2012 National Book Award Finalist,
House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Mira Ptacin interviews Nada Bakri, wife of the late Anthony Shadid
Mira Ptacin: How did Mr. Shadid come to work on House of Stone?
Nada Bakri: I think Anthony had always wanted to go to Marjayoun and find his ancestor’s village. He grew up listening to stories about the house and his grandparents and life in Lebanon and particularly in Marjayoun. When he finally saw the house in 2006, I think he immediately knew that he wanted to rebuild it and to turn the experience into a book that would be both a tribute to his origins and a reflection on a Middle East that was once tolerant and cosmopolitan.
MP: Can you describe his process of writing it?
NB: He moved to the town in the summer of 2007 and rented a small apartment to live and work while the house was being rebuilt. He thought he’d move in within no more than two months, but it took eight months to finish just the first half of the house. He spent his days hanging out with the construction workers, listening to their conversations, observing their work, and chatting with them. He transcribed his notes the next day in the early morning before he headed to the house. That phase took about a year, of which we spent four months living in the house. At the end of the year he returned to our home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he wrote the manuscript and handed it in six months later.
MP: Are you able to speak on behalf of Mr. Shadid’s greatest struggles in writing this book?
NB: I think it would be unfair for me to talk about that. But I can imagine that the hardest thing for a reporter is to write about oneself. Well at least for me that is why I should not answer this question!
MP: Who were some of his major influences, as a writer, a reporter, and a person?
NB: As a person, I think Dr. Khairallah Madi, who is a character in the book and a friend, was a big inspiration for him. There is a paragraph in the book where [Anthony] writes, “Since we had met, I was daunted by him. Simply put, he was the kind of man I wanted to be, but worried I would never become―gentle, kind, principled, ever curious. Choices didn’t seem to disturb him; in the fullest of lives, the way forward was easier to discern. I felt shy around him. I was too eager to impress, too reluctant to offend. I suppose I admired him too much.” I think [Anthony] was that kind of man and maybe more, but I think he was really impressed by people who had so much to give and were yet so modest and so generous with their time.
As a writer, I can’t really think of anyone right now, but he read a lot of history books―it was his thing―and he read a lot of contemporary nonfiction. As a reporter, the list is long, but I am not going to go there, because, again, it is not fair for him. But the major influence, I would say, was actually people’s stories.
MP: How do you think Mr. Shadid would feel about House of Stone receiving a National Book Award nomination?
NB: I have asked myself this question many times since the nomination was announced. I know I am supposed to be happy about it, but it is very hard to. I think he would have felt incredibly proud, but also very grateful for all the people and the events in his life that made writing it possible. And I think he especially would have been grateful for his editor George Hodgman and his agent Robert Shepard who tirelessly worked on the book with him. They had so much faith in him and that kept him going.
Mira Ptacin is a creative nonfiction and children’s book author, New York Times bestselling ghostwriter, as well as the founder and executive director of Freerange Nonfiction Reading Series & Storytelling collective. She currently teaches nonfiction writing at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. www.miraptacin.com Twitter: MiraPtacin.