path that leads to truth and justice, with hope.

In the same way that I have enjoyed reading the likes of Kati Hiekkapelto deliver powerful social commentary within first rate crime novels, it is exciting to find Yusuf, and publishing stable mate Paul Hardisty, elevating the thriller genre to a new level of provoking intelligence. This is the first novel I have read in 2016 but I cannot imagine that I will read a better one all year.

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The Author

Yusuf Toropov is an American Muslim writer. He’s the author or co-author of a number of nonfiction books, includingShakespeare for Beginners. His full-length play An Undivided Heart was selected for a workshop production at the National Playwrights Conference, and his one-act playThe Job Search was produced off-Broadway.Jihadi: A Love Story, which reached the quarter-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, is his first novel. He currently lives in Northern Ireland.

Jihadi: A Love Story is available now as an e-book and will be published in paperback in February 2016.