Not to exaggerate, but your life will be meaningless and incomplete until you buy a copy of Laila Lalami’s most recent book, The Moor’s Account. Based on the true story of the continent’s first recorded black explorer, the slave of a Spanish merchant and one of the only survivors of a failed expedition to Florida, the novel weaves together political insight, painstaking research, and good old-fashioned storytelling. It is heartbreaking and smart, and the dust jacket is littered with endorsements from people like Salman Rushdie and Gary Shteyngart, and after a feverish read, you can add our highly esteemed stamp of approval to the list. Ahead of her reading at Harvard Book Store, we chatted with Lalami to talk empathy, persistence, and the art of not exercising.
Your touring schedule sounds crazy!
I think that one of the surprising aspects of the writing life for me was that I thought that you work on a book, you publish it, maybe you do a few events, and then you go back to writing the next one. But it’s been surprising to me over the last 10 years to see how much public speaking you have to do.
You’ve mentioned that when you’re not touring, you spend four hours each day writing, with the Internet turned off.
Maybe even more. When I was doing the very first draft of The Moor’s Account, I would turn it off for 8 hours … When you turn it off, there’s like this feeling of freedom where the only thing you have to worry about is the page that’s right in front of you.
How do you empathize with the Spanish conquerors in this book, despite their brutality?
It would have been a whole different book if I had tried to describe the rape or torture from the point of view of the person who was torturing. That would have been probably too much for me. Describing it from the point of view of a witness was sort of my entry point. It wasn’t easy, but I always kept telling myself that these are things that happen even today. And even as you and I speak, there is some place in the world where what is happening in the book is happening right now. We are all in a sense witnesses to all of that horror on a daily basis.
And how do you avoid mentioning your opinion about what’s happening in the narrative?
That was something that I was very aware of from the very beginning … The hardest part of writing this book was that I did not want the reader to feel that here was this liberal 21st-century woman telling you this is right or this is wrong—it wouldn’t work for the book.
Do you have advice for aspiring writers?
I would say it’s persistence. And persistence doesn’t just mean, you know, not giving up on your writing or not being discouraged by rejection. Persistence also means persistence in the writing routine. Every day you have to be persistent.
Some writers say to get a lot of exercise.
I mean look, I wish I could exercise, I really do. I wish I could be this type of person who drinks 3 cups of coffee, runs 5 miles, and then sits down and write for 16 hours a day, but that’s not me.