Amelia Smith Interview
Amelia Smith is a journalist and a writer with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa region. We caught up with her in an exclusive interview to discuss her novel ‘Behind The Sun’ and her work in general.
What interests and inspires you?
I have a particular interest in political prisoners and have interviewed scores of former detainees and their families. I am fascinated by how imprisoning one person not only destroys their life but has such a strong ripple effect across a whole community and the fight for justice can consume entire lives. I am also fascinated by how authoritarian states inject mistrust into communities, turning loved ones against loved ones, and it is this that I wanted to capture in Behind the Sun.
As a journalist, how does writing differ from being a fictional author? And did you use your journalistic knowledge and connection when writing Behind the Sun?
Behind the Sun is the story of a family set in the crosshairs of a ruthless military unit and is ultimately destroyed by a dictatorship. The feared Branch 290 has been watching Shams’ family for weeks and as she tries to find out who betrayed her brother, who has been forcibly disappeared, she suspects that someone close has passed them information.
The novel is a tapestry of the interviews I have conducted over the course of my career with people living under authoritarian rule. Often political prisoners are male (Yusuf), and a female member of their family dedicates their whole life to securing justice for them (Shams). I have seen this countless times. I also wanted to explore some of the moral dilemmas which arise from imprisonment. It is common for interrogating officers to demand detainees give up the names and addresses of their friends and siblings, and if they don’t, they are tortured. So, have they betrayed a loved ones’ trust, or do they have no choice but to do what they are told to do? What would you do if you were in their position? Essentially, you can trust no one, not even those who are the closest to you.
In terms of how writing a novel differs from being a journalist, in news it’s important to faithfully relay quotes and experiences of the people you interview. In a novel the characters are your own and you are free to shape them as you wish.
How did your book journey start?
The forcibly disappeared have become a statistic, this gets worse the higher the figure gets. I wanted to turn them into characters, or real people with lives, hopes and dreams, that any reader could relate to. I love to write, especially long form and in depth. Unfortunately, in news there is less and less space to do this, everything is about short, simple articles. So writing a novel was one way to do this.
Why did you choose to write about the Syrian conflict or make it the topic of your novel?
I have always been interested in how Aleppo, the Syrian city Behind the Sun is set in, remained calm for some 16 months as the uprising intensified across the rest of the country and how the work Shams and Yusuf were doing was not only incredibly brave – they had clear examples in other cities of what would happen to them if they were caught – but it was also a last attempt to fight for democracy as their country collapsed around them.
Shams was apolitical before the revolution and initially had no interest in taking part. As it surrounded her, she had no choice. Here in the UK, we’ve watched the Syrian uprising from the beginning, and so many people have said to me, “I’d never take part in something like that.” But I think that no one knows what they would do until the time comes and something so huge was at the door. Before the Syrian uprising there were 14 branches of the secret state including Branch 290, the Aleppo branch, which features in Behind the Sun. They were ruthless, carried out numerous human rights violations including at the detention facilities they oversaw. I wanted to explore what happened when someone came under the control of one of these notorious branches.
There are many fictional books that have been written about Syria and the impact of its conflict on Syrian people, how do you think Behind the Sun stands out from them?
It’s my hope that readers of Behind the Sun, no matter where they are from, can relate to the characters, feel some of what they are going through, and at the same time enjoy the reading experience.
A novel is longer lasting than a news article; hopefully Behind the Sun is a testament to what so many brave people went through all those years ago and the consequences that reverberate today.
What research did you do for the novel and were your characters based on real people or stories that you have been told?
Most of what happens in this book is based on interviews I have done over the course of my career. When I finished, I wanted it to be as accurate as possible, so I asked a good friend who was heavily involved in the Syrian uprising from the start, and is himself a former political prisoner, to edit it for me. His advice was invaluable. In one scene Shams eats a falafel wrap, but he told me it was Egyptian style and explained what a Syrian wrap would look like. He also tweaked the names, moved the characters into apartments rather than houses, and changed some of Shams’ clothes to suit what a young woman from Aleppo was more likely to wear.
Some of the characters are inspired by real people who I have not interviewed, most notably Xr, who works in a morgue photographing bodies. His character draws on Caesar, the military police photographer who smuggled out tens of thousands of pictures of people who were tortured to death inside a Syrian prison.
What do you hope to achieve with Behind the Sun?
I hoped to write a political thriller that people enjoyed reading and gave a good insight into what people went through during the Syrian uprising.
Some critics might say your novel focused on one side of the conflict and did not go into depth to various aspect of it and how the conflict drew many sides. Why did you refrain from exploring that?
I wanted to tell a story from the point of view of people, and how they have been affected by living in a police state; how this changes our perception of trust and makes us doubt even those who are closest to us. It’s not a novelist’s job to be impartial, that is the job of a news reporter.
The book ended without answers being given to the readers as to what happened to Shams, Yousif and Amin, was that intentional? Is there a sequel to it?
No, it was not my intention, in my mind their onward journey was clear. However, I did want to give the reader some space to imagine exactly what step they would take next.
Why did you self-publish and not get a publishing house to help you publish Behind The Sun
Self-publishing gives you greater control over the editing process, front cover design and how the book is distributed.
What has been the response to your book so far?
The response has been positive, both from people who are already interested in this part of the world and those who are approaching it for the first time. I wanted to reach an audience not just interested in the MENA region but write a book that was for everyone.
What is next for you, and will you write about Syria again?
I am working on a second novel, also a political thriller. This one is based between Egypt and the UK.