Tag Archives: mary jo Campbell interviews

Interview & Book Giveaway: Amira Aly, Egypt: The Uprising

Amira Aly

Please welcome, Amira Aly, author of the YA novel, Egypt: The Uprising. Amira answers my questions on the timeliness of her novel, being a doctor and a novelist, writing against the regime without fear and her secret writing weapon. Enjoy this fascinating interview and be entered in the ebook giveaway drawing by leaving  a comment or question for our author. Entries will be randomly selected on Wednesday, August 10.

Interview by Mary Jo Campbell

Welcome, Amira! Thank you for taking the time to answer my interview questions. I’m sure my readers will glean much from your responses.   In your unofficial bio on your site, you say “Oh, {I’m} also a full-time writer and part-time doctor.”  I Love that irony! It’s unique to see those who study medicine/science also having a passion for creativity and art. How does one help the other in your life?

Thank you Mary Jo. It’s funny because there is a long line of doctors-turned-writers in Egypt. I guess it stems from the pressures Egyptian society exerts on us. We, ‘artsy’ types with scientific potential, are usually cajoled into pursuing a more traditional career. I think we end up studying medicine because deep down in every writer there’s a romanticism that lends itself nicely to medicine.

Studying medicine, and practicing it in the setting of a developing country among the poor of the nation, has enriched my understanding of human beings and exposed me to the most interesting characters one can come across. I also think that seeing and experiencing suffering first hand taught me a lot about human nature and how people react to trauma–things that I would not have otherwise been exposed to in my otherwise sheltered life.

Post-apocalyptic stories seem the new trend, but your book has a slight edge, as Egypt has already been dealing with political uprisings, the most recent being broadcast world-wide in January, 2011.  First off, when did you begin writing the ideas of this book and how long was the publication process, from brainstorming to finished product in hand? It seemed perfectly timed with the riots.

I had been fiddling around with the idea of a book set in post-apocalyptic Egypt where the goddess of justice, Maat, meets up with a young Egyptian girl to help her on the quest to “set things right.”

When the uprising broke out, I felt like this was a perfect opportunity for Maat’s intervention in modern history–after all justice and equality were the demands of the protestors.

I had all the Egyptian mythology research ready (approximately two years worth) and various character notes. I wrote the book in a little under three months.


Have you had any political resistance to the release of your book? I’m thinking back to the internet being shut down during the uprising in January and how scary that must have been for the citizens.  Were /Are you concerned for your safety while writing and/or releasing this book?

Win this ebook!

When I started writing the book, I had no idea that we would “win” and that Mubarak will be ousted.

Being politically active on the internet through social media, I’d made it abundantly clear that I was anti-regime. So I suppose that I would’ve been rounded up with the rest of the “virtual” activists had Mubarak stayed in power.

But I was not concerned about that. There was so much more at stake that my safety somehow just felt of secondary importance. The young innocent lives taken by the security forces and regime thugs left a bitterness and aching in me that superseded any other feeling.



Can you tell us a bit about your writing practice – any routines, quirks, rules you follow?

I, unfortunately, am very peculiar when it comes to my writing habits. I can only write when it’s cool (my AC bill always speaks for how much writing I get done in the summer.)

When working on my novels, my best writing comes when I am in the “twilight zone,” not fully awake and alert, usually late at night or just after I wake up and before my morning coffee. Sure, the writing is usually full of typos, but I feel like this is when I best access my creativity.

I also have a secret writing weapon–my husband! Without him, I’d be totally lost.

He takes my toddler and 7-year-old daughter out whenever I need some alone time to concentrate on my writing.


Can you share your tips for research?

After extensively researching Egyptian mythology I thought I had everything figured out. But when I started writing, this turned out to be far from true. I heard some writers talk about a research-as-you-write process, and I think it is an excellent idea which can significantly cut novel writing prep time.


Anything unusual you found while researching for this book?  Can you give us an example of how you merged factual data with your fictional world?


Many unusual things came my way during researching the ancient Egyptian mythology and culture. Most interesting was that the known ‘myths’ or accounts of the relationships between the Neteru, or gods, are not ‘set in stone’ (pun not intended.) They vary depending on where in Egypt the information was found and during which dynasty. Some like Seth, god of the underworld, for instance was not vilified until later in ancient Egypt’s history. Earlier accounts of him talk about him being an ally of the sun god Ra.

