The Mirage — frequently asked questions

Below is the self-interview I wrote for the trade paperback “P.S. edition” of The Mirage. It covers some of the most common questions I get from readers.


How did you come up with the idea for this novel?

The Mirage began as an overly ambitious TV pitch. A producer who was a fan of my writing invited me to submit an idea for an original TV series. One thing I’d been wanting to do was a story about 9/11 and the War on Terror. I’d dealt with the subject tangentially in my novel Bad Monkeys, but I felt like I had something more to say. At the same time, I didn’t just want to do a minor variation on the kinds of 9/11 stories other people were already telling.

It seemed to me that there were two basic narrative templates that people were gravitating towards. One, which you could call the right-wing template, had a group of patriotic Americans squaring off against evil Muslim terrorists. The other, which you could call the left-wing template, had a group of patriotic Americans squaring off against evil Muslim terrorists… and feeling ambivalent about it.

One area where both these templates fell short was in their handling of the vast majority of Muslims who are not terrorists—the innocents on the ground in places like Iraq whose only crime was being the wrong kind of people at the wrong moment in history. Those folks typically got pushed to the margins or left out of the story entirely.

I thought it might be interesting and worthwhile to give those ordinary Muslims a more central role in things, maybe let them run the War on Terror for a change, instead of just bearing the brunt of it. And so I hit on this idea of taking a post-9/11 thriller and setting it in a looking-glass world where the geopolitical situation—and the casting conventions—were reversed. A world where patriotic Arabians squared off against evil Christian terrorists… and felt ambivalent about it.

I could have stopped there, but I decided to add one more twist. As my heroes went about their business, they’d gradually become aware of the fact that they were living in a looking-glass world and be forced to deal with the implications of that.

Part of what made 9/11 so devastating for Americans was our belief that such a catastrophe could never happen to us. To other, lesser nations, sure, but not to us. We were supposed to be immune. And even after we discovered that wasn’t so, much of the debate around the War on Terror continued to be premised on the notion that we would never be at the mercy of a greater power.

With The Mirage, I wanted to see what happened if you took away that sense of immunity. If the world really could turn upside down—if history’s winners could wake up tomorrow and find they were history’s losers—how would that affect our attitude towards things like torture and regime change?

What was the response to your TV series pitch?

The people at the studio were extremely nice about it, but the consensus was that there was no way you could do a show like this on American television, particularly while the Iraq War was still going on.

Which was the reaction I’d been expecting. From the moment I came up with the idea I’d known it likely wouldn’t fly on TV, and that if I really wanted to tell this story I was probably going to have to do it as a novel. And that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, because with a novel I’d have complete control and wouldn’t have to water down the concept. Of course the flip side to that was, I’d also have to do all the work.

What sort of research did you do?

I did a lot of reading. I read up on the history of the region, enough to know just how far my alternate Middle East was diverging from it. I read biographies of the politicians, dictators, and other real-world characters who would be appearing in the story. I read personal accounts about life in Iraq, both before and during the war, and other material I thought might provide useful anecdotes.

With Islam, I tried to be careful about getting specific points of theology right, while avoiding the trap of confusing religious orthodoxy with the diverse ways religion is actually practiced, especially in a free society.

Talk a little about your world-building process. How did Israel end up in Europe? How did Saddam Hussein become a gangster?

I began by putting the United Arab States at the center of creation and working outwards from there. I made a conscious decision not to provide a comprehensive portrait of the mirage world, instead viewing all other countries in terms of their relationship with, and importance to, the UAS. So for example, North America is broken up into this patchwork of weak nations and principalities, but you’re never told exactly how many of them there are, and even the ones that are featured in the story are generally described pretty vaguely. What are “The Rocky Mountain Independent Territories”? How did they become independent? And independent from what? You don’t know. Just as most Americans don’t know, even now, the history of Afghanistan.

With Israel, I knew I wanted the country to still exist, but since Palestine was taken, I had to find a new location for it. The German “two-state solution” offered some interesting real-world parallels and struck me as the sort of thing that would appeal to distant bureaucrats while being, up close, a much less sensible idea.

My rule regarding famous people in the novel was that their moral characters wouldn’t change, only their job prospects. So Saddam Hussein is still a wicked man, but since there are no dictators in the UAS, he becomes a king of the underworld instead. Osama bin Laden, a rich man’s son with connections in Riyadh, became a more refined sort of villain: a treasonous, war-mongering politician. And Muammar al Gaddafi became, well, Muammar al Gaddafi.

My approach to the Americans was similar, although there, on the principle of “the first shall be last,” I also inflicted a significant loss of status, with Bush and Cheney receiving the special ignominy of never being mentioned in the story by name.

How did LBJ end up in the novel?

I needed someone to play the role of the deposed American president. It couldn’t be George W. Bush, because I’d already decided his fate was to languish in obscurity. At some point it occurred to me that there was this other Texan who might fit the bill.

The Mirage is obviously quite fanciful in its approach to alternate history. Did you ever consider doing a more realistic take?

No, because that wouldn’t have suited my purpose. The story I wanted to tell wasn’t about the Arab democracy that might have been, or that may yet be, it was about the democracy Americans were promised as an enticement for invading Iraq—the one that was going to spring forth magically from the ashes of Saddam’s empire, without any regard for historical context. It was about the mirage.

Your father was a Lutheran minister and your mother was a missionary’s daughter. How did your religious background affect the writing of The Mirage?

There are some major doctrinal differences between Christianity and Islam, but in terms of basic worldview they’re not that far apart. When I hear Muslims talk about their faith and their relationship to God, they sound very much like the Christians I grew up with. Likewise, when I read Islamic religious rulings, the authorities they cite are Quran and Hadith rather than the Bible, but the logic employed, the style of theological argument, is very familiar to me. That familiarity gave me confidence that I could do justice to my characters. They weren’t ciphers to me.

And of course I’m aware that violent extremism is not, and never has been, exclusive to Islam. Christendom has its share of fanatics, too. Which is a useful thing to keep in mind when making observations about terrorism and religion.

To what extent was the ending of the novel influenced by real-world events happening at the time you were writing it? For example, the apocalyptic sandstorm could be read as a metaphor for the Arab Spring. Was that your intention?

No, I always planned to end the novel that way.

The timing was interesting, though. I submitted the finished manuscript to my editor on January 24, 2011. Tunisia’s president had fled the country ten days earlier, but being focused on my deadline, I hadn’t paid much attention. Then the very next day, the protests began in Egypt, and spread from there to Yemen, and Bahrain, and Libya… There was a definite feeling of vertigo, watching as events in the real world seemed to echo my fiction, but I saw no need to make changes to the manuscript. Anything topical I might have thought to add—including that now prophetic line where Gaddafi says, “We are next”—was already in there.

At the very end of the novel, Mustafa and Samir and Amal come to a strange, white-walled city in the middle of the desert. Where are they? Does the question have an answer?

Sure, it’s right there in the title of the epilogue.

I knew all along that the mirage world was going to come apart in the end. The question was, where should the characters end up? It seemed cruel to send them back to the world before the wish. More importantly, it seemed wrong to do that, since that world, like the pre-9/11 world, no longer existed. So if they couldn’t go back, and history didn’t end, what was left? The future—that place where the survivors of all apocalypses inevitably find themselves. It seemed reasonable to describe it as a place where hope was possible. And of course God, or at least His disciples, will be there. Beyond that, I can’t tell you much about it, and not only because I don’t know. Because—and this is the moral of the story—it’s not for me to say.