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Featured Author, Faiz Kermani

RT: My Alien Penfriend is a book about friendship, with the added goals of engaging your readers (largely preteens) to think about cross-cultural understanding, tolerance, terrorism, and environmental damage. How were you able to introduce such serious subjects into the plot yet keep the story from becoming a harsh, somber book?

Faiz: I think that it’s impossible to avoid the serious problems in life (just switch on the news!) and so I didn’t want to avoid these themes in my writing. At the same time, it’s how you deal with these issues that are important. Even in the most difficult of circumstances I’ve always found that humor helps you to keep going and so that’s the attitude I took with the book. Even when we watch the news and some of the depressing events taking place around the world, you’ll still notice children playing behind the reporters trying to just get on with their lives.

RT: As a child, and now an adult, you have lived in and/or visited more than 30 countries, including Pakistan, Ireland, Iran, Algeria, and England, which is "home." In interviews you have talked about your love of travel and the need to communicate in a different language. Are there events in the book that are (at least in part) drawn from your own experiences or feelings?

Faiz: I feel very lucky to have had the chance to have lived in different countries and to have traveled. I’ve definitely drawn on my own experiences—both good and bad. I have actually experienced a couple of wars, civil conflicts and a revolution when living in other countries as a child so I suppose that it isn’t a surprise that certain serious issues turn up in the book. In some of these situations I remember the incredible support we had from our circle of friends, both local and foreign, and that’s what helped us deal with the danger-and forget some of the nastier characters we came across! When you visit another country you should not be scared of others because they ‘seem’ different. If you can break down the artificial boundaries of language and culture you will be amazed at the friendship and cooperation you can achieve. I think it’s a terrible shame how people are quick to stereotype others in the current world climate and impose their closed way of thinking on others, particularly through use of violence. We’re all human beings on this planet together so I find their behavior crazy.

RT: In My Alien Penfriend, the two principal characters are named Darius and Zmod. Darius, would seem to be a "classic" name, reaching back to Latin times. But where did Zmod come from? How did you craft this new language (recognized by readers as Bartochian)?

Faiz: I’ve always liked the name Darius. I lived in Iran for two years when I was a child and Darius is a very famous king in Persian history. I remember reading lots of books about how he established an empire and that’s how the name crept into my story. Sadly, I really don’t know where "Zmod" came from! One day the name just came into my head and I thought it sounded cool for an alien! I simply used imagination for the Bartochian language. I can’t really tell how this stuff randomly came out of my head, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed thinking up words!

RT: Were you ever afraid that readers would get frustrated trying to pronounce the words and give up on the story? How do you think you prevented that from happening?

Faiz: For the Bartochian language I started thinking of combinations of letters and words that might seem unusual in English and the other languages I’ve come across during my travels. I tried to make the sounds as different as possible so that it would challenge our own acceptance of "normal sounding" words! It’s been hilarious when I’ve met readers who’ve tried to pronounce some of these names. I don’t think I ever realized how unusual some of these were until I heard them being spoken back to me! Instead of being worried about how difficult the pronunciation might be I think it encouraged me to experiment even further as people actually seem to like this odd language! Basically I want the names to be funny and so if they make people laugh then it ties into my philosophy of having a lot of humor in the book. Every young reader I’ve met has told me how much they enjoyed the Bartochian names and language. A few suggested that I should write a dictionary! When I’ve signed copies they often make me write a bit of “Bartochian” in the book!

RT: You have written a number of articles and are about to publish a book related to your expertise as a PhD Immunologist. [Patient Compliance: Sweetening the Pill ] Do you see envision writing a book for children that blends your scientific background and story-telling style in a way that helps children understand medical/bio-medical issues? If so, what would you want children to understand about their health, or that of their parents?

Faiz: I would LOVE to write a book for children and their parents that demystifies medicine/science and so am open to offers! I’ve always felt that my style for writing about medicine/science is not light years away from the style I use for my fiction work, but since some people in medicine/science can get very pompous and arrogant about their job it’s probably not something they’d agree with! I’ve always believed that you should tailor your message to your audience. Why shouldn’t children be able to understand healthcare issues? I don’t understand people who think that this is not possible. You only have to work in a hospital and you’ll see some very ill children who’ll have a lot more understanding of their situation than adults give them credit for. Furthermore, they are very brave indeed in trying to combat their illness and lead a normal life. I would aim to give children and adults a basic understanding of medical/bio-medical issues by sifting through the detailed information and adapting it to THEIR needs and wishes. In my opinion, there is a real shortage of such material coming from those who have specialized in science and there is too much erroneous information from non-specialists being traded over the Internet. It’s not an ideal situation.

RT: After a recent school visit, you received 40 fan letters with ideas for your next book. Were the students suggesting a sequel to My Alien Penfriend or did they give you ideas for an entirely different science fiction book? Is there any chance we'll be seeing these ideas in a story some day?