There is a lot of room for interpretation of Egyptian myths. And I had a pretty set idea about which bits and pieces I was going to mix together.

Fact meets fiction many times in my book, starting with the Egyptian revolution of January 25th 2011 of course.  The looting of the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Tahrir Square is the quintessential fact upon which I build my world.  The museum was in fact looted by pro-government thugs during the uprising; I  fictionalize why that happened and present an interesting theory about the onset of the revolution.

One key artifact in my story is the gilded Trumpet of Tutankhamen, a trumpet which was dubbed “the trumpet of war” and postulated to possess a magical ability to start war. Egyptian Minister of Antiquity, Dr. Zahi Hawass, had even issued a statement about some Japanese delegation sounding the trumpet one week before the revolution started!

I’d chosen to include that trumpet in my story ever since I saw that it was on the list of the missing artifacts from the museum, even before Hawass had made that statement, but when he did I decided to add a Japanese element to my mix.

I also have a fact or fiction section on my website  http://www.battleformaat.com/p/fact-or-fiction.html to specifically address all questions I receive about sorting out the factual from the fictional.


What’s next for Amira? Are you staying on the writerly path or devoting your time to medicine?

The writerly path it is! Being a novelist is an addiction I cannot cure myself of I am afraid.  I want to tell my stories to the world. Now that I’ve started, there is no stopping me.

About the Author…

Amira Aly lived in Canada up until her first year in university when she moved to Egypt to study medicine at the University of Cairo. It seemed she was on the traditional route of a medical career working as an intern and teaching assistant in the surgical pathology department. But then she discovered the wonderful world of freelance medical writing. And who could resist its charms?

Egypt: The Uprising isn’t Amira’s first book. There was that picture book she wrote when she was five years old. Sadly, publishers didn’t recognize its brilliance but it was the first step on a life filled with a love of writing.

When she isn’t writing Amira likes to read her favorite authors Anne Rice, Stephen King, and F. Scott Fizgerald. She also spends time dancing, playing video games, and eating her favorite food Molokheya (an Egyptian green soup). She’d like to squeeze in time to learn a fourth language. She already speaks English, Arabic, and French. Amira lives in Cairo with her husband, 7 year old daughter and 17 month year old son. Her children would like to add a dog to that list but Amira, still traumatized by the loss of a pet turtle, has sworn off pets. That, and she knows she’ll be the one walking the dog even though everyone promises they will.



About the book…

Aya is a teenage girl trying to live through the Egyptian Revolution of January 2011 with her brother and aunt without getting swept up into the demonstrations and violence. But fate has something else in mind for Aya. What starts out as an attempt by Aya to drag her brother and is friends away from the demonstrations transforms into a battle with ancient Egyptian figures who have returned from the past to take control of modern Egypt. Can Aya learn enough about her mysterious past and powers in time to save her world from the evil threatening it?

Egypt: The Uprising is a fascinating combination of modern events, historical figures, secret organizations with magical powers, and adventure that keeps readers on the edge of their seats.

“Reminiscent of National Treasure, this young adult book has a little of everything for reader – sibling rivalry and love, family dynamics, young crushes, loyalty, magic,fabled creatures and beings, strange worlds and journeys.”

Shaeeza Hanif, Amazon Review

“Very few people could have pulled this off and created a story with such layering, a story that reads like a credible Hollywood screenplay in the mold of Raiders of the Lost Ark with the scholarly underpinning of a National Geographic documentary.” – Amazon Review

Egypt: The Uprising is available for purchase in print and e-book formats at Amazon and Barnes and Noble, in various e-book formats at eBookIt!, and for the iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch at the Apple iBookstore.


Filed under Author Interviews, books, Fiction, Give Aways

Book Blog Tour: Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, author of “Thirsty”

I am honored today, to welcome Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, author of Thirsty.  I’ve followed Kristin’s writing career through her column in Writers on the Rise. This is a writer definitely on the rise, and this is a book you need to have on your nightstand!

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s life is a melding of many cultures. A native Pittsburgher(Go Steelers!) raised with the Croatian traditions of her grandparents, Kristin lives in China with a husband who was raised in Ireland and the Vietnamese daughter.

During their four years in China, Kristin has taught writing, written a blog “My Beautiful Far-flung Life, and attempted to learn Mandarin Chinese(unsuccessfully according to her neighbors). Oh, and written the novel Thirsty. Thirsty started as a graduate thesis and ended after countless drafts. Drafts that, to the dismay of her fellow coffee lovers, she felt the need to read aloud as she edited in a local coffee shop.

