APEX MAGAZINE: Hi Saad, thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, for those unfamiliar with your work or your writing, can you tell us more about yourself and your novel?
SAAD HOSSAIN: Hi. I wrote a novel called Escape from Baghdad! which is a war story about a trio of Iraqi criminals and their friend the marine Hoffman. It’s kind of a black comedy with some elements of fantasy, a generous measure of violence, obscure sects, serial killers, the remnants of the great library, and the secret to alchemical immortality. I had a lot of fun writing it.
AM: What’s the appeal of science fiction and fantasy for you? In Escape from Baghdad!, what made you explore the story using this lens?
SH: Firstly, there’s no research. I started writing when I was a ten year old kid, and that was a huge incentive. Seriously though, fantasy in a traditional sense is more popular than ever now, obviously with the success of Game of Thrones and the LOTR trilogy. That’s important for the rest of us because now it’s mainstream, people are not frightened of the genre, and fantasy writers can exploit this to create different kinds of books. The trend in fantasy has been towards a grittier, more realistic world, and that lets us tackle more serious topics. Using fantasy to examine war is fun and also useful because you can take liberties which would not be possible in a straight up thriller. Even in fiction, the reader expects you to know what you’re talking about. Not being Iraqi, or a soldier, this was really the only avenue available to me which I was comfortable with.
AM: How about comedy and absurdity? Was it difficult writing with these styles and techniques?
SH: Absurdity lends itself very well to modern day war. When you look at the human suffering, the destruction, the insane level of war profiteering, it is, actually, absurd. It’s important, however, to strike a balance between war commentary and actually telling a story, because I don’t think readers would really enjoy a book full of rants about the evils of war.
The comedy is important to me, because above all else I want to entertain people, and humor is something which cuts through all genres. I hate books which are unrelentingly heavy, tragic, and depressing. I don’t feel that reflects the true human experience.
It’s difficult to go in thinking you’re going to write a war satire. That kind of technique is difficult to sustain and again, there’s a danger of losing sight of the actual story. It’s far easier to make your jokes when you get the chance and let the tone develop organically.
AM: For me, history is a fictional account by the victors. Why is exploring a different perspective important for you? For us?
SH: Well I definitely agree with you. History is part simplification and part moral justification for questionable acts of violence. The habit of breaking everything down into winners and losers is particularly harmful, when the next logical progression is ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’. It is all too easy to translate a temporary demographic or technological advantage into some kind of moral superiority.
To change this kind of thought we have to look at the victims of conflict in a different way.
AM: Why is the Iraq War important to you?
SH: I wanted a war novel, and it was the biggest war of our generation. Even now the war looks set to continue indefinitely. I think this is the war which changed how people look at war a little bit, because of the massive coverage we got, from the jingoistic mainstream media to the blogs from the soldiers and the civilians trapped in the conflict. Given the horrific end results, we would have to ask, what was the point of this war? Who gained? Who lost? What happens to the actual people living through this?
AM: What were the challenges in writing the novel?
SH: The main challenge was getting motivated. I’m not a professional writer, I have a full time job, so really the writing time has to be carved out of office hours, traffic time, and late nights. You have to make that sacrifice without any hope of a return. For the first time novelist the fear is always whether anyone will bother reading the book. Luckily I had a great writers’ group, and many of us were able to finish our projects. Of course, having written the novel, getting it published was a whole other challenge, one which was certainly more daunting for me.
AM: How did Unnamed Press end up publishing Escape from Baghdad!? What was the experience like?
SH: A good friend of mine and fellow writer, Masud Khan, gave the manuscript to Unnamed Press and forced them to read it. He had some kind of nefarious hold on Chris, the editor. When Chris came to Dhaka for a lit fest, I met him for about ten minutes and we agreed to go ahead and publish. I’ve had a wonderful time working with them, they’ve done a lot to promote the book, and the reception has been beyond my expectations.
AM: How did you become acquainted with science fiction and fantasy? How did you become a reviewer of genre books?
SH: I’ve always loved sci fi and fantasy, in elementary school our library had a great collection, so I had access to a lot of books. My first love was the Belgariad by David Eddings. I remember inhaling that series, and then rereading it twenty times. English books were hard to get in Bangladesh, so I was lucky.
I still read all the time, especially in the car, because our traffic is so bad, I spend three hours a day commuting. I love reviewing, I’ve not been able to do it as much as I’d like, but hopefully I can pick up the pace a bit more. The English newspapers in Dhaka are open to new content, so I’ve been fortunate in having a place to print my stuff.
AM: How did the novel become your outlet? How different is it compared to your nonfiction?
SH: In my head I always consider myself a novelist, because I like long stories, and I have not yet mastered the art of brevity. When we were kids, I started writing a fantasy story with a bunch of friends, where each person took one character. They eventually dropped out, but I kept going. I eventually finished that and another massive fantasy tome, raw, uneven stuff, but I enjoyed doing it and I figure those efforts taught me how to write.
I have done a lot of short pieces, from reviews and articles to short stories, and these are useful for proving your skills, kind of like paying your dues, building up credibility so that when you want a publisher, there are people willing to talk to you.
AM: What are your plans? Where can people find more info about you and your work?
SH: I’m writing a novel on djinns, it’s about two thirds done. Djinns have a very prominent place in my culture and folklore, but I’m basically throwing out all of that and completely reinventing them. It’s a bit more on the fantasy end, and kind of starts out young adult, but gets progressively darker. I hope to start you off in a place which is familiar and comforting, and then wreck your peace of mind.
So far, Escape! is the only novel I’ve had published. Unnamed Press has some reviews up and the book will soon be published in India by Aleph Book Company, which has an amazing lineup of authors. I don’t have a website, but you can always get me on twitter @saadzhossain or facebook. I guess if I get a few more books up I’ll set up an author’s page or something.
Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology, and the co-editor of Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume 9. His fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Speculative Fiction and the anthology The Dragon and the Stars (ed. by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi). He has contributed nonfiction to websites such as The Shirley Jackson Awards, Fantasy Magazine, The World SF Blog, and SF Signal. In 2009, he won the Last Drink Bird Head Award for International Activism. He is also a 2011, 2012, and 2013 World Fantasy nominee for the Special Award, Non-Professional category. You can visit his blog, Bibliophile Stalker.