From the lab to the library – Jennifer Zeynab Maccani’s path to “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things”

Jennifer Zeynab Maccani went from working in a Brown University lab to writing a novel in just a few years – a feat I know has the aspiring novel-writers reading this practically salivating over their laptops.

Maccani made a career transition away from academic science to writing full-time in 2015, two years after getting a PhD in Pathobiology from Brown University. Clearly, all those years of research served Maccani well, because she spent six months putting together her debut novel, “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things,” together before signing with an agent and making revisions. In October 2016, just a year after she started the novel, it was sold to publisher Touchstone Books (Simon and Schuster). 

Jennifer Zaynab Maccani, taken by Matthew Maccani, 2016
Jennifer Zeynab Maccani, taken by Matthew Maccani, 2016

It wasn’t as sudden a development as it seems in just these few paragraphs: Maccani published several short stories prior to taking on her first novel, and she is also a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI). She also belongs to genius organization Mensa, which probably helps!

In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I spoke to Maccani about her experience writing a novel for the first time, the path that led her to “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things,” and what she recommends for aspiring novelists.

You started out as a scientific researcher. What made you leave that path to pursue writing?

To be honest, I was a writer long before I was a scientist. I wrote my first story in third grade—a spiral-bound, illustrated little story called “If I Were a Kitten for a Day”—and wrote novellas and a few just-for-fun fantasy novels in middle school and high school. I’m a writer for the same reason I was a scientist—I’m fascinated by how the world works. So I continued to write throughout high school, college, and grad school, which resulted in a much better knowledge of and appreciation for the craft of writing. Along the way, I also studied science, because there were questions about the world that I wanted answers to. I’ve always been a curious person.

Writing has always been a necessary part of who I am. For me, writing is like a reflex; it’s how I process my experiences and the world around me. It keeps me sane. So while I eventually realized that academic science was not the right career path for me in the long term, my passion for writing only grew stronger.

Tell me about your forthcoming novel, “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things.” What’s it about, and what inspired you to write it?

“The Map of Hopeful Broken Things” is the story of ten-year-old Manhattan-born Nour, whose family returns to Syria after her father’s untimely death just before civil war breaks out. She and her family flee as refugees across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in a desperate and dangerous search for safety. Their journey intertwines with the historically based fable of a group of mapmakers who made the same journey nine hundred years before in a quest to map the world. It is an adult literary novel structured into two intertwining timelines, in keeping with traditional Arab storytelling techniques. The contemporary timeline is centered on a multifaith Syrian American family similar (though not identical) to my own.

As a Syrian American, it has been difficult for me to watch the war that has raged in Syria for the last five years. I’m incredibly thankful that I’ve been able to keep in touch with my Syrian relatives and that they are, for now, safe. But I know that this is unfortunately not the case for all families. I am always aware of how much others have lost. We say a lot of prayers in my household. At the same time, seeing how Syrian refugees are discussed in the news in my own country convinced me that I had to do something to try and engender more empathy for the people of Syria, for refugees, and for victims of war in general.

I set out to write a novel that would help readers to empathize and identify with Syrian refugees. I wanted to introduce readers to the Syrian people as I know them—beloved family and friends; Christians and Muslims; smart, resilient women who love to laugh; men who recite poetry and are excellent cooks. I wanted to help break the stereotypes around Syrian and Arab people while also helping readers to learn more about the Syrian conflict and refugee crisis.

I hope that “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things” will humanize Syrian refugees for readers. I hope it will help readers to understand, as I do, that were it not for very slight differences of luck and geography and circumstance, any one of us could be in the same situation.

You’ve also published short stories: what was the biggest difference between working on a novel and working on a short story?

When you write short stories, you learn how to make every word do as much work as possible. You have to choose your language to not only relay the plot, but also to convey voice, tone, and theme at the same time. You learn to use structure to reflect your subject matter. You learn to get to the point as quickly as possible.

When I write a novel, I try to think of each chapter as a short story—with the same thematic development and clear throughline that a short story would need to have. Thinking about my writing that way helps me to bring focus and intensity to my work.

For me, though, the biggest difference between a short story and a novel is that a novel requires more stamina to complete. Novels also usually require bigger themes—they have to sustain themselves for the length of the work. Not every story is enough to support a novel.

What would you say was the greatest challenge of writing a novel? And how did you approach the project?

