SAEIDA ROUASS DISCUSSES DEBUT NOVEL ASSEMBLY OF THE DEAD
by ASJAD NAZIR
LOOKING at serial killers in different countries led Saeida Rouass down an unexpected path that resulted in her writing her debut novel Assembly Of The Dead.
She had stumbled upon an incredible true story hidden in Moroccan history, which guided her towards writing a rip-roaring thriller set in 1906.
The London-based writer went through a number of challenges to complete her recently-released book and learned a lot during the process
Eastern Eye caught up with Saeida to talk about her book, the fascinating story, writing process, inspirations and the advice she would give to aspiring authors
What inspired Assembly Of The Dead’s story?
It is based on a true story I stumbled on while surfing newspaper archives. European newspapers from 1906 reported the case as a Moorish Jack the Ripper and I was immediately fascinated by the idea of a serial killer operating in 1906 Marrakesh. The more I read, the more obsessed I became with the story of these murders taking place just before Morocco became a French protectorate and all the upheaval that entailed. A fictional telling of the story was screaming to be written.
Tell us about the story?
Based on the true story of the Moroccan Jack the Ripper, it’s set in Marrakesh, six years before Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912. The country was in turmoil with internal tribal conflict, debt, drought, a genuine fear of civil unrest and anarchy. The story is based around the fictional character Farook al-Alami, who is sent from Tangiers to Marrakesh by the Sultan to investigate the brutal murders. It is the story of his investigation in the context of Marrakesh and Morocco undergoing rapid upheaval and an uncertain future.
What was the biggest challenge of writing the book?
Perhaps the moments of doubt I think all writers have. Throughout the process I had sudden moments where I questioned what I was doing and it was quite crippling. In those moments I would message my cousin, Karima Sbitri, who would reassure me I was not crazy and what I was writing wasn’t utter rubbish. That helped me push through doubts.
Did you follow a writing process?
It took just over two years from the first word to publication. It’s a long process that takes commitment. I do an excessive amount of reading and making notes. When I feel it’s time to write, I see what spills onto the page. If my ideas get ahead of my writing speed, I might jot down outlines for the next four or so chapters. I tried plotting the story from beginning to end, but found that crippling, so just did what felt right. I think you have to surrender to the process a little bit.
Did you know the ending before you started writing?
It is based on a true story so there was a natural end to the events, but I went beyond that a little bit because it felt like there was something else to be told. For me it was more about where I wanted the characters to be at the end than how the plot finished.
How much research did you have to do for the story?
I spent five months living in the old Medina of Marrakesh to research the book. I would often be up early to walk around and just soak up the history that feels somehow embedded in the walls. I also spent a lot of time at the British Library in London as well as various cultural institutions in Morocco looking through their archives. I read everything I could get my hands on about Morocco during the early 20th century. I don’t think the research ever ends, but at some point you have to get it all out on paper or screen.
Did you learn anything new while writing the book?
I now know an unnatural amount about what was happening in Morocco in 1906. I also learnt a lot about what is involved in writing a full-length novel. I don’t think it is something anyone can teach you and something you learn by doing it. It takes an incredible amount of commitment and discipline to see the story through to the end. I now feel more capable to take that challenge on again.
What was the best and worst thing about the process?
The worst part was a crippling fear I would write myself into a dead end and wouldn’t be able to tie all the storylines up, or that I would have to rewrite whole sections to unravel it. The best part was getting past that fear. I eventually took it one page at a time until I wrote it through to the ending. It’s an incredible feeling to get to the end of the first draft. You look at it and think: ‘I had no idea I had that story in me’.
How did you feel when the book was finished?
It’s hard to know when a book is finished, but at some point you have to let go and accept this is the story you have told and it now belongs to the world. That is both exciting and terrifying. In some respects I was excited it was ready yet I had to also mourn it a little. The story has been a constant presence for two years and so naturally I miss it, but I am also excited by the prospect of doing something new and seeing where that goes.
What is your favourite moment in the novel?
More than a moment, my favourite element is the depiction of women. I had a strong desire to write women into the story. In the archives related to the case, there aren’t any details about who they were and how they came to be murdered, except for the MO of the killer. Including them in the story as strong while remaining truthful to their powerlessness in the society of the time is by far the part I like most.
Who are you hoping connects with your novel?
I hope anyone who enjoys reading connects with the book, but it is a historical detective novel so it may suit the tastes of some readers over others. I hope it’s a book tourists read while visiting Marrakesh as I think it will enrich their experience of the city. I also hope the Moroccan diaspora generally connect with it.
Which books do you enjoying reading the most?
I enjoy all kinds of books; it really depends on the mood that I am in. I particularly enjoy historical fiction that has an element of truth because it brings history to life in a way that a factual telling of events doesn’t.
Who is your literary hero?
I have so many literary heroes, but Hilary Mantel is without doubt one of them. I think her work is breathtaking in its ability to include detail without losing the reader. Cormac McCarthy and in particular the Border trilogy made me look at stories in a different way and completely expanded what I thought writing can be.
What advice would you give those wanting to write their first book?
My advice would be to tell yourself the story by getting it down on the page. I would also urge anyone who wants to write to have some selfawareness. The process is the best part and you have to be committed to that. I believe that if you are driven by a desire to be known as a ‘writer’ it will probably corrupt the story you tell. There has to be some authenticity and that means suspending all other thoughts and desires, and focusing on telling a captivating story with compelling characters.
What according to you, makes for a really good story?
Subtext done well makes a good story. The books that resonate the most with me are ones that include a tone or message that sits beneath the words and that I have to work at to get to. I like being left with the feeling that there is more to the story than the surface narrative or characters. That there is a deeper reason for the story I might not figure out immediately, but will come through. Full characters also make good stories. Whether you like a character or not, for me they have to be complex and not one-dimensional. I have a lot of respect for writers who do that well because it is not easy.
What can we expect next from you?
Assembly Of The Dead is the first in a trilogy and I am currently working on the second in the series titled Library Of Untruths. The second book is set in Fes in 1912, the year Morocco became a French protectorate and follows Farook al-Alami investigating a series of murders around the famous Karaouine Library. The third in the trilogy is set in the town of Chefchaouan during the 1921 Rif Rebellion.
What inspires you?
Lots of things inspire me; people and their peculiar characteristics, watching interactions between people, stories, lines in books, news events, conversations. I have a list of book ideas I would love to develop that are all based on things I have seen, read or heard. Anything can trigger a story if you are alert to the world around you.
What are your future hopes for your novel?
I hope Assembly Of The Dead is a book people read while visiting Marrakesh and it enriches their experience of the old Medina and its medieval culture. It would be great if it were translated in Arabic, French and Spanish, as that would make it a lot more accessible to Moroccans, but also other cultures that have historical ties to the country.
Why should we pick up the book?
There is limited Moroccan diaspora writing, and so for me Assembly of The Dead has something to offer readers. There are some great books set in Morocco and I hope this adds to them, but to me it is an example of how Moroccan diaspora in the UK can mine their cultural heritage for stories to enrich the world. Aside from that, I hope that it resonates with anyone who chooses to read it.