If she hadn’t become a writer, Kristin suspects that she would have become a ventriloquist, roadie for Meat Loaf, or time traveler. (And yes, she has read The Time Traveler’s Wife.) Among other things, she would use her time traveling powers to frequently return home and enjoy the magic that is the hoagies at Danny’s Pizza.


In 1883, Klara Bozic arrives in the New World ready to start a new life with her new husband. She quickly learns that her new life in the Pennsylvania steel town of Thirsty is very much like her old life of beatings, isolation, and poverty. For forty years she endures with the help of a few misfit friends she makes: her fun-loving neighbor Katherine Zupanovic; BenJo, the only black man in Thirsty to have his own shop; and Old Man Rupert, the town drunk. Only when her daughter enters a similar marriage punctuated by pain and terror does Klara resolve to free herself, her daughter, and her granddaughters from this life sentence of brutality and find peace.

Just Thought You Should Know:

According to the CDC, one in four women has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime. The WOW Blog Tour for Thirsty , a novel about one family’s attempt to break the cycle of domestic violence, takes place during the same month as International Day Against Domestic Violence (Nov. 25).

Author’s Websites:

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s website: http://www.thirstythenovel.com

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s blog: http://www.kristinbairokeeffeblog.com

Thirsty Video Book Trailer: http://www.thirstythenovel.com/audio-video/

Interview by: Mary Jo Campbell

1. Your debut novel, Thirsty, was inspired from a poem you wrote years before. Can you tell us about that process: how did you know there was an entire novel in there?  How did you expand poetry to prose?

I love poetry…reading it and writing it. In 1987 as an undergraduate at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, I wrote and published “Crumbling Steeples,” a poem about how the crash of Pittsburgh’s steel industry affected its steel communities (and in particular, my grandfather). After I wrote it, I thought I was done writing about Pittsburgh and steel. But around the same time, this woman started floating around in my head (the woman who eventually became Klara). I didn’t see her clearly for a number of years, but she was always there, giving me small glimpses of her life and her struggles.

When I started graduate school in 1992, I took a creative nonfiction workshop in which one of our first assignments was to choose a topic to research. Still driven by my experiences as a kid in my grandparents’ steel community—Clairton, Pennsylvania—I chose the steel industry in Pittsburgh. That’s when Klara and the setting of Thirsty began to take shape.

Thirsty is about a woman trying to break the cycle of domestic violence, which has followed her from her childhood, through her marriage and into her adult daughter’s life.  You witnessed domestic violence in your own family and went on to volunteer in domestic abuse shelters. Can you share the emotions you felt while writing this poignant book? How do you hope it will connect with readers?

One of my Google Alerts is “domestic violence,” and every day I get somewhere between fifteen and thirty alerts in my inbox…sometimes more. The stories pour in from all over the world: White Ribbon Day in New Zealand, the domestic violence program in England that will be implemented in schools in 2011, Rihanna and Chris Brown, Oprah’s recent hubbub concerning BeBe Winans, and so many stories of women who are broken, burned, maimed, and killed by their husbands and boyfriends.

This issue touches everyone, and it makes me crazy that we can’t get a handle on it…that hurting women and girls is still an epidemic in our world. There’s a moment in Thirsty after Klara has just given birth to her first child in a field—a girl—and she’s thinking about her husband, pain, motherhood, love, violence, and, well, lots of other things. It echoes my own feelings about domestic violence. It goes like this:

Klara looked up and squeezed her knees together until she felt the baby’s tiny fist flutter against her thigh. The sky spread behind Katherine like a variegated quilt, and all Klara could think was that if she felt stronger, she would reach right up and grab hold of its corners, which stretched out somewhere in faraway lands where other women of other colors and beliefs were lying on their backs in fields with babies warming between their legs, vines rustling, pumpkins looking on. If she felt just the slightest bit stronger, she could pull that sky down to cover all the women of the world, cover all that hurting, like a tent, a blanket, a second skin. (pp. 42-43)

2.  You received your Masters of Arts Degree from Columbia College Chicago, my old stomping grounds. I can see the art and depth in your writing and recognize how the workshop method resonates in this novel.  Can you tell us which writing class was especially helpful to your writing? Do you have a favorite writing reference book to recommend for fiction writers?

