Interview With Patricia McArdle, Amazon Grand Prize Novelist

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Patricia Lynn McArdle has been travelling the globe and challenging the status quo for decades.  The solar cooking enthusiast, and retired US foreign service officer worked overseas and in Washington, D.C., from 1979–2006 as a member of the U.S. diplomatic corps. Prior to that,  she served for three years as one of the first two female Naval Officers at a remote U.S. communications base in Morocco.  McArdle’s last post as a United States Diplomat was served farishtaout between 2005 and 2006 in a northern province of Afghanistan, known as Mazar-e-Sharif.

Her debut novel Farishta, which won the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Grand Prize for General Fiction, was inspired by events that occurred during her final tour as a US diplomat in a remote, all-male British military outpost in northern Afghanistan.

Published by Penguin Books, Farishta is about a female American diplomat forced to confront the devastation of her past, and her struggle for redemption against the backdrop of the US-led war in Afghanistan.  Farishta covers everything from women’s issues to international affairs to the drug war.

Patricia McArdle has been interviewed and reviewed by the Washington Post, HuffPost Books, NPR, and Publisher’s Weekly, to name a few.  In 2011, her novel received the San Diego Book Award for General Fiction.

Amazon summarizes her novel as follows:

“Twenty-one years ago, diplomat Angela Morgan witnessed the death of her husband during the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Devastated by her loss, she fled back to America, where she hid in the backwaters of the State Department and avoided the high-profile postings that would advance her career. Now, with that career about to dead-end and no true connections at home, she must take the one assignment available– at a remote British army outpost in northern Afghanistan. Unwelcome among the soldiers and unaccepted by the local government and warlords, Angela has to fight to earn the respect of her colleagues, especially the enigmatic Mark Davies, a British major who is by turns her staunchest ally and her fiercest critic. Frustrated at her inability to contribute to the nation’s reconstruction, Angela slips out of camp disguised in a burka to provide aid to the refugees in the war-torn region. She becomes their farishta, or “angel,” in the local Dari language-and discovers a new purpose for her life, a way to finally put her grief behind her.”

Valerie Plame Wilson, author of the New York Times-bestselling Fair Game, hails Farishta as a “gripping” novel, “with the narrative intensity of a Jason Bourne story.”  Deborah Rodriguez, author of the New York Times-bestselling Kabul Beauty School said it “opens a window into the challenging life of a diplomat… and is an outstanding read!”

Full disclosure, she is not only a fascinating and inspirational role-model, she’s also my mom.   I would be remiss not to share her brilliance with the world, and am proud to bring my interview to Ladybud readers everywhere.             

SABRINA FENDRICK: What was your inspiration for writing ‘Farishta?’

patricia mcardle 2PATRICIA McARDLE: When I came back from Afghanistan at the end of 2005, I was overwhelmed by what I had experienced during a year that included: attempting to convince angry Afghan warlords to disarm; mediating conflicts between government officials and local religious groups;  losing some very young colleagues to bombs and bullets; bearing witness to the abuse of women and girls; and traveling through the northern provinces of Afghanistan unarmed and unarmored with six-man British Army infantry patrols.  I hoped that writing about my experiences would provide the catharsis I needed to make sense of my emotions that were in turmoil when I came home. I also wanted to share my concern with others about the lack of sustainable development and renewable energy in Afghanistan and the struggle of Afghan women for basic human rights.  Writing Farishta also allowed me to explore my feelings about the struggle for acceptance that I experienced as a female American diplomat in a war zone.

I hoped that creating this story as a novel rather a memoir would allow me to connect with the type of reader who might never pick up a nonfiction book about America’s longest war.  One of my daughter Sabrina’s friends read an excerpt of Farishta and sent this message to me: “Truthfully, I thought no one would ever get me to read a book related to Afghanistan or the war, let alone the government!  I couldn’t be more interested in what I am reading!”

SF: How much of the novel is based on actual experiences you had? 

PA: A lot of events in the novel really happened, but like the characters they are often composites of multiple events I experienced, witnessed or heard about.  Like Angela, the fictional female diplomat in Farishta, it took me several months to be accepted by the British soldiers at the patrol base in Mazar-e-Sharif, where I was assigned.  It was a very difficult time for me, and at one point soon after I arrived, I even considered requesting a transfer. Two of my secondary characters, the brave, young star-crossed Afghan lovers Rahim and Nilofar, were based on a number of young Afghans I met who were accomplishing amazing things under very challenging circumstances. I really did meet French archeologists and I visited the dig where they were excavating a Hellenistic town that had been built by descendants of the invading armies of Alexander the Great.  I created the fictional character of the French archeologist Jean Francois Mongibeaux, and used his character to include the amazing ancient history of Afghanistan in my story.  His name was borrowed from a former French boyfriend of mine, who kindly gave me permission to use his name in my novel.  He is also a writer, and had used my name in a French novel he wrote many years ago.

