Ep 210 Meet bestseller Deborah Rodriguez, author of ‘The Zanzibar Wife’ and ‘The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul’.

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In Episode 210 of So you want to be a writer: How to find time to write during NaNoWriMo. Enter this new critic award, and discover 10 books that were written on a bet. Meet bestseller Deborah Rodriguez, author of The Zanzibar Wife.

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Show Notes

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Make Time to Write

The 2018 KYD New Critic Award is now open!

10 Books That Were Written on a Bet

How to write a media release

Writer in Residence

Deborah Rodriguez

Deborah Rodriguez is the author of the international bestsellers The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul and Return to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul.

She has also written two memoirs: The Kabul Beauty School, about her life in Afghanistan, and The House on Carnaval Street, on her experiences following her return to America. She is also the founder of the non-profit organisation Oasis Rescue, which aims to teach women in post-conflict and disaster-stricken areas the art of hairdressing.

Her latest book is The Zanzibar Wife

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Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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Interview Transcript 

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Debbie.

Deborah

Thank you. I’m so excited that you’re calling me.

Valerie

Your latest book, The Zanzibar Wife, is about to be released, and for readers who haven’t got their hands on the book yet, can you tell us what it’s about?

Deborah

It’s about three very amazing women that come together in very unusual circumstances. And it’s kind of about secrets and the women overcoming adversity. And it goes from Oman into Zanzibar. We are covering, it’s two different locations. And it’s got a lot of surprises in there. We’ve got a little bit of voodoo and a little bit of… Some supernatural stuff that’s happening. But in the end, the bottom line, it’s about women helping women, and it’s kind of a girl power thing.

Valerie

Cool. And so it’s set in Oman and Zanzibar, as you said. Did you decide to have that setting… Because I understand you went to Oman. Did your visit to Oman inspire this? Or did you go to Oman after you decided, oh, I think I’m going to set my next book there?

Deborah

You know what, I had been looking for a location, and I had stories… Like, I’m a collector of people who can possibly be good characters, and I’m a collector of stories. So I have all these little stories in a pot. And I had this idea of what I thought a book could be, and I didn’t know the location. So I actually went to Oman the first time to audition the country, to see if my stories – I know it’s really odd – but to see if I could plug in a story that would… And I didn’t know if it would work at all.

And when I first got there, it’s such a beautiful peaceful calm place, and not a lot of drama. I almost wasn’t certain. And then it wasn’t until I met my driver, and he said to me, so I asked him different questions. And he kept saying, “and my father’s Zanzibar wife, and my father’s Zanzibar wife.”

I said, “how many wives does your father have?”

“Well, he’s had five.”

“How many does he have now?”

“Only one, my mother. Because my mother made him divorce all the Zanzibar wives.”

And I thought, oooh, I think there’s something there. And so it wasn’t until then, I went back. And I had been just researching all the amazing…

One town I went to was Bahla, and it’s claimed as one of the most haunted places on earth. And so I thought, ooh, this sounds very intriguing.

But when I went back the second time, I already had the outline of the book, so I was following the path of my characters just to make it real. And at that point, the book decided to do what it wanted to do. And I was no longer in control, because it decided the story that it wanted to write. It’s like it takes on its own powers. It’s very odd, sometimes. You have this whole thing in your head and it just changes. And changes pathways on you. So yeah, it kind of goes, sometimes it’s location driven, and sometimes it’s story driven. So you have to test it to see if it will work.

Valerie

So was your driver the turning point? Or if it wasn’t for your driver, when you say that you were auditioning the country, what would have been the successful elements that they would have passed the audition?

Deborah

Well, you know what, it was actually really kind of hard. Because the Omanis keep everything really close to their chest. So it’s not like you can really see, you’re not getting much information from them. And it wasn’t… It was when I was overwhelmed at the amazing beauty of this country, and it’s so different than everything surrounding it. You know, between… It was such a tolerant country when people often think it’s not because it’s situated by Yemen, and it’s not as conservative as Saudi Arabia, and it’s not as blingy as Emirates.

