Q: What inspired you to write When the Apricots Bloom?
A: Back in 2002, I moved to Baghdad, after my husband was posted there as part of his work with UNICEF. It was a year or so before the start of the Iraq war, when the country was still ruled by the dictator Saddam Hussein. Not long after I arrived, I was befriended by a local woman, who I later discovered was an informant for the regime’s secret police, reporting back on my every move.
Throughout the years, I always wondered if our friendship was all just an act, or if some parts of our relationship were actually real. I don’t blame her for informing on me. In Iraq, if the secret police wanted something, saying ‘no’ wasn’t an option – especially for someone like my friend. She had a family to protect, and I learned later that her brothers had been executed by the regime several years earlier.
When I started writing When the Apricots Bloom, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for her – beginning with the moment the secret police arrive at the home of an Iraqi secretary working at a foreign embassy, and tell her that she has to spy on her boss’s wife. The story that develops after that point is fiction, but many of the details and background come from my real experiences.
Q: In your novel, the woman being spied on is a young Australian, who goes from being an independent journalist with a career of her own, to a house-bound diplomat’s wife, isolated in a foreign country, struggling to deal with her new situation…to what extent is that character autobiographical?
A: Again, the starting point is similar…I was a journalist, like the character Ally. But in contrast to Ally’s situation, my husband had followed me to several new countries and postings over the years. When he was offered a job in Baghdad, we agreed it was a great opportunity for him. I was also intrigued by the idea of Baghdad – it’s one of the world’s most historic cities and it had been sealed off from the outside world for many years. However, Saddam Hussein didn’t permit foreign journalists into Iraq. So, I went in with a visa for a ‘dependent spouse’ – an awful label – and that’s the same visa Ally uses to enter Iraq in When the Apricots Bloom. To start, I did feel a lot of the loneliness and isolation that the character Ally feels in my book. But unlike her, I soon found a job working at the United Nations Oil for Food program – and unlike her, I didn’t go around investigating sensitive matters. I was very careful about that. I knew I was being watched – I didn’t know it was by my close friend – but before the regime fell, I was very careful to steer clear of anything that might get anyone else in trouble with the authorities.
Q: You lived in Baghdad through the last year of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, and then the start of the Iraq war. It was an historic time, but also very bloody. Did your writing help you to process that?
A: It definitely helped, but there are some things I’ll be living with for the rest of my life. After war with the US erupted, I went back to journalism full time, reporting from Baghdad. It was an extremely hard period. My former workplace was destroyed by a suicide bombing. One of my dearest friends was among the 22 people killed that terrible day. I was sexually assaulted while covering another terrorist attack. Militants began kidnapping and executing journalists and aid workers. The situation was even more dangerous for ordinary Iraqis. It was heartbreaking to see what I hoped would be liberation for my Iraqi friends turn into a situation that was even more violent. I also learned a hard lesson that under extreme circumstances good people can make bad choices.
After Iraq, I was diagnosed with depression and PTSD. I ended up leaving journalism a couple of years later. I really struggled to make sense of what I experienced in Iraq, all the mistakes and missed opportunities, including my own. But then I started to write a memoir, which was published in Australia in 2007. During that process, I began to understand how events came to pass. Actually, a counselor once told me, when you’re troubled by things over and over again, quickly scribble the thought down, just a sentence or two, and then scrunch up the paper and throw it away. It was effective in the short term, but I think writing it out, connecting the dots, really helped me to make sense and move on, at least a bit.
Q: How much did your journalism background benefit your writing process?
A: I would say there were pros and cons. Journalism trains you to pay attention to the details. It helped me with research and fact checking and creating a feeling of authenticity. Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to go inside people’s homes, to ask questions and experience things that most people never get the chance to do. All of that informed this novel. But occasionally my desire to stick to the facts became a little limiting. I had to learn to go beyond my own direct experience, to get creative and think, okay what else might happen in this situation?
One thing I did discover is that sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Especially in wartime or under great stress, people can do things that are completely out of character. They can perform unexpected acts of bravery or they can make terrible mistakes. But in a novel, readers expect to understand every action a character makes. As an author, you have to lay down clues beforehand. Real life, though, is much more unpredictable.
The truth is, we’re all flawed creatures. But today, with many people getting their news from social media, I worry that we’re forgetting this – and as a society, losing the possibility of redemption. Social media is great for memes and headlines, but it’s not designed to give context or to examine ‘how’ or ‘why’. This has contributed to the online push to ‘cancel’ people. The characters in When the Apricots Bloom lie repeatedly. They steal, and they betray those closest to them. How would they have been judged if their actions were condensed into a tweet? In contrast, novels give us the ability to go deeper. When writing When the Apricots Bloom, I wanted readers to come away thinking, in the same circumstances, might I have done the same?
Q: How have your Iraqi friends responded to this book?
A: They’ve always been a fantastic source of support. My friends helped with fact checking, dating all the way back to my first book, and also just in terms of encouraging me to keep going. We went through a lot of heartache together, and that created a bond that’s very strong. They’re very excited about this book, and happy that their stories are getting out to a wider audience. They are a real inspiration to me. They’re survivors. They’ve been able to rise above all the terrible things they’ve suffered. And I hope this novel shows Iraqi women as I found them to be – and that’s smart, resilient, warm and loving.
Q: There’s a big push for greater diversity in the publishing world and to read more from ‘our own voices. Two of the three main characters in your book are Iraqi women – what’s been the reaction to you, a white, western woman, writing from an Iraqi woman’s point of view?
A: The publishing industry has marginalized authors outside of the white, western mainstream for far too long. In this polarized era, we need more diverse books, written by diverse authors, in settings and situations that reflect the deep richness of our world. At the same time, like PEN America, I don’t believe in setting ‘rigid rules’ about who has the right to tell which stories, or that an author should be confined to creating only characters with a similar background or genetic code.
I used my own experience in Iraq to create this story, but I also did a lot of research and consulted with Iraqi friends and colleagues to get the facts and the feeling of that situation and period in time and make the work as authentic as possible. One important point that I aimed to show is that, despite different backgrounds, we share so much in common. I think many women would see aspects of their own lives reflected through the Iraqi characters in my book. They have to juggle the competing demands of work and home life, just like anyone else. They fall off the diet bandwagon, they have to face angry teachers when their teenagers skip school. I think fiction is a fantastic way to show that while we might pray in a different manner or bake our bread differently – at heart, we want the same things, we laugh the same, and we feel the same pain. I think when done right, books can unite us, and illuminate what we share, not divide us.