Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Anat Deracine about her life, the experiences of living in Saudi Arabia that have inspired her to write, and the creative process that went into her latest book, Driving By Starlight.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
Anat Deracine is a pen-name. Déraciné comes from the French, and means someone who has been uprooted from their native land. I have lived in six countries now, and call three of them home. I write stories about women who break boundaries, whether national or metaphorical.
In my first novel, Driving by Starlight, I tell the story of a young woman coming of age in modern-day Saudi Arabia, one of the countries where I grew up, struggling against all the restrictions placed on women there. In my novella, The Divine Comedy of the Tech Sisterhood, I draw on my experiences with a 15-year career in the tech industry, but again the story is about women who wish to break the glass ceiling in those halls of power.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I wrote poems and short stories, some of which I’ve published under my real name. But at some point I realized I wanted to write novels, the kind of long, juicy stories that kept me up all night reading and moved me to tears.
In my mid-twenties, I realized I’d been writing short stories as a kind of practice, because I didn’t feel confident about my ability to write a novel. It’s like going for many short runs when you’ve got your sights set on a marathon. But a marathon requires a different way of thinking, just as a novel does. It takes patience and discipline to live with the same story and characters for several years.
When did you take a step to start writing?
Once I’d decided to write a novel, it was as if a dam had broken loose in my mind. I started seeing and hearing these characters. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a scene fresh in my mind. Or I’d write notes to myself when I remembered something from my childhood in Saudi Arabia that I wanted to add to the story. I kept a notebook and started collecting all these things, until my mind was full to bursting. Then I knew I had to write this novel or go mad.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
I had the idea for the story around 2011, and took a month off work to focus on writing. I’d written short stories before, which are easier to do in a single sitting, an evening or a weekend. I’d never written a novel. I decided to just write through till the end, a little every day, without trying to edit at all. It was a bit of a mantra—don’t look back! A month later, I had my first draft.
I edited it over the next six months, and then started querying. I went to the Writer’s Digest Conference where I pitched several agents, and signed with Kate McKean of the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. From there, you’d imagine it was quick. But Driving by Starlight went through several revisions. The first time we submitted it, everyone passed. My agent and I worked through the feedback, I revised it yet again and this time it was accepted. That was around 2016. The book only came out two years later, in May of 2018.
The path to publication is long, so it’s good to have several projects in various stages of readiness so you’re not constantly refreshing your email hoping for news.
What made you want to write Driving By Starlight?
I wrote Driving by Starlight as a gift to my childhood friends. When I was growing up, I was frequently tempted to compete with my classmates and friends for various things. It’s common for people who are living under extreme conditions to have a scarcity mindset, thinking that if they don’t act selfishly, putting themselves first, they’ll suffer for it. But my friends were actually my greatest cheerleaders in my successes. And once we left Saudi Arabia, they pushed me to take risks, to write my stories, to go on adventures, and to do all the things we’d been forbidden to do. This is why friendship is the theme of Driving by Starlight. Because, as Leena herself says, there’s no use fighting each other for a window out of hell. The key to fighting oppressive systems is solidarity, not individual heroism.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Driving By Starlight?
I had never written a novel before, so I have to say even getting through the first draft was a challenge. It had been several years since I’d left Saudi Arabia, and my memories were shaky. And Saudi Arabia isn’t an easy place to research, and people don’t really talk freely about their lived experiences, for obvious reasons. I struggled also with how to balance making the world comprehensible to a Western audience with staying true to the characters. I won’t pretend I got everything right, but I’m glad I worked through all these.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
Leena is based partially on myself, on who I might have been if I’d stayed in Saudi Arabia. I suppose most authors’ first novels are at least a little autobiographical. I too had a hair-trigger temper, and like Leena, I passed as a boy in order to get just a little more freedom. But Leena is a lot more thoughtful, less impulsive, than I ever was at that age. She thinks through her options, picks her battles, and knows how to wait for the right opportunities. I was a lot more brash and angry, and often got in trouble. I was almost suspended once for wearing a hat to school. I liked courting controversy and often talked back to teachers and authorities. Leena wouldn’t do that. She knows better.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
Most antagonists are a good foil for their protagonists, tempting them with an exciting new way of living even while making the protagonist’s life difficult. In that sense, Daria is the antagonist of the story, because she’s everything Leena wishes she was: confident, daring, popular and free. Daria makes Leena wonder who she might have been if she’d been given the freedoms Daria enjoys. And of course Daria contains aspects of myself. My impulsive nature, my more manipulative tendencies, and my disregard for authority.