Like Angela, I was the only female in Mazar-e-Sharif who drove a vehicle, which caused quite a stir when Afghan male drivers would realize that there was a woman behind the wheel of that huge Toyota Land Cruiser. That was fun.

I really did visit a women’s prison where every single one of the women had been found guilty and was being incarcerated for committing a ‘marriage crime’.  What is that, you may ask?  Running away from an abusive husband, refusing to marry the man your family has chosen for you, having an affair, and on and on.  Hard to imagine, right?

I also rode a horse during a buzkashi game, which involves hundreds of horsemen on stallions galloping around a huge field trying to grab the carcass of a dead calf from another rider and carry it across the finish line.  It’s not a sport that Afghan women participate in or even watch—so that was a pretty unique ride for me. I hadn’t been on a horse for more than fifteen years since I had completely stopped riding after I took two bad falls going over jumps at a riding stable in Paris.

patricia mcardle 3

“Buying a burkah with the help of my wonderful interpreter Farhad. He is now the director of the Lincoln Center in Mazar-e-Sharif. It is a very popular library, media center and meeting place open to young Afghan men and women.”

SF: What are some of the parallels you shared with the main character?

PA: Angela Morgan is a totally fictional character, but there is a lot of my personality in her. I drew on my own experiences as a diplomat and those of other female diplomats and journalists I knew who were working in Afghanistan to create her story.

The PTSD that weighs heavily on Angela came from several sources. When I returned from Afghanistan, I was actually afraid for several months to take my dog for a walk after dark in my very safe, well-lit Arlington, Virginia, neighborhood. When I finally admitted to myself that I did have a ‘little’ problem, I began to wonder what it must be like for soldiers and civilians who had endured real violence and suffered actual casualties.  I have lost several Foreign Service friends to terrorist bombs including the embassy bombing in Beirut in 1983, and I have just missed a few bombings myself.  I wanted to explore the impact of this type of wartime trauma in my novel. While Angela is a fictional character, the arc of the story and the major events do follow the twelve months I spent in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005.

The other major characteristic that Angela and I share is our passion for spreading the use of solar cooking.  Although I did not return to Afghanistan as she does in the novel, I have been deeply involved in teaching, demonstrating and writing about this technology for the past seven years.

SF: What was the process like leading up to winning the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award?

PA: Since I’d never attempted to write a novel before, it took me quite a few months and a lot of fits and starts to create characters and detailed outlines for the plots and subplots.  I relied a lot on what I learned in five “how write a novel” books that I bought at Borders, but I ultimately had to develop my own method.  Once I had developed back stories for the characters and a basic plot line, the writing began to flow.


Patricia after receiving her award from Amazon with daughter Sabrina

I finished writing my novel in the summer of 2009. That fall I was scheduled to travel to a refugee camp in Chad to evaluate a large solar cooker project.  I wrote to a friend in California to tell her that my manuscript was complete and she suggested I enter it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest–which I had never heard of.    The contest is open for manuscript submissions every January.   They accept the first 5,000 entries.  Over the next four months, expert judges from Publishers Weekly, Amazon and Penguin Books winnow down the entries to three finalists and then to the winner, which in 2010 was me!

A few months before I entered Farishta in the contest, I took a short course at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland on editing the first draft of your novel. It was very helpful.  Next to giving birth and raising children, however, writing this novel is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

My entire manuscript had to be reviewed by the Department of State and several other U.S. government agencies to make sure that I didn’t inadvertently reveal any classified information.  I’m happy to report that not one word was changed or deleted during that process.

SF: There are a lot of interesting themes in your book, covering everything from women’s issues, to international affairs. What is the overall message you are trying to send with this novel?

PA: The most important overall message in this novel is about the futility of war: that war is not a good way to solve problems; that if we focused more on sustainable living and using renewable energy instead of using fossil fuels to power our economy, we wouldn’t have to invent reasons to fight wars in parts of the world where oil is still strategically important; and finally that women and children are usually the people most negatively impacted by war—even though we don’t hear much about them.

SF: If there was one thing you could change about the book, what would it be?

PA: A lot of readers who really liked my novel were nevertheless upset by the ending, which with a few small twists in the plot could have been quite different.  I’m working on the screenplay adaptation right now, so I may have the chance to make that change. We’ll see.  I hope I can sell the screenplay to a production company or to one of the big studios. Angela Morgan would provide a significant and meaningful role for one of America’s many terrific actresses in their forties.  My first choice would be Sandra Bullock. I just have to figure out how to get a copy of my screenplay to her.

SF: What part of the book are you most proud of?

PA: I’m proud of the whole book, including several really good scenes and even whole chapters that had to be deleted from the published version by my editor at Riverhead Books (this was to keep the novel from becoming a five hundred page doorstop of a book).  I think I’m proudest of the scenes that show Angela discovering and demonstrating solar cookers—something that really happened to me while I was in Afghanistan.  These scenes have inspired many readers who had never heard about this technology to learn about it and to teach others that there is an inexpensive way to cook food and boil water using only the light of the sun.

