The Alienist (TNT Tie-in Edition): A Novel (The Alienist Series)

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Bina Shah and Joseph Olshan: An Author/Editor Pair on Inspiration, Switching Genre, and the Edit Process

Bina Shah was introduced to me via Facebook by a mutual friend who is a fine short story writer. She contacted me directly about her first novel, which I published. I don’t believe she wrote her new novel, Before She Sleeps, thinking it would become a dystopian thriller, but it was clear to me that her writing was moving in this direction.

I, on the other hand, reached a point in my career where I felt I’d said most of what I’d wanted to say, shared my many minute observations about unusual families, complicated relationships, and love between mismatched people. Going by the advice of my then-agent, I began to write tighter narratives, at the center of which was a mystery that needed to be solved. Black Diamond Fall is the second novel that I’ve written in this new vein, and I like to think that despite the constraints, it is stylistically similar to my earlier novels. We spoke about our books via email. —Joseph Olshan

Joseph Olshan: Your first novel, A Season for Martyrs, was a fascinating portrait of Pakistan in 2007 and the last three months of Benazir Bhutto’s life. The novel’s narrative was written at a high literary elevation in the sense that the present-day narrative was in counterpoint to a kind of lush, lyrical mythical history of the Sindh region of Pakistan, where Bhutto grew up. Some of the novel’s best writing portrayed this history.

When you began writing Before She Sleeps, which is set in a future society where the female population has dangerously dwindled, did you have any idea that you’d be writing a novel that would end up reading like a dystopian thriller? Was that your intention? Did you consciously write with a thriller audience in mind?

BS: I just read an article called “Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers” (I feel like there are at least a hundred versions of the same piece) where he says that when you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story, and when you rewrite, you’re taking out all the things that are not in the story. I don’t think I write with an audience in mind so directly, not in the way that I’d be mindful of their reactions and expectations if I were narrating it to a group of listeners, or even my 5-year-old nephew.

What I am doing when I write is not quite to tell myself the story, a la Stephen King, but to get it down. Any working writer knows what I mean by that phrase: capturing the story, rather than inventing the story. I’m doing what Michelangelo did when he saw a fully formed statue in a block of marble: He used his tools to chisel it all out of the rock. I’m no Michelangelo, but the story already exists in my head as an entity: elusive, amorphous, and fully alive. I’m getting it down on the page before it gets away from me. How I shape it, mold it, form it and direct it is my craft, but it’s already there on some plane that I’m accessing as I write.

JO: But you ended writing a dystopian novel very much in the vein of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And sure enough, all the early reviewers are likening your book to hers. In a starred review Publishers Weekly urged fans of Atwood’s book to read yours. How much of an influence did The Handmaid’s Tale have on your writing Before She Sleeps?

BS: I read The Handmaid’s Tale in college and while it was a very powerful book, I wasn’t able to make the parallels between the Christian fundamentalist society Atwood envisions and the equally frightening one I envision in Before She Sleeps. But when I returned to Pakistan and lived there 20 years among some of the worst conditions for women, I was able to see them. What Margaret Atwood imagined happening in the future was already happening now in the regions of South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Only the cultural and religious contexts were different; the patriarchy, the misogyny, the control over women and their lives was the same. So rather than thinking about The Handmaid’s Tale in terms of influence, it was a point of reference for me as I wrote Before She Sleeps. I did reread The Handmaid’s Tale while I was in the process of writing Before She Sleeps just to make sure I wasn’t over-borrowing specific terms, concepts or plot points.

JO: It seems to me that Before She Sleeps is a timely novel in the sense that it tells a story about women taken advantage of and kept in check by men, rebelling and triumphing when they find a higher, more secure ground where they can live more freely. As you know the #MeToo movement began with a kind of rebellion and caught fire. Can you try and relate this new movement to what has gone on in Pakistan, where women have traditionally been subjugated to men?

BS: In talking about Before She Sleeps, I feel the need to make the point (somewhat repeatedly) that feminism, rebellion and resistance look different in different parts of the world. I got an early review of Before She Sleeps which basically said the women weren’t independent enough, which in my mind boils down to: “They weren’t feminist enough.” But feminist enough for whom? When you live in a part of the world where honor killings exist, where a girl or a woman can be killed for marrying the partner of her choice, then even falling in love with someone is an act of resistance to that patriarchal system.

Also, Pakistani women have traditionally been subjugated to men and the patriarchal tribal systems that operate in my country. They have resisted both directly and indirectly. They find a way to go around obstacles rather than straight through them. The concept of “smashing the patriarchy” is very new to Pakistan; it has been brought into the country by a global wave of feminism, including the #MeToo movement, over the last four or five years. We always thought of finding our rebellions within the patriarchy, and this is exactly what Before She Sleeps portrays: a subversion of the system, not destruction outright, because that seems impossible given the scope of the power and control against the women. It may look like a compromise to more Western eyes, or it may look like women reacting with courage and elegance to an impossible situation.