With “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things,” I sort of knew that the novel was bigger than I was, and that intimidated me a little. I started by doing a huge amount of research, using as many primary sources as possible. First and foremost, I did everything I could to educate myself and listen to the accounts of people who had been through the types of experiences I would be writing about. I continued to do this kind of research throughout the writing and revision process.

Aside from the enormous research involved, the greatest challenge I had with “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things” was that I had to balance the two intertwining timelines without one overshadowing the other. I had to make sure that they mirrored each other thematically without being too obvious about it, and I also had to make sure that the voices were different enough that you could tell which was the contemporary timeline and which was the historical fable. But those challenges were also what made the novel fun to write.

What advice would you give to someone starting a novel for the first time?

First of all, read a lot! Read as many novels as you can in the genre you want to write, but don’t just read novels and don’t just read that genre.

Don’t put too much pressure on the first novel you write. Write it because you’re passionate about it and because the story is its own reward, not necessarily for publication. You will likely need some time to hone your craft. While you learn, try short stories. Try flash fiction. Try poems. Try different styles and voices and structures. Give yourself permission to play. Writing a novel is different for everyone. You will likely need to create your own system based on what works for you: the right amount of research, outlining, and revising. If you’re like me, you’ll probably only figure this out after you write your first novel. And that’s okay!

As you learn, look for people who understand your vision for your work. Find a trusted critique partner. Ideally, this will be a person who can put their own preconceived notions aside and ask: what are you trying to accomplish with this piece, and how can I help you accomplish it? It is more important to find someone who will be totally honest with you than someone who will sugarcoat a critique. My first critique partner was—and still is—my husband, Matthew, whose keen suggestions never fail to help me improve my work. I am honored and privileged to have the incredible help of my agent, Michelle Brower, and editor, Trish Todd, now, but critique partners help you to give only your best work to your agent and/or editor. Remember, an objective eye will spot issues that are sometimes invisible to the writer.

Beyond honing your craft, write what you yourself are excited to read. Write the most honest thing you can muster. This is especially true for marginalized writers. Don’t be afraid to write the world that you see around you. Write about things and people that matter to you. Write your truth. For a long time, I was hesitant to write about Arab American characters like me, interfaith families like mine, women who had survived and thrived after experiencing trauma and violence, or life in diaspora. I didn’t see a lot of those stories or characters in books; I didn’t see myself reflected much on the page. But I found that when I sat down to write, it was a relief to talk about those things. It was a relief to start writing stories where someone like me could be the hero of her own story. The words came out faster then, and the stories stronger. My writing improved when I put more of myself into my work. I think readers can tell when you are passionate. Passion is infectious.

Still, there were a lot of people who tried to discourage me along the way, and people will try to discourage you, too, especially if you are a writer of color or are otherwise marginalized. Don’t let them. Others have done it before you, and you can do it, too. Your stories are necessary and valid. You will find wonderful people who will appreciate and champion your work. But you have to finish that work first.

So read a lot. Take your time. Find critique partners you trust. Find the joy in your work; it will get you through the hard times and rejections. And when you’re ready, write the book you want to read, because somewhere out there is someone else who needs that book, too.

The world of stand-up comedy with director Logan Leistikow

Meet documentary film-maker Logan Leistikow. The Los Angeles-based director has been making movies in the comedy circuit for years, and his latest documentary, “Walton,” chronicles the experience of stand-up comedian Walton Jordan.

Logan Leistikow at the American Idol Press Line.
Logan Leistikow at the American Idol Press Line. Logan was the digital producer at American Idol.

I connected with Logan via Twitter, and he was nice enough to answer some of my questions about “Walton” and his work in comedy.

Tell me about your background. How did you get into directing? What drew you to the field?
As a kid, I always wanted to do something creative when I grew up. It morphed from being a cartoonist to painter to musician, etc. I just wanted to be an artist. Eventually, the magic of movies drew me in. Star Wars and high concept productions like it made me want to be a blockbuster director. I loved the idea of making my cinematic vision come to life.
 
I actually moved out to Los Angeles with that intention. However, because I was not born into the entertainment industry, I had to find my own pathway in. It just so happens that my first big break was producing Tom Green Live, a comedic celebrity talk show. After that, I very much stayed in the lane of talk/unscripted shows and comedy, if only because that is where my resume took me.
 