And so I wanted it to… I thought that I could bring in so much colour from the Zanzibar section of it. And so it was kind of hard. It was just like, it’s a feeling, right?

It’s like a water boarding, anybody who gets next to me in a vehicle or a restaurant, because I’m interrogating them about everything. And I’m sure it’s awful. But I’m just trying to, you know, I’m a hairdresser, right? So I get people in my chair and I can get them to talk. So that’s what I was doing. And I did that with everybody. And then pretty soon, like the concierge, you name it, nobody stood a chance.

And once I could break through to, oh, we’re always so, it’s always so this, once I could break through what they wanted the tourists to see, once I could break through that then I knew I had this story. And I knew it would take some work, but I knew it would be okay. And it was a fantastic location.

Valerie

And so you have ridiculously successful books. The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, Return to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, The Kabul Beauty School, The House on Carnaval Street. Now as you say, you started life off in hairdressing. You went to beauty school. When did you think, hm, I think I might try writing on the side?

Deborah

You know, it’s really funny, because I never ever… And you know, even to this day, I always think of myself as a story teller more so than a writer. I don’t know if I can’t wrap my head around that.

But I always could create stories. And I did that when I was younger, and I always wrote like one-act plays or skits, but only in the form of telling the story. And then it wasn’t until I was in Afghanistan and I realised that… I documented everything. And actually the book I wanted to write instead of The Kabul Beauty School, I wanted to write the book There’s Warlords in my Living Room. Maybe that one will be written some day.

Valerie

Were you doing the hair of the warlords?

Deborah

No! But I remember… I had a coffee house. And so that was my social place. And I was married to an Afghan who was an assistant to a warlord. Which was kind of problematic at times. And so I remember coming home, it was maybe 9 o’clock, 8:30 at night. And I would call, I would always have to call before I could come home from the coffee house. And I’d say, “so I’m coming home now.”

“Oh no Debbie, you can’t come home, there’s warlords in our living room.”

So it’s like, okay, I’ll stay out a little while longer. So it was kind of funny.

Valerie

So at what point did you think, I’ll write? Did you just decide, I want a new pastime? Or did you think, I’m going to be an author now?

Deborah

No, you know, I really thought that The Kabul Beauty School story needed to be told. It was so amazing, and I felt like I really had a window into a life that… It was an amazing window. And I really felt that it needed to be shared. And the girls really wanted me to put a face on what was happening over there, the girls in my school.

So that was when I thought, you know what, I think I can do this. And thank god for really, really good editors. And it was really, it was hard. It was really tricky. And then it wasn’t until after that, and I’m back in the States now, and my kids kept calling me a one hit wonder. So I said, “no I’m not.”

“Yeah you are, mum.”

I’m like, okay, watch, I’ll show you. And then I thought, you know, I felt like I had to leave Afghanistan really quickly because of security situations, and I was grieving everything so desperately. I was grieving my life in Afghanistan. And that’s when I wrote The Little Coffee Shop. Because I wasn’t ready to let it go. And I didn’t want to go non-fiction. I really wanted it to be a fiction. But it’s so close to real that it’s ridiculous. But I wasn’t ready to go non-fiction again, so I played it safe and went fiction.

Valerie

So it’s officially fiction, but if you’re saying that it’s so close to real, I guess only you know what’s fiction and non-fiction. But this book, The Zanzibar Wife, is fiction, I’m assuming.

Deborah

It is fiction, but…

Valerie

Yes, go on. I want to hear the but.

Deborah

So you know what? I have a really, really bad habit. And my bad habit is unless I’ve lived it, I can’t… I have to feel it, I have to smell it, I have to live it in order for it to become real to me. If it’s not real to me, meaning being in that situation, I really struggle. And so that’s why I went back. I mean, I had enough information for Oman, but that’s why I went back, and I traced the footsteps. So I literally lived my character’s life.

