What Inspired My Latest Short Story

What inspires you? What inspires any author, or any artist? Often times, it’s the odd experience or random thought. Here’s one incident from the history of science, involving the young Galileo:Orientalism

In 1581, when he was studying medicine, he noticed a swinging chandelier, which air currents shifted about to swing in larger and smaller arcs. It seemed, by comparison with his heartbeat, that the chandelier took the same amount of time to swing back and forth, no matter how far it was swinging.

Galileo hurried home, where…

…he set up two pendulums of equal length and swung one with a large sweep and the other with a small sweep and found that they kept time together. It was not until Christiaan Huygens almost one hundred years later that the tautochrone nature of a swinging pendulum was used to create an accurate timepiece…

And so, he took another step on the journey from med student to great scientist.

I would like to say it was as quaint for me when it came to writing my latest short story, “The Ghul of Yazd.” I can remember the things I was reading at the time and the final “Aha” moment that led to the basic idea. So, in the interest of getting you as close to the writing process as possible, here’s what happened…

The Reading List
Here’s a look at what I was reading at the time. And a few things I had read LONG before that and suddenly they came back up when the time was right.

The 1,001 Nights
In a way you could say, “The Ghul” is fan fiction. I wrote the story as if it were a lost tale from the 1,001 Nights that had been found in a monastery in the Sinai. I can’t say I ever read the book growing up, but I couldn’t help to run into its themes and subjects from time to time. I distinctly remember seeing The 7th Voyage of Sinbad on TV during weekend ‘matinees’ as a kid and it never really left me.

Good, clean fun?

Orientalism by Edward Said
We read this in college and for a guy who—up to that point—had not travelled that much, it really struck me. I think the following sums up the book’s basic argument pretty well:  

Said analyzes the cultural representations that are the basis of Orientalism, a term he redefined to refer to the West‘s patronizing perceptions and depictions of Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies—”the East“. He contended that Orientalist scholarship was, and remains, inextricably tied to the imperialist societies that produced it, which makes much of the work inherently political, servile to power, and thus intellectually suspect.

Wow. So, all these books, all these movies. They were just peddling and rehashing Western stereotypes and tropes? Man. It was something that really struck me at the time. Was Said right? Or was it all just good, clean fun? And wasn’t there something exotic about the “East” for a Westerner, anyway? I filed the book away, too, and never forgot it.

The Thousand and One Nights” essay by Borges
But wait a minute. What if…what if…The Arabs were influencing the West with their book, their 1,001 Nights? And their civilization? What if the opposite of what Said thought was  really going on?

Leave it to Borges to come up with such a beguiling, seductive idea. I read this essay from him recently, in which he talks about his love for the 1,001 Nights:

A major event in the history of the West was the discovery of the East. It would be more precise to speak of a continuing consciousness of the East, comparable to the presence of Persia in Greek history. Within this general consciousness of the Orient — [as]  something vast, immobile, magnificent, incomprehensible…

He continues…

We are speaking in the illustrious dialect of Latin we call Spanish, and it too is an episode of that nostalgia, of that amorous and at times bellicose commerce between Orient and Occident, for the discovery of America is due to the desire to reach the Indies.

Whoa. Arab influence on Western history? On American history? Borges brings in the 1,001 Nights, as an exemplar of “Eastern” culture, saying:

The Thousand and One Nights appears in a mysterious way. It is the work of thousands of authors, and none of them knew that he was helping to construct this illustrious book, one of the most illustrious books in all literature.

He waxes lyrical about the book:

In the title The Thousand and One Nights there is something very important: the suggestion of an infinite book. It practically is. The Arabs say that no one can read The Thousand and One Nights to the end. Not for reasons of boredom: one feels the book is infinite.

And it appears in many translations and some of these translators took liberties, great liberties:

The most famous tale of The Thousand and One Nights is not found in the original version. It is the story of Aladdin and the magic lamp. It appears in [Antoine] Galland’s version, and Burton searched in vain for an Arabic or Persian text. Some have suspected Galland forged the tale. I think the word forged is unjust and malign. Galland had as much right to invent a story as did those confabulatores nocturni. Why shouldn’t we suppose that after having translated so many tales, he wanted to invent one himself, and did?

