Confessions of a Knight Errant is a comedic, picaresque novel in the tradition of Don Quixote with a flamboyant cast of characters. Dr. Gary Watson is the picaro, a radical environmentalist and wannabe novelist who has been accused of masterminding a computer hack that wiped out the files of a major publishing company. His Sancho Panza is Kharalombos, a fat, gluttonous Greek dancing teacher, who is wanted by the secret police for cavorting with the daughter of the Big Man of Egypt. Self-preservation necessitates a hurried journey to the refuge of a girls’ camp in rural Texas. Then a body turns up nearby that is connected to Middle East antiquities, and they are on the run once more.
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.
Stephen: So today on Discovered Word Smith I have Gretchen McCullough and you may notice if you’re on YouTube watching the episode that there’s no video because Gretchen is not.
Anywhere in this hemisphere of where I’m at or at least I should say this continent. So we had a bit of a spotty connection and we turned off video to make sure we could hear everything. So Gretchen, welcome. How are you doing today? I’m
Gretchen: doing great. Thanks for having me on your show.
Stephen: Yeah. And I’m excited.
So let’s jump right into that before we start talking about your book. Tell us a little bit about you. And where you are at the moment.
Gretchen: I’m sitting in my bedroom and it’s dark outside. It’s quite noisy. I live in a really busy part of Cairo. And yeah. That’s where I am. It’s across the Nile from Tahrir Square where a lot of Americans probably are familiar with Tahrir Square because of the uprising.
It’s not that far from the square. It’s a huge island called Zamalek. And you can walk everywhere in this area. You don’t really need a car. It’s a neat burrow. There are lots of coffee shops. Yeah.
Stephen: Nice. What, why what brought you to Cairo?
Gretchen: It’s a long odyssey. I taught in Egypt in the 1980s and then I taught in Turkey and then I taught in Japan. And then I went and got an MFA from the university of Alabama. And I had a Fulbright in Syria in 1997 to 99. And. I went back to Tuscaloosa, Alabama for a year and a friend of mine said, there’s a job in Cairo.
You’re perfect. Why don’t you apply? And I did. And I got the job at the American university in Cairo in 2000. And I’ve been here ever since.
Stephen: Gretchen, where are you originally from?
Gretchen: I’m originally from Harlingen, Texas. It’s called the Rio Grande Valley. It’s near the Mexican border, near Brownsville. It’s the very tip of Texas. That’s where I grew up. I’m from a very small town.
Stephen: Big change.
Gretchen: Yes. I wanted to get out of that town in 1980 and I didn’t realize how far I would go.
So I’m very far from home where I grew up.
Stephen: Okay. So tell us about some of the other things you like to do besides writing.
Gretchen: I’m a tennis player. I like to swim. I play pool. I love to read. So those are some of the things that I do in my spare time. Teaching right now on that, that, that takes up a
Stephen: lot of time.
Talk about your book confessions of a night. Oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead.
Gretchen: No, I didn’t say anything.
Stephen: Okay. Maybe it’s a lag stuttering. We’re going to talk about your book Confessions of a Night Errant. So tell us a little bit about this book and why you wanted to write it.
Gretchen: The book is, was based on the last, uh, story of my short story collection, which is published here, was about was inspired by the 2011 uprising, and I started looking at the novella, and I thought, Oh, what happens if those two characters go to Texas?
So that’s how, that’s how the idea for the novel started. But the novella, which was published as a, originally published in a short story collection, was inspired by the 2011 uprising and there were lots of crazy things that happened during that time. We, I was here. I didn’t leave.
Stephen: Wow. So tell us a little bit about the story. What’s it about without giving everything away?
Gretchen: It’s about two guys. One, one is an American professor who’s an environmental activist who’s been accused of being a cyber terrorist. And he’s been accused of hacking into the, one of the largest publishing companies.
And New York, but he’s not he’s really maladroit. And he has a friend who’s a Greek Egyptian, who’s a ballroom dancing teacher. And the two of them are on the run. Gary’s on the run for the American government and Carol Lumbos is in the run from the Egyptian government.
