Meet the 2017 Authors! Zora O’Neill


zora-oneill-bannerWho are you most looking forward to seeing at the 2017 Festival?

I’m happy to see Jon Ronson will be there — I know his voice from his radio stories for This American Life. And I’m very interested to meet my co-panelists to talk about travel writing. Abdullah Al Jumah is right up my alley — I am super-curious about Saudi Arabia, and I love reading and hearing about places I know well, as seen through someone else’s point of view.
Which reminds me: when I attended the Festival in 2012, I ran into my Arabic professor from 1990! He edited a collection called America in an Arab Mirror, various essays and excerpts of Arabs writing about the U.S. over the centuries, and it was so eye-opening. So–I’m open to meeting anyone this year, but honestly it’ll be hard to top that, in terms of personal coincidence and discovering a great book!

Which book has inspired you the most?

Specifically related to my own book about Arabic, I have drawn huge inspiration from Annia Ciezadlo’s Day of Honey and all of Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s excellent books. (I know he was an ELF Writer-in-Residence–excellent choice! I was tempted to fly to Dubai just to introduce myself.) Oh, and Diana Abujaber — I loved her memoir The Language of Baklava.

All of them write about Arab culture with such warmth and humour and deep, deep background. It gave me confidence that I wasn’t trying something completely crazy, writing “a book about the Arab world–but it’ll be funny!” as I was describing my book for a little while.

More generally, I love Moby-Dick and a book called The Supper of the Lamb, by Robert Farrar Capon. And now that I think about it, I think I love them for the same reasons, even though they’re totally different subjects (whales and cooking frugally, respectively), and one is a novel and the other is a kind of cookbook. But both of them blend real, detailed information with a clear moral–and they both use powerful, Old Testament-y language. And they’re not afraid to make jokes.

Finally, I admit to taking some perverse inspiration from bad writing, just as a reminder that if those people (who shall remain nameless) got their books written and published, well, I can certainly do better.

What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

I used to really push myself to get started: jump out of bed, eat my breakfast–I have this Swedish-style fruit-nut bread routine, so I don’t expend precious morning brain cells on breakfast decisions–and start writing a little.

But I recently started writing fiction for the first time ever, and now I find myself just lying in bed for about 30 minutes, imagining new things about my characters. (I see now why people write fiction. This is incredibly fun!) I probably should just go write it all down, but my life in the last few months hasn’t allowed for a steady writing schedule, so for now I’m telling myself it’s helpful just to keep the people alive in my head in the morning, then get back to them in the evening.

What is your life’s motto?

Hmmm, maybe I should have developed one by now? “Eat and sleep well” is what I live by on a daily basis, but that lacks a certain…romance. I suppose it reflects what a practical person I am, though.

Our theme for the 2017 Festival is Journeys. Can you tell us which journeys in your life have been most memorable?

Without a doubt, I remember the trips I took while working on All Strangers Are Kin most vividly. I travelled by myself, for longer than I usually do (to my husband’s dismay), and wound up in some amazing situations, just getting to know people. But it’s cheating almost, because I spent so much time writing about them. Plus, in writing about them, I kind of froze them in place, and there’s something a little strange about this. Now when I think of these trips, I remember them exactly as they’re written. It’s as if I made a movie of my trip, and now that replays in my head instead of my actual memory.

A little bit more “pure” — if not as complete — are my memories of the three trips I took to Syria, between 1999 and 2009. They stood out anyway–I really loved Syria, and the Syrian people I met. But to know that this is a place that will never be the same as when I saw it, and that so many people have been hurt, killed, displaced–it’s heartbreaking, and because of this, I make a real effort to keep the memories of those trips vivid. And then my journeys in Syria drove me to help refugees in Greece, and that in itself has been quite a journey…but that one’s not over yet, so hard to say it’s as “memorable” as the others!