2012 IRDA Winner Pamela Olson (for her travel memoir, “Fast Times in Palestine“), graduated from Stanford with a degree in physics and no idea what she wanted to do next. So she worked as a bartender and saved some cash until a friend asked her if she wanted to visit the Middle East. Once she started, she just didn’t stop.
What starts out as a heartfelt and engaging travel memoir becomes a stirring journalistic account of one girl’s journey to the center of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Olson breaches boundaries all the way through, as readers hold their breath and cross their fingers.
Fast Times in Palestine was self-published on May 20, 2011, and sold approximately 3,400 copies in the following year. In the summer of 2012, it was picked up by trad publisher Seal Press, which will re-release the book on March 12th.
Keri English: Congrats on your IRDA! How great is it to get the kudos for all of your travel and intensive writing?
Pamela Olson: It was a lovely feeling, thanks! It means a lot when anyone lets me know they enjoyed the book, and it was an honor to hear it from your panel.
KE: Tell us how you decided that the Middle East in a time of conflict was a good place to visit.
PO: I didn’t really decide. A friend suggested it. But I was primed to accept for three reasons. One, I was dating a Lebanese guy who made the Middle East (or at least Lebanon) sound like Club Med but cheaper and friendlier—and Lonely Planet agreed. Two, the Iraq War had just started, and I was frustrated because I didn’t understand anything about the Middle East. I felt like I was flying completely blind. As a citizen of the world, I wanted to try to fix that. Three, I had been taking Improvisation for Theater classes, and the motto of Improv is to accept all offers, no matter how seemingly random or at odds with your pre-conceived ideas. It makes life (and theater) so much more interesting.
KE: Your journey was filled with borders and checkpoints. It must have been frustrating as hell! What was the most unexpected thing that happened to you while travelling in Palestine and how did you handle it?
PO: The most unexpected was probably when two friends and I were in a taxi and we pulled up behind an Israeli Army Jeep in the middle of the night after a party in Ramallah. One of the soldiers popped out of the top and trained his gun on our windshield. I was terrified, of course, but that terror was in the background. In the foreground was the understanding that I didn’t control the soldier, only myself, and I had to think fast and act as rationally as possible. If I just panicked and ducked, or reached instinctively for my documents, the soldier would see the sudden movement, and who knows what might happen. A lot of people have been killed for a lot less.
KE: Setting a story in Palestine can’t be a simple task. With all of the conflict and war zone rules and regulations, did you encounter many people who asked to be left out of the story? Did they know there would be a story?
PO: I didn’t know there would be a story! I started traveling with a vague idea of eventually writing a book, but I didn’t know when or about what. In 2008, when I finally started writing the book (which includes a secret and somewhat taboo romance), I had to be careful to ask people before I put them in the book. Some parts of Palestine are like a small town, and even after changing names it’s obvious who’s who. To my pleasant surprise, everyone I asked was willing (sometimes excited) to be in the book, though some asked me to change just a few more identifying details. Palestinians by and large are hungry for the rest of the world to understand what they’re going through.
KE: Your life was unpredictable—which seems like a huge understatement considering all that you went through while in the Middle East. Give us an example of a typical day during your stay (if there ever was one!)
PO: A typical workday involved getting to the office and finding out who was killed the day before (or the entire weekend before on dreaded Mondays). On average, two Palestinians were killed every day when I was a journalist in 2004-2005, and a child was killed every other day. Then I’d write more detailed articles about some of the victims and other issues like water expropriation by settlements and protests against the Israeli Wall. Sometimes we would travel to villages to interview, for example, the first elected female mayor in the West Bank.
In the evenings I hung out with friends at restaurants and bars, went to the theater or Cultural Palace to watch films and performances, played basketball or went on a walk, or just had dinner with my roommates and watched Frasier reruns on a Saudi cable channel. On weekends and holidays I traveled (mostly within Israel and Palestine but also sometimes to Jordan or Egypt), harvested olives in the fall, and tour-guided friends (and my parents once) around the West Bank. I had an adopted home town called Jayyous, and I visited whenever possible, especially on the Muslim holidays. There was really never a dull moment.
KE: Given the option to return to Palestine and build a life there—maybe with Qais—or not, would you accept the chance? Or is you time there over?
PO: Palestine definitely feels like a second home, and I think it always will. Maybe even a first home someday, who knows?
KE: What is your favorite part of the book?
PO: The olive harvests. There are really no words, but I tried.
KE: Moment during writing that made you laugh out loud?
PO: There’s a moment when I’m being treated to a delicious meal in a Palestinian home, and I just finish and I’m totally stuffed, and then the hostess puts another huge serving on my plate. I groan to the person next to me, “How do you say ‘I’m about to explode’ in Arabic?” Then I quickly say, “Wait, never mind, it’s probably better if I don’t know how to say that in Arabic…” It’s kind of inappropriate, but there’s a lot of dark humor in conflict zones.
KE: What was the most difficult part of your story to tell and why?
