Alastair Luft is an Ottawa based writer, whose two books—Jihadi Bride and The Battle Within—have both received a lot of praise. He’s also a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and someone who took up writing in earnest later in life. Although I don’t know him personally, I know him through others, and wanted to find out more about his writing and what’s behind it.
Phil: I’m always curious when talking to other creatives about what got them started on that path. In your case, when and why did you start to write?
Alastair: In 2014, I took a parental leave of absence after the birth of my second daughter. My wife and I came up with a schedule that offered each of us a bit of down time from parenting, and—having left a busy job—what I found was that I didn’t have any creative outlets. I signed up for an introductory writing course online and enjoyed it so much that I decided to try National Novel Writing Month. By the end of November, I had a horrible first draft of The Battle Within, and also a newfound love of writing.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to publish what you’ve written?
I decided to keep working on what I had and when I’d taken the manuscript as far as I could, the only choice seemed to be either go for publishing or drop it. Since I didn’t feel quite done with the story—and also because I’d started to believe that writing was something I could see myself doing for many years—I went for publication.
In other parts of my life, I have a lot of agency, and so shifting gears to being a writer pitching agents and publishers that in many cases didn’t even reply was hard at first. I’ve found the sweet spot, I think, where I control the things I can and let go of the things I can’t. That’s not to say that I don’t slip sometimes, though. What was that experience like for you?
I found the business of writing – all things pitching, marketing, networking – overwhelming at first, and still do at times. Even by themselves, each of these activities could easily take hours of every day. At one point during the publication journey of my first novel, I realized I was spending most of my available time pitching marketing pieces or contacting people, and almost no time actually writing, which was totally backwards. Now, I set limits. Writing comes first, leaving me with whatever part of the day remains to get to the more business parts.
At times it seems like writing is the easiest part of the writing business when compared with pitching, editing, etc. That said, what’s the hardest part of writing for you?
I struggle most with letting the creative process take its course. I think my military background has maybe conditioned me to be timeline and output based, and so I’ll set goals for myself as to when I’d like to have a writing project done and then get caught up on meeting those timelines.
Oh man, I feel you on this. Being hyper-organized can sometimes feel like a superpower, and sometimes like a curse. I can show you excel spreadsheets with projected word counts by week…
While goals have their uses—and I should stress that I haven’t had to write a novel for a deadline—what I’ve found is that artificial deadlines can conflict with giving myself the time to get familiar with and have insights into the work-in-progress. Often I’m not ready to write a particular scene or story, and if I let my desire to ‘show progress’ drive my writing instead of telling the best story I can, that motivation can undermine the creative process itself. Many times, the best way for me to get out of being stuck on a project was to move to something completely different, which ended up giving me ideas on how to improve the project I set aside.
Writing to an outside deadline (something I’m doing right now) is definitely a whole different skill. I’ve found that when the writing work is the hardest, when I’m really working on something that has the potential to be great (even if just a sentence or two), my brain will find ways to try to wiggle out of doing the work. And the best way to distract me is to come up with a better, “shinier” idea. Some of my most creative ideas have popped into my head when I was up against a deadline or struggling with something else. I’ve become really careful to respect that part of the process too, and make sure that I capture those ideas, and maybe noodle on them for a while before getting back to what I’m “supposed to be doing.”
These are really great observations. It’s almost like the potential of greatness in a piece of writing can be the enemy of good, because somewhat ironically, you have to go through good to have a chance of the writing being anywhere close to great. I guess that’s the wisdom behind that old writer’s advice that, ‘you can’t edit a blank page.’ I’ve also had trouble respecting creative ideas when they appear, mostly because of an overinflated sense of my ability to remember them later. But each one of those ideas is an opportunity of some sort, and if you don’t give yourself time to explore them, they’ll almost certainly be missed opportunities.
We’ve both spent a good chunk of time in Afghanistan, and in some ways, I’d say that my experience there was the formative one of my adult life. What about your experience in Afghanistan works its way into your writing?
I spent almost three years there, so I’m sure a lot of that experience feeds my writing in ways I can’t even imagine. One thing that sticks out to me though is perhaps an appreciation of what Tim O’Brien meant when he wrote that, ‘a true war story is never moral.’ What was true in Afghanistan? Or better yet, what was one’s perception of what was true? The answers to those questions could be things you’d never tell another living soul. Like being with a person in their last moments. Or things that would never be believed, like a soldier walking away from the center of impact of a 500-pound bomb. If one is to be committed to the truth though—and I firmly believe that an artist’s warrant is absolutely to offer a version of the truth—then they have to get their hands dirty. They have to be as comfortable with obscenity as they are with beauty, because that’s the truth, and if they’re not prepared to do that, they risk making art that is really propaganda.
I think you’ve hit on something really important here, which is an artist’s obligation to truth. That doesn’t mean telling everything exactly as it occurred, it means servicing the underlying truth of a story, which sometimes is better achieved through fiction. This is what Tennessee Williams meant by the writers providing the “truth in the pleasant guise of illusion.”
