Q&A with Hala Alyan

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

This is your debut novelcongratulations! What has been your favorite part of having Salt Houses published?

Thank you! My favorite thing so far has been seeing it in the hands of people I love—my husband, brother, friends—as they read it. It’s a wonderful feeling. And, of course, I feel very lucky to be getting to meet so many interesting booklovers! 

Salt Houses encompasses several decades, generations, and countries. What inspired you to take on such an ambitious project for your first novel?

I had to pretend it wasn’t a novel! I just thought of it as one big rug—the family—and then just followed the individual threads of each person’s story as far as it led me. Families have always intrigued me: the ways they fail and buoy and surprise us. I’ve always loved thinking about how we are broken and remade by family, as well as the concept of emotional inheritance, particularly in the context of immigration. So I think in a lot of ways this was the only book I could right at that particular moment in my life.

Your characters live through many major historical events in the Middle East. What was your approach to your research as you wrote the novel?

I used primary resources at first, meaning asking my father and other family members to recount their experiences during these different events. I also asked people to speak to any memories their grandparents might have relayed to them. Then I read as much as I could about the region during the 60s and 70s, while also making sure to consider what fashion, music and movies were popular in various cities during these years.

How has being a poet influenced your approach to novel writing? Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?

I try to write thirty minutes a day, every day. That helps me keep myself as a writer attentive and curious, and keeps the process from chipping away at a novel from getting too intimidating, because I’m only responsible for that particular day. 

Writing poetry has always felt particularly different than prose, but I definitely borrow from what I’ve learned as a poet. For instance, poetry engenders a certain attention to detail, an alertness to idiosyncrasies in the world around us. This helps when trying to authentically recapture dialogue or description in novels. I also find that thinking of a novel as nothing but a series of moments, sentences, thoughts (the way that a collection is just a series of poems) helps allow me keep the (at times) daunting process in perspective.

What unique perspectives would you like to see Salt Houses add to the body of immigrant literature?

I hope that it will grant people a glimpse into a Palestinian sociocultural narrative that is different than the hyperpoliticized images we tend to be bombarded with by the media. My wish was to tell a story that isn’t usually heard, particularly from a perspective that tends to be overlooked. 

Here at Reading Women were all about female voices. Who are the women writers who have inspired you as both a writer and a reader?

So many! Jhumpa Lahiri, Ada Limón, Jamaica Kincaid, Ani DiFranco, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Natalie Diaz, Ru Freeman, Amy Tan, Arundhati Roy Maxine Hong Kingston

What have you been reading recently?

I’ve been on a non-fiction kick, and recently finished Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl and Bad Feminist. They inspired me so much I started trying to write essays—so far, nothing particularly impressive, but I’m hopeful!

What are you working on next?

I like to working on a couple of things at once, so I’m working on a new poetry manuscript and a new novel about a Lebanese family of expats that return to Beirut to sell their ancestral home. It’s tentatively titled The Arsonists' City.

Photo Credit: Beowulf Shehan

Photo Credit: Beowulf Shehan


HALA ALYAN was born in 1986. After living in various parts of the Middle East, she completed a doctorate in psychology and is now in practice at New York University. She has been published in Guernica and other literary journals, and is the award-winning author of three poetry collections. SALT HOUSES is her first novel. Alyan is also a seasoned performer, and her TEDx talk and appearances can be viewed at www.halaalyan.com. She lives in New York City.

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