And, but they come back to Cairo. Gary’s trying to find his novel, which he lost, because he only had one copy of it. And Carolumbus is trying to find his long lost son. And it goes, their adventures go from there. And
Stephen: this isn’t the first thing you’ve published, correct?
Gretchen: No it’s the third book.
I published two books with a small press in Cairo. One was called Three Stories from Cairo and it’s a bilingual book of short stories. It I published on one side is three stories in English and my husband translated them into Arabic. So you flip it and the other side is in Arabic. And then the second collection is called Charizard’s Tooth, and it’s stories about expatriates, basically.
Stephen: And we’re going to talk a bit about that because your stories are influenced by your living coming from Texas, moving to Cairo and you’ve got That influence in there. We’re gonna talk about that in a bit coming up. So is this book part of a series that you’ve
Gretchen: got? No, I don’t think so.
I’m I just finished a draft of another book. It, it does, it has really nothing to do with, um, with these guys. These guys were in the novella was in the short story collection, and then I developed it into, a big novel, but. It’s not part of a series, no.
Stephen: Okay, so what are your plans for your next story?
Gretchen: I have a draft. I worked on I’ve worked on a draft. The university gave me a leave. And the new book is set in West Texas in the 1930s and it’s based on the idea of the CCC camps under the New Deal. They were building parks and they were and they, there’s a huge, there’s a huge swimming pool in West Texas that is completely fed by natural springs.
It’s probably the size of a football field. It’s huge. It’s called Balmorae. Anyway my, my novel is about the guys who were work, working at this camp. There’s one woman, there’s a nurse. So it’s a completely different kind of it’s not completely different because the confession sets, set in a girl’s camp and, a girl’s summer camp, but this is totally different.
This is Men and it all men together So it surprises me that I would write a man book, but I think I have
Stephen: Okay And I like that my grandfather worked in the tri seas camps.
Gretchen: Oh, really? Oh, okay Yeah, I mean I thought
Stephen: in fact Please go ahead. No. No, go ahead. I was gonna say in fact after he died and we dived into some articles and some papers of his, we found out that he during the Korean war, he was assigned to the tri seas camps and he never left the States.
My grandmother thought he was over in Korea fighting at the war, but he was here in the States the whole time and she never knew that their whole life.
Gretchen: He never mentioned anything about his experiences.
Stephen: He talked about his experiences, but he made it seem like it was just part of it. And he was over in Korea.
So I don’t know where the miscommunication or confusion came from, but it was like, everybody’s what he wasn’t in Korea during the war. That’s what he went, it was. I don’t know. It was all before my time. So
Gretchen: that’s funny. One of the characters in my book is a there were many guys who were World War One veterans who were running these camps and he was he the captain of the CEO of the campus is a veteran from France.
So I had to also do a lot of research about World War One besides doing a lot of research about the 1930s.
Stephen: Oh, okay. Nice. So we’re going to talk about some of the. Influence with living in Cairo. But before we do what, tell me, tell everybody what some of the feedback you’ve been getting for your stories so far.
Gretchen: Some, it’s a fun book. It’s there’s some serious elements in it, but it’s a. Rambunctious kind of entertaining tale and lots of crazy things happen. Some people really love it. It’s pretty fast paced. It moves very fast. Other people feel it’s too wild and it’s too far fetched.
But I’d say that’s the world I live in. Yeah. That’s been the feedback.
Okay. There’s a lot of humor in the book.
Stephen: Okay, good. If you had a choice Would you to see these turned into a movie or a TV show?
Gretchen: Oh, I wish, but it, I don’t see that, I don’t think it would be very viable Since part of it takes place in Egypt, I think there would be a lot of challenges for film right now.
So I don’t know how that would happen, but anyway, it’s every writer’s dreams.
Stephen: Let me ask this since you’re living in Cairo, but the stories are a lot taking place in the States. How are you releasing these? Are they, why do you have an audience in Cairo? What, how to. What’s that like for you with living in, in Egypt, but having books based on something in the United States.
