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Author Talk: November 12, 2010

Humanitarian aid worker Roberta Gately has set her sights on writing novels, impressing critics and authors alike with her spellbinding debut, LIPSTICK IN AFGHANISTAN. In the book, a young nurse named Elsa leaves behind the violent streets of South Boston to run a medical clinic in Afghanistan, armed with only her courage and a lucky tube of lipstick. In this interview, Gately talks about the real-life experiences that inspired her to write her first novel, elaborating on the courage of the Afghan people and the time she spent as a relief worker in the country’s remotest regions. She also muses on the magic of lipstick, speculates on the future of Elsa’s budding but forbidden romance with a charming American soldier, and shares plans for her next work of fiction.

Question: What inspired you to write LIPSTICK IN AFGHANISTAN ? Did you pull from many of your real-life experiences? What made you decide to write a work of fiction as opposed to a nonfiction account or memoir?

Roberta Gately: My inspiration came from the people of Afghanistan, whose stories and struggles, though the stuff of legend, often stay hidden in dusty villages and timeworn towns. I wanted to share the stories of the bent old woman who was likely starving, but who gave me a handful of chickpeas so that I might know that Afghans were generous; of the tiny girl who pummeled every boy in the village just because she could; and of the shy young woman who dreamed of going to Kabul as a legislator. Their stories are endless, their courage infinite despite Afghanistan's seemingly unending history of tragedy heaped upon tragedy. And ultimately, it is the women I hoped to unveil so that the reader might get an authentic glimpse into the lives and struggles of the women and girls and even the men of Afghanistan. Although I chose fiction for this story, I have written a memoir --- FROM AFRICA TO AFGHANISTAN: A Nurse’s Story --- and hope someday to publish it as well.

Q: You really transport the reader to the remote climes of Bamiyan, evoking the village atmosphere in rich detail. How much time did you spend in Afghanistan? What did you take away from your time there?

RG: I've been involved in aid work on and off for several years, and long before 9/11 I'd made several aid trips to Afghanistan and its environs. In 2002, I spent six months in Bamiyan providing aid both in the village and beyond. My work has provided me a glimpse into their lives, their everyday struggles and their triumphs and failures. I've gained a profound respect for the citizens of Afghanistan and a deep appreciation for their traditions and family values. Though on the surface they might seem very dissimilar to us, I found that there was more that connected us than separated us.

Q: Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Do you have a character you identify with most? Are any of the characters in LIPSTICK based on the people you encountered while in Bamiyan?

RG: This story grew from the fascinating legend of the lady rebel. Is she real or a mythic figure? It's hard to say with certainty, but much like the people of Bamiyan, I was captivated by the tale. As for my main characters, they are all based, in some measure, on people I've met on one or another of my missions to Afghanistan and other spots around the world. Once I created the characters, I felt as though they almost wrote their own stories. Parween's courage dictated what she would and wouldn't do, what roads she would choose. Elsa's shyness hindered her until she gained her professional footing --- and a firm friend in Parween. Mike was always a soldier --- it just took Elsa time to see that.

Q: You write about some truly horrific situations --- for example, Mariam's exploitative marriage and eventual rape at the hands of the Taliban, and Meena's abuse at the hands of a village lord. What made you choose to include these topics? Are they based on true events, perhaps even ones you encountered firsthand?

RG: Although not based on actual situations I witnessed, they are drawn from bits and pieces of stories I've heard. Though terribly disturbing, they serve to illustrate the incredible resilience of Afghanistan's women, who rise above adversity again and again. In both Meena's and Mariam's stories, it is the women who band together and defy not just their traditional roles but the potential explosive wrath of their society. These stories screamed to be told --- so that women everywhere might understand the heartbreaking decisions that the women of Afghanistan face on a regular basis.

Q: A point of contention in Mike and Elsa's relationship is that they have somewhat opposing views of the place they're in, because their roles and expectations are so different. Is that something you have found to be true in your experience?

RG: Although I've met soldiers in many of the war-torn places I've been, I can't really answer that --- expectations are based on perceptions, and with soldiers and aid workers alike the diversity of viewpoints is almost never what I expect.

Q: As an aid worker, do you think Elsa behaves somewhat recklessly while in Afghanistan, especially when agreeing to go with Parween to Sattar? Or do you think it's difficult to judge such a situation until you've actually been there?

RG: By the time Elsa accompanies Parween to Mashaal, she has been in the country for six months. She has already skirted danger by banding with the women to offer refuge to Meena and traveled secretly to Mashaal, both acts fueling her fledgling sense of self-esteem. Despite the confrontation on the clinic road with the surly young group of Taliban, she is confident that she can handle herself. She has grown accustomed to Bamiyan and has been accepted into the village. Elsa's decision to accompany Parween was only reckless in hindsight.

Q: How do you see the story playing out? Do you think Elsa and Mike are meant to be together? Do you see Elsa joining the UN and continuing on in her aid work?

RG: I am not sure how it will play out. Perhaps that is best left for the reader to decide.

Q: Do you have plans to write another novel? Would you return to Elsa and this cast of characters, or focus on something entirely new?

RG: I am working on a second novel. Based in Africa and tentatively titled THE BRACELET, it is the story of a young aid worker who may have witnessed or perhaps only dreamed that she witnessed a murder in Geneva while en route to her posting in Africa. I would definitely write a sequel to LIPSTICK. I too am curious to see how Elsa and Mike play out!

Q: Who are your writing influences and what are you currently reading?

RG: Almost impossible to pinpoint all the writers who have influenced me, and they are an eclectic group. Early on it was Harper Lee, D.H. Lawrence and Marge Piercy; and lately it's Ann Patchett, Elizabeth George and Philippa Gregory --- all brilliant writers whose novels make me swoon with reader's delight.

Reading: I just finished THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett and THOSE WHO SAVE US by Jenna Blum --- both were spellbinding stories that absorbed me from the first page. The characters and stories were so beautifully written, I still mull over my favorite passages. I've just started A RELIABLE WIFE by Robert Goolrick.

Q: What advice do you have for readers working on their first novels?

RG: Write what you know, an oft-used phrase but the best advice I've received.

If you know your story, you'll write from your heart. Beyond that --- persistence, persistence, persistence, and as in everything that matters --- hard work.

Q: Does lipstick mean the same thing to you that it does to Elsa?

RG: Oh my, maybe more. I have graduated from lipstick that melted in the heat on my very first aid mission to industrial-strength, all day lipstick that has taken me through sandstorms, roadblocks, and countless dicey situations. When I am away and find that I cannot wash properly or that my sleeping mat is filled with bedbugs, a swipe of lipstick restores my dignity and soothes my soul. And at home, a tube of lipstick really is magical. It holds more than a waxy bit of color --- it holds the promise of a brilliant smile, a brilliant day, both literally and figuratively.

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