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.