American Bedu Interview with Author Alexander McNabb

It is a pleasure for American Bedu to have an exclusive interview with Alexander McNabb, author of the book ‘Olives.’


Thank you Alexander for agreeing to this interview.  I’d like to begin with some questions about you such as where are you from?  What nationality are you?

I’m British. My name’s Scottish but I was born in England. I once had a meeting in Riyadh where the guy asked what my name meant – he knew that the Scottish ‘Mac’ was the same as the Arabic ‘Bin’. I explained it means son of the abbot (nabba being Celtic for abbot). He didn’t understand ‘abbot’ so I explained – the head of a monastery. Nope. Like a mullah, a holy man. Long silence. Then he slammed his hand down on the desk, pointed accusingly at me and shouted, “Only ONE man is holy and you are NOT his son!”

Exit one bewildered Brit…


When did you begin to write?  What gave you your inspiration?

I’ve always been an avid reader and realized one day that I’d written millions of words of copy in my career as a magazine editor and publisher as well as my years working in communications. I’d written speeches, op-eds, letters and white papers on behalf of CEOs, Sheikhs and Kings so I thought I might as well have a go at writing a book. My first book was a spoof thriller called Space, which was very funny but probably very badly written. It took over 100 rejections from British literary agents for me to get the point!


Have you traveled to the Middle East?  If so, please share where you have been and some of your memorable experiences.

Oh, I’ve lived here in Sharjah for 18 years now. I first travelled to the region in 1986, a long business trip to Saudi Arabia working for a UK based publishing company that specialized in technology-related titles for the Middle East market. I was 21 and had never been out of Europe before. It was an enormous culture shock, an insane experience, everything was so strange and I loved the amazing anarchy of it all. I’ve travelled around the region since, meeting a variety of colorful characters and getting into all sorts of scrapes. I have loved every single minute of it, even the difficult times form part of the kaleidoscope of experiences that have left me with no regrets but a great deal of memories to treasure – and many friends around the region. As for memorable experiences, how long have you got?


How did you get the idea to write ‘Olives?’  How long did it take you to complete the book?

Some of the agents who had bothered to actually respond when I submitted Space to them (most just send a copied ‘form rejection) had said humour doesn’t sell, so I resolved my next book would be serious. We like to go to sleep listening to music, nothing too hectic obviously, and one of my favorite musicians is the American composer and pianist George Winston. I went to sleep listening to ‘February Sea’ from his ‘Winter into Spring’ and it made me think of a girl dancing in the rain. The next morning I woke up with a book laid out in my head and for the next four weeks dashed it all down. Then I spent seven years editing it!

That’s not strictly true, actually. Olives was rejected by a number of agents and I put it in a desk drawer and entered Space, the funny book, into Harper Collins’ peer-reviewed writers’ site, Authonomy, where it topped out and gained what they call a ‘full read’ from a Harper editor, which didn’t lead to anything. But I made many writer friends from the site and learned a lot about the ‘craft’ of writing, which made me go back and revisit Olives, editing it and rewriting elements. I sent the revised Olives out to agents and they rejected it again, so I sat down to write another book, a spy thriller called Beirut. This eventually landed me an agent, but publishers didn’t buy the idea of the book in the current extremely uncertain market. In all, over the past ten years, I’ve collected something like 250 rejections from the publishing industry. I’ve watched publishing transform from being a gatekeeper-led industry to a bunch of scared looking guys in boardrooms wondering what on earth they’re going to do to stay relevant in the digital age. Writer friends who landed contracts had found themselves unsupported and under-marketed. And so I eventually sat myself down and said, ‘the hell with them all. I’m going to publish myself’.


How did you develop your characters?  Were any of them modeled after real individuals?

Writing turns you into a thief; you’re always stealing situations, nuances, phrases. You might drive up a street and think this would be a good location for this scene or that, maybe see a situation outside a shop or catch a smell on the wind. So the end result becomes a sort of patchwork quilt of things, combined with your own flights of fancy. The characters tend to come to life and start influencing events themselves. You eventually become helpless, just led along by them!

Gerald Lynch was born from a successful Irish man in Dubai telling me, ‘I don’t like people calling me Gerry, I’ve been twenty years escaping being Gerry.’ Many of the more callow British journalists I’ve dealt with over the years influence Paul. I have been unusually fortunate in that for the past fifteen-odd years I’ve worked with a team of extremely smart women from around the Arab world. They sort of helped with Aisha!


Who was your favorite character and why?

Well, Gerald Lynch goes on to become the main character in Beirut, which certainly speaks to the fact he had most room to develop into a bigger character. But I think we all agree on Aisha – she’s the girl everyone falls in love with, and that’s intentional on my part. Her story and her life are what Olives really celebrates. I’m also quite fond of Mariam, Aisha’s grandmother. She’s not got a big role, but I think you end up admiring her.


I realize that ‘Olives’ is a work of fiction but I am curious about Gerald Lynch, the British Intelligence agent.  Is it common for British Intelligence to coerce their citizens abroad to cooperate or was this part of the fictional story?

