Book Talk: Egypt, Montana and Evel Knievel focus of new book

TOKYO, July 26 Thu Jul 26, 2012 9:20am EDT

TOKYO, July 26 (Reuters) - Khosi Saqr lives in Butte, Montana, birthplace of motorcycle rider Evel Knievel, but he has never felt quite at home. Then a mysterious stranger appears in town, launching him on a path that leads to Egypt and the father who abandoned him.

Khosi, the half-Egyptian hero of "Evel Knievel Days," was inspired partly by author Pauls Toutonghi's own background as the son of a Latvian mother and Egyptian father, and his desire to reconnect with his Egyptian roots, which led him to Egypt in March 2011 after the protests that swept President Hosni Mubarak from power.

Toutonghi spoke with Reuters about his book, writing and his views of the state of fiction today.

Q: Why this character, why Butte, why Evel Knievel?

A: "It's kind of an unlikely mix. Well, I fell in love with Butte at a very young age. I love all these northern U.S. cities. My first book was set in Milwaukee. I love Detroit, these northern industrial cities that have a legacy of industrial expansion.

"In the case of Butte, it's mineral wealth that drove its expansion, and it was huge. It was a boom town. In 1890 it was the largest city west of the Mississippi; it had 110,000 residents, the first electrified city in the country. There's something really powerful for me in places that were once something and have fallen on hard times and are now much less grand. It's just because there's a lack there that you don't always get in American settings and American culture.

"I spent a lot of time in Montana when I was a kid. My parents and I would go on long road trips from Seattle. So I'd been through Butte. I could picture it really well, sort of in the way that a child would imagine it, a distant memory of it. So I was thinking I had always wanted to set something there, and I started writing and it took off."

Q: You had the setting in mind. Did you come up with the characters first, or work from an image?

A: "It's not an image that's in the novel but it's in the spirit of the novel. My wife, who is also a writer, gave me an old slide. It says 'Copper smelters and mines, Butte, Montana.' There's this image of a boy and he's sitting in front of a pool of water and he's wearing a hat, and he's looking off across the water. He's wearing a newsboy cap. And in the distance there are just rows and rows of smelters, and one of them has a big plume of smoke coming out of the top of it. It's black and white, a turn of the century image. It's really beautiful, this image of him looking out over the lake. That's where I started.

"I went from image to image. I love that Virginia Woolf quote, 'Life is a series of gig lamps strung together, illuminating the dark.' To me, that's what fiction is, that's what fiction writing is. You go from illuminated moment and illuminated moment, and those happened for me throughout the book."

Q: Do you outline before you start writing?

A: "It's a mix. I like to have a pretty decent sense of the bones of the scenes, the structure of the scenes. So I'll jot notes to myself. As a result of that, when I look back on my own outlines two years later it doesn't make any sense to me. It's a private language that I have with myself at the time that I'm writing the book, and then the remembrances of what everything exactly meant don't linger ... But I try to have a general sense of what's going to happen in the scene and how those will piece together, and then discover the specifics of the scene as I go along."

Q: I know you've said that some of it is drawn from life.

A: "As I was working on the book, I really had a strong, overpowering desire to go back to Egypt with my dad. I think it was just because I was working with this material and I was thinking, 'Hey, in my own life, I'm not taking this journey that my fictional character is taking. If I don't live what I'm writing about, I'm going to regret it.' My dad is 80 years old. He's not in great health. So I decided that it was now or never, and we booked our tickets to go back. He hadn't been back in 65 years ... We ended up going in March (2011), and it was amazing. It was just an incredible trip to see what we saw."

Q: What has happened to fiction and is it good or bad?

A: "I worry about the encroachments of busy-ness on our daily lives, and I think that especially as creative professionals, or even as people who are not creative professionals, that you need a certain amount of serenity and tranquility and peace to be able to read. It could be partly the fact that I have two-year-old twins, but I feel it certainly - and it's not just the twins. I believe that we're losing the space to read as a culture. As I say that, I wonder if that's true, but I think it is. I'm nervous about fiction.

"There's a lot of really exciting stuff happening, though. There's a lot of really excellent writers doing great work out there who are imaginative and strange and working to advance the form. But I am concerned."

(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Patricia Reaney)