Yep, I was lucky enough to get my MFA from the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. (In fact, the first full draft of Thirsty was my graduate thesis.) Truly I loved all my writing workshops there; we worked our arses off, but it was so worth it. Randy Albers, the chair of the department and my thesis advisor, was especially important to me and to Thirsty. As I moved through the story, he made me look more deeply at Klara, and despite any protests I might have made, he continued to ask the question, “What happens next?”

My favorite writing reference book? Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life…mostly because a) she makes me laugh (read the section about school lunches…you’ll laugh, too) and b) she tells stories about storytelling…which is, for me, the most effective way to teach writing.

3.  While living in Chicago, you also taught writing in the Chicago Public Schools. As a creative writing teacher to young adults, myself, I’m always looking for unique lesson plans and exercises. But, more importantly, how to engage the “non-writers.” What method(s) did you use to draw these students in and give them courage to write (and share)?

I’ve been teaching writing workshops since 1994, and as a teacher I love to figure out how to move a student who believes she is a “non-writer” to recognizing that she can write (and then, writing). The funny thing is, every student (and every class) is different so I have to pay close attention to the particulars of each situation. Sometimes I reach the students by sharing a piece of published writing. (Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried usually works quite well.) Other times, it’s simply a matter of telling lots of stories out loud so that students (often subconsciously) recognize that “oh, writing is just another way of telling stories”…something we all do every day.

In October while I was home in the U.S. touring around with Thirsty, I returned to my high school alma mater. For two days I met with the creative writing students at the school; I yakked with them about life in China, selling a first novel, the writing process, creativity, and lots more. In one particular class, the conversation was getting a little flat, so somehow (and don’t ask me how) I began telling the story of my first kiss.

Now when I tell stories out loud, I tell them with my whole self …gestures, facial expressions, voice, etc…not in some kind of wacky, don-the-costume kind of way…but I’m completely engaged. And I tell you what, even before I got to the moment of the actual kiss, I had every student (and teacher!) in that room thinking about their first kiss (or perhaps, in some cases, dreaming about what their first kiss would be like). The air in the room got thick and floaty, the way it does when people are deep in the creative process; everyone’s face was soft and their eyes cloudy and distant. It was gorgeous! If I’d had time, I would have had them all grab a piece of paper and a pen and start writing. (Who knew high school classes are only 40 or so minutes long?!) The results would have been spectacular.

4.  Are there any events, signings or tours you’d like us to know about? What’s next for Kristin Bair O’Keeffe?

I spent a good bit of October and November in the U.S. promoting Thirsty. Although I was moving so fast that much of it is now a blur, I’m pretty sure I did an author’s feast at the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association convention in Cleveland, a flurry of radio interviews, a webcast interview with the books editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and readings and book signings in Pittsburgh, Massachusetts, and Maine. I was also the one in the international terminal at the airport calling, “Hey, hey, you! Yes, you! Do you read? Have you seen my debut novel Thirsty?”

Now that I’m back home in Shanghai, I’m doing as much as I can via the Internet (including this spectacular blog tour put together by WOW!). Living in China and publishing in the U.S. has forced me to think outside of the box…I’m constantly dreaming up new ways to reach potential readers.

On top of that, we have a terrific reading/writing community in Shanghai, and folks are very supportive of fellow expats. In the coming months, I’ll be doing as many events in Asia as possible. Right now I’m scheduled to speak to a handful of reading groups and give a talk at the most amazing Shanghai International Literary Festival (March 2010).

There’s lots more creative marketing ahead, including fun giveaways. Check into my blog (www.kristinbairokeeffeblog.com) and stay tuned!

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Filed under Advice, Author Interviews, books, Novels, Perseverance

Book Blog Tour & Giveaway: Celia Rivenbark

CeliaPhoto2Celia Rivenbark dishes essays about the old south, the new south, and everything in between in her fifth book You Can’t Drink All Day If you Don’t Start in the Mornin’. In addition to a collection of essays so funny you’ll shoot co’cola out of your nose, Celia gives readers a treasure trove of Southern recipes and the hilarious stories behind them.

For eight years Celia wrote for her hometown paper, the Wallace, NC Enterprise. She covered everything from weddings to funky fruit to dead bodies(sometimes all in the same day). But the big city beckoned so Celia packed her bags and headed to Wilmington, NC and the Morning Star. More weddings but eventually she achieved every Southern girl’s dream. She was paid to be a smart ass(a.k.a. write a humor column).