Now I have a question for you: Just as Before She Sleeps is a switch in genres for me—from straightforward literary fiction to dystopia with shades of speculative, science, and technology fiction—you’ve switched things up with your forthcoming novel, Black Diamond Fall. It’s being characterized as a “literary thriller,” which I associate with excellent books like The Alienist by Caleb Carr and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Was it hard for you to make the switch between semi-autobiographical literary fiction and a mystery/thriller? Were you aware of the change in genres, and how did it affect your writing?

JO: Well, first of all, all my fiction is semi-autobiographical—even Black Diamond Fall. I don’t have the ability to write a story where some large part has not occurred within the realm of my own experience. A novelist needs to discover what they can and cannot do. If they are unable to make this distinction, then their output will be wildly inconsistent. Having written and published 10 books, I’ve learned what I cannot do.

So Black Diamond Fall, while a mystery of sorts, is semi-autobiographical in the sense that its central relationship, its deepest chords resonate with a relationship I had, a relationship that stirred me up in all the right ways for fiction. I spun around that a tale of disappearance and vandalism, both of which were based in fact: A student disappeared from the Middlebury College campus in 2010, and shortly thereafter the Robert Frost homestead (which is open to the public) was vandalized. This is my second effort at suspense fiction, and I’ve learned that readers of this sort of fiction have expectations that must be addressed by the writer. In this sense you might say I was broadening my craft, whereas writing literary fiction is solely about creating a balanced sphere of a world—and sometimes fine literary novels do not take the audience into consideration and can be hard-going.

BS: On that last note, on taking the audience into consideration, is the writer really obligated to keep the audience in mind when writing? I’ve encountered difficulty with questions of a similar nature, asking me if I write for a “Western audience” or a “Pakistani one.” I always say that I don’t think about an audience like that, but what’s your philosophy on this as a writer?

JO: Every serious writer has to try and take a step back periodically and ask themselves if a reader can objectively relate to what is on the page. By the time one has written and published a book or two, this process should be pretty rote. But the first and foremost concern is the integrity of book itself, and as I was beginning to say in the last answer, a book is like a sphere, a whole world with a balanced ecosystem, and the writer is the godlike force creating that world. Once the world itself has literary integrity, it should be inhabitable by all different sorts of people. It should be universal. And the reader should be able to recognize this universality and in so doing, find comfort in reading.

I am the editor of your novel. I’ve gone through it several times in the editorial process, so perhaps I no longer possess the degree of objectivity toward your work that a fresh reader has. But in my opinion what distinguishes your novel is the fact that you are deeply familiar with the cultures of North America and West Asia and this is brought to bear in Before She Sleeps, a novel that, though located deeply in your native culture, feels American in many ways.

Now here is a delicate discussion that I think readers of The Millions will be interested in: the editorial process itself. I’ve edited two of your novels, and I think we’ll both agree that I asked you to do more work on Before She Sleeps. It’s true that by this time we’d built up a trust that allowed you to be very receptive to my editorial concerns—much more so than several of my other writers, some of them first-time authors, who have, in my opinion, given me a remarkable amount of pushback. As an author of several books, can you give a sense of what it was like to go through this intense process?

BS: First of all, I’m curious to know how you think Before She Sleeps feels like an American novel! As you know I spent the first five years of my life in the U.S., and then six years in college and graduate school. I’m in the United States this summer in the run-up to the novel, and I keep thinking about the impact of America on my life; it seems to have found its way into my writing as well, as you say.

Before She Sleeps was, for me, an ambitious novel. So when I had my manuscript ready to show to you, I knew there were flaws, but I couldn’t identify them, let alone fix them, because I had no objectivity at all. I welcomed the idea of my editor as collaborator, someone who would read with a fresh pair of eyes and be able to see what was wrong in terms of structure, pacing, ideas, and so on. I found your role as editor tremendously supportive; whatever you suggested for the novel was done in the spirit of making the book as strong as it could be before it went to publication. I wanted it strong, and because you’re not just an editor but also an acclaimed novelist, I knew you were sensitive to my needs as a writer, to be supported but also challenged in the revisions.

I think the process of working on the book together, as editor and writer, was exhilarating: You weren’t afraid to ask me bold questions; you were very decisive about what you felt needed expansion or cutting back; you were uninhibited in your praise of what you thought were strong passages or characterizations. You also brought a different perspective to my work, as a male, as an American, and as someone who is experienced and confident as a writer. I appreciated that perspective; it gave a richness and depth to the novel that expanded its scope and its power. You infused it with an energy and spirit that is very characteristic of you as a person, too, and in you I found an affinity for dramatic tension and a fast pace that served the novel very well. Because that’s what it’s all about, in the end: You do what you need to do to make it the best book it can be, and when an editor believes in you and your work, it’s very easy to trust them right back and just go for it.

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