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  • Some may recall that I previewed a novel in progress here last fall and winter that stars aspiring international terrorists. Don’t bother to check; it’s been taken down, all 48 chapters of its beastly prose. In the considerable interim, I finished it and revised the text four-plus times, queried countless literary agents to please take a look, and in desperation am exploring turning it into a screenplay. That’s right, Mahmoud’s Jihad the movie.

    Completing the book and punching it into shape has been all consuming. I regularly cringe at every pass I make through it for the clumsy constructions, inchoate interactions, dispensable dialog, mangled motivations and POV problems that still litter its pages. (Did I mention the irritating alliterations and repeated redundancies?) After an editorial service requested more than two thousand dollars to make it right, I thanked them for their kind offer, revised again, and offered it up to people I knew for critical feedback. A few have actually gotten back to me, and what they had to say spurred yet another revision. Better now, but still not good enough.

    Somewhere along the way I started reading spy novels, which, truth be known, had never really been a genre I’d paid much attention to, and came away with some useful lessons. Of late I’ve been reading John le Carré, master of spycrafting, who puts the us in ominous, devious, and vainglorious. In his fictional worlds of espionage, absolutely no one is trustworthy and few would be considered admirable human beings. Imagine being able to write like this:

    Though my eyes were not yet open on this day, I see him as clearly as I saw him later in the flesh, and shall see him always: tall as one of his factory chimneys, and as tapered. Rubbery, with weak pinched shoulders and a wide bendy waist. One jointless arm tipped out at us like a railway signal, one baggy hand flapping at the end of it. And the wet, elastic little mouth that should have been a woman’s, too small to feed him by, stretching and contracting as it labours to deliver the indignant syllables.

    The passage is from A Perfect Spy, one of his more literary spy tales and some say his pièce de résistance. Here he characterizes Makepeace Watermaster, a Baptist cleric and the grandfather of protagonist Magnus Pym, first by building him up, then by tearing him down. Throughout, Mr. le Carré proceeds to introduce and hollow out one character after another—people unable to stand straight up in the loveless worlds they plod through without the support of booze, sex, gambling, or “the Firm.”

    While I never could or would ape the master’s style, I have absorbed lessons from him about evoking interiority, taking measure of protagonists, and seeing them through others' eyes. My own characters aren’t the sort of hardened cynics, scruple-free knaves, or hapless dweebs le Carré so lovingly disembowels. However exotic they seem at first, they come across as ordinary people in terms of their basic drives, but what they want isn’t ordinary, unless you believe it’s normal to want to decapitate nation-states. Like le Carré’s people, mine are a motley crew of antiheroes, but unlike his, they aren’t scheming against and spying upon each other, devoid of mutual trust. Not that there isn’t distrust and jealousy and even duplicity amongst them, but at the end of the day they work out a scheme and pull together to make it happen.

    They need that solidarity, given that they’re up against a brutal system that might swallow them whole at any moment. And this points to another difference: In almost any le Carré book, protagonists always have antagonists, sometime several, and part of the fun is sorting out who will rat out or assassinate whom. In Mahmoud, the antagonists are anonymous, embodied by shadowy agents of the state that my protagonists constantly try to evade.

    My terrorist cell mates learn to get along, building sufficient trust to give each other space to maneuver. Unlike le Carré’s characters, they don’t hoard bits of information like gold coins, to be doled out only when the currency of lies collapses. Instead they share what they know (except with a roommate whom they conspire to keep in the dark about their machinations), like members of the startup company they are. At one point I describe one of their planning sessions as a morning staff meeting, complete with coffee and Danish, where they tick through an agenda and discuss issues of the day. To paraphrase Dylan, to live outside the law you must be organized.

  • The aforementioned roommate is Ivan, an Austrian engineer and ex-lover of the Austrian expat Andreas. After the cell’s capo was busted, Andreas finds himself in charge of the operation and has to wing it. Ivan has just come to Athens to supervise a construction project that isn’t going well. He connects with Andreas and they take up where they left off. Andreas has decided to take advantage of the renewed affair to help the mission from totally falling apart, proving the personal is political. Here they are, seated in a seaside restaurant, when Andreas makes his move:

    Andreas squeezed his hand. “Here’s an idea. For what you spend in a week for that fancy hotel, you could rent a comfortable flat—a pied-à-terre—in Piraeus for several months. It would save your firm money, and my friends and I could help to furnish it. It shouldn’t be hard to find a nice place. The economy is terrible and there are many vacancies these days for those that can afford them.”

    “But you have a flat, I assume,” Ivan replied. “Couldn’t I bring my things and stay with you there?”

    Andreas glanced furtively around the room. He leaned toward Ivan, telling him “As you probably remember, not all of my activities are strictly legal. No drugs or stealing—nothing like that. It’s the politics of the people I associate with.” In a conspiratorial whisper, he added “And recently I received a tip that the authorities may try to detain me. Until I can sort that out, I need to lay low somewhere.”

    “That’s quite dramatic. Tell me more,”

    “Maybe that’s just my paranoia talking, but there’s another thing. There’s no room for you in my apartment right now because I’m sheltering two men who are in Greece illegally. They need a safe place to live until they can move on. They’re well-spoken, considerate people, not criminals, but would face persecution if deported. Why not rent a flat where we all could stay for a couple of months?”

    “Are they Syrians? Wouldn’t surprise me. They’re all over the place.”

    “Nope. One’s Turkish, the other Iraqi. Neither can return home. Politics.”

    “I see,” said Ivan, staring into his wine. “So it won’t exactly be our love nest.”


  • Now then, here is the first draft of that passage, as presented in Cowbird last October, before suffering five revisions. What transpires in the scene is essentially the same but the language is more nuanced. At least that's how it seems to me. See if you think the polishing helped:

    Andreas squeezed Ivan's hands. “I have a better idea. For what you spend a week in that fancy hotel, you could rent a large flat—a pied-à-terre—in Piraeus for several months. Your firm should gladly pay for it and my friends and I could help to furnish it. It should not be hard to find a nice place. The economy is terrible and there are many vacancies these days.”

    “But you have a flat I assume,” Ivan replied. “Could I bring my things and stay with you there?”

    Unable to come up with a plausible excuse for not allowing Ivan stay at his place, Andreas was forced to come clean, at least a little. And so he said “As you must remember, Ivan, not all of my activities are strictly legal. No drugs or stealing—nothing like that. It's some political people I associate with. I have just received information that the authorities may decide to detain me, and so I am avoiding my flat until I feel more confident that it is not being watched.”

    “Go on,” said Ivan, sensing there was more to this.

    “Also, I have been sheltering two men who are in Greece illegally. They need a safe house until they can move on. They are well-spoken and considerate people who must avoid deportation. It would be a great help if you could rent a flat where we all could stay for a couple of months.”

    “I see,” said Ivan. “So it won't exactly be a love nest.”

    The current version of the passage uses the same number of words, save for two short sentences added toward the end, and doesn’t have awkward shifts of point of view. I’m not saying it’s le Carré caliber (he would probably have the waiter overhear, and then for a consideration tell the detective who just happens to be dining across the room), but I’m okay with it—for now.

    The fourth revision of Mahmoud’s Jihad is posted online in a lock box. If you’re curious enough to dig in to its 400 pages and are willing to remit feedback, you’re welcome to give a shout via Cowbird. Editorial reviewers only, please. No spies.

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