This week is special. Today, I interview the very talented bestselling author A.M. Khalifa about his writing process and habits. I contacted him after reading a short story of his, The Bunker, and fell in love with his writing. Terminal Rage is a bestselling novel available on Amazon, and everywhere else. Check it out, and enjoy the interview.
I’m truly honored to present this interview with A.M. Khalifa on writefarmlive.com. While this process was happening, I kept thinking about the way he views his authorship, still humble as day one, still learning with every story. You can visit his website http://amkhalifa.com/ if you want to learn more about him, and what he’s up to. But that’s enough of my dribble, let’s get to the questions.
I guess I’ll start with the same question everyone else does, just for consistency. When did you start writing? And what drew you toward being an author?
Probably since second grade, when I realized that writing was the only homework that didn’t feel like a chore. I first started sharing my short stories about ten years ago. I uploaded them to Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope network, where other writers critique each other in a closed, friendly setting. It was only when the feedback I was getting started to suggest other people could enjoy what I had to say, that I began toying around with the idea of writing a novel.
You speak four languages?
Yes, and I am trying to learn Chinese, but that’s humbling. They offer parent classes at my daughter’s school, and the first thing our wonderful teacher told us was, “You will never fully master Chinese.” I find that in any pursuit in life, if you temper your expectations, you won’t get so obsessed with success. And getting hung up on success seems to be its biggest deterrent.
Was there one event that you would say motivated you to write your first novel (published or not)?
The birth of my first child. I was living in New York at the time when I got the idea for Terminal Rage. I was in the shower to be precise, and had to rush out to jot down the main plot lines because the story was too good to risk losing. Creatively, and because I travel a lot, I am very much influenced by places as seeds for my stories, and as characters unto themselves. Terminal Rage was inspired by Manhattan. Not just living there at the time, but the city itself and the lasting imprint of 9/11 on its identity. Being a daddy for the first time amplifies your emotional sensitivity, and if you’ve read Terminal Rage you will infer that fatherhood, and the lengths we would traverse to protect our loved ones, are key underlying themes. But fatherhood also prodded me in a more practical way—I felt older and had the sense that it was now or never.
I find that everyone has a story about their first stab at publication. What was yours?
I probably fantasized about a traditional publishing deal for about five minutes before I realized that there was never a better time for writers to be masters of their own fate. I work in film and communication, and it was easy for me to grasp the fundamentals of publishing as a moneymaking business. I could have started earlier, but it really wasn’t until the stigma and shame associated with indie publishing was fully laid to rest that I fully embraced the idea. My profile, my background, the stories that I want to tell, even my name are not that of your typical thriller writer. I figured, “there’s no publishing vehicle out there that would be interested in me, so I’m going to go ahead and create it myself.” The irony of course is that I’ve since been offered a number of traditional publishing deals to take on the Terminal Rage franchise, including from a little publishing house based in the UK with a two-part name, the second of which is House!
Is there one place where you do all of your writing? Tell me about it, and how it aides your writing process.
I can write anywhere. On airplanes, at the coffee bar, in wild secluded areas and in large crowded public places. The physical location for me doesn’t really matter, but what’s more important is the right place in my mind, to which I am usually shepherded by the urgency of a story eager to be born. Many writers will agree with me, that just like other things in life driven by passion, when the urge to write strikes, nothing will stop you, and you will do it wherever and whenever.
How quickly do you write a first draft, and how much time do you spend editing and revising? Any tips for other authors from what you’ve learned?
The conventional wisdom and craft advice on this holds true. I storm through the first draft with callous disregard for any rules. I tell rather than show, and I write awful dialogue. I write shamefully bad prose, just so I can get the meat of the story out there. I’ve learned that the best part of this gig is not writing, but the re-writing. The opportunity to create for the first time is rare, so I don’t waste it trying to make it perfect, because the opportunities to revise my work later are far more prevalent. The other critical thing I have come to understand is that no matter how good of a writer you think you are, everyone needs to work with an editor. Not just a proof reader to make sure your writing is technically correct, but a story editor who can see things from varying perspectives, and who can challenge the logic of your story, the things that drive your character, and overall take your story to even more exciting places.
What do you think are some things that you did right on your path to publication?
I allowed myself to make many mistakes and in the process learned from them. I am also happy I did not get caught up in the rush to crank out a sequel fast, which is a trend in the thriller genre and in traditional publishing. Because I am beholden to no one other than my readers, I am taking my own sweet time to write the sequel, Terminal Deception, because I won’t release it if I don’t feel it’s substantially better than the previous book. I write about how terrorism affects the average man and woman, and unfortunately, given the world we live in today, this is not just a theme, but headline news; which means, I have to strike a fine balance between writing a story that is current, but also timeless.
What mistakes do you think you’ve made along the way?
Holding out on getting a literary agent for a long time, thinking that because I am an indie writer, I didn’t need one. Nothing could be further from the truth. A good literary agent is a lifetime partner for a writer, because there are ample opportunities out there above and beyond the first imprint. Foreign rights, film adaptations, hybrid publishing deals, are but a few reasons why good literary agents are a writer’s best friend in this business.
Do you draw some of your inspiration from other books or movies? What are some of your favorites?
I grew up reading Edgar Alan Poe, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain, and I am still mesmerized by their ability to tell a story. I love the dark undertones of Robert Ludlum’s work, the intricate research and backgrounds to the novels of Frederick Forsyth and John le Carré, the addictively absurd worlds of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, and the ability of Egyptian novelist and Nobel Prize Laureate Naguib Mahfouz to capture the essence of human vulnerability.
I watch all kinds of movies, and have worked as a story consultant on a few, like Syriana. I think the movie industry is having a bit of an existential creative crisis right now, and is waiting for a seismic change similar to what happened in the music industry ten years ago, and what is happening to the publishing world now.
As I writer, I always have this tick in the back of my mind that somehow I’ll be “found out” someday. In my case, it’s due to not having a formal education in creative writing. Do you have any nervous paranoias you can tell us about?
Storytelling is as old as humanity itself. We are all potentially writers. There’s nothing you can get in a class room that you can’t get just as well, if not better, from reading a few good reference books on the craft of writing and engaging with other writers. The best education you need for creative writing is to read a lot and write as much. Every story you write is another earned credit in your writing education.
Any deep secrets, or perhaps something people wouldn’t expect about you that you want to share?
I was vegan for two years. Nowadays I go vegan for a week, once or twice a year.
How do you manage your personal life with your writing?
I don’t get hung up on not writing enough. I treat writing as a business and a passion. So, like a day job, there are certain aspects of writing, especially if you are in charge of the publishing process, that are just part of your work routine. And like any other passion or hobby, if you really enjoy writing, you will find the time to do it. Even if you write for two hours a day, producing 1,000 words, you can potentially write three novels a year, just on that meager writing schedule. No matter how busy we are, we all have at least one or two hours a day to spare.
I couldn’t agree more. We make time for the things we love. If you could leave us with one piece of advice, or perhaps words of wisdom to aspiring authors, what would it be?
Don’t write to entertain anyone but yourself. I started out with a humble ambition—to write a book I would enjoy reading. Maybe even share it with family members and friends. The fact that it’s picked up and doing so well commercially is entirely incidental.