Out of Twenty – Patricia McArdle, Author of Farishta, Answers Six Questions

Patricia McArdle

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing the which questions, and how many questions they want to answer! Patricia McArdle is the author of the novel Farishta (a novel that I am currently reading and enjoying) played along and answered seven questions.  Here is what Patricia had to say about reading, writing and dancing around the room like it’s Mardi Gras.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I’m a retired U.S. diplomat, a Vietnam-era veteran (U.S. Navy), a former Peace Corps volunteer, a mom, and a renewable energy/solar cooking advocate.  I’ve been an avid diarist since I was a child and have published two short stories.   The first one, «I Joined a Free-Love Family» was published in Intimate Story magazine thirty-five years ago, after I took a fiction writing course in college.  I received $250 for that submission–a fortune for a starving student in the early seventies.  During the intervening three decades most of my writing was work-related and either classified by the U.S. government or so boring no one would want to read it even if they could.  My creative juices were devoted to raising two children, occasional bursts of watercolor painting and photography and, of course, writing in my journals.   I began working on the first draft of Farishta in 2007 after I returned from Afghanistan.  In 2009, while I was still writing Farishta I published a second short story, The Roads Are Closing, in the Foreign Service Journal.  Once again I received $250 for my submission!

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with, us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

I am not a morning person.  I never start writing until I’ve had my bowl of oatmeal, glass of OJ, several cups of coffee, quiet time reading the Washington Post and done my twenty minutes of stretching exercises. When I am writing, my IPod playlists always have some Samba music thrown in to encourage me to step away from my laptop every hour or so and dance around the room like it’s Mardi Gras.   I am also inspired by writing in different locations. Farishta was drafted in my basement, in the living room, out in my garden, late at night in bed, in the local branch of our public library, on airplanes, in the Busboys and Poets restaurant near my house—and during my travels to India, Nepal, Mexico and Chad.

Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.

How and why did you create a novel using your journal entries?

I thought I’d be able to reach a much broader audience if I could successfully weave my notes from Afghanistan into a really good story.  Once I decided to turn my journals into a work of fiction, I purchased five books on writing the novel.  After perusing and annotating each one, I used 3×5 cards, notebooks and big blocks of butcher paper taped to the wall to to begin constructing characters, developing plot threads and creating what I hoped would be a compelling but informative tale.  I knew I would have to alter and combine characters, events and locations so as not to compromise the real people I had known and worked with in Afghanistan.  I also knew that whatever I wrote would have to be reviewed for classified material by the Department of State and other U.S. government agencies mentioned in the novel.  I’m happy to report that they completed their review in less than three months and they didn’t change or delete a single word.

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

I wanted to share my concern about the lack of sustainable reconstruction in Afghanistan, the struggle of Afghan women for basic human rights and the enormous and still unrealized potential of solar cooking and other renewable energy sources.  It was the year I spent in Afghanistan rather than the actual creation of this novel that has changed my life forever.  Writing Farishta did allow me to explore my own struggle for acceptance as an unarmed female diplomat sent into a war zone with a poorly defined mission and little training, but more importantly it will allow me to connect with the type of reader who would never pick up a nonfiction book about America’s longest war. One of my daughter’s friends read an excerpt of Farishta last summer, and wrote this to me: “Truthfully, I thought no one would ever get me to read a book related to Afghanistan or the war, let alone the government!  I couldn’t be more interested in what I am reading!”  This is why I wrote Farishta.

In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people.  What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?

For many years my typical day was exhausting, crowded and regimented.  Up at six to the buzz of an alarm clock, shower, dress, eat, get the kids off to school, commute to work, sit at a desk, attend meetings, write reports, talk on the telephone, shop on the way home, start the laundry, help the kids with their homework while cooking dinner, go to PTA, get the kids to bed, pay bills, stare at the TV for an hour or so with my husband, go to bed, repeat.  Exhausting. Exhausting. Exhausting.  Now I am free!! I am a happily divorced retiree with relatively good health and good friends.  Since I returned from Afghanistan, in addition to writing Farishta I have become very involved in the promotion of solar cooking technology on a volunteer basis.  I spend many hours every week answering queries from around the world about solar cooking.  In the past four years I’ve also traveled to Guyana, Honduras, Peru, India, Nepal, Chad and Mexico—all to promote this amazing technology.

What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?

In the mid-1950s my family lived for a few years in a rural part of Missouri a few miles outside the city of Columbia.  We were surrounded by farms, fields and forests. There were no TV stations for hundreds of miles so although we had a brought a TV set with us from the East Coast, there was nothing for us to watch.  On weekends and during the summer my young friends and I were allowed to pack our lunches and head off into the woods without adult supervision as long as we got home before dark.  I loved that freedom as much as I loved the big, faded, blue bookmobile that rumbled into our neighborhood every other Saturday afternoon.  I remember the first time I saw this library on wheels roll to a stop on Ashland Gravel Road near our house.  I was afraid to enter the cavernous, book-lined vehicle until the old man who drove it and served as librarian, smiled down at me from his driver’s seat and asked me how old I was and what kind of books I liked.  «I’m eight and I like mystery stories and science, sir,» I replied, keeping a safe distance from the door.  He vanished into the stacks, returned a minute later and reached out the door with six books, a blank library card and a pencil.  «How about these?» he asked.  «Write down your name and address and sign at the bottom.  You can keep them until I come back in two weeks.»  After that, when I wasn’t out exploring with my friends, I became a reading fool.  Thanks to that mobile librarian, I also discovered biographies.   I believe it was those accounts of the lives of real people that inspired me to start documenting my own life in the journals that have provided the grist for my short stories, for my first novel, Farishta, and perhaps for more to come.

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About: Patricia McArdle is a retired American diplomat whose postings have taken her around the world, including northern Afghanistan. Farishta is her first novel.

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  1. Wow, it’s nice to know that there’s life after hectic. :O) The description of kids-work-home-bed compared to the now routine of coffee and stretching prepping to write sounds like something my hectic life needs to aspire to. Thanks for this great interview!

  2. Thanks for another great interview. I love the story about the Mobile Library. I’ve always been a little envious of people who got to use them. I’ve never had a chance and there was always something magical about them. I don’t know if I even had this book on my radar but now it’s definitely on my TBR list.

  3. I think it is nice experience to the writer to be able to gain some prize like 250 dollars. Aside from writing, her talent also includes watercolor painting and photography. I love how she was able to tackle important situation of women in Afghanistan through her novel, which I hope I could be able to read someday.

  4. This sounds interesting–It sounds like Ms. McArdle has some amazing experience to draw from.

    This is totally unrelated to the book itself, but as soon as I saw the cover, I was immediately reminded of a painting a friend of mine did several years ago. It’s called “Expectations”. I pulled it up to see if I was crazy or not, and I think I’m not. 🙂
    I’m not shilling for my friend or anything, I just thought it was a crazy coincidence, but if you’re interested in the painting it’s the last one on the second row here: http://www.laruestudios.com/islandWork.htm.