Faiz: Having that feedback was wonderful, particularly after some of the nastier comments I received from adult critics and publishers during the draft stages of the book! It made me realize that I had a style that at least some people liked and as an author that’s surely all you want?! You can’t expect everyone to like your writing, but it’s a confidence boost to know that some people want to see more! A lot of the feedback was complimentary on events in the book they enjoyed the most and suggestions for follow-ups and other books. They encouraged me to think up more crazy ideas for other planets (because Bartoch has two moons and rocks can move on their own!), so I’m working on these. Pretty well all of them asked me when my next book will be out, so I’ve been feeling a bit of pressure! I’m aiming to go back to this particular school again so I’ll be able to see what they think of my new ideas.

RT: You have said that it took five years to craft My Alien Penfriend into a published work. How many times did you rewrite the story before you thought it was ready for publication?

Faiz: I think I lost count! When I come across some of the numerous earlier drafts I feel like cringing — some parts were terrible! However, I think that’s a process you need to go through in order to fine-tune your style and ideas. I was also really lucky in that my wife gave me a very honest opinion of my work. Even though I look at some of my original ideas and wonder why I’d ever believed they might work before I cut them out, I now know that it was a necessary step in propelling me towards more useful ideas. There’s no shame in making mistakes in drafts! I also believe that you should work at your own pace to get out a piece that you feel proud of. Working to other people’s timetables and views can make that difficult.

RT: Can you give us some more hints about your upcoming children's book? Is it for the same target audience as My Alien Penfriend (8 to 12)?

Faiz: It’s going to be an adventure story where a lot of alien kids from different planets get together and solve an intergalactic crisis! There will be some of the same themes as in My Alien Penfriend and readers might even recognize a bit of crossover in the plot! I like to think of the audience as being universal. My youngest reader has been closer to 7 and the oldest closer to 70! The most important thing is an active imagination!

RT: Do you have any lessons learned from My Alien Penfriend that you think can make publication of this upcoming book easier?

Faiz: Yes! I’m not going to put any pressure on myself to meet an artificial timetable and I only write when I feel motivated and inspired. Otherwise I’ll come out with something I’m not happy with and neither are the readers. Having written My Alien Penfriend I’m also much clearer about how to organize things for the publication and proofing side of things (which can be a bit dry!) and even the marketing process. It’s so much easier, now that I have a vision of what a book that I have worked on should "look like." I also have a little test audience of family and friends for my newer ideas. So far so good!

RT: As we mentioned above, you have traveled to more than 30 countries. What place would you like to visit next, and why?

Faiz: If NASA is listening I want my next visit to be into space! Seriously though, I think that every country has its interesting aspects and so I’m always happy to find a new place to visit. I visited China last year and found it to be fascinating and the people were great. China is so huge and varied, so I’d probably like to have more time to explore different areas of the country.

RT: Recently, you launched a charity One Life for Education with some friends. The program partners schools of disadvantaged circumstances with schools that are fortunate in Europe. It will provide tangible support (e.g., pens, paper, chalkboards) as well as serve as a platform for cross-cultural understanding and communication. Can you give us an update on the charity's progress? What types of support do you need most urgently? How can our readers in North America assist One Life for Education?

Faiz: We have very deliberately taken things very slowly, particularly since we are a small group and all do this in our spare time. As we’re very passionate about our ideas we had to make sure that we didn’t get carried away. All of us feel very strongly about every person in the world having access to education, but if we don’t get things right we can’t help anyone. Also we are very aware that we cannot come across as telling other what to do in different countries. We want this to be built through collaborations. We’d like to set up one or two school networks, see how they do, and then advance from there. As you know from the Reading Tub work there’s also a lot of paperwork and financial tasks involved in setting up an official charity. Even though that can be pretty boring we’ve made sure that we have done the right things in these area; even if it is more fun to be dreaming of what we can do for an opening event attended by our favorite celebrities! In fact, we are still waiting for several things to be finished on the paperwork front before we can officially launch. It’s been painfully slow, but we know we are doing the right thing in not rushing. We’ve been concentrating our efforts in the UK, but would love to hear from any US schools interested in the concept. That way once we get going we can explore things further with them. If readers would like to send some messages of support I think we’d really appreciate that for the website we are developing. We’re building a special section called “Messages from Our Friends & Supporters.”

RT: The My Alien Penfriend Web site is available in English, French, Greek, and Spanish. What kind of reception is the site receiving in these languages? Will you continue to expand the number of translated versions of the site?

Faiz: We’re just about to launch the book in French (Mon Correspondant Extraterrestre) so the French part of the site should grow in importance. I’ve really appreciated the help from family and friends in getting the current set of translations on the site; even though there were some arguments over how exactly to best translate some of the alien themes! I’ve always been fascinated by different languages, so I hope we can have a lot more languages on the site in time. Perhaps we should try Bartochian?

RT: Zmod has his own blog. Is this a place kids can go to begin their own inter-galactic communication? Is it available in languages other than Bartoch and English?

Faiz: Yes. I hope kids will send Zmod and Darius some messages, questions, and suggestions. I occasionally appear on there just to give some updates about the book. For the moment it’s in English as it gets ‘spacemailed’ from Bartoch and automatically translated. I think that Zmod should get a lot of credit for launching the first spaceblog!

RT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Faiz: Just that I hope that people like my books and that I’d love to have their feedback. I appreciate the support of readers who’ve recommended my writing to others and so if you like the books I hope you’ll feel that you can do that too.

Website: http://www.faizkermani.com




                 

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