I think that this is part of why I am drawn to setting my writing in conflict zones, despite the fact that war itself isn’t what I am writing about. War strips away a lot of the illusions, of individuals and of society, and lets you get to the truth faster.
I’d agree with that and I might add that as settings, war and conflict zones are also unique because of their proximity to death, which brings a corresponding proximity to life. Because of that, human emotions and actions in these places can be deeper and richer, in both good and bad ways. I mean, take the example of surviving an attack that might have killed a friend or a comrade-in-arms; it will be completely normal to feel both joy at still being alive, and guilt that your friend died, and this can provide wonderful fodder for storytelling because both of those feelings can be intensely true.
So all that said, what spurred you specifically to write “Jihadi Bride”?
I followed the rise of ISIS throughout 2014 to 2016, which was when I was writing my first novel. At the time, there were a number of stories about Canadian citizens being radicalized, like Martin Couture-Rouleau, who killed WO Patrice Vincent in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu with a car, or Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed Cpl Nathan Cirillo and attacked Parliament Hill. One story that stood out for me, though, was about John Maguire, a 23-year-old from Ontario.
He was killed fighting with ISIS in Syria, no? His nom de guerre was Abu Anwar al-Canadi, I think.
That’s right. This was a man who grew up playing hockey in small-town Canada, and his radicalization caused me to wonder what circumstances would cause someone to follow this path. Closer to home, I wondered if it would be possible for my own children to radicalize, and if so, what would need to happen for them to think joining a group like ISIS was a good idea. Plus, what would I do if that happened? Exploring those ideas provided the primary building blocks for what became Jihadi Bride.
That’s really interesting. In a sense, the novel is a thought experiment about “what if this happened to someone I love.” That’s a much more nuanced and sympathetic view than what one might expect.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but one thing I took away from Afghanistan is that there are generally good reasons for why people do what they do, even if we might fundamentally disagree with their actions. That is, after all, one of the core tenets of counterinsurgency theory, which is that insurgent movements are often grounded in legitimate grievances, like being disenfranchised or alienated. And, if no attempt is made to understand – and I mean really understand – the fundamental motivations of those who might be in opposition to us, I think it really undermines any ability to identify realistic, long-term solutions. That said, I’m also not saying that violence should be ruled out as a potentially appropriate response, only that we should use violence with our eyes wide open about its chances of success, as well as its costs.
As a part-time writer, how do you balance your day job and the other demands in your life with your writing practice?
Finding opportunities to write while also working a full-time job and being present with my family is tough, that’s for sure. For me, I had to reconsider my priorities so I could make decisions about what I was prepared to sacrifice so I could write. As an example, although I was on track to be promoted when I began writing in earnest, I ended up opting out of career progression so I could protect time for my family and for writing. Ultimately, my continued development as a writer is more important to me than whether I make it to the next rank, which would come with increased responsibility and commitments. Compromises are important as well, and my wife and I have a constant dialogue about supporting my writing, which these days is mostly done in the early morning hours. It’s frustrating to make slow progress because of limited time, however, I try to adopt the attitude that every decision I make is support the intent of creating more opportunities for me to write in the future.
That’s a really important idea—building a writing practice/career over time, rather than seeing it as an all-or-nothing endeavour. And I think it cuts both ways, as I make choices to do things other than writing that supports me writing long term, just as I choose not to do things to focus on writing. I think that there are a lot of people who never start a creative career because they can’t bring themselves to quit their jobs, but that’s not really the right approach most of the time. (Full disclosure: I quit my job to become a writer, and it turned out fine)
The danger, I think, in an incremental approach is that at some point you still need to make the leap. I have a lot of respect for you in going all in because it’s very tempting to wait for the ‘perfect circumstances,’ but because of that, it’s also very easy to become comfortable with one’s circumstances. For me, I’m fairly confident I’ll be able to set the conditions to be a full-time writer, but my concern is making sure that I’ll have the courage to go for it when the time comes.
Has the pandemic changed your view on the role of the artists/writers within society?
Even before the pandemic, I felt that the role of artists—to include writers—was to hold up a mirror so society could see itself. If anything, the pandemic has only strengthened that viewpoint. I agree that a story should entertain, and it’s perfectly fine for some art to be purely about entertainment. That said, I also feel that really powerful art—the kind that sticks with you long after it has been experienced—involves more than entertainment. Tolstoy claimed that if thought is communicated through speech, then emotion is communicated through art, and I feel that this continues to be the role of artists and writers; to help people understand the world around them and the human condition through emotion. I think the best compliment I could receive about my novels is that they generated a feeling in a reader.
Yes, that connects back to the idea of having an obligation to truth. Truth, when revealed, can’t help but provoke emotion.
Both of us write in multiple genres or mediums. What are the challenges that you’ve found come with this?
