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Countdown to Wisconsin Book Festival 2012: An interview with Ayad Akhtar
Ayad Akhtar
Ayad Akhtar

Ayad Akhtar is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, director and actor. This January, he added "novelist" to his list of accomplishments when his first book, American Dervish, debuted to immediate acclaim from critics. The New York Times called it "a pleasure" and the Chicago Tribune suggested it could be as wildly popular as The Help.

A pathos-filled coming-of-age narrative, American Dervish is the story of a Pakistani-American boy growing up in 1980s Milwaukee. Akhtar describes his book as being "about religious faith, religious doubt and religious experience in America." It's also one that "happens to be from a Muslim point of view."

Akhtar, who is Pakistani-American, will discuss his perspectives on the Muslim-American experience Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 5:30 p.m. at Overture Center's Promenade Hall, during a Wisconsin Book Festival session titled "Being Muslim."

In a recent phone call, I caught up with Akhtar who was in Nashville promoting American Dervish.

The Daily Page: You're an accomplished playwright and screenwriter. What compelled you to use the novel as a vehicle for American Dervish?
Akhtar: Fiction was always my first love. I went to college wanting to be a fiction writer, and I don't think I was ready. I wrote some stories and actually had a teacher who loved one of the stories so much that he suggested I send it to The New Yorker and The Atlantic, but I never did. Early on, I found that I didn't know how to express myself through fiction ...

I started doing theater as something for fun in college. It turned out I had a knack for it. I had lots of great opportunities that led me down the path of attending school in theater. I never really went back to writing until I was in my mid-20s ... I still don't think I was ready for the form [at that time]; I didn't have enough craft really to tell the story that I always knew I would want to tell with American Dervish.

And then I ended up in up sort of in the film business. I worked on a lot of movies. I wrote nine screenplays, worked with lots of producers in Hollywood and indie producers who really understood story, and I learned a lot about about storytelling. After about four years of experience in the film business, I decided to try my hand at another novel and that was what eventually became American Dervish.

How does being a playwright and actor shape your writing?
A lot of the story in American Dervish is told in a succession of vividly flowing scenes, like a movie where characters reveal story and their own characters through dialogue. A lot of the storytelling is also done by using visual details. Those are all techniques drawn from being a dramatic writer, writing for movies, writing for the stage.

In a way, I see movies as the dominant storytelling form of our time. I wanted the book to have that kind of immediate, visceral flow that a good movie has: it just draws you in, you're not aware of the movie in terms of craft, you're just experiencing a kind of being with the characters ... I wanted to recreate that as much as possible. A lot of my craft that I've learned as a screenwriter is something that is instrumental in the form and shape of Dervish.

Did the experience of writing American Dervish change you at all?
That's a beautiful question ... I think it has changed me a lot. Writing American Dervish gave me the space to come to terms with my experience growing up Muslim: both what was wonderful and remarkable about it, and also things that were very painful about it. I think in a way it's brought me a great deal of peace. The book is very dramatic, there's a lot of conflict in it. There are some extreme situations and extreme emotions. I feel like it allowed me to work through something.

You're part of an event titled "Being Muslim" at the Wisconsin Book Festival. What kind of message will you share?
The question of the Muslim-American experience is one that is sort of new, in terms of it being represented in literary form. I am hoping we can have a dialogue about what both parts of that word means: the Muslim part, but also the American part.

The ways in which the Muslim-American experience is fundamentally not dissimilar to a lot of other immigrant communities and immigrant religious communities. I think that those points of commonality are perhaps more surprising than people realize and more indicative of how the Muslim-American experience -- even in its more difficult contemporary embodiment -- actually is reflective of what it has meant to be American.

Though you were born in Milwaukee, you've lived in New York since the mid-1990s. Do you get back to the Milwaukee area often? Is there anything you miss about Wisconsin?
About twice a year I go back to see my folks. I love the people of Wisconsin. I think folks in Wisconsin are a combination of smart but really open-hearted. I grew up outside of Milwaukee and I spent a lot of time up north in Vilas County. [Wisconsinites are] just good people.

People often say, "Wow, you grew up in Wisconsin. That must have been tough for you to be different in Wisconsin." I'm like, "Actually, not really, because basically as long as you like the Green Bay Packers, everyone's okay with you." And it's true! There are common experiences -- fishing and football and things about Wisconsin life -- which were important to me as a kid and are beautiful to be able to share with people.

This interview is one in a series of author interviews, book reviews, and other curiosities leading up to the Wisconsin Book Festival, which takes place Nov. 7-11.

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