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).
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.