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Hard to Shake Off: In Conversation with Mischa Hiller

Aug 14, 2013 in Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

This week, Mischa Hiller’s SHAKE OFF, picked by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker as one of 2012’s Best Books, hits paperback! The following is a conversation between Mischa and his editor at Mulholland Books, Wes Miller. SHAKE OFF can now be foudn at bookstores across the country.

Wes Miller: Let me start by saying SHAKE OFF was one of those novels I just knew we needed for the Mulholland Books list as soon as I started reading it. The degree to which you bring readers into Michel’s world—a world in which almost anything is either a weapon or a tool, in which everyone Michel meets may be trying to lead him astray—is just astounding.

One of the things I’ve noticed about SHAKE OFF, rereading that evocative first chapter, is how absolutely chock-full of seemingly genuine tradecraft the opening section is. Had you done deep research into the tricks of the espionage trade in writing SHAKE OFF? Were there books or individuals (whether you can tell us about them or not) that were particularly useful in crafting such an air of authenticity? And did you always know you’d start the novel with what is practically a how-to on the art of subterfuge, or was this something that came later as you were figuring out how to introduce Michel’s world to readers?

Mischa Hiller: Well, let me start off by saying how proud I am to be published by Mulholland, whose list includes some great writers. To answer your question: yes, I did a lot of research, but was also lucky to have access to someone who had gone through this kind of training. There are books you can buy that detail surveillance and counter-surveillance but it’s the little insights that make it real, like trainee surveillance officers using dead letter drops to get their paychecks.

I felt the training was an integral part of the book in the sense that it is part of what makes Michel and explains his paranoia. A lot of spy books imply that this sort of constant subterfuge can be lived with easily, without any effect. My premise was that actually the whole idea of living a lie is quite damaging.

I should add here that it’s not just the tradecraft that’s written with such command in SHAKE OFF—it’s the sense of alienation with which Michel views his surroundings. It’s something I personally responded to in an unexpected way. You and I have never actually discussed this before, but we are both mixed race—you’re half Palestinian, half British, and I’m of Chinese, German, and Irish descent. I’m not sure if your heritage was something I knew about you when I started reading SHAKE OFF, and Michel himself is not biracial, but at least to me, the way Michel describes his sense of not quite belonging to his surroundings (something I know I’ve at times struggled with) was extremely well-taken and quite emotionally accurate.

Was cultural alienation something you’d known you wanted to write about, or a theme that grew naturally out of the genre as seen through your own particular cultural perspective? (Did you begin wanting to write a spy novel, or by wanting to write about a Christian orphan from the Sabra refugee camps?)

That’s an interesting question. This idea of belonging and identity is something that interests me, no doubt, and I recently wrote an essay on what it means to me to be of mixed race, and the challenges this poses (in terms of belonging and acceptance) and the advantages it can provide, especially as a writer, in terms of being able to look at things ‘from the side’, as it were. I mentioned in a previous blog post about how I drew on my own feelings when imparting the alienation Michel felt in the book, and of his being a fish out of water. One could say that this was a theme I wanted to explore to some extent, and indeed the outcome of the book is his way of addressing this loss of identity. As for wanting to write a spy novel or a book about someone from the camp I think both came to me simultaneously. What would happen, I thought, if an orphan was groomed for espionage and placed in an alien environment? Also, I did think, how great it would be to have a Palestinian protagonist in a thriller.

 I’ve given much thought to genre and subgenre in the years I’ve spent working exclusively with suspense fiction since the launch of Mulholland Books. I’ve heard it said that it’s often those moments outside of those expected from the conventions of the form that affect you the most strongly.  (Michael Connelly and Mark Billingham touched on this in their conversation on the MulhollandBooks.com earlier this summer—the “looking out the window” moments from Connelly’s Bosch novels being some of Billingham’s favorites—and there’s a TED talk with JJ Abrams where he mentions subgenre in discussing the unspoken reasons a film like Jaws becomes part of the cultural lexicon.)

SHAKE OFF does this better than most in the slow introduction of Helen, Michel’s flatmate, into Michel’s otherwise almost hermetically sealed life—their budding romance is the reason that suddenly this nail-biter of paranoia, dead drops, and clandestine missions becomes an almost lyrically-written love story as well. Many, many writers struggle with the idea of sub-genre and romance in particular—do you have any tips to share with any colleagues who might be reading? What would you (humbly) say about writing Helen and Michel’s story makes their relationship seem more genuine than most? And are Helen and Michel based on any people in particular or serve as amalgamates of people you’ve known?