I have to say, though, that I have fallen in love with making documentaries. You can capture and create real emotion, tone, and production value on a shoestring budget and with a small crew. This offers ultimate film-making freedom, as well as the adventure of unpredictability and improvisation.
What was the first thing you ever worked on? What was that experience like for you?
Well, I guess the first thing ever was my high school senior video, which was just a ripoff of jackass.
 
In college, my friends and I made some video sketches that went viral and got me featured on IFC, which was pretty cool. One of those videos was also a part of a Yahoo! contest where celebrity judge Tom Green said “These guys should have their own sketch comedy show!”
 
That eventually led to a job at Tom Green Live once I moved out to LA. Getting that gig was surreal. Having heard Tom’s compliment on the Yahoo! show, I applied to work on his talk show. He personally called me on the phone, invited me to lunch, and then showed me his studio and hired me all in the same day. It was a bit overwhelming, but it was just the beginning of my journey.
Tell me about your new documentary, Walton. How did you meet Walton Jordan? Why did you decide to do a documentary about him? And what was the experience like?
Walton is a good friend I have known for years. We met way back in 2007 at a Comedy Garage show. He’s such a sui generis guy with a magnetic personality, he belongs on stage/screen.

 

Poster for "Walter," courtesy Logan Leistikow. Now available on Amazon Prime.
Poster for “Walter,” courtesy Logan Leistikow. Now available on Amazon Prime.
I also wanted to present a homeless person who breaks the mold of what people expect. A lot of us make assumptions about the homeless. Although Walton actually indicates he IS homeless by choice, you can’t help but root for him…even if you would never do that to yourself. It humanizes the homeless.
 
Shooting the documentary with him was so fun and exciting I’m very likely to make more docs about him.
How do you approach a documentary project? Walk me through your process.
Every project comes together differently, but I always search for fascinating people who have a passion. 
 
For the Comedy Garage, I actually attended a show and said to myself “I must make a documentary about this.” It was pure inspiration. I eventually saved up enough money and favors to make it happen. We shot a three camera stand-up show, and interviews leading up to it over a long weekend.
 
Walton, on the other hand, was shot sporadically over a year in our spare time. I edited as we went and I think that really helped the pacing of the piece and told us what shots we had to get next. I also filmed a minidoc called “Trees” that I filmed by myself in one day with no concept until I hit the editing bay.
 
My advice would be to find what you are passionate about and cover that in your own way. Figure out what is logistically practical and use your creativity to make it sing. Do you have a client? Do you have backers? Do you work for a network or news organization? Are you independent? Do you know someone who can help? Everything is a factor, so there is no instruction manual. You have to be dynamic.
Your work seems focused on comedians. Is there a reason for that?
There are two main reasons for this: Comedians have a job of holding a mirror up to society and ultimately that is my goal as well. The comedians I know are the most open and honest people around and that makes for really great interviews.
 
Comedians are also the epitome of freedom of expression and tolerance. Even the squeaky cleanest stand-up comedian you know is exposed to some raunchy humor in their career, whether at open mics or when they open for another comic. They have to tolerate, appreciate, and respect different approaches to humor and different perspectives on endless subjects. The comedy scene in LA is more of a marketplace of ideas than people realize. Its also very diverse.
 
That being said, I also have productions in development that will not be about comedians.
 
What’s your advice to aspiring filmmakers looking for inspiration? What would you say to those looking for backing for their work?
 
When asking for backing, make sure you have your ducks in a row. Be ready for any question, anticipate parts of the pitch that the backer may not like, and pitch for a higher budget while having a plan for a much smaller budget ready. It helps to know your backer personally and appeal to him/her in a personal way. Maybe he/she owns a business that can have product placement in the film. Maybe he/she has a soft spot for animals, so pitch an animal related project. Your creative vision will have to adjust to reality and your planning will have to incorporate what your backer will want.
 
Again, every production comes together differently, but the bottom line is you need to impress your backer with how knowledgeable and prepared you are.
 
Also don’t be afraid to just start working even if no one will back you yet. Remember that films like “Clerks” and “Grey Gardens” had no backers and are now classics. “Walton” also had no backers.
 
As for inspiration: its everywhere. [Ask yourself:] What movie do you want to see that doesn’t exist yet?

Artist Geneva Benton shows us a world of color

You might recognize her better as Prinnay on Tumblr or GDBee, but however you know her, artist Geneva Benton makes an impression. I first started following her on Tumblr, drawn immediately to the bright bold colors that are a hallmark of her work. Her characters are nothing short of inspirational, and so I was really excited when she agreed to be featured on The Quibblerview to talk about her background and art style.

