Ian Thomas Shaw's debut novel, Quill of the Dove (Guernica Editions), follows French journalist Marc Taragon, a seasoned pro who has been reporting on and from the Middle East for decades. Just as he finds himself in the middle of an ambitious peace negotiation in Israel, a mysterious young Canadian named Marie turns up, intent on speaking with Taragon.
The two plots - a treaty with world-wide political repercussions and much violent opposition, and Marie's unknown connection to Taragon - weave together in a tightly constructed political thriller that will keep readers on their edge of their seats. Shaw drew on his own experience as an academic and diplomat specializing in the Middle East to offer a nuanced look at a region in conflict.
We're excited to welcome Ian to Open Book today as part of our It's Long Story: the Novelist interview series. He tells us about his experiences in the Middle East that led to writing his anti-war novel, why his favourite character in the book is actually a secondary one, and the touching dedication he included.
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
Ian Thomas Shaw:
As a young man, I spent 18 months working and studying Arabic in North Africa and the Middle East before starting a graduate degree in Contemporary Arab History and Political Thought at McGill. I traveled to six different Arab countries where I was greeted with the warmest hospitality and respect. This was the start of a life-long interest in the region and a deep study of its politics and societies. During the heady days of the Middle East Peace Process in the early nineties, I ran an international development program in the Gaza Strip and traveled frequently to Israel, meeting many supporters and opponents of peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Later, I served as a Canadian diplomat in Saudi Arabia and Syria. This personal and professional knowledge has shaped my understanding of the civil war in Lebanon and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a way that is substantively different than that of most Canadians. I still strongly believe that most people in the region strongly value peace, cooperation and tolerance despite the narrower interests of the region's political and military leaders. So, I decided to offer support to the believers in peace through writing an anti-war novel whose heroes and villains will hopefully break down stereotypes and bring back a human perspective to the too-long unresolved issues of the region.
Did the ending of your novel change at all through your drafts? If so, how?
Yes, initially my focus was on the relationship in 2007 between two of my main characters, Marc Taragon and Marie Boivin. My first ending dealt with a tragic outcome to that relationship. The flashback chapters to the Lebanese Civil War were only intended to be backstories to this relationship. As I redrafted the novel, I realized the importance of accurately depicting the tragic violence of the civil war itself and the plot became much more complex than I had originally intended. Consequently, I was motivated to write an ending that would transcend the personal tragedies of the main characters and provide a metaphorical comment on the Middle East as a whole.
Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
Surprisingly, my favourite character is actually a secondary character: Selima 'Akkawi, who embodies the irony of the Lebanese Civil War. A Maronite related to Lebanon's most powerful Christian warlord, she falls in love with a Muslim Palestinian artist and leaves with him for France. A quarter of a century later, she returns to Lebanon to unravel family secrets. In the pursuit of truth, Selima must also face up to her conflicted feelings about her compatriots and deal with her own sense of personal loss. I wanted to express the complicity of the Lebanese civil war through a woman and not through a man and took great pleasure in writing the passages about Selima.
If you had to describe your book in one sentence, what would you say?
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Quill of the Dove challenges all those who want to paint the Middle East conflicts in black and white.
Did you do any specific research for this novel? Tell us a bit about that process.
Conscious that the novel would be vulnerable to criticism from supporters of the various sides in the conflict, I meticulously ensured that timelines for the major events in the novel concurred with the history of the region. For the civil war in Lebanon, Robert Fisk's Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War was an invaluable reference. For specific incidents, I relied on eye-witness accounts from survivors. Some of these eye-witness reports have since been whitewashed by those who still seek to escape responsibility for their crimes. In general, I drew on my years of studying, working, and living in the region to shape the personalities of the main characters. The Arab women in the novel have particularly strong characters. This is how I have known them to be. They are hardly the stereotypes of submissive, oppressed women so commonly depicted in western literature, but rather women who feel passion and compassion, as we all do.
Who did you dedicate your novel to, and why?
I dedicated the novel to my late brother and my mother who also transitioned this spring. Both were great travellers of the world, believers in social justice and committed to pushing aside stereotypes to understanding different cultures and peoples with open minds.
What, if anything, did you learn from writing this novel?
I learned that writing intricate fiction with a political backdrop runs counter to what most Canadian novelists are doing these days and is, therefore, challenging for many readers. The most common comment that I have heard from my first readers is that Quill of the Dove was not an easy read but they also felt rewarded when everything came together at the end of the novel. In a way, Quill of the Dove is much more in sync with European novel-writing where contemporary history and politics are often key ingredients. A second lesson that I took away from Quill of the Dove is that writing a novel balancing two distinct timelines can be technically a real challenge and a risky proposition. It was, however, something that I enjoyed immensely and I hope that my readers will appreciate the effort that went into this.
Ian Thomas Shaw was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. For the last 33 years, he has worked as a diplomat and as an international development worker, living in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. He currently lives in Aylmer, Quebec. He is the founder of Deux Voiliers Publishing, the Prose in the Park Literary Festival and the Ottawa Review of Books. Quill of the Dove (Guernica, April 2019) is his second novel.