Today we speak with Omar Mouallem about his plans to crowd-source ideas and inspiration from a chair in the window of his local coffee shop (hopefully).
Tell us about yourself.
I live in Edmonton, where I’m the writer-in-residence for the city’s public library. You can find my byline in Canadian magazines and newspapers—Eighteen Bridges, Globe and Mail, Alberta Views, wherever I can tell the stories I want to tell. I also lead a double life, rapping as A.O.K.
What do you write?
I’m what you would call a “generalist,” in that you’ll find me in just about any section, from travel to business. I love writing in-depth articles, in first-person and with lots of colour, that double as social essays. My favourite piece this year was a story in Swerve about a chain of fast-food restaurants called Burger Baron, and how its rogue owners can’t agree on anything. What it was really about, though, was the changing palates of North Americans, as well as Lebanese families, like mine, who came to Canada for a better life. Much of what I write ends up tying back to my family. So far, they haven’t filed a cease and desist.
What made you decide to sign up for the 3-Day Novel Contest?
I think it’s important to put yourself through trials every now and then to know your capabilities and limits, to have physical evidence of your own stamina. It’s stress testing. Last February, I spent three days trapped in West Edmonton Mall for an Avenue magazine story. It was an endurance exercise but still lots of fun. But I anticipate this will probably be more pain than pleasure. However, like the mall assignment, I’ve set up a Tumblr to liveblog my adventure and solicit ideas from followers.
What responsibilities does the Edmonton Public Library writer-in-residence have?
I help aspiring writers, and even some professionals, with their manuscripts, outlines and ideas. I give feedback and I ask them lots of questions about their stories until, hopefully, they have it figured out. I also put on seminars on literary non-fiction and other forms of writing, and do some outreach at schools, community groups, even the young offender’s prison, and just get people writing however they’re most comfortable doing it.
Do you know what you will be writing about?
I figured it would be easiest if I wrote about three things I know well—journalism, small towns (like the one I grew up in) and cats. I also figured a genre novel with a built-in form would help plotting too. So my story, “Wump,” is about a disgraced crime reporter who hit rock bottom when the only job left for him was at a small-town weekly, covering such riveting issues as the annual vegetable gardening competition. One day he comes home to find out Wump – his service cat registered to aid with his anger issues – has been shot and killed with a potato gun. So it’s a whodunit, and along the way… love, self-realization, etcetera, etcetera.
Do you have characters in mind? An outline? An ending?
I have my central characters, plus a tight outline that I’m ready to throw out basically by chapter three. I don’t want anything that’s ready-to-bake. It should still be an adventure, plus I’m crowd-sourcing ideas and inspirations throughout. Here’s how you can participate.
What else have you done to prepare for the 72-hour task?
I’m reading lots of short stories to brush up on eclectic narrative styles. I plan on getting lots of exercise and sleep in the days leading to it. What else? Nutritional snacks, lots of fruit? Sure. I’ve requested that the Second Cup next door to the library’s gallery, where I’ll be writing in the window display, “sponsor” me with coffee, but I haven’t heard back yet.
How do you plan to stay focused?
First, I won’t check my email the day before and throughout to stamp out work distractions. And, even though social media is integral to my experiment, I’ll only check it every 30-60 minutes maximum. The last time I took such “radical measures” was my wedding day. I’ve already turned on my notifications off. Hopefully when I hit a wall, I can crack open my Tumblr and Twitter and find lots of great ideas to break the spell.
What do you hope to accomplish by participating in this competition?
My first novel. This is something on just about everyone’s bucket list – a memoir or a novel – mine included. I hope to show people that it can be done in a short period if you’re truly committed.
What was the best writing advice you were given?
“Write for the ear.”
Omar Mouallem has written for such publications as the Globe and Mail, Alberta Views and Eighteen Bridges. His 2011 essay “Under the Veil” was nominated for a National Magazine Award, and this year the City of Edmonton honoured him the 2013 Emerging Artist award.