When did you first begin to become interested in art and drawing? What sparked that interest?

I started drawing since childhood but didn’t get serious until the late teens. I just really liked drawing, but then played a game called Chrono Cross, which sparked me wanting to draw and inspired me quite a bit more.

Bubble Tea by GDBEE
“Bubble Tea” by Geneva Benton (GDBEE).
As a self-taught artist, what were the resources you depended on to develop your skills?

I have tried watching streams on how other artists work and tutorials that they make. Also just starting and eye balling what makes someone else’s style so great. Doing the occasional study on anatomy, animals, etc is also quite helpful. Quite a bit is experimenting.

One thing that really attracted me to your work is how amazingly colorful it is. How did you develop that style?

Since I was a teenager, I’ve really admired an artist named Benjamin Zhang. His artwork is especially colorful, with hues and shades used so drastically and artfully. For the most part, my style is inspired by his color use.

"Taurus" by Geneva Benton.
“Taurus” by Geneva Benton.
Where does your inspiration come from?

Mostly random things. The way paint looks and chips off a wall. A single kiwi. I really have trouble explaining it.

Your art also features a lot of black women. Is that intentional on your part, to broaden the representation of black women in art? Or is it a reflection of you and your community?

Well, it’s what I know. I’m a huge cute stuff and anime fan and also black, so it’s all subconsciously boiled together and out comes the art that I do. I am trying to broaden these horizons but it’s definitely my comfort zone.

"Reach" by Geneva Benton/
“Reach” by Geneva Benton.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become a professional artist or freelance as an artist?

Freelancing is technically working professionally. I would say study on what you need to get started and amass enough savings for a couple of months to cover initial freelancing expenses. And do good work! Do good work and a lot of work will come to you. One of the most challenging things is finding work, but refining your craft always increases the odds.

What’s a project you’re working on now that you’re really excited about?

I was on course for Kickstarting an artbook but it’s been put on hold till next year, for time reasons. Otherwise, I’m just making whatever feels cool at the time, until another idea hits me that is less time consuming than a book.

Geneva Benton will be at Anime Weekend Atlanta from September 29 – October 2, 2016, at the Renaissance Waverly Hotel & Cobb Galleria in Atlanta, Georgia.

On food and family with author Diana Abu-Jaber

Diana Abu-Jaber is an award-winning author, with multiple books exploring identity and heritage through the lenses of language and food. She’s also written for The Washington Post and The New Yorker, among other publications, and today we have the distinct pleasure of featuring her in The Quibblerview! Diana talked about her inspiration and her new culinary memoir, Life Without A Recipe.
Diana Abu-Jaber, from her website.
When did you first begin writing, and what was your first published piece?
I started writing before I knew how to write. My family was filled with story-tellers, so the experience of making stories, their shape and arc and form, was  very familiar to me. Summer vacations, starting around fourth grade, were taken up with writing novels in my school notebooks. The first real work I published was actually some poetry when I was an undergraduate in college. The Windsor Review published a couple of my poems and sent me twenty dollars-it was thrilling.
Your new book is a culinary memoir, but this isn’t the first time you’ve written about the impact of food on your life. How would you say cooking and writing intersect for you? What are the ways in which the craft involved in both is the same, and what are the ways in which it is different?
Writing and cooking are both creative, intuitive, improvisational pursuits-they also rely on focus, testing, and revision. And cooking is a wonderful metaphor for all sorts of human experiences and ways of seeing. But there’s a real timer on food that makes it a challenging, evanescent medium to work with. You have to time your dishes; you have to make sure ingredients are ripe but not overly so; you have to serve hot or cold or just so. The great mercy with writing is that-at least most of the time- you can take your time. The longer you work on most writing projects, the richer, better, more developed they become. Unless, of course, you’ve worked something to death, then you’ve got another problem.
Your books seem to cover a wide range of topics. What inspires you to write? What are some of the things you try to explore in your writing?
I write to remember, to tell my truth, to entertain myself and my friends, and in large part, I write to try to better understand myself-what I feel and think-as well as to try to better understand those around me. I seem to be haunted by issues of culture and identity, family and community, and of course food-that always seems to show up in my work, even when I’m not trying to write about it.

