Author Interview: Motaz H. Matar

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Ellen Feld is talking with Motaz H. Matar, author of The Pigeon Whisperer.

FQ: Tell our readers a little about yourself. Your background, your interests, and how this led to writing a book.

MATAR: I am Motaz H. Matar. I’m originally a filmmaker, a movie director. I’m a university teacher as well. I’m always curious about discovering new things and exploring new ideas and storylines. I’ve started making short films 10+ years ago and I was always interested in finding different mediums and platforms to tell my stories. Three years ago, I decided to write my first book The 28 Mansions of the Moon, a story of the Sufi-mystic Ibn Arabi. My life has never been the same since then.

FQ: Have you always enjoyed writing or is it something you’ve discovered recently?

MATAR: I always felt that writing is a place where I could express myself. Since I was young, it was always a place I would run to. It was always a place larger than reality and bigger than the mundane and bigger than life. Writing has always been the go-to place. It was always: the place.

FQ: Tell us a little about your book – a brief synopsis and what makes your book unique.

MATAR: My book is about a Syrian refugee and a pigeon breeder, Dabbour, who flees the war in his hometown to try to find a new home for himself in Germany, but things don’t go as he expects. One day in a Berlin train station, Dabbour sees a wayward, injured pigeon on the railway tracks; without thinking he jumps to save it, causing chaos and almost getting himself killed. For this, he is arrested by the police - and he realizes how much he misses home and his birds. Dabbour uses his talents as a "pigeon whisperer" to steal stray pigeons and train them to transport drugs. Dabbour sinks further and further into the world of crime and drug-smuggling, jeopardizing his residency status in Germany. Dabbour is forced to choose between his loyalty to his new "family" - the drug ring - and doing the right thing.

FQ: What was the impetus for writing your book?

MATAR: I was in Germany at that time where I was doing my MA in Serial storytelling. I was waiting for the train to come, looking at the pigeons and I asked my wife: “Do you know that pigeon whisperers are treated like outcasts in their own countries? That their testimony in court is not accepted?” Then I started making the connection between a refugee and a pigeon whisperer. I found them to be the same in many ways: outcasts, underdogs and introverts. I felt the significance of this story not only on a universal level but also on a personal level where I felt in so many ways I was talking about myself: living the experience of losing home and traveling the world looking for a meaning of home somewhere out there.

FQ: Please give our readers a little insight into your writing process. Do you set aside a certain time each day to write, only write when the desire to write surfaces, or ...?

MATAR: I always love to create a pattern and a routine where I sit and write everyday but sometimes life comes in the way and I can’t lock dedicated hours for writing. Writing is an excruciating mental process. It’s heavy. Intense but it’s an organic process. If I sit one day to write for two minutes, then I would consider that a win. If I sit and write two pages or 10, I take that as a win too. I think a lot of writers fail to commit to writing because they set bigger goals for themselves. They aim high and when they can’t meet those goals they become too harsh on themselves and their writing as well, they become critical.

FQ: What was the hardest part of writing your book? That first chapter, the last paragraph, or ...?

MATAR: The hardest part of writing this book was about finding authenticity. I wanted to tell a story that is authentic and realistic. I wanted to tell the details right. To show the life of refugees in Germany, to tap into my memory and into my visual library, to tell the truth as I am seeing it. The hardest part is always about telling the truth or at least some part of it.

FQ: The genre of your book is General Fiction. Why this genre? Is it your favorite to read? Did you think it would be the most challenging?

MATAR: I always aim to focus on the story and the characters allowing the characters to discover their own journeys and find their own way.

FQ: Do you have any plans to try writing a book in a different genre? If so, which genre and why?

MATAR: The Pigeon Whisperer is my third self-published book. I wrote a story about the Sufi mystic mystic Ibn Arabi called The 28 Mansions of the Moon where I talked about spirituality and romance and mysticism. My second book was called Tunnel Twelve a story set between Berlin and Palestine that talks about walls, wars, and human connections. What will my next book be about? What genre? I think I’ll let the story decide that.

FQ: Is there a genre you have not yet delved into that you would like to attempt in the future?

MATAR: I would like to blend stories and delve into mixes of genres. Maybe magical surrealism? Magical mysticism? Are these genres? I’m not sure to be honest.

FQ: Who are your favorite authors and why?

MATAR: I read a lot. I love reading. Reading changed my life and it still does every single day. I read all kinds of books. I read fiction and non-fiction. I read for Hemingway, for Elif-Shafak and for Khalil Gibran. I read poetry and articles and literature. I think I prefer to pick my favorite topics based on the story or the content not just based on the author. Any author who succeeds to move me emotionally and tell me a good story: then he or she is my favorite author.

FQ: Which do you find easier, starting a story, or writing the conclusion?

MATAR: It’s always harder to start the story because you are attempting to set the tone and trying to find your own voice and the voice of the characters. The conclusion is easier to find once I figured out the heart of the story. The middle of the story is always the hardest to write because it’s where all the twists and turns happen and the action takes place.

FQ: As an author/writer, what famous author (living or dead), would you like to have dinner with, and why?

MATAR: I would like to have dinner with the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. He inspired me a lot with his words. He also saved my life. At a time when I was young and saw little hope, Nizar’s writings gave me the spark to carry on, finding my own voice and believing in myself to have the courage to write.

FQ: What is your all-time favorite book? Why? And did this book/author have any influence over your decision to become an author?