I think any intelligence service confronted with a need for information and a potential source of that information will do anything it can to obtain it. Lynch has a British journalist positioned nicely within the Ministry and close to Daoud Dajani and he takes the opportunity presented to him. He could have asked nicely, but Paul had already made it clear he wasn’t really the co-operating type…

Was it easy to get the background information with the emotions you captured in your book about the situation between Israel and Palestine?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Jordan over the years and have long worked with a team of people from around the Arab World, many of whom have become friends, so you end up sort of living with people’s attitudes and reactions. One of the challenges, which I hope I’ve met, in writing Olives was to keep it balanced and part of Paul’s role in the book is not to ‘buy’ the emotional reactions of the Arabs to the history and conflict. Paul is influenced by the people around him, though, and sort of ‘goes local’ through the course of events.

Do you see ‘Olives’ more as a romance novel or a political novel?  Please explain your answer.

That’s a hard one! I think part of the reason agents didn’t take to it is the book doesn’t really sit neatly in a pigeonhole – it’s part romance, part thriller, part political. I think we could perhaps say it’s a romance that makes a political point. How’s that?

What audience do you envision ‘Olives’ appealing to?  Why?

It was written for a British audience, with the intention of getting people to look beyond the broad brush media image of a very black and white situation and perhaps take some time to consider the nuances. I’ve always been struck that the French resistance were freedom fighters but the Iraqis were insurgents and the Palestinians are terrorists. So Olives set out to explore that theme – Paul is a news addict who finds himself pulled into the very headlines he watches every day as their news becomes his reality.

Something that has surprised me deeply is how strongly Arab readers have reacted to the book. I had actually expected to lose Arab friends over it, yet instead I have found people relate to it very strongly indeed. So I now think it probably has a ready readership among expatriate Arabs around the world. What’s perhaps interesting is that reaching such a scattered global audience would have been virtually impossible with ‘traditional’ publishing but is very easy indeed with today’s digital publishing – both with e-books and printed books.

Is ‘Olives’ available in any other languages besides English?

No, although I would love to see it in Arabic. One publisher is reading it right now with a view to taking it on as a translation project, so I have my fingers crossed.

Do you have another book in the works?  If so, please share the gist of what is about.  Does it feature any of the same characters from ‘Olives?’

Two, in fact. Beirut is a finished work, which I think may see the light of day this September. The main character in Beirut is Gerald Lynch, although Paul Stokes does make a brief cameo appearance at the beginning. I’m currently working on a third novel, roughly contiguous with Beirut and Olives, called Hartmoor. And Gerald Lynch shouldered his way into that book, too. Beirut is much a ‘harder’ action/spy thriller than Olives, while Hartmoor has perhaps a little more of the gentler spirit of Olives. As Lynch would say, Beirut is mad altogether.

How easy is it for you to sit and develop a story?

They keep popping up in my head. It’s amazing, it’s like an illness. Some of them are duffers, others just bob about in there and pop up every now and then with an extra bit added or another approach. These are the ones that won’t go away and so one day will turn into a book, or perhaps a short story. The odd thing is I’ve been so busy writing books, I haven’t had time for short stories!

What advice would you give to budding authors?  How should they start?

With a good sharp pencil and a piece of paper! It’s important to have an audience and genre in mind before you start, because that’s the thing publishers look for when you’re finished – I’ve made life a lot harder for myself with Olives simply because it doesn’t sit easily in a particular genre. Of course, you can always say ‘to hell with the rule book’ and self publish, which is what I’ve done. If you do that straight away, you’ll bypass the ten years I took to learn that lesson! Once you’re clear on what type of book interests you, use the pencil and paper to sketch out the plot of your book and the characters.

I actually wrote a blog post about this, it’s here:


Do you think writing fiction or non-fiction is easier?  Why?

They both have their quirks – and both can demand insane amounts of research. I think they’re both hard to do well and easy to do badly, but I think badly written fiction is easier to spot and more distracting for the reader. I think (and hope I achieve!) the reader should forget the writer is there and never be reminded of that third party intrusion into the story.


How has the publication of ‘Olives’ changed your life?

It’s certainly made me busy – I hadn’t realized quite how much hard work self publishing would be, and yet every step of the way has been paved with good wishes, smiles and kindness from people. After years of plugging away and slamming my head against the brick wall of publishing, to actually be meeting people who’ve read my work and enjoyed it, to whom it matters and from whom it provokes a strong emotional response, is sheer bliss.


Where can American Bedu readers purchase their own copy of ‘Olives’ or any other books from you?

You can go to where there are links to buy the book or you can get it from Amazon in the US as a print or Kindle book, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, iBooks and other online outlets. If you’re in the UAE you can buy it from all good bookshops and soon that’ll be the case in Lebanon too.

US Kindle:

Print edition:

UK Kindle:




Are there any additional comments you’d like to add?

I think that’s pretty much covered it! Just a quick thank you for the opportunity to chat and for taking such an interest in Olives!

Thank you Alexander for this interview and sharing with American Bedu readers.

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