[On November 4, 2016, the USA book industry noted:
Award-winning journalist, Omar El Akkad’s ''AMERICAN WAR,'' an audacious and powerful debut novel about a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle—a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself, has been sold to Knopf, US, M&S, Canada, Picador, UK, Fischer Verlag, Germany, Flammarion, France, Rizzoli, Italy, and De Geus, Holland. The deal to Knopf, US, was arranged by Anne McDermid at The McDermid Agency.]
NOTE: Picador has pre-empted UK and Commonwealth rights (excluding Canada) to America War, the novel by Omar El Akkad.
Associate publisher Ravi Mirchandani struck the deal with Knopf’s Suzanne Smith, whose colleague Sonny Mehta acquired world rights from Toronto agent Anne McDermid.
Omar El Akkad’s debut novel American War envisions a dystopian future in the midst of a second American Civil War. It is eerie and alarming and, in these divided times, I couldn’t stop talking about it. I’m excited for a wider audience to read it this spring.”
—Sara Eagle, Publicist at Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher, another inhouse ''fervent evangelist''~!
American War: by Omar El Akkad in 2017 is PR'd this way by a book buyer in St. Paul. It is not a book review. It is PR hype.
“Omar El Akkad has delivered a stunning debut. He imagines a world in a not-too-distant future where Americans are at war with each other once again. The characters in this story are fully developed and individual, yet their histories — their stories — extend into the histories of all those displaced and affected by the forces of war. The title, American War, is a shape-shifter. At once, it means that America is again at war, but at times reflects the ways in which the true, actual wars that America has perpetrated on Earth have affected the lives of millions of people. This will be one of the most discussed books of the year, and I cannot wait to put it in the hands of all readers looking to be changed.” [This comment makes him a fervent evangelist for the novel, as the New York Times reporter Alexandra Alter says below? WTF?]
"The [NYT] reporter [Alter] talked to [Matt] the bookseller, who works at an indie store, [SubText Books]," a tweeter told this blog. [And that makes him 'a fervent evangelist' is her book!]
— Matt Keliher, book buyer, SubText Books, St. Paul, MN
BIO: Matt Keliher started at Subtext Books in August of 2013, after having graduated from the University of St. Thomas with a double major in History and Philosophy. In the fall of 2012, he studied at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He loves to travel and revels in new experiences. Matt has helped develop our social media relations, as well as design our website. Three of his favorite books are Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (because picking just one is far too hard), and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Ask him to recommend you anything non-fiction, historical, or one of the classics.
NOTE: Alexandra Alter at NYT said: ''Mr. Keliher has become a fervent evangelist for “American War,” which he predicts will be one of the spring's most widely discussed novels."
FERVENT? EVANGELIST? Is there some inside story and inside connection going on here between the NYT reporter and the publisher's PR people and the book industry which she covers as an insider and therefore needs to play up to everyone involved, acting more like a PR person herself than a true reporter or critic or observer of trends.
Alexandra, who are you working for? The corporate book industry entertainment bottom line complex system of capitalism or the journalism profession?
NOTE: Alter got that info based on his PR hype in a trade magazine, here:
Not everyone is so into the novel. Two reviews mildy criticized it for not really holding the reader's attention or getting readers to suspend belief to believe in what the author was writing about.
''Whereas a surrealist or fabulist novel can substitute signs and symbols, or psychological truths, for some kinds of explanation— case in point, April’s “The Book of Joan” by Lidia Yuknavitch — “American War” is very much in a realist mode and must meet a much different set of criteria for suspending reader disbelief.Despite these flaws — which may register to some readers as quibbles"......
Michiko Kakutani's review in the NYT says similarly: ''There are considerable flaws in “American War” — from badly melodramatic dialogue to highly contrived and derivative plot points — .....''
A positive review here:
Then there's this thumbs up interview by a fan:
Mary: That goes along with my next question. One reason I wanted to interview you is that eco-fiction studies, in part, how authors deal with global warming in fiction. Climate change is not a novel concept anymore, and it is a subject that one day will probably be in the least at the backdrop of most stories. Out of all the novels written in the world, however, relatively few currently address environmental issues head on in fiction—those that do justifiably include the subject in a cultural prism (where environment, technology, economy, sociology, policy, and ideology are closely tied). What inspired you to write this debut novel? And in your background experience of war reporting, how often is the environment at the root of instability and socio-economic crises?
Omar: I started writing American War because I wanted to write about the universal nature of revenge, the way any of us, exposed to enough injustice, can be made evil or wrathful. From that premise, I began to build a world. I knew what I wanted to do was take the conflicts that have defined the world during my lifetime and recast them as elements of an American Civil War. It was when I was trying to determine what the precipitating factors of a second civil war would be that environmental calamity first became a fundamental part of the story. In the book, the war breaks out because a number of southern states refuse to abide by a federal prohibition on fossil fuels. I had to show what the country might look like toward the second half of this century as a result of climate change caused in large part by the use of those fuels – in the novel, sea levels have risen dramatically, the coastal cities are underwater, and there’s been a massive inland migration that has radically altered the country’s demographics. In my experience covering conflict, the environment is rarely discussed as a root source of any conflict. But I have little doubt that climate change and its impact on everything from food production to migration patterns will be one of the primary drivers of war in the coming decades.