MATAR: My all-time favorite book is The Baron in the Trees by Italo calvino. It’s a wonderful book about living in your own terms and challenging the status quo. It’s a story about challenging the norms and believing in the life that you choose for yourself. We live in a world where we care so much about what people tell us and how we should live our lives and how we shouldn’t. This book tells you to choose your own path.

FQ: Where do you think you’ve improved the most in your writing process and ability and how do you think you have evolved?

MATAR: When I started writing more and believed in my own voice. I felt that I always get the most out of my writing is when I don’t do it for a bigger purpose. When I don’t write to succeed, or to get published or to please anyone or to make money. I think the only way I have evolved as writer is when I continued to write, just for the sake of writing and the joy of it.

FQ: How do you approach a new story and when you set pen to paper, is there a specific process you follow (or do you just write and let your story take the lead to where it must go)?

MATAR: A lot of the stories I write are pre-planned. I create full outlines that show me the direction of where the story is going. I know where the story is going to start and how it’s going to end. I always learned to trust that the characters in the story will lead the way.

FQ: If you were to teach a class on the art of writing, what is the one item you would be sure to share with your students and how would you inspire them to get started?

MATAR: I always tell my students to trust in their own voice and not to be afraid of failure. I always tell them to keep moving forward and to explore their creative outlets. Creativity doesn’t just come. You have to ask for it. Creativity is about movement and action: you have to go for it.

FQ: Where did the idea for your story come from?

MATAR: It came from a visual image I had kept with me since childhood, the image of the birds flying at sunset over the rooftops of the old-roman buildings. Years later when I was standing at the edge of the train’s platform in Germany, I could recall that image so clearly and a poem I wrote then about the relationship between cities and love called “she-city”. I was looking at that exact scene and I remembered my life’s story and the reason I had started to seek a new life in the west where freedoms are vast, dissent and diversity is encouraged.

FQ: Did your family & friends encourage you to write your book?

MATAR: I was always lucky to have support groups of family and friends whom I would always read for what I have written whether that was poetry or prose. Having a support group is crucial for a writer’s life. You don’t need a critic or someone who would destroy your faith in yourself when you write something. That’s the last thing we need as writers, especially if you are getting started. There are enough “energy vampires” in the world.

FQ: Did the story change as you wrote the book?

MATAR: I started developing The Pigeon Whisperer in Germany as a TV show. It was my master’s thesis project in MA in Serial storytelling. I had a plan and a direction for where the story was going when I started writing it as a novel. A lot of the elements remained the same such as the character’s and the plot. The ending changed or I should say it was discovered as I was writing the novel because I wasn’t clear about where the main character was heading to in his journey.

FQ: Was the plot worked out completely before you started or did it evolve as you wrote?

MATAR: I had a full outline for the story before I started writing the novel. I had the first episode written as a screenplay which became the first two chapters of the book. I should stay that the story evolved so much when I started writing it as a novel, it became a different animal but at its core remained the same.

FQ: Tell us about the protagonist in your story.

MATAR: Dabbour is a Syrian refugee, an introvert, and a pigeon lover and breeder. He was forced to leave his home country to flee the war and the dangers that his birds faced. He is a pigeon fancier and a lover of life. Throughout the story he learns to appreciate the meaning of good human relationships and to open up to the world while still loving his birds.

FQ: Are any of the characters based on real people you know? If so, how closely does your character mimic the real person?

MATAR: Most of the character’s were somehow people I had come across in my real life like Mr. Saleh whom I had met as an owner of Syrian Pizzeria in Berlin one day while visiting Germany.

FQ: If a character(s) is based on a real person, what made you decide to do that? Did you tell that person he/she is a character in your story and if so, what was their reaction?

MATAR: When I met the Pizzeria owner. We talked about the Arab world and the western world and life. When I started writing the story, I thought of him as Mr. Saleh. That’s the first thing that came to my mind. Life prepares us to write the character’s in our stories. A writer must to keep an open eye to details.

FQ: The “bad guy/gal” in your book - was he/she fun to create and how difficult was it to write those scenes where he/she plays a central role?

MATAR: I think bad characters are always fun to write in stories, not from a moral perspective for sure, but it’s always interesting to approach the other point of view. It’s like you are having a debate with yourself or having a conversation with your inner-conscious about what is right or wrong, good or bad.

FQ: Tell us about your favorite character and why that person is your favorite.

MATAR: My favorite is Mr. Saleh. He represents the guide and the moral figure. He’s the father and the voice in our heads that leads us to the right path – yet we always find a way to neglect that voice.

FQ: Tell us about the fans favorite character. Were you surprised at the response to this character? Why do you think readers respond to this character?

MATAR: I think readers can identify with Mr. Saleh because we’ve all had mentors in our lives and people who taught us things. Teachers who react in ways we don’t understand at first, and later on in life we have an experience and it hits us – we recall a lesson that our teacher or mentor or father or mother taught us, then everything starts to make sense.

FQ: What was the most difficult scene to write and why?

MATAR: The most difficult scene was a scene when one of the character’s dies in the story. I will not spoil the story for the readers. Writing that scene brought me to tears.

FQ: Was it important to you to have a plot that would keep readers guessing about the outcome?

MATAR: It was important to keep the audience guessing if the main character will find home again or not. If he will go back home or find a way to belong in a foreign land.

FQ: How did you approach the need to keep readers engaged and tuned in to keep turning those pages?

MATAR: I always try to write events that keep the story moving forward. Probably that’s why my books are short (30,000 -40,000 words). I imagine that if I enjoy writing the story then my readers would enjoy reading an action-packed story as well where the events move forward.

To learn more about The Pigeon Whisperer, please visit the author's website at: www.motazhmatar.com

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