PO: Romance is really hard to pull off in a genuine way without getting sappy. So is terror, for that matter, and anguish. You want to be emotionally honest without being overwrought. But the hardest part to write was Chapter One. I had to introduce myself and summarize a very intense year and a half in thirteen pages, and be gripping and entertaining at the same time. Chapter two covers only a week (my first week in Palestine), but that was hard, too, because I had to build an entire world that is not only unfamiliar to most Westerners but completely at odds with what they’ve been told.
KE: Tell us about your writing journey. How long did it take to write Fast Times in Palestine? Did you try traditional publishing before going indie?
PO: I started back in 2008, and I got a great agent fairly quickly through querying. She walked me through improving my proposal and first three chapters, and we sent them out to twenty publishers. Unfortunately it was right when the financial crisis was happening, and even though we had a few hopeful bites, in the end we had no solid offers. It was a long year and a half of hopes raised and dashed. Finally she gave up, and I went back to Palestine for six months and then moved to New York and continued to work on the book.
I met a couple of small publishers who offered to publish my book, but because they were small-scale, they had to charge pretty high prices, there was no advance, the royalties were low, and they didn’t do much in the way of publicity. So I figured I’d be better off on my own. I self-published through CreateSpace and KDP in May, 2011. Not long after I published, I went to Book Expo America and gave a few copies of my book to authors and bloggers who seemed cool. One of them liked it and gave it to her agent, who contacted me and offered to represent me. She found me a publisher within a few months! The book will be re-published by Seal Press in spring 2013.
That’s the very short version of a very long roller coaster…
KE: Have you had any unexpected responses to the book? Did anyone come forward with objections after reading their character?
PO: People have been overwhelmingly supportive, which has been a huge relief. Palestine is an incredible place, with so many incredible people, and I hoped to do their stories some kind of justice. Palestinians have been some of my biggest supporters, which means the world to me.
KE: Talk about your other titles—a bit of shameless self-promotion if you will.
PO: My other titles can be found on the right-hand side of my website, pamolson.org. The first is a simple guide to formatting eBooks for Smashwords and Kindle. The second is an account of my trip through Siberia when I was twenty. The third is a story about an Irish sailor I met in Croatia who changed my life (and landed me on the front page of an Irish tabloid). The fourth is a compilation of letters I sent home when I traveled through Russia and the Middle East when I was twenty-three. The fifth is a retelling of American and Iraqi history for the past thirty years, with the roles of the two countries reversed (America plays the role of Iraq, and a fictional country called Megastan plays the role of America). And the last is just a few poems I’ve written over the years (which you can read for free, if you want, at pamolson.org/Poetry.htm).
KE: If you had a chance to change one thing about your time spent in the Middle East, what would it be?
PO: I wouldn’t have to go through Israeli borders to get to Palestine! It’s the only way to get into the West Bank, and it’s an incredibly nerve-wracking process. They usually detained me for hours, and people are frequently deported because the Israeli authorities suspect they have sympathy for the Palestinians. Noam Chomsky was denied entry because he wrote things critical of Israeli policy. Every time I went through, they had the power to kick me out, and I was terrified I’d lose my job and apartment and plans and friends, the entire life I’d built in the West Bank. (The whole process is even worse, of course, for Palestinians.) It’s an important theme in the book (especially the last chapter).
KE: How is the future looking for you in terms of indie vs. big name publishers?
PO: I was able to self-publish when no established houses were willing to take a chance on my book, which was incredibly empowering. And it was a priceless education to be involved in every aspect of getting a book into print, and nice to have control over all of it (though it’s a tremendous amount of work if it’s done right). And the royalties are terrific—up to 66% for paperbacks and 70% for eBooks. That’s utterly unheard of in the traditional publishing world.
But I accepted a publishing offer for several reasons, the main one being that I care more about wide distribution than about profit. (Hopefully enough will sell that it will be a net gain anyway, but that’s never guaranteed.) Traditionally published books have a much easier time getting into bookstores, getting reviewed in mainstream publications, getting their author on TV and radio, and being used in university courses. So far I’ve been delighted with everyone I’ve worked with at Seal Press, and I’m excited to see what will happen next year.
But it’s comforting to know that if I ever pour my soul into a book that’s not picked up by any publishers for whatever reason; I’ll know exactly what to do.
KE: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what three things would you need to have with you?
PO: Assuming I have food and fresh water, I’d need a very loaded Kindle, a lifetime supply of piña colada mix, and a comfy place to lounge in the shade.
KE: What’s next for you? Do you have another book in the works?
PO: I’m working on two books. One is a sequel to Fast Times in Palestine called Palestine, DC. It’s about my time working at a think tank in Washington after I came back to the States, and watching what was going on in the Middle East during those two years, knowing what I know, and comparing that to the responses of the people around me. It comes full circle in a way, because it explains what drove me to finally buckle down and commit to writing Fast Times in Palestine.
The other is a novel about the human fear of freedom, and how people tend to lock themselves in various boxes so as not to face up to the staggering number of options we actually have. There’s a paranormal element, and a lot of adventure, and it’s so much fun to write without having to cite sources or verify data, because I’m just making it all up!
All of this sounds wonderful. We wish you the best of luck in all of your endeavors. A million thanks to Pamela Olson for sitting down with us. We look forward to reading more of your delightful work!