Hmm…Adding to the 1,001 Nights. Apparently, it continues today:

The Thousand and One Nights has not died. The infinite time of the thousand and one nights continues its course…The Nights will have other translators, and each translator will create a different version of the book…Each of these books is different, because The Thousand and One Nights keeps growing or recreating itself.

Why not, I thought, add another story to it?

The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy
Before I read Borges’s essay, I was reading this tome on medieval Arabic philosophy.  It can be dry, but it has great tidbits like these:

  • The fact that much ancient Greek philosophy was translated into Arabic at the beginning of the Middle Ages and back into Latin at the end of Middles Ages, in some cases preserving works that would have been otherwise lost.
  • The medieval Arabs, had the texts, but not the history and assumed Plato, Aristotle and others were all the same guy.

But most importantly, it showed me the seriousness with which scholars throughout the medieval Arab world pursued and innovated in mathematics, philosophy and proto-science. What if one of them became a character in a book?

The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam by Lewis
An Orientalist book masquerading as unbiased scholarship? Perhaps. But it’s a great read. It highlights the history and working of the “Assassins” a group active in the medieval Middle East. According to Lewis, they were known for their use of targeted assassination as a political weapon. As part of their recruiting process, Lewis continues, they would drug initiates and have them wake up in a “paradise” of beautiful gardens, fountains and beautiful women.

That was another scene I filed away…

Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism
I was reading this book out of an interest with ancient religions. The book has a great section on the burial practices of the Zoroastrians, the dakhma, a sort of open-air sky burial practiced by the sect. I thought nothing of it at the time, but the image of the dakhma stuck with me. And one of the best preserved examples happened to be in Yazd, Iran…

The city of Fez itself
You also travel and learn. I knew I wanted my protagonist, Yusuf, to come from medieval Cordoba, Spain. And perhaps the closest in the modern world that we can get to that is the old town of Fez, Morocco. I traveled there a few years ago and the magic of it never really left me.

Morocco’s jewel, Fez.

Now I know, there’s something “Orientalist” about that. A Westerner getting caught up in the beauty and romance of a city where—by the looks of things—most people were just trying to survive day to day.

Fair enough.

But don’t tell that to a fiction writer. Never tell that to a fiction writer.

What if, as a fiction writer, I just decided to piss everybody off? What if I wrote a story that ticked off the Edward Saids of the world and emphasized the exoticism of “the East”? And what if I ticked off the dreamers and Orientalists—those who wanted to emphasize the exoticism and difference of the East—and included a protagonist who was an Arabic philosopher? A man who was well-read, a great traveler and skeptical of religion and folk tales? A la South Park, I would have offended everyone equally—left, right and center. An Orientalist story fit for the 1,001 Nights with a philosopher hero at the center who holds all the moving parts together? Yeah, that would be cool, I thought.

The Aha Moment Strikes
So, I chewed over some ideas. A bunch of loose threads with nothing to pull them together. I thought and thought. And then it just hit me. What if similar to the Assassin paradise of Lewis, there was an Assassin hell? What would it be? How would it look?

I immediately latched onto the idea of the dakhma.

Then, it was just a question of getting a character from ‘heaven’ to ‘hell.’ I landed on Rasul,  a young Assassin recruit from the Caucasus, to play the role. I just had to figure out how to get him from point A to B and put it in a narrative structure.

I fleshed out the plot and characters and I started to write…It ended 11,000 words later.

What It All Means
So, what’s the upshot of all this? What did I learn?

I think the most important thing is that every writer has to be open as they go through life. You have to read, widely, yes, that’s been said a million times. But you also have to be open to new experiences, new friends, new travel and new ideas. You have to go places and read things that you’ve never read or seen before and the more foreign or different, the better. (More on that later.)

Then, you have to be patient. Let all these influences stew in the subconscious. And just be ready. Be ready for that “Aha” moment and write it down when it happens. Write it down at the gym, write it down during your commute, write it down during that meeting at the office. I won’t tell. Flesh the initial idea out and then get ready to write. At least, that’s how it works for me.

Anyway, the story should drop next week in Strangelet Journal. Then, we’ll see what everyone thinks. And the 1,001 Nights—that ‘infinite book’—will add yet another story to itself…So, until next time.

Keep reading, keep writing,


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