The Illustrated
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The art and the story’s setting are, I think, worth the price of admission. We have tried to keep that price low, by the way. The quality of my writing aside, it’s good for young readers to be exposed to different cultures and different histories. My friends who teach history tell me that our students know less about history than ever. Right now, the cultures and fates of the West and those of the Middle East are intertwined. We should know one another’s histories.
All of the depictions of the Canal construction are accurate. It was an incredible project, a world wonder, a vast and fascinating story. “The Illustrated Boatman’s Daughter” also touches on the national narrative of Egypt – a deep mistrust of leaders and foreign powers. My backstory, with Pharaoh Senruset, who considered building a Suez Canal in the Twelfth Dynasty, hopes to capture some of that mistrust.

I had just finished King James Seventh Company, the protagonist of which shares many qualities of my son – a bookkeeper, quiet, tough-minded, big-hearted, observant. Salima shares personal qualities of my daughter – lively, passionate, fiercely independent scrupulously honest. I felt these would be good qualities to offset or contrast the swindle being foisted on the foolish Egyptian Caliph.

There is a wide variance among young-adult heroines. Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) and Bella Swan of Twilight, for example, are very different figures when it comes to class. Bella is a commoner. Her father is a cop, she drives a beat-up truck. She desperately wants to join the elite class — the Cullens, who are aristocratic, time-defiant, and inexplicably well-off. Katniss, on the other hand, is only there to overturn the existing order, or die trying. She is a working-class figure devoted to the downtrodden factory and farm districts, pitted against the purple-haired elites.

My heroine, Salima, is more like Katniss. Her family runs a barge service on the Nile, her people are the workers. She joins the national effort to build the great Canal, but quits when she realizes that the Canal is built on the slavery of the fedayeen. She comes to place the good of the workers above her personal interests.

Like all historical-fiction writers, I can easily get lost in the sauce – falling in love with describing the times. Endless descriptions, horrible stuff, deadly to any reader. So I try to stick to conventions of coming-of-age stories, enough so that a reader feels they are on familiar ground. Once I can convince readers that the characters are real, then I can introduce some of my ideas. It’s a way to scaffold or support a story despite my lack of storytelling talent, really.
Young artists from all over the world post their work online, if you are patient enough to track them down. I was very lucky (and spent days online, scrolling through portfolios). It is a global group — Faustine Dumontier lives in Paris, Oliver Ryan in London, Ardalan in the Middle East, Serena in Canada, Niklas in Sweden. I was careful not to give the artists too much direction, so they could make their own interpretation of the characters and settings. Their work really lets the story breathe. I hope it helps readers enter the story. It took almost two years, but I am very happy with the results.