Saturday, September 17, 2016

0 Marina Budhos, author of WATCHED, on learning to find your own particular way of seeing things

We're pleased to have Marina Budhos here to give us more info about her latest novel WATCHED.

Marina, what was your inspiration for writing WATCHED?

For a long while a lot of people had asked me if I was going to do a follow-up book to my YA novel Ask Me No Questions, which is about an undocumented family. But I didn’t want to follow the same family and was musing on a new idea.

Then one evening I was at dinner with some friends who said, “Marina you have to write about this!” They were talking about the invasive surveillance of Muslims in New York City, which had just been revealed through a series of AP exposes. Intrigued, I thought I may have found the broader ‘beat’ to my novel. But I still didn’t quite feel I had a story, a character. Shortly after, I had dinner with another friend, and she was telling me the story of a young South Asian man who came swaggering into her law office and was boasting about the fact that he was ‘in with the police’ and implying he as an informant. He was both pumped up about it, but also trapped, as they needed him to move to another city.

The novelist in me immediately perked up: now this was an intriguing dilemma! A kid who really gets into this role, who thinks of this as the way to outstrip his father; to be a hero.

The novelist in me knew I'd landed on the more interesting premise: What if a kid becomes an informant, but also likes it? Feels some kind of empowerment? What if the police handler offers a kind of manhood that his own father does not? What is the dilemma he's in? That was when I stopped seeing my characters as purely victims, but complex beings--and especially boys, with all their swagger and desire to 'be' someone in the world. I wanted to write about boys in search of manhood.

What changed for me in the writing of the novel were the powerful currents that are going on today. The Charlie Hebdo massacres, the increasing reach of ISIS to young people via the internet, the exposure of FBI sting operations, along with the attention to stop and frisk policies and police brutality--all had me reeling, trying to sort out my story. I felt like a little tug boat being buffeted by huge winds.

I began the story thinking of the NYPD as perhaps the 'bad' guys, and then realized that was too simplistic. What I needed to think about was young people being manipulated from all sides--be it ISIS or an over-intrusive NYC Police Department and the FBI. Thus, it was the character of Ibrahim that grew and became more of a surprise, as I was willing to risk that he was susceptible to ISIS recruiting. I want ultimately for this book to be about how a young person comes to choose for themselves, and does not let adults choose for them.

What scene was really hard for you to write and why, and is that the one of which you are most proud? Or is there another scene you particularly love?

The scene that was hardest to write was the one where I had to decide how far Naeem’s friend Ibrahim goes in terms of his own seduction online. When I began the novel, I thought of the story in a more simplistic way, with a straightforward indictment of law enforcement and the cost of surveillance. But as I wrote, there were so many headlines rocking my world, and stories of young people being recruited online. So I knew not to make this a straightforward morality tale. I needed to dive further into Ibrahim’s more ambiguous and fragile state of mind, his susceptibility. So I am proud of the scenes where I had to balance Tareq’s manipulation, Naeems’ queasiness, and Ibrahim’s ambiguity because that took a lot of crafting and thinking to get it right.

On the other hand, I must admit I love the scene at the party between Naeem and his stepmother, where she tells him about learning her marriage was arranged. I loved writing about their relationship, a stepmother who is only 10 years older than her step son.

What book or books would most resonate with readers who love your book--or visa versa?

I think books where there is an intensity of family emotion coupled with some larger outside pressure would resonate with my readers. I love Rita Williams-Garcia’s work and feel an affinity with her, maybe just because she grew up in Queens! I also loved Junot Diaz’s collection This is How You Lose Her—the tough vulnerability of his narrators spoke to me while writing “Watched.”

How long did you work on WATCHED?

I wrote the initial ‘gambit’ of the story in about two weeks, then I expanded on those first sixty pages or so over a few months. We then sold the novel and I had less than a year to complete the manuscript that was then edited. It was intense!

What did this book teach you about writing or about yourself?

I learned that I can actually write under pressure and that sometimes the pressure helps, especially in a story like this, which has a certain filmic drive. This was also the first time I wrote a novel where my editor was involved in the drafting process. And I must say—in part because Wendy Lamb is such a gracious and experienced editor—I learned to relax. She respects and understands that one doesn’t get it all ‘down’ the first time around; she enjoys the process of probing for material. I tend to be very tidy and organized and a bit hard on myself. Writing “Watched” made me respect the messy process more.

How long or hard was your road to publication? How many books did you write before this one, and how many never got published?

This particular book wasn’t hard to find a publisher, because I had published well received young adult novels and nonfiction and I think my sample of 60 pages was strong to attract attention. But that isn’t to say I haven’t had my bumps in the road! I’ve had a varied career—I published two adult novels, both of which took a while to place, and then had trouble publishing a third, which is in a drawer and will probably come out at some point. I have another long historical novel which didn’t find the right home, and which I decided to withdraw to revise and get right.

Before “Watched” I had published four novels and two nonfiction books, and I have another co-authored nonfiction book coming out next year, The Eyes of the World: Robert Capa, Gerda Taro & The Invention of Modern Photojournalism.

Was there an AHA! moment along your road to publication where something suddenly sank in and you felt you had the key to writing a novel? What was it?

When I first began to write I was a bit more in love with language and metaphor. Then I discovered my own love of story, of the drive that can pulse a story forward. That’s because I also love film and its visual and propulsive form. So my aha moment came when I realized I can tap into these invisible stories and marry this to a kind of filmic sensibility.