SF: In one scene, you describe a traumatic interaction with American soldiers bursting into an Afghan compound to confiscate marijuana.  Is that scene based on an actual experience you had while serving in that region?  Can you tell us what happened?

PA: That scene was, like many others in my novel, a fictionalized version of a real event.  Although the five provinces we patrolled in northern Afghanistan were officially the responsibility of the British Army, there were American soldiers at a nearby base who were training Afghan troops.  There were also had occasional unannounced raids on poppy fields led by DEA-trained Afghan troops.  Finally there were separate U.S. Special Forces-led patrols to train their Afghan Special Forces counterparts.

The Brits were in the region as peacekeepers to help restore and maintain the rule of law.  They worked very hard with local leaders to gain the trust of the Afghan farmers and their families.  For the first ten months I was there, we patrolled with unarmored vehicles and did not wear helmets or body armor or show any weapons, in order to appear less threatening.  The locals welcomed us almost everywhere we went.

The event that inspired that scene in my book took place when one of our British military patrols encountered a very angry Afghan family, whose home had been raided by U.S.-led Afghan troops, when they spotted marijuana plants drying on the roof of the family compound.  Because Afghans can’t easily distinguish between U.S. and European troops, the family that was raided – and their fellow villagers – were furious with the Brits, who had not been involved in any way with the raid. It took a long time to rebuild that trust. Marijuana/hemp grows in wild profusion in the Hindu Kush of northern Afghanistan, where it has been cultivated and used for medicine, recreation and weaving for more than 2,500 years.  Marijuana was legal in Afghanistan until 1973, the same year the DEA was founded.

SF: You have had a lot of experience breaking barriers for women.  Which was the most profound?

PA: My generation (the Baby Boomers) came of age in the sixties, an exciting but still very male-dominated era despite the Cultural Revolution that was exploding all around us.

When I joined the Navy, all the military academies and even college ROTC programs were still closed to women.  My officer candidate training class was one of the first to admit females but many of our instructors were uncomfortable having us in their classrooms. Like the women entering many professional fields during the seventies, we had to prove ourselves again and again to our skeptical male superiors and to our peers.

When I took the Foreign Service exam (the first step in gaining admission to the Department of State’s diplomatic corps) in 1972, the courts had just overturned a law that required female diplomats to resign when they got married.  Hard to imagine now!


On patrol with the Swedes.

I think my most profound experience in breaking barriers for women took place in Morocco, where I served at a remote Navy communications base for three years.  I was assigned there with another young ensign.  She and I were the first two female military officers to serve at that base with twenty male officers and a thousand sailors.  The other female officer resigned and went home after a few months.  For the first year I was there, the American sailors on the base and the ten Moroccan men who worked directly for me, challenged my authority every chance they got.   I eventually earned their respect (just as I had to do with the British soldiers and the Afghan interpreters in Mazar-e-Sharif more than thirty years later).   By the end of my third year in Morocco, I was appointed as the officer in charge of the base.  Even more important to me was learning that the Moroccan men had given me the nickname of “Oum Kalthoum” which was the name of the most famous and revered female singer in the Arabic world.  Quite an honor!

SF: What advice would you give to other women working in a similar capacity?

PA: Although many more professional doors are open for young women today than when I was in my twenties, the reality is that men still dominate the upper echelons of the workforce.

Here’s my advice:

  • Pursue a profession that interests you and that will help to make the world a better place.  You’re going to spend most of your adult life working so you might as well enjoy yourself and feel good about what you’re doing.
  • Keep exploring new skills and never stop learning. Technology is advancing so fast that today’s hot profession may be obsolete a decade later.  A liberal arts degree is still worth getting before you start to specialize.
  • Never accept mistreatment or sexual harassment from male bosses or colleagues. In fact don’t accept rude, belligerent or violent behavior from anyone–ever.  Treat others with respect and demand to be treated with that same respect at all times.  If you are being harassed or threatened, get help.
  • Don’t start having kids until you can afford to take care of them—financially, logistically and emotionally.  Whether you have them alone or with a partner, you must be prepared to devote a huge amount of time, emotion and money over more than twenty years to getting them raised and launched into the world.  It’s a wonderful experience but it’s not easy.
  • It’s great to see so many women pursuing higher education and moving into positions of leadership.  My hope for our world is that as more women become presidents and prime ministers, the female tendency to resolve conflict by negotiating rather than by fighting (i.e. the current practice of many male world leaders to send teenagers in uniform off to kill and maim each other on distant battlefields in order to determine who will win the latest geopolitical disagreement) will result in a more peaceful world.

SF: Do you have any future plans for the book?

patricia mcardlePA: My future plan for this book is that I’m adapting it into a screenplay. I’m currently on the fourth revision, which I will soon be sending to agents and production companies.  Also, since I’ve been keeping a journal and traveling the world for the past forty-five years, I have a lot of great material to draw from, and I’m starting to make an outline for my next novel.  In November, I’ve been invited to present my novel at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates.  I’m really looking forward to that.