And I got myself into some really interesting predicaments, and I’m thinking, oh my goodness, I am really taking one for the team here. Because it was… I was in the most haunted place in the world! And it was really interesting and unnerving. Because I literally had to, I went through with a witch doctor. It was very unnerving. But I thought, okay, how do you write about an exorcism, right? What would I know about it? So it was so…

Valerie

So tell me more about that. This most haunted place in the world that you went to with a witch doctor. What happened in real life?

Deborah

What happened in real life is I had heard about this town. I mean, you can see it on National Geographic. You can Google it and it’s there. But I was so surprised. It was in the middle of this little mountain village and it’s supposedly the birthplace of the jinn, which is like the genie, genie in the bottle.

And also it’s where there’s magic. Everybody is afraid, like, if you ask anybody from Dubai to go to Bahla they’d say no, I’m not, no. Just flat out. They’d be afraid to. So I knew, I’d heard about this one tree in this special, this little market place and somebody had said, well, I think the guy that’s in front of that tree, he might be your magic man. And it’s hard to find. Searching this out, nobody wants to talk about it.

And so I went to that town in this mountain, and to the tree, and found the shop and I basically just came out and, you know, because Americans are pretty forthcoming, I said, “so are you the guy that does the magic?” And it was so funny.

And he sat me down, he said, “sit in my little shop.” And I sat there and then he told my driver to leave. And he says, “you will come to my home.” And I’m like, oh goodness. I’m gonna die in this village. And I didn’t know where I was. And I said, “okay, okay.” And I went. And he was remarkable. I still text him and his son at least weekly.

And it was very odd. He told me, I sat there with him, and the whole time you’re in this mountain village, you’re in the scariest town in the world, and you got this magic guy, and his phone is making that bird sound when the tweets are coming through. And he’s like tweeting, and I’m thinking, this is really weird. And I was with Ellen, who I work with, and he invited us for dinner. And she’s looking at… First of all, we left our driver, we had no choice. So we sat and we’re having lunch with him and his son, and his son spoke good English so he’s translating. And then he sat there, and he started to tell me things about me that nobody in the world knew.

Valerie

Really?

Deborah

And I’m looking at him and I’m thinking, geez, Ellen. And I’m looking at her. Then he says, “you know you have had a spell put on you, right?” And I had known. And he said, “you had a spell put on you while you were in a Muslim country and probably by…” He said, “were you married to anybody in a Muslim country?” And I’m like, oh goodness, I don’t even want to go there. And he says, “well you’ve had a spell, and it’s still there. Do you want to get rid of it?”

I’m looking at Ellen, I’m thinking, well I don’t know. It’s never really bothered me that much. He goes, “oh, you need to get rid of it.” And Ellen’s going, “you know, you gotta do this. This is research, Deb! It’s research!” And I’m thinking, oh goodness. I said, “please don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me, Ellen.”

I mean, I wrote about it in the Q&As in the book, and I mean the whole thing was unbelievable. And Ellen being an amazing sceptic of all things supernatural, she thought if I had not seen it with my own eyes I would have never ever believed it. And me, I was a little rattled by it, because it was happening to me, right? I’m thinking, next time, somebody else can do this. So it was unbelievable. Scary, enlightening… It was something else.

Valerie

Did you ever feel in danger?

Deborah

No. No. They were so welcoming, and such a beautiful family. And the children! I’m having an exorcism or something, and the children, the children are running in and out of the room, and of course Ellen’s taking notes of how this all works. And nobody paid any attention to it. And I’m draped with this big shawl that has burn marks in the back because they put frankincense under my scarf, under this big shawl. Obviously, it burnt up before.

I’m covered, I have frankincense burning under this giant shawl, thinking, oh my god, am I going to die? I have asthma. I’m thinking, oh I’m going to die. I really thought I was going to die there for a minute. I was scared. I have to say I was a bit unnerved, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I don’t discount any sort of…

But you knew that he wasn’t, like, he was one of the good guys. In all of this, there’s good ones and there’s bad ones. So he wasn’t a bad guy. And he travels the world doing this. And how I found him in front of the tree, in this little village. And so that was remarkable. I mean, it’s like, oh goodness.

