Thursday, April 18, 2024

Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict, a British-American professor at Columbia University, is the author of seven previous novels, six books of nonfiction, and a play. Her newest novel is The Good Deed.

The Good Deed, set in a refugee camp in Greece, comes out of the research Benedict conducted for her 2022 nonfiction book, Map of Hope and Sorrow, co-authored with Syrian writer and refugee, Eyad Awwadawnan and endorsed by Jessica Bruder (Nomadland), Dina Nayari (The Ungrateful Refugee) and Christy Lefteri (The Beekeeper of Aleppo), among others. That book earned PEN's Jean Stein Grant for Literary Oral History in 2021 and praise from The New York Times, The Guardian, Kirkus Reviews, and elsewhere.

My Q&A with Benedict:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I think titles are of utmost importance to the writer and the reader. For the writer, they serve to distill, even if subliminally, what the book is actually about and even its mood and point of view, so it's essential to get it right. If the title is ironic or funny, that sets an inescapable tone for the whole book. Likewise, if the title is poetic, quirky, funny, weird, surreal, or deadly earnest. For the reader, the title signals all that and more because basically it's calling out, "See how intriguing I am? Read me!"

Because of all this, I often go through dozens of titles before I find the right one. But best is when a title comes to me right away and sticks. That happened with The Good Deed. It is ironic but serious, implying that a good deed is not all it seems, that it might even be the opposite, just as that road of good intentions is. I hope readers will find the title intriguing and just mysterious enough to make them want to read the inside of the book, too, especially when they see those words over the picture on the cover, which shows an empty lifejacket floating in the sea. Is the book about the good deed of saving someone from drowning? Maybe!

What's in a name?

Most of the characters in my book are Syrian or Sudanese and so have Arabic names, where every name carries a meaning. This meant I chose the names -- Amina, Leila, Nafisa -- with care, as I did the names of all the people in their families. But I also have an American tourist in there, Hilma, and a Greek man named Kosmos. Hilma sounds old fashioned, which fits a little. Kosmos sounds grandiose, which fits, too. I like to know the meanings of the names I choose but I don't want those meanings to be too obvious or to define people. We are all more complicated than a name.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teenage self would have been surprised that I'm writing about refugees in Greece, about which I would have known nothing, but not surprised that I'm writing about enterprising, independent women in difficult circumstances. At that age, I was reading a lot of Charlotte Bronte and discovering feminism and Civil Rights, so the leap from the me then to the me now is not so enormous.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings are a dream for me to write, for they usually trigger the entire novel for me. They might come from an image in my head, something I see, a phrase I hear, a memory, and that will open the door to the whole story. Endings, on the other hand, are hell. They carry so much weight. They can leave the reader with a gut punch or betray the whole book, letting it down with a pathetic thump. I rewrite both a lot, but endings are so hard that I prefer writing novels to stories, so I only have to come up with an ending every five years or so!

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I never write directly from my life or the life of anyone I know, but of course no writer can be impervious to her own personality, ideas, prejudices, likes and dislikes. So I do pilfer from myself occasionally. But in The Good Deed, nobody is the least like me. Even if someone shares an opinion with me, they will often have other opinions I don't agree with at all. I love writing characters who are different from me because that becomes an adventure in discovery, rather than just boring myself by writing what I already know.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The Good Deed is highly influenced by the news, given that it's about current refugees in current day Greece. It is based on research I did myself by spending a lot of time in the refugee camp over several years, and spending much of those years talking with and listening to the people trapped in that camp, several of whom are still my friends. Indeed, I co-authored a nonfiction book out of that same research with a Syrian refugee I met in the camp named Eyad Awwadawnan. That book was called Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece. I then wrote The Good Deed because I wanted to go even deeper into the hearts and everyday lives of what it's like to flee for your life from home, only to have to live in a place where nobody wants you.

Music matters to me when I write, for there is as much music in prose as in poetry, or should be. I am very aware of rhythm, chorus and sound when I write.

I have watched many documentaries about refugees that have fed my work, but nothing compares to having spent time myself among people struggling to keep their dignity and love alive in a filthy, inhumane camp.
Learn more about Helen Benedict and her work.

My Book, The Movie: Sand Queen.

The Page 69 Test: Sand Queen.

The Page 69 Test: Wolf Season.

--Marshal Zeringue