What was the inspiration behind this story?
First of all, thank you for this opportunity to talk a bit about my work with you and with Nightmare’s readers: I truly appreciate it, and am grateful to you for your time.
The inspiration for this story: In the winter of 2006, I was living in Almaty, Kazakhstan, working for a company that specialized in educational exchange programs in the former Soviet Union. They had recently expanded their operations into Afghanistan, and they asked me to go down and help out there for the winter with recruiting participants for their programs.
I jumped at the chance: I grew up in Fremont, California, which has a large community of refugees from Afghanistan. Our neighbors when I was very young were from there, and we were quite close for a time. I also had students who were refugees from Afghanistan when I was a Peace Corps volunteer teaching in Turkmenistan. I knew the culture and history well, and had always wanted to go.
So I got on a plane in Almaty, and I went. I got stuck in Baku, Azerbaijan for three days along the way, and then we flew into Kabul in an old Soviet plane, in a fog with the airport control tower out, but that journey is another story.
That year was a transitional year in Afghanistan. The initial American war had ended, but the Taliban had just begun to use suicide bombing as a technique, and the insurgency was about to begin in full force. There was a winter lull in the fighting, due to the mountain passes being closed by snow. Our little, underfunded operation had no real security, and nobody to tell us what we could and could not do. I lived above our office, with a deadly little propane heater in my room for warmth, and a double-barreled shotgun propped in the corner of the room, issued to me by the company’s country director as a “weapon of last resort.”
There were three of us Americans working in the office, and half a dozen local staff. We did whatever we wanted to: We walked the streets of Kabul at night to get pizza, and we drove to Bamyan and to Jalalabad on recruiting trips to interview high school students with our Pashtun driver and our Tajik recruiting assistant in an old Soviet Lada. We wandered around the shattered buildings of the former Soviet Embassy, ate at local kebab houses, went shopping in local bazaars. We were too young and naïve to be worried about our safety.
The bazaars were full of the history of Afghan resistance to colonial occupation: British Enfield rifles likely dropped by the retreating army in 1842 (which only one military man survived), as well as Soviet equipment, black and white photographs, U.S. Army surplus, discarded pocket and wrist watches—a strange assortment of detritus left behind by layer after layer of occupying forces. I even found a copy of Where the Wild Things Are among the debris.
And of course, I had so many conversations with the people of Afghanistan. I was there to recruit for exchange programs, so my main job was talking to people. I was able to meet dozens, maybe hundreds, of students and teachers and aid workers and other people. Along the way I even met Rory Stewart, author of The Places in Between, and had a conversation with the Bookseller of Kabul, Shah Muhammad Rais. The mark that trip left on me was indelible, but I didn’t write much about it, except for a few poems, and short travel pieces.
A few years later, in 2008 and 2009, I was living in Tajikistan, and had a chance to travel (also for recruiting) to the Pamir Plateau and the Wakhan Corridor. There I met Kyrgyz shepherds still living as nomads, and Badakhshanis from both sides of the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. I also visited, on that trip and others, dozens of animist altars scattered across the Pamir Plateau and the Wakhan. I think it’s around that time that I started to get the germ of the idea for “Beyond the High Altar.” I was also inspired by Newby’s a Short Walk in the Hindu Kush—a book I recommend to anyone who will listen. When I start thinking about it, really, there were so many threads—too many to list here. That is one of the joys of being a writer: you weave your stories from your life experience and what you read, and the stories others tell you. The warp and weft of a story can mesh slowly in the mind over years or emerge almost spontaneously. In this case, it was a slow process.
What made you decide to write this in epistolary format? Was this the first form you decided to go with for this story?
It was. I really wanted to write a story in the Victorian British ghost/adventure story style. In those days, they loved framing devices—found manuscripts, sheaves of letters. I chose this framing device (my finding the letters at the Bagram Air Base bazaar) because it allowed me to link the story to the present day.
The epistolary style gave me a chance to give the narrator and protagonist, M, full narrative control and a strong voice. Since “Beyond the High Altar” is, on one of its levels, a story about nineteenth century gender roles and M’s increasing awareness of how they function and resistance to them, I wanted her to be able to tell her own story. I began to feel, as I wrote, that she was very much a real person, someone I had a responsibility to. I wanted to make my readers feel her presence, and hear the story in her voice. The letters allowed me to do that.
