Last week it was the book, Gazelle in the Shadows, that was in the spotlight. This week I turn the spotlight towards the author, Michelle Peach.
Hi Michelle, and welcome to Rainne’s Ramblings. No rambling from me this morning, so if you’d like to start by telling my readers and I a little about yourself and your background, that would be lovely.
I’m a stay-at-home mom, married with three children and love volunteering for school activities and animal rescue. In between time, I love to write. I am a graduate of Durham University with a degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies. I worked for many years overseas in the British Foreign Office and as an executive PA for a Dubai company. I met my future husband while working in Dubai and soon after moved to America. That was twenty years ago! How time flies!
When and why did you decide to become a writer?
I had procrastinated about writing the book for many years but the catalyst came when my children started to ask me what I had done before marrying their father and I felt a need to tell my story for them in addition to the urging of many friends.
What gets your creative juices flowing?
There’s not any one thing I can pinpoint as my creativity can be sparked by listening to the radio, reading a book, taking a long walk or even in the moments before sleep.
What is your top writing tip?
As a visual thinker, what helped me tremendously was a story planner. I created my arc on a cork-board with index cards pinned in sequence. It was easy to switch things around and play with the chapters until I was happy to begin the writing process.
What are the hardest and easiest parts about being a writer?
Hands down, the hardest part has been the marketing after my book was published. I’m not much of a salesperson so it has been a steep learning curve to push my book forward.
The easiest part was receiving my first printed paperback. Holding it in my hands, feeling the weight and texture of the pages gave me immense pride and fufilment.
Tell us about your writing routine; what’s a typical writing day for you?
I don’t have a typical day. Some days I might write but as a general rule, I enjoy writing at night when the house is quiet.
How did you come up with the title?
I searched for a title that would point to the Arabian setting of the story and remembered that the gazelle has been used to symbolize femininity and love in Arabic literature and music since pre-Islamic times. I also liked it because the gazelle, much like the protagonist, Elizabeth, is preyed upon by many predators. The second part of the title “in the shadows” depicts how Elizabeth faces the unknown where her predators operate in the clandestine world of betrayal and espionage.
You say the book is ‘largely based on your life’, how much is fact and how much is from your imagination?
If I were to quantify it, I would say that two thirds of it is true and the rest fictionalised.
What is your favourite scene that you’ve written? Can you give us a peek?
I enjoyed writing about the hammam which I visited in Damascus. It brought back many memories.
We entered the reception area through a heavy, dark curtain used for privacy from passersby in the street. The room opened out unexpectedly into a cavernous space. There were seats along the walls furnished with rich, although threadbare, oriental carpets. In the centre, directly under the dome, there was an octagon fountain inlaid with blue, mosaic tiles. From the inside, the dome was transformed into a light show. Cracks within the bricks allowed shafts of sunlight to shine through. The illumination made me feel relaxed. Unfortunately, it didn’t smell as relaxing, as the vapoury air invaded my nostrils with tobacco and must from wet carpets.
There were two women who were assisting us in the lobby area. One of them, a plump, short woman, was dressed in a long, black robe and colourful hijab. She handed out some minshafa, thin towels. The other, a tall, slim woman, handed us glasses of rose water.
“Get undressed,” Fatima told me. “And wrap this around you.”
I timidly undressed feeling embarrassed by my body. I wished I had packed my swimsuit now. I clung onto the towel as I awkwardly struggled to pull my clothes off and then wrapped it tightly around me. I was relieved that it was large enough to cover me from my breasts to my knees. Na’imah and Suheera disrobed, unabashed by their nakedness and tied the towels around their waists.
I was freezing as I stood almost naked in the lobby area. Fatima saw my chattering teeth.
“This is the barrani chamber, the coolest room. Let’s go into the next one which is warmer.”
I happily followed her into the next, warmer chamber. Suheera and Na’iamah stayed in the barrani chamber. I sat on the wet, stone floor next to Fatima and felt the sweat run from every pore in my body. Fatima took out some soap and face cloths, which she had brought, and began to wash herself. I began to scrub myself as well.
In the steamy mist, I saw other women in the room. Many small groups were chatting and socializing while washing their hair and bodies. They walked around without towels. I was shocked at how open they were with each other. I couldn’t help but reflect on the two extremes of womenfolk: being concealed in the homes and covered in black when out in the street compared to the freedom and nudity in the hammam. I could understand how they must cherish the time they spent together and the community it helped them create.
I was eager to chat about Hama with Fatima and hear about her and Naguib. I hadn’t had a chance to catch up with her. I hoped she had changed her mind about Hussein. After all, she seemed to have enjoyed her time with Naguib.
“The trip to Hama was great,” I said. “I hope we can go on another with Naguib and Hussein.”
“I had a good time, but I don’t think I’ll have time to go again.”
“Is that because Naguib and you have to work?”
Fatima paused and looked thoughtfully at me.
“I’m so glad that Hussein can spend so much time with me.” I suddenly realised how insensitive that sounded and corrected myself. “I mean, I’m not glad that his father died, but I’m glad he is not working right now.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Isn’t he still in mourning?” I wasn’t entirely sure how long he would be in mourning, and I had supposed he still was.
“I don’t know,” she said, but her tone was abrupt. It was strange that she didn’t know about Hussein’s father and I sensed she didn’t really care to talk about Hussein.
I bit my lip, frustrated. Fatima got up and gathered her things.
“Let’s move onto the jouwani, the hottest chamber.”
I had thought we were already in the hottest one, but I was extremely mistaken. The third room was like a kiln. The furnace was situated in this room. Heat and smoke passed in pipes under the floor from there into the other middle room. I realised I had not drunk enough, as I felt very thirsty and had probably lost a pint of sweat already.
