This post is also available in: العربية

After the huge success of her first novel, The Baghdad Clock, which was shortlisted for the Arabic Booker Prize in 2018, marking herself the youngest author to reach this list, followed by winning the Edinburgh Book Festival First Book Award in Scotland in 2018. Shahad Al Rawi was under big pressure to live up to the expectations that she had created. Nasher caught up with the young author in her first exclusive interview since her new novel ‘Over the Republican Bridge’, release last November.

After The overwhelming success of The Baghdad Clock, how was the process of starting and completing Over The Republican Bridge; in term of length it took to write, flow of thoughts etc..

It hadn’t been long after The Baghdad Clock was released when I sat at my desk and started writing. Was the plot there in my head? I cannot say yes with assurance. I belong to that category of risk-taking writers, who crosses the deserts without a GPS or clear maps. I would start with scattered events with no clear link between them – at least at the beginning – then I would decide to create a world, not a story, out of them. I finished writing the novel in autumn of 2019, but I postponed its publication due to the Iraqi protests that were taking place back then. I found the events an opportunity to add a few touches to the plot and characters, until I decided to publish it in November 2020.

Publishing during a global pandemic must differ from pre-covid world, what are the challenges that you faced?

I don’t think the pandemic has greatly affected the nature of the reader-book relationship, it may have even strengthened it due to the lockdowns and the availability of more free time. Personally, I haven’t felt any difference. Just like my first novel had been remarkably welcomed, readers have embraced my second novel with , and it has achieved a presence that exceeded my expectations.

‏‏Why was the protagonist nameless? There are so many characters with different dimension and roles within the book, are they all your own creation or do some of them exist in your life?

Just like the case in The Baghdad Clock, the protagonist is nameless because I wanted to realise the concept of “the common I”; the “I” that addresses everyone through the lips of everyone. As for the characters, some of them are real, and some are a blend of several characters who live on the sidelines of our life, but we never feel their presence until we get into difficult circumstances, only to find them the first to rush towards us.

War, invasion and loss are recurring themes in both of your novels, do you fear that you will be ‘stuck’ within these themes and will you venture in a different direction in your next book?

We cannot come out of any circumstance without going in, in the first place. What happened to Iraq, and then to the region, cannot be overlooked in order to write a carefree novel devoid of the effect of reality. I do hope to find that kind of escape and calmness in the future and write away from that. But, when would that happen? I don’t know. Maybe in the next novel, maybe not. Milan Kundera had left Prague, and gotten rid of the cruel reality, but Prague, and all what this city symbolizes, and its surrounding conditions remained alive in almost all of his novels.‏

How much input do you have in the final copy of your novel, in term of design, publishing style and structure and marketing?

I’m quite a perfectionist when it comes to internal design and keenness on details. When I gave my final approval, the publisher gave a sigh of relief. But I do not interfere with marketing at all, that’s the role of the publisher. I write a novel that the reader loves, that’s my only contribution to marketing. Sometimes I repost the readers’ opinion or views on my books via my Instagram account to be able to communicate with them.

The cover of the novel: why was this image chosen rather than an image of the republican bridge, what does it symbolises?

The cover is the final step when working on a novel. I always make sure it’s distinguished and expressive, and that it reflects an artistic value per se. I have seen hundreds of works of art, and when the current cover painting was shown to me, I said, “this is the cover of my novel”. I contacted the artist, Chris Leon, and told him I want one of your paintings as a cover for my novel. When he knew that my works have been translated into several languages, and that I’ve been awarded the Edinburgh Book prize, he agreed and we signed the contract.

I haven’t chosen the picture of the republican bridge. I haven’t even considered it, because the bridge, as an urban landmark in the middle of the city, has no single image for it. It is seen from different perspectives, depending on your position and daily movements in the city. It’s a moving picture, just like the river that goes under it. 

How difficult was it to find a publishing house to take on over the Republican Bridge, especially as COVID-19 has hit hard many sectors?

Actually, several publishing houses offered cooperation. It wasn’t that difficult. As for the foreign publisher, my literary agent takes care of this. She tells me the options and we decide together where to proceed.

What was the significance of the school in the novel?

The school in the novel is part of the setting of the events, which is by the way a real school and is considered one of the most famous schools in Baghdad that was built nearly a hundred years ago. Baghdadi elite female icons graduated from this school, perhaps the most prominent among them is the late Zaha Hadid. It is my school where I spent some of my adolescence years, where my consciousness was formed, and where I had my first readings – and perhaps – my first literary attempts.