Along the way she found herself a husband(the sports writer, of course– they are the cutest guys at the paper!), a beautiful baby daughter, and a gig as a stay-at-home mom. After her 3,000th diaper change, Celia starting writing a humor column for the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, SC. After all, what’s funnier than 3000 dirty diapers? Laugh along with Celia on her WOW Blog Tour– dates are listed at www.wow-womenonwriting.com/blog.html

YouCantDrink_coverCelia will be popping in today (between Bloody Marys) to answer your questions and comments about her books or writing in general.  One lucky winner will be randomly selected to win a copy of You Can’t Drink All Day if You Don’t Start in the Mornin’. (Posts must be made before 12 midnight CST and winner must live in U.S.)

Interview by Mary Jo Campbell:

MJC: Your humor and “voice” are so distinct. Can you share why it is so important to have a distinct voice and how you have worked to develop your own?

Celia: Everybody has a distinct voice. The difference is that I’ve been lucky enough to be able to practice mine every single day for a living for a long time. I discovered after writing “Bless Your Heart, Tramp” that a surprising number of readers really enjoyed the Southernspeak. They didn’t always understand it but they didn’t seem to mind. More than a few have written over the years to ask what a particular phrase means. The copyeditors who review my manuscripts always have questions because they didn’t grow up talkin’ “Souther-ren.” So they stumble through life like a blind mule in a punkin’ patch without so much as an “I swanee” or “pea turkey squat” to comfort them. One of my favorite writing exercises is to write a few pages of dialogue with different voices. Then I read it out loud and, if it sounds, authentic, into the book it goes.

MJC: I love your raw and sarcastic comments and tone, but not everyone shares the same sense of humor.  Have you had much “mommie backlash” from things you’ve written?  If so, how did you handle it?

Celia: I haven’t had much mommie backlash at all. Most of my friends feel the exact same way I do about the Crazy Mommies. Then again, I might not recognize a good stink-eye aimed in my direction. By and large, I think most mommies understand I write humor and, yes, sometimes I exaggerate for effect. If I’ve gored your ox with something I’ve written, it’s important to remember that this is supposed be for laughs.

MJC: This is your fifth book of humorous essays, but the first to include recipes.  What made you decide to add recipes and how did you decide which ones to add?

Celia: Sooner or later, everybody starts putting recipes into their books.  (Well except for Paul Krugman or smart people like that but then you just know he just eats Kraft blue box mac and cheese over a hotplate every night don’t you?) Jill Conner Browne’s “Knock You Naked Margaritas” were stuck in my mind along with Mary Kay Andrews’ chicken salad recipe, which is good but a bit labor-intensive. I figured if they could do it, so could I. My mother-in-law, to whom the book is dedicated, is a phenomenal country cook so it seemed even more appropriate. I wrote the book first, then added the recipes, which I selected based on how well I could tie them to a particular essay and, more important, how good (or how mom-friendly) they were.

MJC: Like many of my readers, you began (or continued) to write through the throes of new mommy-hood. Can you offer any tips to those who are struggling to make time to write as a new mom?

Celia: I always used naptime for writing my column. Sophie napped for exactly 2.5 hours a day, and that’s about as long as I can sit still and write anyway.

MJC: Your essays are so very current. How do you use the “power of observation” to gather these ideas into essays with universal appeal?

Celia: I’m a huge pop culture and news junkie. If something strikes me as something I could riff on and customize (as in The Southern Mama’s take on Paris Hilton going to jail), then I let it marinate for a day or two and then start writing.

MJC: You’ve written about celebrities, mommies, the South. Will you write a collection of humorous essays on the life of a writer?

Celia: No, because others have done that and done it very well. For instance, right now I’m reading “And Here’s the Kicker.” It’s a new book of interviews with humor writers that I’m just slightly bitter about not being included in. What’s interesting is how many of the writers were misfits and sad sacks growing up. Hmmmmm.

Feel free to tell us about any of your upcoming appearances or events:

Celia: Thanks for letting me yak. Please drop by celiarivenbark.com for information on real and virtual book tours and more.


Filed under Advice, Author Interviews, books, contests, Creative Essays, Give Aways, Non Fiction, Voice, writers