I’m strongly of the opinion that stories are weak when you don’t pay as much attention to your antagonist’s character and motives as you do to the protagonist. I’m not a fan of one-dimensional villains. I prefer those who have strong personalities, motivations and stakes. The antagonist has to want victory—whatever they define it to be—at least as much as the protagonist, if not more. In the story I’m working on now, I outlined the entire story from the antagonist’s perspective. How do they see the events unfolding? Doing this helped me see places where the plot was weak.
What is the inciting incident of Driving By Starlight?
In Driving by Starlight, the inciting incident is the arrival of the half-American Daria at a school where girls have had no prior exposure to Western culture. Daria is the subject of both envy and outrage. Some girls wish they shared in Daria’s confidence and freedom, while others take a ‘sour grapes’ approach, digging in their heels on the very rules that imprison them and berating Daria for her wild, wicked ways. My protagonist, Leena, is caught in the crossfire, because her best friend Mishail starts drifting away from her and towards Daria. Leena is caught up in loneliness, jealousy and a whole host of other emotions she doesn’t understand.
Moreover, Leena’s father is in jail, for acting against the government, and so in her current circumstances college isn’t looking likely. Feeling as if she has no future drives Leena to self-destructive, risk-taking behavior, including drag-racing cars at night, which is dangerous for at least three reasons. Women, at the time of the novel, were not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Leena passes as a boy among other boys, some of whom aren’t the best people, and wouldn’t take kindly to discovering her true gender. And she is a woman alone in the company of boys to whom she isn’t related, which is (still) illegal.
What is the main conflict of Driving By Starlight?
The surface conflict of the book is between Leena and Daria, as the two girls compete for the affections of boys, and the attention of the other girls in the class. But the real conflict is between the girls as a community, and the patriarchal system of laws that divides and imprisons them. Leena has to realize that there is no way for her to win alone, but if she can only get the group to work together, they might all have a chance to escape.
Did you plot Driving By Starlight in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I totally pantsed my way through my first novel. I needed to get words on paper, to know that I could carry a story to the end without being bogged down in finding that perfect opening line. It was a good thing, in some ways, because I got a lot of confidence from being able to finish something. But there’s no resemblance at all between that first draft and what eventually became Driving by Starlight. I ended up revising and rewriting it four times.
These days, I am more careful about plotting. I don’t quite plan out every scene in advance, but I usually know the beginning, the climax and the ending. I tend to write out a synopsis, about 500-1000 words, and read it from time to time. Does the story still make sense? I don’t have to stick to the plot in the synopsis, but if I deviate, I write a new synopsis to see if the new direction will work out.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Driving By Starlight need?
Driving by Starlight went through four major revisions before publication. I had extensive editing support from my agent, Kate McKean. In fact, the summary of her comments on the first version ran to seven pages! Moreover, she had so many comments on the manuscript that her notes often spilled beyond the margins and went to the back page. The first time we submitted to publishers, they felt they couldn’t quite hear Leena’s voice or understand her character. I then rewrote the entire novel from third person to first, to give it more narrative intimacy. So it definitely took a significant amount of editing.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Somewhere, write down why you want to tell this story. What does it mean to you? Why this story? You never need to share this with anyone, or turn it into a plot synopsis, but you need something you can come back to when you lose faith, or lose track of the character’s voice, as sometimes happens. A novel is the work of years, even for experienced writers. You need something to keep you going, to remind you why you’re doing this in the first place.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
My latest story is a webcomic, The Night Wolves. As a technologist from Silicon Valley, I am interested in how technology can be used either as a tool of liberation and empowerment, or as a weapon to destroy privacy, and enforce restrictions on freedom through surveillance capitalism. What struck me was that most of the ills of technology arise not from someone actively trying to be evil, but rather from the unforeseen consequences of good intentions.
In The Night Wolves, a tech billionaire decides to disrupt the current university system, making higher education affordable for everyone. A true meritocracy. The only catch? Students have to wear a biometric device that measures every aspect of their biology, and they’re incentivized to respond well to stress. The result? A Hunger Games like world, where students pit themselves and each other through terrifying, dangerous activities, to increase their resilience scores. What could possibly go wrong?
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Oh, absolutely, on both counts. Writing a novel was a lifelong dream, and having my debut novel published by Macmillan, the same imprint that had published so many of my favorite books, was extremely validating. But what really made it all worth it was the readers. I don’t know anyone who writes who doesn’t live for readers’ feedback. Knowing that Leena’s story has moved so many people, given other young women strength… that makes everything worth it.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
Driving by Starlight: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250308955/drivingbystarlight
My Website: http://anatderacine.com/
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