By far, I think the greatest challenge is being able to adapt. Even within the same genre, a particular story might demand a different style than what a writer might be used to, and so the challenge becomes whether the writer will adjust their writing to serve the story, or whether they’ll force the story to change to fit their writing. This becomes even more complicated when writing in different genres because conventions and obligatory scenes of those genres all change to greater or lesser degrees. Even more challenge is added when switching between fiction and non-fiction, and even within non-fiction genres such as narrative or academic. The thing is though, I feel like crossing genres improves overall writing skill through interdisciplinarity; it adds tools to the toolbox that a writer can deploy to create artistic effect regardless of the story, even if that use might be in what others would consider non-standard ways.
I think you’ve already started to jump into the next question I had for you with that answer, but what advice would you give to other writers or artists?
What I would offer is that people should be clear with themselves about why they’re pursuing an artistic endeavor, writing or otherwise. This absolutely doesn’t have to be a multi-paragraph vision statement; it’s enough to know that you do it because it makes you happy. I say that because as much as I love writing, it’s not always fun and games. There are days I feel like I have no business being published at all, or that I will never be able to tell a story that way I see it in my head. I often feel like I’m wasting my time. Steven Pressfield would probably call these doubts, ‘manifestations of Resistance,’ and I think that one way to make it through these rough periods is to very much understand what reason compels us to do what we do.
I like a lot of what Steven Pressfield has to say about writing, and his concept of “resistance” really resonates for me, as well as his idea of an artist serving or accessing their muse. It doesn’t hurt that he used to be a Marine, either. He doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff.
I also got a lot out of Pressfield’s repurposing of parts of the Bhagavad-Gita, like having a right to our labour, but not the fruits of our labour. Whenever I get too caught up in process and output as opposed to content, I try to bring myself back to this idea so I can be as true to my art as I can.
Another reason to appreciate our motivation in pursuing art relates to how seriously to pursue professional development. If all you want to do is dabble—and that’s totally fine—then maybe paying for courses or professional feedback isn’t money well spent. For those who want to improve, however, these types of expenditures might be critical.
There is definitely a fine balance to be found. Thinking of writing as a business, it makes sense to invest in yourself. BUT…there are a lot of snake oil salesmen (and women) out there who know exactly how to prey on writer’s insecurities and desires. It seems that there are traps at every step of the writing game, in fact, and you really need to think about the value of what you are paying for.
We both took a certificate program in Creative Writing, and you’re pursuing a Masters in it. What’s the value that you get from those programs?
Both the certificate program I took through Humber College and the Masters were studio programs which consisted mostly of direct mentorship. As an older student, I think I was much more receptive to absorbing advice from established writers based on their experiences as opposed to maybe a more academic based program. Plus, the writers I was lucky enough to work with – Ashley Little at Humber, and Martin Randall at University of Gloucestershire – were outstanding critics who were able to dial in on possible shortcomings in my writing in an objective, professional manner that built me up and gave me confidence. The other benefit of the Masters program was the opportunity to look at specific artistic movements such as minimalism, which helped me understand a few of the available overarching strategies that can help influence what techniques and styles a writer might want to use for a particular story.
Can you talk about any new projects that you are working on?
I have several projects in development, the first of which is a literary thriller about a retired Navy SEAL who leads an assassination mission against the president of China. This novel was an opportunity to get out of my writing comfort zone, and provided me with the chance to experiment with nonlinear narratives and minimalism, which I felt was important because of a tendency for me to overwrite. One Kingdom Under Heaven comes out on June 17, 2021, and I’m currently searching for advance readers.
That’s coming up soon! How can prospective advanced readers get in touch with you?
The second project I’m working on is an illustrated creative nonfiction book about civic engagement written for new / young adults. This one has turned into somewhat of a labor of love, and I find myself continually torn between giving up on it or pushing on. Although set aside for now, my plan is to run the manuscript through concept and line edits later this year and, if everything goes well, to begin development on the illustrated side of the project after that.
Lastly, I’m also on a very early draft of a novel about siblings at odds with each other when they inherit the family farm after their parents pass on. I would love for this story to be the setting to examine larger societal trends taking place in Canada right now, although progress to date has been very slow. I’ll get there though!
I take the same approach as you, I think. I always have several projects on the go at once, though I try to focus on one at a time. Writing is one thing, but publishing is such a slow-burn process that I feel like this is the only approach that makes sense.
And finally, what are you reading now or have read recently that you’d recommend?
In line with my work-in-progress, much of what I’m reading these days is about various perspectives on Canada and Canadian history. Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, deserves every award it has won. I also greatly enjoyed The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis, No Great Mischief, by Alistair MacLeod, and The Englishman’s Boy, by Guy Vanderhaeghe. Lastly, for something slightly different, I also enjoyed Stephen Graham Jones’ Mapping the Interior, which is part ghost-story, part coming of age.
I know some of those books, but I’m going to check out the ones that I don’t!