"Tell a dream, lose a reader," runs American author Henry James's famous creative writing dictum. Hala Alyan's second and latest novel is not impaired by a dream. It was, however, inspired by one. Tell this kind of dream, and you gain readers.
"It was 2017 and I was wrapping up my first novel, Salt Houses," says Alyan, 34. "I had a vivid dream about this woman. She lived in Damascus, she was trying to move to California, she was a theatre actress, she wanted to become a Hollywood star. When I woke up, I jotted down 10 single-space pages on my laptop and thought: 'What is this idea?'"
Alyan imagined she might develop it as a short story in the future. "But it stuck with me. I finished Salt Houses, did the edits, the book came out and I kept coming back to this woman. She was the central figure of my dream and she became the central figure of this family."
That family being the Nasrs, the heart and soul of the Palestinian-American author's second novel, The Arsonists' City. Alyan turned the Syrian woman from her dream into indomitable matriarch Mazna. She and her husband, Idris, a Lebanese heart surgeon, have lived in a small town in California since the 1970s. When he announces to his wife that he is selling their ancestral home in Beirut, Mazna summons her three grown-up children to a reunion there to save it – "the only thing on Arab soil that still belongs to us".
Alyan's capacious and enthralling novel spans decades and delves deep into the lives of each family member, uncovering skeletons in closets and examining rivalries, betrayals, illicit romances and divided loyalties. The Nasr siblings, Ava, Mimi and Naj, have involving personal stories, and Idris emerges as a flawed man who is steered and almost ruined by sentimentality and impulsiveness. But it is Mazna who looms large on the page in a number of incarnations, whether as an aspiring actress, a wife whose marriage is "moored to umbrage and disagreements", or a woman haunted by her past.
"I wanted to write a family story that felt more urgent and plot-driven than what I had done in my previous work," Alyan reveals. "I wanted to play with and unpack themes of secrecy – the lies we tell, the secrets we keep from ourselves and the secrets we keep from the people we love – and how that ripples out and what the intergenerational impact is."
Both her novels are immersive family sagas. However, they also shine a light on the immigrant experience. Alyan's rootless, restless characters move around in search of a new start. If their dislocation feels real it is because the author had her own family in mind when she created them.
Alyan was born in Carbondale, Illinois. Shortly after her birth, her parents moved to Kuwait, where they had met and married. When the First Gulf War broke out, they were forced to pack up and move again. Alyan spent her childhood living in the US and the Middle East. "It definitely felt disruptive, nerve-racking and scary," she says. "But it also gave me an opportunity to reinvent myself everywhere we went, and to become adaptable in a way that I'm really grateful for now."
She is keen to point out that her parents did not move around for the fun of it. "They were on a quest for upward mobility," she says. "They lost everything when Saddam [Hussain] invaded and had to start over again. A different family might have said: 'We are based here so we are just going to apply for jobs here until something comes through.'
“My family said: ‘We will apply everywhere, globally, and have no problem moving 1,500 miles.’ The dislocation wasn’t a deal-breaker when it came to searching for a better life and better opportunities.”
In Salt Houses, Alyan writes: "Palestine was something raw in the family, a wound never completely scabbed over." Similarly, and understandably, her parents' homeland remains a sensitive topic. "When you have something really enormous like a major displacement, it becomes the thing that everyone knows is there, and oftentimes it is like the root or central issue from which lots of other things branch. It's a lot easier to have conversations about a career, or renovating a house."
Alyan studied in Beirut and says she always wanted to set a novel there. She calls her new book "a love letter to Beirut" and relished the chance to return and spend time in a part of the world that "really has my heart". At one point in the novel, Alyan describes it as an insomniac's city. "It runs on this feverish, frenetic, I would say artistic energy. It has been really heartbreaking to see what the city and the country has been enduring over the last year," she says.
Alyan now lives in Brooklyn, where, along with writing, she works as a clinical psychologist, which she says informs her fiction. "It asks you to do something with your attention and curiosity to granular details. It teaches you to ask certain questions that come in handy when you're mapping out a character's narrative arc, or thinking about what incentives a person would have to do something, or behave in this way, even though it's against their interests."
Despite living in the US for some years, Alyan has said before that she feels like she belongs nowhere. Is this still the case? "I belong to the places that will have me," she says. "Where there are loved ones and a feeling of roundedness. So that's Lebanon and Brooklyn. It's also parts of the Gulf – my parents were in Abu Dhabi for a long time, and that certainly has a homey feeling for me. Home for me is a combination of where you have nested."
But, she says: "I always have in the back of my mind an understanding that that can change physically, for that's the legacy of what I've experienced."