So, I checked out your website, and you’re quite an accomplished author. What really impressed me though, is your work as a Foreign Service Officer and the many languages you speak, including Russian and Albanian. You sort of sound like a spy. Tell us about your work and how it informs your writing.
So—you’re not the first person to say I seem like a spy: I think there are some people in my family, even, who are absolutely sure I’m not who I say I am. Nothing will convince them otherwise. Especially since, if I was a spy, I certainly wouldn’t admit it. I guess that’s the Catch-22.
The truth is, though, I would never want to be a spy. My real job is much more fulfilling. I’m a Public Affairs Officer for the Foreign Service. Instead of sneaking around, I get to go out and talk to people from all walks of life. I get to help build bridges between our country and theirs. I get to do amazing stuff like organizing a hip-hop group’s tour of Kyrgyzstan, bringing together U.S. and Kyrgyz folk singers to play and compose music together, or working with U.S. scientists to teach kids in Vietnam how to document endangered species on their native islands. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: I love my work. And learning the language of the country I am going to work in is key: language is culture. It is the viewpoint from which we see the world. I’m very grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given to learn so many languages by my Peace Corps experience, by my work in international assistance, and by the Foreign Service.
This absolutely informs my writing. Since 2003, I have only lived in the United States for three years. The rest of the time, I’ve been in Turkmenistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Azerbaijan—and now Kosovo. Living outside the U.S., in so many different places, has given me a very different view of U.S. culture, and of human culture in general. I think all that experience shows up on the page, somewhere—even if it isn’t explicit. Living overseas and speaking another language, trying to navigate a new culture, makes you humble. You make constant mistakes, you embarrass yourself, you can’t communicate your ideas clearly at times. You aren’t the accomplished person you thought you were in your own country; you are a child. You learn to speak less. You learn to listen more carefully.
From this experience, I also learned a greater respect for all the people here in the U.S. who are dealing with living in another language and culture—and for exiles, immigrants, stateless persons and wanderers everywhere. And I learned that the way I grew up framing and understanding the world is arbitrary: there are many ways to live on this planet. And there is value to be found in all of them.
As for being an accomplished author—that’s kind of you to say, but I don’t really feel that way. I feel like I’m still waiting for a breakthrough. I’ve been lucky to have some consistent, small successes. I’ve always written, ever since I was a little kid, in many genres. I’ve managed to publish steadily, for the most part. But I feel like real success is something that lies in the future for me, if it is going to happen at all. What’s most important to me is the act of writing itself—sorting the material of the world, and building something new from it. Communicating with people. That’s the core of it.
Do you do anything special to set the mood for the stories you’re writing? Playlists? Video gaming? Reading or watching something that inspires and gets the juices going?
Reading sparks ideas for me: I read a good deal of science writing, especially in the fields of semiotics, neuroscience and the study of consciousness. My undergraduate work was largely centered on semiotics. Specifically, recently, biosemiotics has been of huge interest to me.
I also read a lot of history—mostly of the regions where I work. And their folk tales, which are another key to understanding people better.
Music is an enormous influence as well. It always has been: I was a musician in rock, punk, and rockabilly bands when I was younger (I played bass guitar and upright bass, and sang). My parents had a very ecumenical record collection, so I grew up listening to a wide variety of music. That’s a habit that has followed me my whole life. I listen to a ton of different things, depending on my mood: from heavier stuff like Sleep and Om and Pelican to ambient electronica and jazz. Lately, I’ve been kind of obsessed with Turkish Psychedelic Folk Rock from the ’60s and ’70s. Here’s a great place to start if you would like to hear some of that, by the way: (bit.ly/2LFY93T). It’s mind-blowing.
Do you have any special projects coming up?
I do. Tons of projects. But I never talk about upcoming plans. I guess I’m superstitious—afraid of the Evil Eye.
However, there is something I would like to share: “Beyond the High Altar” has a prequel. That story, “Do Not Forget Me,” was published in Asimov’s in March of 2016. You can read it on my website (bit.ly/2ygDKcQ). I strongly recommend you read it only after reading “Beyond the High Altar,” as it is full of spoilers. But if you read it afterwards, I think you will find it rewarding. The two stories are pieces of one puzzle.
Thank you again, Khaalidah, for this opportunity, and for the great questions. I hope Nightmare’s readers enjoy the story.
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