Valerie

Certainly adventurous. Now for anyone who is tempted to rush into the bookstore and go to the back of the book to read the Q&A, I’ll just warn you that it contains spoilers, so read the book first.

Now, you’re obviously very adventurous, and you went to Oman, you did all of these things, you visited the most haunted place on earth, and so on. When you’re doing your research, as your friend Ellen refers to it, is there a process? As in, are you just experiencing it and then that’s the main thing? Or do you take notes? How do you capture the sights and the sounds and the experiences into some kind of form so you don’t forget later?

Deborah

Right. Videos being taken all the time, I have hours and hours and hours. I rehired that same driver, who was so surprised to see me the second time, and since I’ve sent my friends to him, and sent my friends to meet the family in Bahla, because they’re so generous and gracious.

And no, I take pictures of everything. Video tape tonnes of things. Like what does that drive look like to the potters with the magic in their fingers, what did that drive look like? Videotaping out of both sides of the car windows, recording everything.

And I mean, it’s a real, it takes both Ellen and I to gather this information. And it’s easier for me to do this with somebody with me than doing it by myself. It’s impossible. Because I’m jabbering the whole time. And if I am by myself trying to do something, I have to go back and I have to go through all my pictures and write everything that I felt and I smelled. Smell is… I mean, for me, to engage with all the senses, everything, you’ve got to be able to smell it. What did that feel like when you opened the door in a sandstorm? What did that feel like? How did your throat feel? Everything. And that’s my… It would be easier for me if I didn’t have to go and retrace everything and make sure that I’ve got the details. But I like the details.

Valerie

And so you obviously do a lot of documentation and videos and that sort of thing. Can you give us some idea then, when you come back, is that when you start the actual writing? Or do you do some writing while you’re there?

Deborah

No, no writing while I’m there. That’s impossible. Because you’re absorbed in everything you’re seeing.

Typically, like right now I’m working on a project that I can’t talk about right now. But so, there will be storyboarding and storylining of everything, and then a visit to the area. Then kind of get everything in a broad sense. And then I’ll follow the footsteps of everything again.

But then that’s all, you’re just gathering information, buying local books that may have stuff about folkloric stuff and scenes. And then you’re getting your contacts of the people who have a better grasp of the language so that you know that, oh, I’m trying to say this, how would you say this sentence. I toss it back to whoever I’ve made contact with in the country and toss it back to them. Can this happen?

And you know what was really interesting for the Zanzibar part is I had hired a local guide, and he was very conservative. And I needed some underbelly. You can’t go five feet without stumbling over a gigolo in that country. So I figured, you know what, I bet you he understands the underbelly. And so I literally told him what I was looking for which was not in his… I told him I was looking for this story and I needed to find the house of these people, I needed to find another witch doctor. When you’re going to countries looking for witch doctors, it is not in the brochure.

So it was amazing, because then I literally, he was so cute, because he said to me at the end of maybe three or four days that were hard core research on that, he said to me, “I have never felt more rewarded in my life.” He said, “I wish that I had a job that when I’m done at the end I feel like I do right now.” And so he had gotten so involved in the story, and to him they were real people. And they were to me, too. And it was really sweet. And so you never know who you’re going to meet. They’re unlikely… As my books are. I have unlikely friendships. I like that.

Valerie

And so you mentioned storyboarding. With The Zanzibar Wife, did you storyboard most of the story, the plot, the various threads through it before you started writing? Or do you pretty much know what you’re going to write in this instance? Or do you discover things as you write?

Deborah

I basically find my characters. I know that I need these characters, and I know that I have a broad storyboard. And then I try to throw how I would see the arc of the book going, how I see the journey of each of my characters. But once, you know how with writing, once you’re in it it sometimes takes a life of its own. And then, you know, they change. I may think I’m doing one story or this character is going in one direction, and it will change on me sometimes. But I think everybody goes through that when they’re writing.