Gretchen: I Wouldn’t say, I do have some sort of, I probably had more of an audience when I was publishing in Cairo when I was publishing the books and the small press locally, because we had lots of signings and got a lot of publicity for it. But right now, the situation in Cairo is, the economic situation is not really very good. So it’s hard for people to buy books. My book, I got the university to order my book, but it’s really unaffordable. Yeah, so I don’t know about, and really I wrote the book for an American audience. I had that in mind and the publisher, the publisher is a boutique press out of Seattle that’s publishing, writers who were writing about the Middle East.
Stephen: Okay, perfect. So you found a nice fit with a publisher.
Gretchen: Oh yeah. He’s he was a great fit. Unfortunately he passed away, but his widow is still kept the press open. It’s called Kuhn Press.
Stephen: And. Do you have a website that people could go to, to find out more about your stories?
Gretchen: Yes. It’s Gretchen McCullough fiction, writer. com.
Stephen: Okay. We’ll put a link to that in the show notes for
Gretchen: everybody. Yeah. There’s another Gretchen McCullough, believe it or not in the world. She’s an internet linguist. That’s not me.
Stephen: Oh, okay. So do you have you said books are hard to get. So are there any good bookstores?
Gretchen: Some, quite a few of them have closed. thEre is one not too far away. It’s called Dewan and it used to be owned by two sisters who loved books, but things became just really difficult in terms of, books have to go through customs and there are taxes. And I think they, they got tired.
And they sold it to someone else and it has not it’s become a bit more commercial bookstore. It used to be a real independent, a real independent bookstore. It’s become more
Stephen: commercial. Okay. So Gretchen, do you have any favorite books or authors that you like to read?
Gretchen: Oh, I have lots of favorite writers.
One of my all time favorites is Mark Twain. I love Mark Twain.
Stephen: What’s your favorite Mark Twain story?
Gretchen: I love Huckleberry Finn. I love, I just reread Innocence Abroad. That’s hilarious.
There are so many writers, so many good writers. I love, I really started to appreciate Gabriel Garcia Marquez and also the Portuguese writer, Sara Mago, because they write with, about the fantastical and the bizarre and that sort of seemed to be Resonate with me. As I said, living in, in a world where things are so unpredictable,
Stephen: right? Okay. So if you either in Cairo or if you came back, visited the States and you’re around hometown, somebody came up to you and said, Hey, I heard you wrote a book. Why should I get your book? What would you tell him?
Gretchen: It’s fun. It’s entertaining. It’ll make you laugh.
Stephen: That’s all great.
All right. So we talked about this a little bit, mentioned it. So how often do you come back to the States for visits?
Gretchen: I come back about twice a year in the summer and at Christmas. Okay. To see my parents and to see my, my, my sister and brother and family.
Stephen: Nice. Okay. So you’re, you still have, you still touch base in the States.
You still, come back a bit, but you’ve mostly lived in Cairo for most of your life now. And your stories. Have a lot to do with the U S being based in here. How do you write a story living in one country, but writing about a different country?
Gretchen: Do you mean like, how do I write about the U S living here or the other way around?
How do I, yeah, how
Stephen: does, how does living in Cairo affect your writing when you’re writing about the U S
Gretchen: oh, that’s a great question. I think I probably have more distance on the culture because things are so different here. I can sometimes see things that uh, that I think I don’t know that I don’t agree with or everything’s becoming so technological that people don’t spend much time talking to each other.
Yeah. And I think that still even in Egypt, people spend a lot of time, face to face interaction is really important.
Stephen: Also you said your husband, please finish.
Gretchen: No, I was just going to say people, priorities are different. People are not as work centered and define themselves as much by the work that they do in Egypt. Family is extremely important and people spend a lot of time with their families.
Stephen: Okay. And so you said your husband translated, uh, your one book into Arabic. When you look at like the reader feedback in the sales, considering it’s a book set in the US, how does all that compare? With Cairo readers compared to U. S. readers.
