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Interview: Novelist Diana Abu-Jaber on Birds of Paradise: A Novel

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If you are a regular listener to NPR, you likely have heard one of novelist Diana Abu-Jaber‘s frequent essays. Next week (September 6, to be exact) marks the release of the award-winning author’s newest novel, Birds of Paradise. While I was already aware of Abu-Jaber, thanks to NPR, I did not realize she had finished her new book until an early July tweet by Bethanne Patrick (aka @thebookmaven). Soon after learning of the new novel, I reached out to Abu-Jaber for an email interview — and she was more than happy to entertain my queries. As described by her publisher (W.W. Norton & Company): “In the tropical paradise that is Miami, Avis and Brian Muir are still haunted by the disappearance of their ineffably beautiful daughter, Felice, who ran away when she was 13. Now, after five years of modeling tattoos, skateboarding, clubbing, and sleeping in a squat house or on the beach, Felice is about to turn 18. Her family — Avis, an exquisitely talented pastry chef; Brian, a corporate real estate attorney; and her brother, Stanley, the proprietor of Freshly Grown, a trendy food market — will each be forced to confront their anguish, loss, and sense of betrayal. Meanwhile, Felice must reckon with the guilty secret that drove her away, and must face her fear of losing her family and her sense of self forever.” In addition to the book, we also delve into her recent mention in a New York Times piece on email manners.

How early in the development of Birds of Paradise did you realize it had to be set in Miami — and what appealed to you in terms of setting it there?

Miami was present from the very first page. My husband and I moved to Miami eight years ago and I knew I wanted to use it as a setting. Ever since my second novel, Crescent, I’ve been very inspired by sunlight and water and I always like to use a strong setting for my stories — like the city of Syracuse and the blizzard that seems to keep blowing throughout Origin, my third novel. Birds of Paradise is a reflection of Miami’s many layers — its outward dazzling tropical colors and beauty, its racial and cultural collisions. I’m fascinated by that complexity and challenged by it. Setting my new novel here gave me a way to reflect on my adopted city and to push myself to learn more about it.

Structurally the story is broken down into chapters alternating their focus/perspective between varying characters — with the chapters labeled by character names. How challenging was it to structure the story in such a manner?

Actually, I found it easier to use the alternating perspectives than a single unified point of view because it gave me a way to break up the action and to tell the story from different vantage points. It did mean that I really had to become deeply familiar with each of those characters — more than, perhaps, with a novel governed by just one or two central characters. But I felt that this helped enrich the story, so that I couldn’t rely on “prop characters” to tell my story.

With the Muir family, was there any family member that you struggled to find the right voice for them in particular (or vice versa, any family member who was easier for you write and why)?

Brian, the father, was a real challenge for me, because he was of a species that I found very mysterious — the corporate executive. At first he was pretty ruthless and unsympathetic and the people who read my early drafts pointed out that they felt like I wasn’t being fair to him. Getting his character right became an important challenge for me — to push myself past my own preconceptions and to find his uniqueness and humanity.

One character, Brian, is a real estate lawyer — how much research did you undertake to get his work as accurate as possible?

As I mention in the earlier question, his profession was very new territory to me. Luckily, I have several good friends who are lawyers– they gave me lots of insights and more leads to other lawyers. I took many, many attorneys out to lunch, dinner, waylaid them in corridors, interviewed total strangers on the phone, through email, even on Facebook. I went to city commission meetings and zoning board meetings and talked to tons of developers. I also read books and articles about the lawyer’s experience, their training, their day to day struggles. It was a fascinating project because it was all so new, and the more I learned, the more interested I became.

This GoodReads review noted that “While not marketed to the YA [Young Adult] audience, this book will appeal to both adults and teens.”Are you hoping to garner some new YA readers with this new novel?

Wow, that’s interesting! It hadn’t crossed my mind that this might appeal to YA readers. There’s some heavy stuff in this book, so I’d hope they would be fairly mature teens.

How instrumental has Twitter and social media become in terms of drawing attention to your work?

That I really don’t know. My sense is that almost everyone on social media is advertising something, so at times there can be a bit of an echo chamber effect. But I enjoy the simple fun of meeting new people in this way — it’s especially nice for people who work from home and don’t get to carouse around much with a gang of co-workers.

I was fascinated to learn from this 2008 interview that you will write periodically during red lights, when did you first realize that you were capable of creativity while driving?

Ha! You know what, I started writing at red lights years ago when I worked as a film reviewer for the Oregonian newspaper. I found that my thoughts about a film were always clearest and freshest while I was driving home after the viewing, so I kept my pad out next to me in the car and eventually realized, hey! This actually isn’t a bad way to get thoughts down quickly….

Another non-novel related question. After your participation in this New York Times email manners story, did you start getting replies from emails you sent a long time ago?

That is too funny. I’ll tell you who I heard from — all sorts of people who thought they knew who the other writer was that I’d referred to in my story. All these people had had similar experiences with a friend who never followed up on their invitations, and they were CERTAIN they knew just who my story was about… only they’d all mentioned different names and none of them was the person I was talking about. Turns out, it’s just a really common experience!

When you write pieces like this one for NPR, do you ever find that you gain new readers of your novels, thanks to this exposure?

Wait! Isn’t that how I heard from you? 😉 All I can say with any authority is: I sure hope so. I’ve written commentary pieces for NPR and other media over the years and while there’s a big difference between an essay and a book, I’d like to think the short piece gives you a nice little window into what the larger works might hold.

Is there anything you’d like to discuss about Birds of Paradise that I neglected to ask you about?

Not really — just to tell people that Birds of Paradise is now available for pre-order from places like Indiebound.com and Amazon.com, that I’ll be traveling on a book tour this September and October, and they can learn more about me and my event schedule at my website www.DianaAbuJaber.com.

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