| TOKYO, July 26
TOKYO, July 26 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
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
"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
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
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)