Valerie

Sure. So when you are writing, you’ve come back, you’ve done your research, you’ve lived it, and you’re ready to properly write, can you tell me what you’re typical writing day would look like? When you’re actually writing a book. So whether you have a routine or any rituals, whether you have a word count target. Just your creative process on an actual writing day.

Deborah

You know, I’m not as disciplined as I wish I was. Because I still do hair, right. And so when I’m working really hard…

Valerie

Really?

Deborah

Yeah.

Valerie

Where?

Deborah

I do hair in Mexico. I have a little spa. And so I still do hair. And I’ve just become a hypnotist. So I am busy, busy. And so I will plot out a day, like, okay, I need to really focus on this for these next four days. And I plough through it. I’m very…

I have to hear, I have to tell the story out loud. That’s my big thing. I can’t write it first, I have to speak it.

Valerie

Really?

Deborah

Yeah.

Valerie

So what do you do? Do you speak it to somebody or into a tape recorder or what?

Deborah

Yeah, everybody. Everybody gets it. There’s nobody safe. Nobody. I mean, my cat, my cat has all my stories. I have to say it out loud, and then a lot of reading out loud. Because if I’m fumbling over my words… But I say it out loud a lot. I have to hear it. And then I bounce, I do a lot of bouncing back and forth with other people to make sure it makes sense.

But I’m not as scheduled as I’d like. I’m just not.  That’s not my… I’m not a nine to fiver. I can maybe handle four hours, five max. And then I’m done.

Valerie

So if you have to say it out loud, you’re saying it out loud to your cat and to everyone, is someone actually noting it down or are you just practising your verbal storytelling until you get it right?

Deborah

Again, I’m still doing hair. And so my customers, oh my goodness. I have a full head colour foil. I mean, I can tell a lot in that two and a half hours. And then they’re asking me questions and so I’m sorting everything out in my head. And plus I’m not a good sleeper, and so I sort it out in my dreams, which is really weird. But I plot all night long. It’s like I’m so busy. And then it’s a back and forth process just trying to get it into a chapter.

Valerie

So once you feel you’ve got it right verbally, that’s when you write it?

Deborah

Yeah. And then of course it takes on a life of its own.

Valerie

So give me an idea of, including the verbal story telling practice, after you came back from Oman, what was the gestation period for this book? How long did it take you until you finally had a manuscript that you could send to your publisher?

Deborah

Oh goodness. That’s a tricky question, because I can’t remember. Let’s see. The timeframe of the second trip was really… That was April, and then I went off to Zanzibar in October. I think the manuscript had to be to them by January. Yeah.

Valerie

Wow.

Deborah

But no, I mean there had been a lot of writing before. I mean, it’s usually about a year. And usually two hefty trips in the middle of that. Just because you know you’re trying to get the last… Because Zanzibar, I’d never been, and I really needed to. Oman, the first trip to Oman was a scouting trip, and the second one was definitely ploughing in and getting it going. And then the Zanzibar one wasn’t until… This time, it would have been this time last year that I was in Zanzibar.

Valerie

So the writing part, it sounds like, doesn’t actually take too long. It’s the lead up to the writing that takes up a lot of time because you’re doing so much of the research and forming it in your head and all of that kind of stuff. Would that be right?

Deborah

No, I think that it all is pretty time consuming. I mean, it’s pretty time consuming. You know, it’s a fulltime job. Plus doing hair.

Valerie

Yes. Plus doing hair!

Deborah

The thing is, though, what I do try to schedule is… I’m in Mazatlán. So I have this little family-owned and operated spa. So I’m basically doing the tourists’ hair, and I’ve got the expatriates who are living here. And so actually my season is very short. So it’s basically November til May. So then after that I’m free. I don’t have to deal with the hair part of it. So I do like to try to schedule it so that the big part of the book is taking place during the time I’m not having to focus on the salon.

Valerie

So now that you have so many very successful books under your belt – and you’re obviously working on another project, the one that you can’t talk about – in the future, do you have a plan in terms of, oh, I’m going to write a book a year or a book every two years, or whatever? Have you vaguely even thought out your next several steps?

Deborah

Yeah, I would like to get… Like, I’ve had a bit of lag time now because I had not pitched a new book. But it’s really ideal when you can hand a book in and then now focus on the next one and start getting that done so that you don’t have so much time in between. Because you know the whole book writing process, and then the publishing process, it’s a long time. And so then you’ve got a year or a year and a half between getting another book out there.

Valerie

So if your children had not said to you, “hey, you’re a one hit wonder,” do you think you would be in this position now?

Deborah

You know what, I don’t think so. Actually, I didn’t know that I loved to write fiction. I felt non-fiction was easy for me, because I’d lived it. And that’s maybe why I keep doing my style now, where I have to live it. Because it felt, it was as clear… Because I see everything like a movie. So when I’m writing, I still see it like a movie. I can watch it. And that’s why, for me, even though it’s fiction, there’s got to be some really real elements to it, otherwise it would feel… I don’t think my imagination is that good. Because I like things to feel real. And so no. I didn’t know if I could do fiction.

Valerie

Right.

Deborah

Because I didn’t know. Because I’d done non-fiction, so it was based on my life. So how hard is that, right? You already know the ending!

Valerie

So what’s the most challenging part of writing fiction, do you think? For you?

Deborah

The most challenging, and a big breakthrough just happened in the last two days. And again, you’ve got to find that really compelling storyline. And then because my readers like more exotic locations, so you need to have female driven and exotic story, an exotic location, really compelling cultural surprises, all that sort of stuff. You need to be able to make sure that it fits organically, that you’re not forcing it so hard. And so that’s why you wind up auditioning different storylines. I have a bag of storylines. I constantly am writing a small storyline and then I pull them out and then sometimes two of them will merge together. But it’s hard, I think, to find when the two meet perfectly, and you think – got it. Boom. Done. That’s the hard part.

Valerie

Yes. But it also sounds like you’re able to test out some of your storylines when you’re doing hair, maybe?

Deborah

The thing is, you’re finding a character that first of all is relatable. Somebody for me that is believable, somebody you like. Now, how do you get them in this exotic location that doesn’t feel forced? How do you do that? Trying to find these very entertaining but yet culturally right there, plus current. Staying really current with something that’s happening now without doing the same story over and over. You don’t want to be beating that dead horse. Like, oh, I’ve got that formula, so boom! I can do one, just change a few things. I don’t like to do that. I like it to be very organic and very…

Like I said, if it can’t really happen, then I don’t want to do it. It needs to be able to really happen. Because then I think the readers can travel with you. I’m not a sci-fi writer. I’m not that. I want it to feel that any one of my readers could be experiencing that same thing and feeling the same emotion that my characters are. They’ve just travelled some place different.

Valerie

And finally, what’s your advice for aspiring writers who hope to be in a position like you are one day? Maybe they’re doing hair and they want to transition or they want to add another string to their bow. What’s your advice to people who are listening who want to do that?

Deborah

I think it’s really important that, no matter what, you stay true to your craft. And I think that writing is very artistic. And it’s an artform. You’re painting a beautiful canvas of a story. And if you focus on, oh my goodness, I need to sell this book… You want the book to sell, but you need to focus on your craft, and you need to take that time to get to know your characters. And think about the book as a piece of art versus as a money maker. I think that’s probably why I still do hair. It’s so funny, because I always think of it as my craft, as my art.

Valerie

I love that.

Deborah

Yeah. I’m painting a picture. And I like painting, and I like creating pictures, and I like creating stories. And so I never really think about it as my income.

Valerie

I love that. Think of your book as a piece of art. It’s a great way to think about it. Thank you so much for joining us today, and for all of your insights. And congratulations on the new book.

Deborah

Thank you so much. It’s been so much fun. Thanks.

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