Omar: I’m adamant that I never set out to write a book about the future. I realize how that sounds, given that American War is set about 50 years from now, but at its core I think it’s a book about what has happened and what is happening now, not what will or might happen. I finished the first draft of the manuscript in the early summer of 2015, and I would have never guessed back then that the world would look the way it does two years later.
Omar: .....When I started writing American War, I had no literary agent, no publisher and no expectation that the book would ever see the light of day – let alone end up on anybody’s must-read list. I’m certainly grateful some of the novel’s early readers have found it enjoyable or worthwhile, but I can’t say I was at all prepared for the magnitude of the response the book has generated so far.
- The Editor of the NYT Book Review tweets: "How about some doomsday fiction to go along with your doomsday reality?" in linking to the thumbs up yet also somewhat critical Kakutani review of Americn War....
Andrew Campbell rated it two stars at goodreads
''The author attempts a cross-section of the conflict much as in Max Brooks’ ''World War Z'', but unlike that work of science-fiction, adhering to dour realism gives Mr. El Akkad no space for imagination, delight, or surprise. ''
I stopped at a little over half way through. ''
Omar El AkkadVerified account @omarelakkad
—Emily St. John Mandel author of Stations Eleven, mentioned in the NYT PR hype by Alexandra Alter re she wrote: ''“You don’t like to imagine the endpoint of extreme partisanship, but that’s exactly what Omar’s done in this book,” said Emily St. John Mandel, author of the postapocalyptic novel “Station Eleven.”."
Michiko Kakutani in her review also compares and mentions that "El Akkad has fashioned a surprisingly powerful novel — one that creates as haunting a postapocalyptic universe as Cormac McCarthy did in “The Road” (2006),...''
''His brilliant and supremely disquieting debut novel'' opens in 2074, at the outbreak of the Second American Civil War, and follows a young Louisiana girl, Sarat Chestnu.
World-building is difficult in novels like these, in which the author must catch the reader up on the mind-bending events of the past fifty or so years. But author Omar El Akkad uses an effective cheat: interspersed with Sarat’s story are excerpts from historical documents like newspaper stories and oral history outtakes and memoirs and diary entries that help us envision a specific time in history without too much other exposition. - Marisa Weizman
SARAT is speaking
''When I was young, I collected postcards. I kept them in a shoebox under my bed in the orphanage.
Later, when I moved into my first home in New Anchorage, I stored the shoebox at the bottom of an old oil drum in my crumbling tool-shed. Having spent most of my life studying the history of war, I found some sense of balance in collecting snapshots of the world that was, idealized and serene. Sometimes I thought about getting rid of the oil drum. I worried someone, a colleague from the university perhaps, would see it and think it a kind of petulant political statement, like the occasional copperhead flag or gutted muscle car outside houses in the old Red country—impotent trinkets of rebellion, touchstones of a ruined and ruinous past. I am, after all, a Southerner by birth. And even though I arrived in neutral country at the age of six and never spoke to anyone about my life before then, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that some of my colleagues secretly believed I still had a little bit of rebel Red in my blood. My favorite postcards are from the 2030s and 2040s, the last decades before the planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself. They featured pictures of the great ocean beaches before rising waters took them; images of the southwest before it turned to embers; photographs of the Midwestern plains, endless and empty under bluest sky, before the Inland Exodus filled them with the coastal displaced. A visual reminder of America as it existed in the first half of the twenty-first century: soaring, roaring, oblivious. I remember the first postcard I bought. It was a photo of old Anchorage. The city’s waterfront is thick with fresh snowfall, the water speckled with shelves of ice, the sun lowstrung behind the mountains. I was six years old when I saw my first real Alaskan sunset. I stood on the deck of the smuggler’s skiff, a sun-bitten Georgia boy, a refugee. I remember feeling the strange white flakes on my eyelashes, the involuntary rattle of my teeth—feeling, for the first time in my life, cold. I saw near the tops of the mountains that frozen yolk suspended in sky and thought I had reached the very terminus of the living world. The very end of movement. I belong to what they call the Miraculous Generation: those born in the years between the start of the Second American Civil War in 2074 and its end in 2093. Some extend the definition further, including those born during the decade-long plague that followed the end of the war. This country has a long history of defining its generations by the conflicts that should have killed them, and my generation is no exception. We are the few who escaped the wrath of the homicide bombers and the warring Birds; the few who were spirited into well-stocked cellars or tornado shelters before ..