I am pleased, as reviews and readers have suggested, that I have managed to escape the confines of the genre. To me this is the greatest compliment I can be paid as a writer. Genre can be limiting (both in terms of writing and what people will read), so if, as a writer, you can fuse more than one genre, or transcend the genre you are ostensibly writing in, without pretension or creating a horrible mess, then you may be onto something. You can appreciate this effect better in great films, as you mentioned; they are about something greater than the plot, which is often incidental.

For me, SHAKE OFF could easily be about Michel and Helen’s relationship, with some spying and politics that get in the way, rather than the other way round, and my only advice would be to give as much thought and weight to one aspect of a book as you do another. Unfortunately a lot of books, and films, bolt something on (usually the ‘love interest’) rather than weave it in, but it is obvious and therefore unsatisfying.

Michel and Helen are not based on particular people but there are aspects in each that I have observed in others and myself.

Your earlier novel SABRA ZOO focused on the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 in Beirut, Lebanon.  SHAKE OFF is also Michel Khoury is a survivor of the Sabra massacre, an event that haunts him throughout the novel.  I believe you were living in Beirut at the time of the Sabra and Shatila massacre—what was it like, being in Sabra then? How would you describe living in cities torn apart by sectarian violence to Americans, whose almost sole point of reference would have to be the events of 9/11?

It is difficult to explain what it is like to people who haven’t experienced it, which I guess is why some of us write books about it. I suppose, therefore, people could do worse than read SABRA ZOO to get a feel for what it was like in Lebanon at that time.  But there are other fine books that deal with conflicts in a serious and sensitive fashion. A couple of years ago, after SABRA ZOO was published, I read HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche which is set against the Nigeria-Biafra war of which I was completely ignorant. It is a powerful book that I felt had effectively tackled the Nigerian Civil War in a way that I had aspired to do with SABRA ZOO for the Lebanon Civil War.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a crucial part of the drama of SHAKE OFF. While in a less astute writer’s hands, treatment of the conflict might have seemed more didactic and overtly polemical, because of the work you’ve done in crafting Michel as such a seemingly real and empathetic character, the Palestinian perspective (and the Israelis’ as well, through Michel’s reading and education) comes through in remarkably nuanced fashion. For me, those sections of SHAKE OFF that address the conflict head-on reminded me in a way of some of Dave Eggers’ later work—another testament to SHAKE OFF’s complexity.

Given that you’ve done such great work in depicting the nuances of the conflict—to such a degree that you’ve made even this self-professed Apathetic American feel deeply for the plight of Michel and those like him—what is your view of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  Fully realizing what an impossible question this is, what do you think it would take for a solution to be reached—and would there ever be one that will satisfy both ends of the negotiations?

Well, I am pleased that it has had this effect, and I’ve had emails from people expressing similar sentiments. Fiction is a great way to give narratives that are rarely heard an airing, and I thought Eggers did that brilliantly with ZEITOUN.

This is probably not the forum to propose a detailed solution to the Israel-Palestine problem, but I would start with the naïve and basic premise that everyone living there should have equal rights.

 The PLO is still active and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still unresolved. Given this, why did you decide set SHAKE OFF in 1989 before the end of the Cold War instead of the modern day? Other than the later historical landmarks that would influence parts of the story (the Madrid conference of 1991, the Oslo Accords, etc), would you say that this novel could at least in spirit be set in modern times?

Yes, it could be set now, but that was such a fascinating time – a year that culminated in the fall of the Berlin wall – with the PLO still being supported by the Soviet Union and its allies within the context of the Cold War. Also, the spying game was a lot more interesting then because it was still people-driven rather than technology driven. Intelligence officers today spend more time in front of a screen than talking to agents. A contemporary book would therefore look different, but there is certainly still plenty of political intrigue to mine.

Mischa Hiller is a winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the Best First Book category for South Asia and Europe. Raised in London, Beirut, and Dar El Salaam, he lives in Cambridge, England. Visit him at www.mischahiller.com.

Wes Miller is a Mulholland Books editor who has been at the imprint since the launch of its first list. You can find more of his MulhollandBooks.com posts here.

SHAKE OFF, which has been praised by Charles Cumming as “a spy thriller of the highest class” and by David Morrell as “smart and tense and real enough to be scary,” is now available in bookstores everywhere.

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