Gretchen McCullough - A Wild Ride Through Cairo and Beyond
Gretchen McCullough was raised in Harlingen Texas. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, she taught in Egypt, Turkey and Japan. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and was awarded a teaching Fulbright to Syria from 1997-1999. Her stories, essays and reviews have appeared in The Barcelona Review, Archipelago, National Public Radio, Story South, Guernica, The Common, The Millions, and the LA Review of Books. Translations in English and Arabic have been published in: Nizwa, Banipal, Brooklyn Rail in Translation, World Literature Today and Washington Square Review with Mohamed Metwalli. Her bi-lingual book of short stories in English and Arabic, Three Stories from Cairo, translated with Mohamed Metwalli was published in July 2011 by AFAQ Publishing House, Cairo. A collection of short stories about expatriate life in Cairo, Shahrazad’s Tooth, was also published by AFAQ in 2013. Currently, she is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo. As our Author of the Day, she tells us all about her book, Confessions of a Knight Errant.
Please give us a short introduction to what Confessions of a Knight Errant is about.
The novel revolves around two characters who are on the run, a Greek-Egyptian ballroom dancing teacher, Kharalombos who is in trouble with the Egyptian government; the other, Gary, a maladroit professor, is accused of being a cyber-terrorist by the American government. They return to Egypt on the one of the worst days of the Egyptian uprising, 2011, when the networks were cut and the police withdrew. They meet a German tourist, Gudrun, who runs a fancy girls’ summer camp in central Texas. She invites them to work at her camp and they accept her offer. She has a romance with Kharalombos; it is a comedy of errors when Gary is appointed as handyman. The Middle East comes to Texas in a weird way. The next-door neighbor is a dealer of stolen Middle-Eastern antiquities. Mary Alice, the other owner of the camp was a missionary in Iran and Egypt.
What inspired you to write this story? Was there anything in particular that made you want to tackle this?
I loved the characters and wanted to see how they would behave outside of Egypt. Gary is a long-term expatriate and can’t readjust to American life. Kharalombos hates the Protestant work ethic and rebels against American scheduling.
Tell us more about Dr. Gary Watson. What makes him tick, and why did you pick him as the main protagonist?
After 9/11, we had a professor at the university who became unhinged. Gary does lose it, but not after 9/11. He goes nuts since he sees the egregious disregard for the environment in Egypt. He is a biology professor and an environmental activist.
I am close to Gary since I don’t really feel comfortable with technology. I wrote a first novel that was never published. (Now I am glad!) I have absolutely no mechanical ability. When I was delivering pizzas in graduate school, I could never even fold a box, although they taught me over and over again!
The story reminds a bit of Don Quixote. Was this intentional?
Sure. I had in mind a modern-day Don Quixote. I love the novel.
Why did you title this "Confessions of a Knight Errant"?
Because Gary thinks of himself as noble, but is mainly a klutz. The working title was different. But I was writing in the picaresque novel tradition and a friend suggested the title. My publisher, Scott Davis, liked the title.
Why did you pick Egypt as the backdrop for your story?
I live in Egypt and was here during the 2011 uprising. A lot of crazy things happened that didn’t make the “big news” about the Square. Many foreigners fled and left their pets behind. When the police withdrew, people in the neighborhood took turns guarding their buildings and shops against looting. They sat in the streets all night with odd weapons. If they didn’t have guns, (which are forbidden in Egypt), they might have a golf club or a household object that could be used as a weapon. We were under curfew and went out to get groceries. Part I was originally published in a collection of short stories, Shahrazad’s Tooth, by a small press in Cairo. I got the idea to continue the novella. What would happen if Gary and Kharalombos went to Texas with Gudrun, the German tourist they met in Cairo?
How much research did this book require from you?
I did a lot of research about stolen Middle-Eastern antiquities. After the Arab Spring, hundreds of antiquities flooded the market and found their way to the United States.
I also did quite a bit of research about Muammar Al-Qaddafi, especially at the end of his rule. I read parts of his Green Book and many of the crazy things he used to say. That was incorporated into his letter that is found at the girls’ camp. I worked hard to mimic the syntax of Arabic, but in English. Teaching Arabic speakers who write in English—and knowing Arabic helped with this.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I love to play pool. During Covid, my husband and I started going downtown to play pool at a historic hotel in Cairo. We invented these expeditions to get away from the television.
I am also a tennis player. I started playing when I was twelve—and have played most of my life. I got a tennis scholarship to Stephens College, but never played college tennis because I injured my shoulder.
A new hobby, is swimming. I love to swim in a pool by the Nile. With my hectic teaching schedule, this is relaxing.
Do any of your characters ever take off on their own tangent, refusing to do what you had planned for them?
The Greek-Egyptian, Kharalombos wouldn’t behave. This led to many surprises!
What did you have the most fun with when writing this story?
I loved coming up with all of the things that could go wrong at the camp. For example, I found myself, researching septic tanks and food inspection for restaurants!
Where do you go for inspiration?
Many of my ideas come from daily life in Cairo. It’s a very rich city for a writer. Egyptians are marvelous storytellers.
However, my new novel was inspired by my grandfather’s diaries and archival research.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?
It is very hard to write when the university is in session since I have to follow up many teaching and administrative details. But I have been granted many leaves by the university. My novels and story collection have been completed during these leaves. If I have a stretch of time like this, I typically wake up early in the morning and work at my desk until noon. In the afternoon, I play tennis, meet friends or read.
If you are writing a novel, you have to tend the garden every day. I have a desk that looks out over some beautiful trees. It feels like I am in a tree house. There is a musical college across the street. Sometimes, I might hear someone playing the saxophone.
What are you working on right now?
I just finished a draft of a novel, set in the nineteen thirties, set in a CCC camp in West Texas. These camps were set up during Roosevelt’s New Deal to help young unemployed men. The novel focuses on the men of this camp in an isolated part of Texas who are building a huge natural spring swimming pool called Balmorhea. The novel was inspired by the diaries of my grandfather, who went to Sul Ross University in the nineteen thirties. He didn’t work in a camp, but I went to Sul Ross and spent a lot of time going through archives. That is how I became interested in the CCC camps; Texas built a lot of state parks with federal money.
Another side plot of the novel is the focus on medical quackery. I became interested in Doctor John Brinkley, who was performing transplant operations with goat testicles, claiming that it would improve male virility. I also have a character, whose mother was a curandera, and he is healing with herbs. The nurse at the camp has a close connection to Brinkley.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
My website is: www.gretchenmcculloughfictionwriter.com