Today, I’m happy to welcome debut novelist, Yusuf Toropov, to the blog to talk about his thriller, Jihadi: A Love Story, that launched as an e-book on Christmas Eve and comes out in paperback shortly. It’s a challenging and gripping read that explores themes of love and whether what we think about a situation and people is ever the whole truth.
Yusuf, the title, which is pretty controversial, gives the impression that this is just going to be a novel about terrorism, but I found it to be so much more than that. It is about love, but also about understanding, and about being caught up in circumstances beyond your control. What do you hope that people will take from this novel when they read it?
The fiction that moves me most as a reader takes me into the mind and soul of someone I might not otherwise have imagined I had anything in common with, or even liked. Then the story finds a way to give me a sense of shared humanity with that person. Lolita was that kind of book for me. You don’t have to like Humbert Humbert or approve of his choices, and it’s best that you don’t, but you can feel what he feels, and you can go on a remarkable journey with him.
So a book like Jihadi, I think, I is trying to open up readers to experiences of love, as the title promises, but it’s asking you to go on some journeys you may not have gone on yet. It’s asking permission to introduce you to a pretty strange gathering of people on both sides of the so-called “war on terrorism,” and I made them strange because that war has been strange. So I like to think the book is there to help you get to know that strange experience and those strange people a little better on a personal level, laugh with them, cry with them, get hurt with them, move forward somehow with them. If the book makes you think twice or even three times about people and events you may have been told that you already know quite enough about, I consider a big part of the mission accomplished. That was one of the big objectives with the Fatima character: to show you someone you might have assumed at the beginning of the book that you knew all about already, and then show you sides of her that you hadn’t expected to see.
It’s billed as a love story, and the old saying that love is blind really seemed to apply to this for me. Many of the characters seemed to be blinded by their love for a religion, a cause, an organisation, another person. Was that the theme you set out to explore – that people are willing to do anything and justify it to themselves, and others, by calling it love?
There are definitely some wounded hearts in this novel, and there is some bloodletting as a result of those wounds. Love gets twisted around a lot, and I think love, once it’s twisted, can empty somebody out, can leave people hollower than they ought to be, can make all kinds of bad decisions seem good. I think twisted love is what turns some people into extremists. So yes, I was interested in how that worked, and I followed the book wherever it wanted to go when it came to people identifying what was and wasn’t worth loving.
I was also interested in how the collapse of a marriage could parallel the collapse of coexistence, on a global scale. I wanted to write about the kinds of decisions that made such collapses possible.
It was hard to know who to trust in your cast of characters and often someone who originally seemed to be on the side of good ended up doing bad things. Do you think this is a real reflection of humanity, that none of us are all ever one thing?
I think people are forgetful. I think we lose track of who we’re supposed to be sometimes. And I think appearances can be deceiving. Wars can talk you into assuming that people on a certain side, or aligned with a certain faction, are all good or all evil, and I think that’s a grotesque oversimplification that usually does much more harm than good. We live in a world of grays. There’s very little that’s clear black and clear white. It’s there. But it’s not the whole picture or even a majority of the picture.
Extremists have a way of painting things in such a way that the various hues of gray in a picture are replaced by All Black or All White. It took a while for me to figure out that was one of the themes. This book took a long time to write – eight years – and there were a lot of false starts. The novel only started accelerating and coming together once I acknowledged that the gray tones were very interesting, and that some of the characters were inclined to pretend things were All Black or All White. So I kept following that thread.
Can you tell us about the link with the Beatles’ White Album and why you chose to weave that through the story?
That’s hard to do without giving away some plot points, but I will say that I am a child of the Sixties, and a student of its history. If you look at the things people obsessed over and projected themselves onto during that period, certain albums rise to the top of the list very quickly. Since it’s a story about, among other things, people becoming obsessed, the connection kind of made itself. It helped that I happen to be a big Beatles fan.
What’s next from you?
I’m working on some short stories at the moment. One of them is A DEAL, which you can find on the Orenda web site.
Many thanks for coming along, Yusuf. You can win a paperback copy of Jihadi: A Love Story – just leave a comment below saying why you’d like to read it by 9pm on 29th January 2016. The winner will be picked by random number generator and announced here.
You can connect with Yusuf on Twitter.