With all my YA novels, I learned that finding my own passions, my own particular way of seeing things, was the way to go. In young adult I have followed my own instincts towards stories that others aren’t doing, about characters that might be invisible to many readers. I want to make those stories visible to a broader readership.

What's your writing ritual like? Do you listen to music? Work at home or at a coffee shop or the library, etc?

I hate to hear any sound or music when I’m writing! This is a bit of a challenge, since I live in a noisy household with two boys and a fellow writer who loves to play music loud when he is working. It used to be that I would roll out of bed and start writing while I was very fresh, still close to my own dream state. I’m finding that much harder to do these days, because there’s lot of writing business and family responsibilities dancing around me every morning. I also need a certain amount of order and tidiness around me, and as any mother knows, order is often elusive in the family context. So I try to swat at them for a little while and then shut off the internet and go at my writing for several hours until I’m tired.

I also try to get a lot of writing done in the summers since I also teach at a university and have to work around those demands. I most prefer to work in my office, at my desk, though sometimes I take my notebook and go elsewhere to take notes. When I’m feeling a bit dry, a day in the city, going to museums and absorbing art and culture and street scenes can invigorate me, fill me up again, and make me supple in my associations.

My fantasy is to one day have a bare shed in the woods to work in, with just a nice rug, white walls, a whitewashed floor and some pillows. Unfortunately the only candidate for this—our garage—is clogged with too much junk.

What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers?

Try to tap into what’s yours. I think too often, when we’re starting out, we glance around at everyone else, at what’s being published, sure there’s a short cut that will get us to publication—if I can just do what they did. And granted, we all are magpies and thieves, learning to steal from the mastery and craft and form of other writers. But that’s just the surface. You have to write the story that only you can write. That’s when you know you’re on your way.

What are you working on now?

I am beginning a new middle-grade/young adult novel called “The Long Ride.” It takes place in the late sixties in Queens, NYC, and is about two friends, mixed-race girls, who are part of an integration plan to bus students from a largely white area to a largely black area. Everyone is tense about it. And for these girls it’s confusing—they are used to being the ‘first’ girls of color in a white neighborhood and now they are being ‘sent’ to a black community. Where do they fit in?

I am also revising an adult historical novel called “Sweetness.” This is also about an unlikely friendship between an Englishwoman and an Indian woman on a turn-of-the century Caribbean plantation, as trouble brews among the workers and the sugar industry is in dire straits.


by Marina Budhos
Wendy Lamb Books
Released 9/13/2016

Marina Budhos’s extraordinary and timely novel examines what it’s like to grow up under surveillance, something many Americans experience and most Muslim Americans know.

Naeem is far from the “model teen.” Moving fast in his immigrant neighborhood in Queens is the only way he can outrun the eyes of his hardworking Bangladeshi parents and their gossipy neighbors. Even worse, they’re not the only ones watching. Cameras on poles. Mosques infiltrated. Everyone knows: Be careful what you say and who you say it to. Anyone might be a watcher.

Naeem thinks he can charm his way through anything, until his mistakes catch up with him and the cops offer a dark deal. Naeem sees a way to be a hero—a protector—like the guys in his brother’s comic books. Yet what is a hero? What is a traitor? And where does Naeem belong?

Acclaimed author Marina Budhos delivers a riveting story that’s as vivid and involving as today’s headlines.

Purchase Watched at Amazon
Purchase Watched at IndieBound
View Watched on Goodreads


Marina Budhos is an author of award-winning fiction and nonfiction.

This year she will publish Watched (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House), a follow-up to Ask Me No Questions, taking on surveillance in a post 9/11 era. Set in Queens, NYC, Watched tells the story of Naeem—a teenage boy who thinks he can charm his way through life. One day his mistakes catch up with him and the cops offer him a dark deal.

In 2017, Marina will also publish Eyes of the World: Robert Capa & Gerda Taro & The Invention of Modern Photojournalism, (Henry Holt & Co.) co-authored with Marc Aronson, in 2017. Among the first to depict modern warfare, Capa and Taro took powerful photographs of the Spanish Civil War that went straight from the devastation to news magazines. In so doing, they helped birth to the idea of bearing witness with technology, bringing home tragedies from across the world.

Marina is the author of the young adult novels Tell Us We’re Home and Ask Me No Questions, which are taught in school districts throughout the country. She has published the adult novels The Professor of Light and House of Waiting, and a nonfiction book, Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers. Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom & Science, co-authored with her husband Marc Aronson, was a 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Award Finalist. Her books have been published in several countries, and her short stories, articles, essays, and book reviews have appeared in publications such as The Daily Beast, The Awl, The Huffington Post, LitHub, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Nation, Dissent, Marie Claire, Redbook, Travel & Leisure, the Los Angeles Times, and in anthologies.

Marina has received an EMMA (Exceptional Merit Media Award), a Rona Jaffe Award for Women Writers, and has twice received a Fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts. She has been a Fulbright Scholar to India, given talks throughout the country and abroad, and is a professor of English at William Paterson University. She is a graduate of Cornell and Brown universities.

She is married to the author Marc Aronson and lives in New Jersey, with their two sons, Sasha and Rafi.


Have you had a chance to read WATCHED yet? Do you find that pressure can actually help you write? Do you tap into what's yours when you write? Share your thoughts about the interview in the comments!

Happy reading,

Jocelyn, Shelly, Martina, Anisaa, Sam, Erin, Susan, Michelle, Laura, and Kristin

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