Trying to describe Matt Ruff’s writing in one sentence is akin to trying to recap the entire series of “Lost” in one minute. Walk your way through his oeuvre and you’ll meet up with a manipulating Greek god, a resurrected and enslaved Ayn Rand, an imaginary house inhabited by the multiple souls of one man and a department of “Bad Monkeys.” Ruff’s latest novel, The Mirage, presents readers with an alternate reality that boldly asks, “What would the War on Terror look like if 9/11 had happened in the Middle East, and the attacks were made by Americans?” Rather than depicting a complete mirror image of the events, Ruff infuses elements of the surreal that fans have come to love in his writing. He is currently on tour for The Mirage and took some time to answer a few questions about his latest novel.
What initially sparked the idea for The Mirage? I was asked by a TV producer who was a fan of my novel Bad Monkeys whether I had any original ideas for a TV series. I’d been wanting to write something about 9/11 and the War on Terror that would offer an unusual perspective while still being an engaging story, and I hit on this idea of setting a thriller in a world where the U.S. and the Middle East had traded places. That concept was a little too radical for television, so I decided to do it as a novel.
What happened with your TV series proposal? My original proposal was (politely) turned down. Now that I have the finished novel as a sort of “proof of concept,” I’d love to give the TV series another shot, and, obviously, if the book does well, that will help in generating interest. But nothing’s happening yet.
Few people or events associated with the War on Terror seem to be left untouched in your book. Did you go into writing The Mirage with everything laid out, or did you come up with those ideas as you went along? Looking back at my original TV series proposal, it’s remarkable how much of the finished story was there from the very first. And certainly all the major elements were in place by the time I started the novel. That’s normal for me, though—while I do leave plenty of room for serendipity in the writing, I also like to have a strong sense of where I’m going.
You take some liberties in assigning new roles to various world leaders as well as reversing the roles of Arab and American leaders. Saddam Hussein is a gangster; Gaddafi is the “inventor” of the Internet, rather than Gore. How did you decide who would be swapped with whom and who would take on a totally different role? One of the basic rules of the mirage world is that people’s fundamental moral characters remain unchanged, so with a guy like Saddam Hussein, it was simply a matter of asking, “What kind of villain would this man be in a society where ‘Arab dictator’ isn’t a career option?” In the case of the Americans who turn up in the novel, I tried to avoid the more obvious choices and keep things surprising. So the president of the conquered Christian States of America is a famous Texan, but he’s not George Bush (though Bush does have an uncredited cameo later in the story).
You also pull some figures out of the vaults, such as David Koresh and Timothy McVeigh. What made you decide to include them the story? Partly as a reminder that America has its own tradition of religious fanaticism and homegrown terrorism, but also because they fit the needs of the story. If you want a character with a messiah complex to talk about the end of the world, David Koresh is a great choice.
Were there other figures that you intended to include in story, but eventually cut them out of the plot? In crafting the novel, what I did was take the core characters and central conceit of the TV series and translate them into a tighter, simpler, more focused story arc. There are characters and subplots and bits of business I would have included in a TV show that didn’t make it into the novel, but I don’t really think of that stuff as being cut, because the novel is really a different medium—a parallel reality, you could say, where those other people and plotlines weren’t needed.Part of what’s exciting about the possibility of still doing the TV series is that you could work the trick in reverse—take the story arc of the novel, blow it up, and re-imagine it as a more sprawling narrative with a bigger cast and lots of side trips.
It took four-and-a-half years to write The Mirage. As actual current events changed, did you find yourself modifying the story or did you stick to your original plan? I actually didn’t change anything in response to external events. There’s a sequence near the end of the novel that I’m sure many readers will think is a metaphor for the Arab Spring, but the truth, which is much stranger, is that I finished the manuscript several weeks before the Arab Spring began and watched in some dismay as real-world events seemed to echo my fiction.
You’ve written a book with hot button topics around 9/11, Christianity and Islam. Has there been any backlash? If not, do you anticipate any? It’s still early days, but so far everyone who’s read the book seems to have taken it in the good-faith spirit I intended. I’m sure I’ll eventually get some pushback, but if I had to make a prediction I’d say that most of that will be from people who don’t read the novel and instead just react to a description of it. We’ll see.
The Mirage is a fun read that’s made even more entertaining by the cameos of so many world leaders and infamous figures. I imagine you snickering devilishly a lot while writing this book. Is that true? I think there was more grinning than snickering, but I definitely enjoyed writing it.
And finally, what book are you currently reading? Recently on the Internet I happened across an essay called “The Storytellers of Empire,” by Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie that really caught my interest, so earlier this week at Powell’s City of Books I picked up a copy of Shamsie’s novel Kartography. I haven’t actually started it yet, but it’s next on my to-read pile.
Lindsey McGuirk began her career in books as the events coordinator for Village Books in Bellingham, WA. She took a two-year stint at Algonquin Books in North Carolina, where she learned about the publishing end of the business, but returned to her true love of bookselling at Village Books in 2009. She is now the Digital Marketing & Publishing Coordinator and handles the online marketing and working with authors to get their books printed on the store’s print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine.
She writes: “I had read the ARC of The Mirage, so hadn’t really taken note of what the finished book would look like. The other day I was walking through the store and had a total moment of “oooh…shiny” when something sparkling on the bookshelf caught my eye. It was the shimmering spine of The Mirage—an absolutely gorgeous book! That alone should be enough to get people reading this one.”