Fatima was listening in on some women talking. She was bemused by their conversation. The women were cackling loudly at each other. There were four of them, all middle-aged, round and fat. They sat in a huddle, washing each other with a clay substance. I had noticed that they occasionally looked at me and cackled more.
“What are they talking about?” I asked, thinking they had made a joke about me, and hoped Fatima had heard them.
“Those women are gossiping about a girl that the mother is arranging for her son to marry.”
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“She brought her here.”
“Mothers-in-law always like to check out the bride-to-be. She wants to make sure she’s not got any serious, physical faults,” she explained. “One of her friends thinks the girl is too ugly for her son.”
“That’s awful,” I said, but I laughed anyway.
“Then the mother asked if they noticed anything about the body of the bride-to-be being ugly, and one of them said she thought she saw she had three nipples.”
“No,” I splurted. “That’s so funny.”
“I don’t think it’s true, but they love spreading rumours.” Fatima was laughing hard.
After that room, Fatima took me into a cold one, which I disliked very much. It was meant to cool you down, but I found it too chilly. The stone was slippery. We returned to the middle chamber to find Suheera and Na’imah. The second lady from the reception was sitting with them, still dressed in her black robe. She was scrubbing Suheera down with a black scrubbing cloth made of goat’s hair.
“Elizabeth, you need to be scrubbed by the muqashshara,” Fatima said, indicating the woman with the cloth.
The darkly clothed exfoliator beckoned me over. Her pruned and puckered hands were covered in henna designs and her nails were orange. It seemed ominous, as I lay, almost naked, in her shadow, on a rubber mat. I thought I had washed myself and scrubbed my skin, but she scrubbed harder, so hard that I could feel my skin sting.
“Baqraa qadhra. Ya shamootah. Ajnabia qabiha.”
Dirty cow, I translated. Prostitute. Ugly foreigner.
She doused me in hot water and lathered my skin with soap. Then she pummelled my skin, squeezed my muscles and pinched my flesh. I felt like a rag doll in the hands of a mischievous toddler.
I wanted to respond to her insults, but honestly, I didn’t have the energy, or feel in a position to defend myself with barely any clothes on. When she had finished with one side of my body, she slapped me on the arm and indicated to turn over.
The women around us clucked like hens, as they watched me squirm and gasp while I was vigorously scoured like a burnt frying pan. Strings of black dirt accumulated on my stomach, arms and legs. Obviously, I hadn’t washed myself as efficiently as I had thought. I was embarrassed, but not surprised by all the grime as I hadn’t had a decent shower since I arrived. When the woman had finished inflicting pain, both verbally and physically, I felt like a freed convict and rushed to the cold chamber to rinse off.
“She was so rude to me,” I commented to Fatima, as I rinsed.
“I am sorry for what she said. She is not used to seeing foreigners in this hammam.”
My spirit was somewhat bruised, but I stroked my fresh and clean skin while getting dressed. Within a few minutes of waiting, Hussein arrived to pick us up and deliver us back to the house.
For those of us who are thinking of reading your book, could you tell us what to expect?
The reader will enjoy a fast-paced story with romance, friendships and betrayals weaved around an increasingly dangerous and threatening story which culminates in an unforeseeable ending.
When you consider your future, what would you like to make happen for you?
I look forward to continuing to be as content as I am now.
What is your earliest memory?
One of my earliest memories is from when I was a toddler. After a night of heavy snowfall, my brothers and I woke to a garden transformed into a winter wonderland. We bundled up in scarves, coats and gloves to play in it and I built my first snowman with them; carrots, currants, twigs’n’all.
How do you spend your free time?
I enjoy family time. We enjoy vacations, walking, especially with our three dogs and sometimes even our cat follows us, boating on Lake Allatoona, camping and gardening.
Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors.
I enjoy reading although I don’t get the chance to read novels as much as I would like. I spend a lot of time reading articles, blogs and news in general on the internet. Amongst my favorite authors are Philippa Gregory, Amy Tan, and Stieg Larsson.
Your book is being made into a movie, which star would you cast as Elizabeth?
That’s a great question as it’s my dream that the book be made into a movie. I’m not very au fait with current young actresses but I imagine a young Meg Ryan would make a great Elizabeth.
If you could travel to any place and time in history, where and when would you visit?
Like many British subjects, I love the Royal family. I was especially fascinated by Princess Diana, who was only 5 years older than me. If I could travel back in time, I would travel to 29th July 1981, to witness the Royal Wedding celebrations along with the multitudes of enthusiastic well-wishers outside Buckingham Palace in London. As a young teenager, her fairytale wedding was one of my happiest historical memories. Sadly, as we all know, her story is tragic. I was working in Dubai the day I heard about her tragic death and visited the British Embassy to place flowers outside. Her legacy lives on in her children and I miss her humanity and grace.
Quick fire round:
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief and unspeakable love.” Washington Irving
Something unique about you?
I traveled around the world alone when I was 23 years old.
Storms in Africa Parts 1 & 2 by Enya
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
I hope the reader will enjoy learning about some of the culture, history and beauty of Syria in my story which, in many ways, has irrevocably changed due to the ongoing war. I find myself often thinking about the places I visited, saddened by the fact that much has been destroyed and about the kind people I met and whether they and their families are still alive. My deepest wish is that somehow Syria will one day miraculously return to be a country travelers can visit and be enthralled by the centuries of history and ancient cultures within its boundaries.
Thank you ever so much for spending this time with us, Michelle. Best wishes for any and all future projects.
Find out more about Michelle and Gazelle in the Shadows on: