There are only a few things that rival my love for reading a good book. Writing that takes my mind to another time or place, or challenges my perceptions, is a true delight. So I was excited to be given the opportunity to interview Ele Pawelski about her novella, ‘The Finest Supermarket in Kabul‘. Published in October 2017 it draws on Ele’s personal experiences.
Hi Ele, can you tell me a little more about yourself?
I have returned from walking the last 300km of the Camino de Compostela de Santiago in northern Spain – I relish immersing myself in other cultures and travel as much as I can. When I’m home in Toronto I play trivia at a local bar with friends once or twice a month, curl at a club near my house and belong to an amazing writing group called Moosemeat. Being part of this group spurred my writing to evolve in ways I could not have imagined when I joined eight years ago.
Can you explain a little about your writing background?
My writing background is both long and short. Long because I first started writing in public forums way back in university: embracing my creative and budgetary sides, I saw films for free while writing reviews for my college newspaper. Years later a couple of my real-life stories were printed in Canadian national newspapers, and I’ve published two academic papers. Fiction, where I’ve blissfully landed, is my most recent writing success and where I see my writing future.
Where did you get your inspiration for writing The Finest Supermarket in Kabul?
I managed human rights projects overseas for more than a decade after finishing university. I moved back to Toronto in 2009 but I kept up with my overseas life quite readily. On January 28, 2011 a suicide bomber targeted a convenience store in Kabul, Afghanistan where I worked in 2007-2008. It was a place I’d frequently shopped. From online photos of the incident I recognized the ads in the shop windows and could visualize the aisles filled with sugary drinks and snacks. Thankfully I didn’t know anyone who’d been hurt in the attack. But it felt like I did.
A few days later, the story that would become The Finest Supermarket in Kabul started to take shape—when a bomb goes off in a place like Kabul there are many perspectives and it would be compelling to explore what that could look like. Once I had some basic ideas the characters took shape and some of the other hooks came together – such as the entire story taking place over the day of the bombing, having three interlinked but separate narratives told in the first person, and the map. I love maps and drew out the one of Kabul in the book to show all the places I mention – most of which are real.
How did you create your characters?
Once I’d decided on the setting, the characters came fairly easily. I wanted each to talk about a Kabul they knew intimately, whether directly or indirectly, and show readers how nuanced the city and its inhabitants are. Naming the characters was somewhat harder. After some contemplation, I settled on Elyssa for the Canadian human rights lawyer, and that never changed. For the American reporter, a seasoned storyteller, I repeatedly tested options. I was thrilled when Alec stuck. The last character – the Afghan parliamentarian – was the most difficult. I’d written his story first. He was the one that convinced me I had something to tell, and compelled me to write the rest. I began by going through the names of Afghani colleagues. Nothing was suitable. I Googled members of Afghanistan’s current and past parliaments. Still nothing. Then I searched for Afghan male names and found plenty to choose from. I inserted one and it stayed for a while. But it wasn’t quite right. I tried another and it hang on for longer, but eventually also didn’t work. Finally, I found Merza.
What did you find most difficult about the writing process?
The agony of getting my first sentence just right, which needs to happen before I can write anything else. Mind you, it can and often does change as I write, but it’s the most important feature of a story since it needs to grab a reader and make them stick around. When I hear someone say a good first sentence, I note it down, and try to envision the accompanying story. It keeps me in the game.
Who do you think your book will appeal to?
It will appeal to readers who read news, particularly international news, travellers and adventurers, those who enjoyed books like Exit West and The Association of Small Bombs, and my mom.
How do you hope your readers will feel when they finish The Finest Supermarket in Kabul?
I hope readers have a more vivid image of Kabul and the dreams of ordinary Afghans for themselves and for their country.
What’s next for you?
I always have writing projects on the go! My current list includes research for my next book, a novel featuring parallel stories about a German mother and son trying to find each other after becoming separated during World War II; a short story about a film camera in three distinct time periods, and another one set in Toronto’s art scene in the 1980s.
Thank you Ele for taking time to answer my questions!
Finest Supermarket in Kabul
Publication Date: Oct. 30th, 2017
Genre: Novella/ Terrorism/ Inspired by True Events
Kabul, Afghanistan January 28, 2011.
Merza, a freshly minted Parliamentarian receives ominous threats after he wins his seat. Alec, an American journalist, flies from Kandahar without his editor’s permission to chronicle daily life in the capital. Elyssa, a Canadian human rights lawyer in Kabul to train female magistrates, is distracted by unwanted attention from a male justice. On this grey, wintry Friday, all three are embroiled in a dramatic and savage bombing. Inspired by true events and places, The Finest Supermarket in Kabul follows Merza, Alec and Elyssa as their idealistic and visionary hopes for Afghanistan are deeply challenged in the aftermath.