Omar El Akkad
From the front lines to fiction
For 10 years El Akkad led a double life, working as an international war reporter for Canada’s The Globe and Mail and writing fiction between midnight and 5:00 a.m., squeezing in sleep here and there. The grueling schedule allowed him to write three draft novels that never left his hard drive, but his fourth, American War, is not only being published by Knopf, and agented by a Toronto literary agent, but creating significant and well-deserved buzz by fervent evangelists.
El Akkad’s future dystopian tale begins in 2075 during the second American Civil War, in which Red and Blue states clash over the need for sustainable energy. Climate change has wreaked havoc, with water swallowing Washington, D.C., and Florida, while a new Middle Eastern and North African superpower has emerged: the Bouazizi Empire.
To keep track of all of this devastation and conflict, the author peppered his upstairs office walls with invented maps, timelines and drawings.
“I didn’t get many visitors up there, but the ones who did visit certainly had a few questions about what the hell was going on in that room,” he remembers.
Occasionally, during moments of early morning fog, El Akkad himself momentarily confused fact and fiction. “I’d be groggy because I was up until 5:00 writing,” he says, “and I would mention something stupid and have to catch myself and say nope, South Carolina still exists. Not a real thing.”
Born in Egypt, raised in Qatar and Canada, El Akkad now writes fiction full time from the home he shares with his American wife near Portland, Oregon. In a multitude of ways, he seems uniquely qualified to have written this remarkable novel.
American War chronicles the life of Sarat Chestnut, who metamorphoses from an inquisitive 6-year-old living with her family in a shipping container in Louisiana into a radicalized, head-shaven warrior on the prowl in the refugee camp where she and her family end up. El Akkad peppers his page-turning narrative with short excerpts from history books, eyewitness accounts and other imagined documents.
“[Their inclusion] started as a bit of a crutch,” El Akkad admits. “I didn’t think I had the talent to tell the kind of story that I wanted without making it horribly clunky. So I would write the main narrative and then dream up a document that I thought would be left as sort of an archival echo of what had happened. As I progressed, I found that [these documents] had added an element of texture that I didn’t anticipate.”
Although set in America, Sarat’s riveting story in many ways transcends politics, with details so impeccable and a plot so tightly woven that the events indeed feel factual. How, I wondered, did El Akkad pull off this feat?
“The short answer is outright thievery,” he says, laughing. “I stole much of it from my experiences growing up in the Middle East and also from my experiences as a journalist.”
After moving with his parents from Egypt to Qatar at age 5, and from Qatar to Canada at age 16, El Akkad finished high school in Montreal and studied computer science at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “I can’t program my way out of a paper bag for reasons that still baffle me,” he admits, “but I earned a computer science degree.”
His real passion, however, was the college newspaper, where he spent most of his time. Later, at The Globe and Mail, he covered the war in Afghanistan, military trials at Guantánamo Bay, the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri, and the effects of climate change in places like Florida and Louisiana.
“A lot of the world of the book is based on the things I saw while on those assignments,” El Akkad says. “I like to say that a lot of what happened in this book happened; it just happened to people far away.”
He points out that Camp Patience, the refugee camp where Sarat’s family lives, is modeled on the NATO airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and on Guantánamo Bay. “A lot of tents in wartime look exactly the same,” he notes.
The journalist was drawn to war reporting after reading Dispatches, Michael Herr’s classic account of frontline reporting on the Vietnam War. “It seemed to me that war zones combine the ability to write stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told with a sense of necessity—the idea that wars are among the most significant things we do as human beings and deserve the most coverage.”
On the front lines of Afghanistan in 2007, El Akkad discovered that the adrenaline rush he anticipated never materialized—even though he was in the line of fire during nightly RPG attacks.
“I never got that sort of strange Hemingway-like fascination with the kinetics of war,” he explains. “I was mostly interested in its effects on the losing side, the way that it moved the losing side backward in time.” In Afghanistan he saw people living in mud huts that “you wouldn’t be particularly surprised to see Jesus walk out of.”
The tragedies he witnessed as a reporter ultimately drew him back to his first love, fiction. He had no intention of writing a political future dystopian tale; that’s simply what unfolded.
“It’s called American War,” he says of the novel, “but I never intended to write a book about America or war; I intended to write a book about the universality of revenge. I wanted to explore the idea that when people are broken by war, broken by injustice, broken by mistreatment, they become broken in the same way.”
He continues: “The notion was to take all of these wars that I’d grown up seeing—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars on terror, even cultural events like the Arab Spring—and recast them as something very direct and near to America. The idea being to explore this notion that if it had been you, you’d have done no different.”
This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
Portlander Omar El Akkad’s Debut Novel Is a Dystopian, Antiwar Tale
Drones. Eco-crisis. Civil strife. American War owes more than a little to the present day.