How do you go about constructing your novels? Do you start with the characters, the plot, or a mixture of both?
I don’t usually follow the same path-it changes from project to project. But in general, I prefer starting with a storyline of some sort-not really a whole plot, but some sort of hook or angle. My thriller Origin started when I woke up one day with a character’s voice in my head telling me her life story.

My first memoir was organized around specific food memories about cookies and baking. But my new memoir, Life Without a Recipe, began as a response to the advice I got from my writing teachers that I could be a parent or a writer but I couldn’t be both. I’d felt haunted by those voices and, after years of writing-and parenting-I wanted to answer.

What is the very first thing you do when starting a novel? And what is the last thing you when you’ve completed it?
It’s a pretty organic process for me, so I don’t have a kind of identifiable ritual or pattern. Novels start in the imagination, in dreams and conversations and observations; they accumulate. For me, there’s a lot of thinking and note-taking. Once I’ve dreamed up a story-arc, I’ll usually try to cobble together an outline, maybe do a bit of research, and soon after that I’ll attempt writing a first page.
“Completion” is an even more approximate term– there are drafts upon drafts upon drafts. I beg friends and family to read and give me feedback. Even after my agent has weighed in and my editor has sent me notes, there are more revisions as well as copy edits. Through it all, I’m plagued by uncertainty, the eternal sense of incompletion, that it can’t possibly be done. Eventually, I try to console myself with that wonderful quote: art is never finished only abandoned. And, as soon as I can, I try to start something new.
Who are some of the authors whose styles you admire?
Virigina Woolf; Michael Ondaatje; James Joyce, Ray Carver; Chekhov; Marilynne Robinson; Annie Proulx; Anton Shammas; M.F.K. Fisher, Louise Erdrich, and about a million others.

Photographer Sheri Bigelow and the meaning of cute

Today I’m very excited to introduce The Quibblerview, an interview series exploring the inspiration, talent, and pure hard work that creative people put into their content. For our first installment, meet photographer Sheri Bigelow.

Sheri is a lifelong photographer who shares her work on her blog, Cuteness, In All It’s Versatility. Her work combines beautiful vistas with unique angles and playful light and shade. I spoke with her about her background and her techniques.

How did you get into photography? What’s the first thing you took a photo of as a “photographer”?

I’ve loved photography for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure what the first thing was that I photographed, but it was probably something boring. Over time, and after looking back through a lot of old photographs recently, I’m finding that the pictures I love most are of people. It’s an amazing feeling when someone loves a photograph I’ve shot of them, and several people have used photos I’ve taken as their Gravatar—which I feel is a pretty cool compliment.

“This one is great because it’s a unique perspective,” Sheri says, “a different way of looking at an icy, wintry world for a moment.” See the original here.
Your blog is called “Cuteness, in all its versatility.” How do you define cuteness? And how do you identify it as a subject for your work?

The name “Cuteness, in all its versatility” came about because I was told I tend to overuse the word cute! I probably used that word for anything and everything and anything for a while, and so the definition became a bit fuzzy in my world. To me, it means something I like, and so anything goes as a subject, it can be anything that’s interesting or intriguing or silly or beautiful.

Sheri says, “I love this one because other people loved it and because it’s a good memory of a good place and time. It was taken under Scripps Pier in San Diego.” See the original here.
What kind of equipment do you use, and why?

For everyday things, I shoot with an iPhone 6S. I love it. Shooting with an iPhone to create memories works really well for most of what I need. When photographing events, I like to shoot with either Canon or Nikon with the fastest lenses I can get. Often I’ll shoot with a 70-200mm f/2.8 because you can get better candid shots from a distance while staying on the sidelines. I also really like shooting with a 50mm f/1.2 prime or a 24-70mm f/2.8.

What do you look for in a subject in terms of lighting, etc.? How do you know whether a photo will come out the way you envision it?

When taking snapshots or when just photographing something for fun, good lighting is often something you stumble upon. One thing that I have learned is that if you see an opportunity for a photograph in a space that has good light, you should take advantage of it right then because you never know when the light will change! Natural light can change so fast. You don’t always really know whether a photo will come out the way you envision it. The trick is to take a whole lot of photos and then choose the ones that worked out the best.

Sheri says: “I love this photo because it’s not staged but looks just like a stock photo. These are real people working on WordPress at WordCamp US 2016.” See the original here.

Sheri Bigelow is also a UX researcher at Automattic, the geniuses behind WordPress.com. Find her work in UX and theme design at DesignSimply.com.