Gretchen: Oh, I don’t know. Cause I don’t, we do, we did that. The reason we did that was because Mohammed felt that my stories would resonate with that because they were about the neighborhood. He felt they would resonate with, Arabic speakers. So that was one of the reasons he translated the story.
But it hasn’t gone the other way around. Confessions of a Night Errant hasn’t been translated from English to Arabic. It’s a huge project to translate a novel. But we have translated. I bet. Yeah, it’s just huge. We have translated his work and from Arabic into English. He’s a very good poet and he wrote a book about Izmir Turkey.
It’s called a song on the Aegean sea. And we translated that.
Stephen: Okay. So have you thought about writing stories based more in Cairo or even between Cairo and the U S?
Gretchen: I have most of my books have been set in Cairo, but the last one that I want to describe to you in West Texas is completely American and I have a Syrian character in West Texas in the thirties, but I don’t have any Kyrene connection in that book.
Stephen: Okay. Okay. So you’ve gotten a little bit of both.
I imagine. It have you, with the book you wrote for Texas, did you come back to visit and say, Oh, you know what? I put this in my book and that’s wrong. It’s not like that in the States. Did you find anything like that you had to
Gretchen: change? That’s an interesting question because I went initially about five years ago to Sol Ross University in Alpine, which is a really remote town in West Texas.
And I went to the archive and that’s how I initially got the idea to write about the, this huge swimming pool. And then I came back anyway, I wrote I’ve written a draft of it and I thought, I never saw the swimming pool. So this past summer I went with kind of some trepidation, oh, gosh, what if I got it all wrong, but it was a surprise to me because I just added a few things and, but it was good to see the pool and to swim in it.
It was an interesting experience. It’s a gigantic pool in the middle of, a very arid landscape. And it’s, and they’re fishing it and they’re turtles and it’s an incredible natural spring swimming pool, but no, I’m surprised like you, I’m surprised. I thought I, I would have gotten it all wrong, but I, it’s mostly from my imagination, but of course I did lots of research.
Oh, you faded out.
Gretchen: I can hear you. Can you hear me?
Stephen: Okay. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. You fade it out there. So Gretchen, since you’ve written several things and since you’re publishing very wide you’ve got books published based in Cairo and U S. So I’m assuming they’re available like on Amazon and those places. What are some things that you’ve learned about writing and publishing yeah.
Things that you’re doing different now or things that you would advise other people to do?
Gretchen: Yeah, I wrote a first novel in my thirties and uh, it was never published and I really took it to heart and. I think it was a mistake to take it too much to heart that it wasn’t published. There might be different reasons why people get rejected. And sometimes you need to work on your writing more.
Sometimes you haven’t found the right reader or editor for your work. And sometimes your writing might not be the latest trend or trendy enough for whatever big houses are looking for, but it might be very good. So I think that’s something that I’ve learned is that. Sometimes if you get rejected, it’s it doesn’t mean you’re not a good writer,
Stephen: right? Good. Okay. All right so Gretchen, I apologize a little bit of the delay in the Back and forth, but I think your books great. And I think it’s wonderful that you’re writing these books based in Egypt and the US I think more people need to expand globally and let’s embrace that a little bit more.
Gretchen: Yeah. The book is really about being between cultures. So I think if anyone’s interested in, and the humor also about how sometimes people don’t connect, um, even Americans who, returned to the U S after living outside might enjoy it. There’s a lot about, my, my Egyptian character.
There are things that he can accept and he doesn’t like, and there are lots of funny things that happen in the book. So I think it’s about being in between,
Stephen: nice. Okay. Great. Gretchen I’ve enjoyed talking to you today. It’s nice nice to hear that the car horns sound the same in Cairo because I heard some of the traffic in the background because I’ve never been out.
I’ve only been up. Yeah. I’ve only been up to Canada. So sometimes, especially for. People in the States, it gets hard to imagine other countries and what they’re really like. So I think it’s fascinating that you moved from Texas over to Cairo and you’ve basically been there for so long. So I think that was very fascinating for me very much though.
Gretchen: Thank you for having me on your show.
Stephen: Yes. All right.