by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
reprinted with permission from The Hopkins Review
I’m sitting at a bar sipping club soda and writing. I’ve discovered this corner of a Washington, DC restaurant that has a long bar with plugs underneath for my computer. If I sit at the very end, I can occupy two or three seats—one for me, the others for my work—without inconveniencing anyone. I order soup or a cheese board, drink soda or a cappuccino and write for hours with the hum of trivial and sometimes consequential conversation around me, but not addressed to me. The clientele ranges from college students to government officials. I can eavesdrop, not to gather anyone’s business or secrets but rather the rhythm of life and conversation while I write from my own thoughts and imagination.
Before the pandemic, this was my modus operandi for decades, writing in restaurants. I began my career in a newsroom. Once when asked my ideal writing environment, I answered without thinking, “In the middle of a newsroom where I’m left alone to write fiction.” I like the hum; it concentrates my mind. At the moment three coeds a few stools away are bubbling over the boys and boyfriends in their lives. The conversation seems ephemeral and young to me but important to them. I remember that focus, though I think I was in junior high school then.
In these various venues, I have written four novels. Two of these are at last getting published, one in March 2023, the other spring 2024, demonstrating that writers write and eventually publishers publish. Burning Distance and The Far Side of the Desert are being published with a promotional tag suggesting “Jane Austen meets John LeCarré.”
I’ve been writing a long time, beginning as a journalist then shifting to fiction. In the late 1980s I published a collection of short stories—No Marble Angels—then a regional best-selling novel—The Dark Path to the River. Then came a long hiatus in publishing fiction. I suspect I am not the exception but rather part of a large family of writers whose novels may not be immediately published but who continue writing because sorting and organizing life and experience through words and stories is what we do.
Anatole Broyard, famed New York Times columnist and literary critic a generation ago, noted the value of the manuscript in the drawer. By writing you were helping order the universe, he claimed, staying faithful to the task of thinking and seeking harmonies in the world. I often shared his column when I taught writing. It resonated with me and always with my students.
The value of the manuscript in the drawer expands when it finally gets out of the drawer and into the universe. Burning Distance, released this spring by Oceanview Publishing, might have been prescient if published when first written. It is a love story between an American girl and Lebanese/Palestinian boy who meet at the American School in London before the first Gulf War and whose parents turn out to be connected to arms trading and the weapons smuggling that fueled the war and the years that followed. The novel spans 1981–1996. Now it may be read as historical fiction.
Living in London at the time, I was able to do extensive research and interviews after the first Gulf War. Along with others, I recognized the detritus of weapons, including those of mass destruction, left behind and accumulated in the build-up to the war and learned of the complicity of Western suppliers in that process. With children at the American School in London, I also witnessed how their generation was relating and developing friendships across national, political, and religious barriers and offered the possibility of a more connected world.
Among my ten-year-old son’s friends at the time were the son of the Kuwaiti Ambassador and a student from Iraq. When I picked my son up at camp the summer of 1990 and told him about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, his first question was: What will happen to Talal and Alec? The Kuwaiti friend began to travel with bodyguards, and the Iraqi friend never returned to the American School. The personal and political intertwined in my imagination, and the seeds of Burning Distance were planted.
I did extensive research. Through journalist colleagues who traveled and covered the Middle East, I was able to interview individuals, including an ex-director of one of Saddam Hussein’s ministries crucial to the acquisition of nuclear components. When Saddam insisted he work to develop an atom bomb, the man refused. Saddam put him in prison. During the chaos of the war, he managed to escape to Iran and eventually made his way to England.
The challenge for me as a novelist was to take all the research and massage it into story and literary language, masticating “long-range ballistic missiles” and “isopropyl methylethylphosponoflourodite” into story and the language of literature. Sometimes the book seemed larger than my experience and skill as a writer, and yet I couldn’t put it down. Between drafts I wrote short stories, articles, and two other novels, then I came back again, fresh, ready to reenter the lives of my characters and live through another and then another draft. Time has passed, but the themes remain relevant.
“Burning Distance is a double helix of a book, carefully plotted and beautifully told,” novelist and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has offered. “It’s a spy story interwoven with a love story, and the strands fit together in a way that moves the reader effortlessly from chapter to chapter. While fiction, its narrative of the CIA and the Middle East arms trade are very close to fact.”
Writers have been generous in their early response. After writing, the affirmation of readers is one of the payoffs, though the process of writing remains the gold.
My son Elliot Ackerman, the friend of Talal and Alec, is now himself a novelist and journalist. He once dubbed me “the last of the paper generation.” He was right. My basement is filled with research files and drafts of manuscripts. Somewhere among these is Anatole Broyard’s essay which I haven’t been able to find in my files, but its sentiment and the value of the manuscript in the drawer abides.
About the author
Joanne Leedom-Ackerman is a novelist, short story writer, and journalist. Her works of fiction include upcoming novels Burning Distance and The Far Side of the Desert and also The Dark Path to the River and No Marble Angels. She has published PEN Journeys: Memoir of Literature on the Line and was the editor for The Journey of Liu Xiaobo: From Dark Horse to Nobel Laureate. Former International Secretary of PEN International, she is a Vice President of PEN International and a former board member and Vice President of PEN American Center.
Article reprinted with permission from The Hopkins Review