Monday, May 16, 2011

Anatomy of a Novel: Noah's Law

Guest post by Randa Abdel-Fattah

The Seeds for Noah’s Law: Being a Big Mouth
When I was in primary school, most of my weekends were spent hanging out with our close family friends. They had a daughter, Lora, who for many years I believed was my blood relative given how close our families were. Whenever my sister and I wanted to spend the night at Lora’s house (or have her spend the night at ours), our parents used to insist we stand up in front of the living room and deliver ‘a speech’, mounting an argument to convince them to grant us permission for a slumber party. In hindsight, this was a monumentally foolish thing for our parents to do. By training us to argue, they were setting themselves up for intellectually based challenges from then on (although we also reverted to a good old-fashioned whinge and tantrum attack when it suited us too).

Suffice to say, I learnt from a young age that there was a certain thrill in the art of persuasion. Being an avid debater in the Debaters’ Association of Victoria during high-school was another taste of standing up before an audience and trying to win them over through the power of a good argument (and when you’re wearing a hijab and showing up to debate at schools where, very often, the students assumed you couldn’t speak English, let alone deliver a devastating argument, the thrill was amplified ten-fold!)

Given I’ve always had a big mouth, and embraced just about every cause and movement on offer throughout high school, I knew very early on that I wouldn’t rest until I’d achieved two ambitions: becoming a lawyer and writer. When you combine a strong sense of justice (I remember questioning the universal use of the male pronoun to my teacher in grade six!) with family TV nights watching Perry Mason and Columbo re-runs (my parents’ favourites), it’s kind of hard to avoid an attraction to a career in the law.


Juggling being a writer and being a lawyer has had its challenges. Like how to pretend to be taking notes in court about the case being heard when you’re really writing your novel.

Major parts of my first book, Does My Head Look Big In This?, were written while I was instructing barristers in NSW regional courts- in my defence, I was only filling in for the actual solicitor with control of the files and only had to maintain a watching brief of the case. Rather than fall asleep, like some of the other solicitors did, I wrote a book. So there.

But the real challenge is how to curb the flow of ideas when you’re actually supposed to be concentrating. The idea for Noah’s Law came to me when I was in a meeting with some senior partners of the firm I was working at. As they went on and on about some inane topic, the beginnings of a plot started to form in my head. So what should have been some very detailed meeting minutes in fact became a plot outline for a legal thriller.

Interacting with barristers, clients, solicitors, court staff and judges means you cross paths with a very interesting, diverse group of people. You know the stereotypes about pompous barristers in their wigs and dishevelled robes, making submissions to the court in droll, authoritative voices oozing self-assurance and ego? Well, the stereotypes are true! Not all the time, of course. But I’ve been exposed to my fair share of pompous barristers. They’re often redeemed by the fact that they have intellects the size of planets and minds so quick that you’re left dizzy listening to them. Many such barristers and solicitors (egos to share around there too) filtered into some of my characters in Noah’s Law, from Noah’s dad (although I love him dearly) to the barrister, Valopolous, (my revenge on some of the barristers I’ve had to listen to in court) to Casey, the wicked witch of the firm. What I love about characterisation is how much of it is subconscious. It was not until I’d gone back to read Noah’s Law that I identified actual people I’d worked with or met over the years. While I hadn’t consciously thought about them when developing my characters or scenes, a ‘bird’s eye view’ of my completed novel allowed me to see a subconscious process that saw me drawing on the people in my life.

Law and Order
Huge fan. Obsessed. Positively crazy about Law and Order. Especially SVU (ahh, Elliott!) I know the credits by heart. I love the music. I love the story-lines. Even the wackiest, most obscenely implausible ones. It should be no surprise that I get a little bit wild when, as usual, Olivia and Elliott basically catch somebody standing over the body of a victim holding a bloodied knife implanted in the victim’s body and the evidence is eventually inadmissible because of a legal technicality. I’m a lawyer. Technicalities are my specialty. But COME ON! HE DID IT!
Okay, so there’s the basic tension between knowing the truth and proving it. And that tension is held together because of our legal system’s fundamental principle of the rule of law. Which is why Noah is struggling really hard with the case he’s stumbled across. And that’s my ode to Law and Order.

My trouble-maker friends in high school

Tymur, Ahmed, Salih and Hasan.

There are pranks. And there are PRANKS.

Attending an independent Islamic school gives you even more ways to push the limits and send teachers stark raving mad with your antics. From ordering ham and pineapple pizza and having it delivered to the local Imam’s house, to driving teachers to resign through sheer frustration (evil, huh?), to dabbling in hypnotism in the art room as a ‘lunch time’ past-time, to writing a poem on war with a word-for-word copy of the lyrics to a Guns ‘n’ Roses song and getting such high praise from the teacher that it was read aloud in assembly, to other stuff that would probably require a rating by the Classification Board of Australia, these guys knew the meaning of rebellion. And so it comes as no surprise to me to realise how much these guys, my friends at school, subconsciously influenced my creation of Noah’s character.

My husband, Ibrahim, was a school prefect but got up to more pranks with a badge on than without. One of his pranks (changing the marks on assignments) inspired the opening scene in the book. The nerd in me still can't understand how he and his other friends (all of them clearly corrupted by the Power of the Badge) had the gall to do such a thing. But it seemed exactly like the sort of thing Noah would do so it went into the book!

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