All of my novels have had different origins. Something Like Normal began with the voice of a Marine who wouldn’t go away until I wrote his story. Where the Stars Still Shine came about after I visited Tarpon Springs, a place so interesting and strange that I knew I needed to drop a character into the middle. And The Devil You Know started as a kernel idea to send someone on a camping trip gone terribly wrong.
With In a Perfect World, I’d always wanted to write a YA romance set in a foreign country, so I started kicking around destinations. At first I was going to write about a girl who does a foreign exchange year in Berlin (which I still want to write, maybe as a companion to In a Perfect World) but I wanted a destination that would really challenge my character’s beliefs and prejudices, so I started looking at the Middle East/Northern Africa.
I chose to send Caroline to Egypt for a couple of reasons. First, because politically it’s tumultuous and tense, but not boiling over in a way that would make it implausible for a family to move there. Second, because the more research I did, the more I discovered that Cairo is dirty, beautiful, noisy, historically dense, smelly, and impossibly romantic. In short, the perfect place for a Christian girl to fall in love with a Muslim boy.
I understood that it was not my place to speak from a Muslim perspective—I am as excited as anyone that Muslim writers are telling their own stories in young adult fiction—but I thought maybe I could write an American’s perspective in a predominantly Muslim country. I wanted Caroline to experience the culture shock of coming from a small Midwestern town, but also to learn how to discern the true and the false from her preconceived notions. I wanted her to gain a better awareness of her privilege in the world. And I wanted her to fall in love with a boy whose skin, culture, and religion were different, but whose heart understood hers. I hope I have accomplished that.
Those who have read my other novels know I don’t usually end on a happily ever after. My endings are usually hopeful, but I like to leave room for the reader’s imagination. So when I started writing, my intent was for the ending to be bittersweet, for Adam and Caroline to say goodbye and mean it. But by the time I reach the last chapter, the thought of keeping them apart was painful. I rewrote the last chapter about half a dozen times until I was satisfied, and one of versions I rejected was a review that Caroline wrote about the restaurant in New York where Adam works.
New York, NY
Level 1 Contributor
The atmosphere at Ahlan is like sitting in the dining room at your best friend’s house. Homey. Comfortable. The music isn’t too loud and the banquette cushions invite you to stay and talk long after your dinner has been eaten.
Having been featured on the Travel Channel, one of the biggest draws—and drawbacks—is the owner, who likes to chat with his customers as he cooks. If that’s something you don’t mind, you’ll be fine. But if you like a more intimate dining experience, this might not be the restaurant for you.
Except…I’m going to let you in on a secret. The best time to visit Ahlan is between 2pm and 5pm, when the owner is taking a break between the lunch and dinner rushes. For those three hours, his sous-chef, Adam Elhadad, takes over the kitchen and the difference is undeniable. Elhadad’s specialties are macaroni béchamel—based on his Egyptian grandmother’s recipe—and a humble koshary that will make you feel as if you’re standing at a street cart in Cairo, but anything you order will be outstanding.
In all honestly, if you want to get the best Middle Eastern food in New York City, you’d better go to Ahlan soon, because it won’t be long before Elhadad gets poached by a better kitchen or, with any luck, opens his own restaurant.
(Note: I’m a little biased because I’m his girlfriend, but the hype is real.)