The Big Idea: Zoe Ferraris

It’s well known that one of the best ways to get someone to do something is to tell them that they shouldn’t do it. In the case of author Zoe Ferraris, the thing she was told she shouldn’t do is write about a particular character — one whose origins are outside the usual experience of her audience. Two books on, this character is alive and well, so there. Here’s Ferraris to tell you about the character, the world he lives in, and why she keeps on with him in her newest novel, City of Veils.


City of Veils comes from a big idea and a small one.

In Jeddah, my ex-husband once brought me to a jacket bazaar. Yes, there was a whole market devoted to outwear in the hottest country in the world. Furs, pea coats, leather, you name it. He wanted to buy a “Columbo coat” – a Peter Falk trench coat – and set off to solve mysteries. He was bored. But I was electrified. It occurred to me that there were no Muslim investigators in crime fiction, and I thought that it might be fun to write one.

That was the small idea.

City of Veils started out as a serial killer novel back in the early 00s. (I go with the Brits and call them the naughties.) I set an American serial killer loose in Saudi Arabia. He was happily killing people but mostly chasing down one American woman whose husband had conveniently abandoned her in the one country on earth where she couldn’t fend for herself, being a woman and an American and someone not very good at wearing a veil. I sent the novel to an agent who said that the story of the American woman was great, but that my little subplot about “that Arab investigator” needed to be ejected into space.

I was so aggrieved at being told what to eject that I went out and wrote a whole book about my Arab investigator, Nayir Sharqi, which turned into my first novel, Finding Nouf.

I guess I’m still aggrieved, because City of Veils is basically that original story, minus the serial killer. We have an American woman abandoned by her husband. We have a brutal murder in which her husband may have been involved. We have a chase through the desert. And most importantly, we have a sandstorm. But still, that Arab investigator persists in taking up most of the book!

I arrived in Saudi Arabia with the notion that women were deeply, darkly oppressed by a conspiracy of ignorant, cruel, patronizing men. Then I started meeting my ex-husband’s friends, basically a bunch of twenty-something guys who wanted nothing more extravagant than to find a decent Friday-night date in a country where they weren’t allowed to talk to women outside their family. What’s a man to do? Turns out that in courtship, gender segregation is just as difficult for men as it is for women.

Nayir’s problem is even bigger than that. He has no experience with women. So when he finally gets to talk to one (putting his religious convictions aside), he tries his damndest not to mess it up, because he’s fairly certain that it would take no effort at all to mess everything up. I really want him to have love, I really do. But the problem is big enough that it’s going to take more than two books to solve it.


City of Veils: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Zoe Ferraris’ Blog. Follow her on Twitter.

9 Comments on “The Big Idea: Zoe Ferraris”

  1. Your agent’s comment reminds me of what Tony Hillerman’s first agent told him – good story, but you need to get rid of all the Indian stuff. He then went on to be famous for his mystery novels featuring Navajo culture through his Navajo police officers…

    I wish you as much success as he got! Your idea sounds awesome!

  2. I don’t care for mystery novels, but I’ve lived and worked in the Middle East on and off for 15 years, even in Riyadh and the Eastern Province of SA. From the description this sounds like a book worth reading.

    I never came to terms with the gender segregation in SA and elsewhere. As a woman, this author has a unique ability to to interact with nearly half a population that is mostly unexplored, though Prof. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea’s nonfiction books are pretty good for a look at the situations and opinions of women of the Arab world.

  3. Our library just acquired this for its collection. Since it is not yet ready for processing, I snagged it during its limbo time and am looking forward to reading it this weekend.

  4. You Go, Girl!
    This is wonderful concept.
    I live in Toronto which is very multicultural and I play in a band with a couple of Muslim guys. So I know them and their smart wive (one of whom wears a veil and is a PhD in biochem. And is very sweet and funny.) . That culture is wonderful and varied and screwed up in all sorts of fascinating ways.
    May this be a long and successful series. I’m looking forward to this.

  5. I hope you’re still reading the comments on this thread! I prefer to read series from the beginning, so I got Finding Nouf out of the library. Fantastic!!!!! I am SO looking forward to City of Veils finishing being processed so I can read it! (and Finding Nouf is on my gift idea list for a couple of friends now, too… :)

  6. Found the book Finding Nouf , fascinating could not put the book down, felt so sad for the women of Saudi Arabi

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