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Travel Writer Elisabeth Eaves Embarks on Her First Novel

This winter, travel writer Elisabeth Eaves isn't in Mexico to write about shirtless men she meets on the beach—she's escaping the cruel winter to write a draft of her first novel, which is set in the Middle East.

Photo by Trevor Butterworth

Journalist Elisabeth Eaves has written about nearly every continent on earth. Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents, her travel book, discusses her exploits with men across the globe, and Bare: The Naked Truth About Stripping, her striptease memoir, takes readers on a journey through the American strip club. This winter, Elisabeth isn't in Baja, Mexico to write about shirtless men she meets on the beach—she's escaping the cruel winter to write a draft of her first novel, which is set in the Middle East. A few weeks ago, I called Elisabeth to learn more about her new novel and discuss her transition from non-fiction to fiction.


What’s your novel about?
I would say it is about an American journalist in Syria around the time of the onset of the current civil war, and she gets involved in some political drama as well as a love triangle. My elevator pitch is that it is The Quiet American set in contemporary Syria with a female protagonist. When I tell people that, I realize a lot of people haven't read The Quiet American, which is a Graham Greene novel set in the 50s in Vietnam before the US Vietnam War. I'm obsessed with Graham Greene; he is hands down one of my favorite writers. He's been all over the world—I see him as almost a travel writer, even though he's a novelist—and he's written books set in Haiti, South America, and West Africa.

Do you find yourself injecting yourself into the female protagonist?
Of course the story is totally made up, but what I find interesting is emotionally you're telling all kinds of truths.

What inspired you to write the story?
I'm interested in expats, the people who are fish out of water, living in a culture that's not their own—the experience of being the alien and trying to understand what's going on. I spent a little more than a year in Arab countries, so I felt very drawn to setting something in that region. I went there in college, as a grad student, and have gone back for professional reasons mostly. I've studied international affairs, so I have a strong underlying interest in politics—the inspiration was to bring those things together.


What memories about your time in Syria influenced your novel?
A lot of it is visual and architectural. I have a very strong visual impression and olfactory—I can smell the spices in the market. A lot of strangers in the Middle East would befriend me, and my friend I was traveling with, in a public place, invite us home, feed us, and try to send gifts with us when it was time to leave—just complete and open hospitality. Once we were in a plaza, just sitting there looking lost, and a young couple came up to us—they spoke in broken English, and we spoke in broken Arabic—and they invited us home to their small apartment. They made us little butter sandwiches and tea, and when we left, she tried to give us her porcelain tea set. It made me think, What do I do at home? Have I ever invited a total stranger into my home?

What do you remember about the political environment?
Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, was the leader when I was visiting in college. [I saw] a multi-story banner with his face on it—total 1984 stuff. People had his face on clocks and accessories, because that showed you were a good citizen. I grew up in Canada and have worked in the US, so that was disturbing and weird and left a strong impression.

What‘s the biggest difference between writing non-fiction and writing fiction?
One of the hardest things [about writing fiction] is that you have to commit to it, because obviously it is incredibly time consuming. All last year I did travel writing and other journalistic assignments, which I really enjoyed. But I was doing a lot of assignments, and I had my part-time editing gig, and I was also trying to write a novel. It was just untenable. It's really, really hard for me to say, “Okay, I'm not going to do anything else for a while,” because I want to stay in the game, and I know that I am successful as a freelancer, but I don't know that I am going to have success with a novel. It's uncharted territory.


Previously - The Empire State Building Sued This Photographer for Taking Topless Photos