What a privilege it was to have author and missionary, Jeanette Windle, answer our questions about her brilliant novel, Veiled Freedom at our meeting on 5th February, 2010. We submitted questions to Jeanette which she graciously answered and we read out after our discussion. Set in Afghanistan and seen through the eyes of a young American aid worker, a jaded former US soldier turned security specialist and an Afghani, recently returned from exile in Pakistan, Veiled Freedom is the perfect selection for a Book Club. I hope you enjoy our Q&A with Jeanette
RBC:~What was your first impression of Afghanistan? How did your opinion change as you spent your time there researching for ‘Veiled Freedom’?
Jeanette:~The most shocking was how little has changed, despite eight years of American and NATO occupation and trillions of dollars poured into the country. People are still starving, streets thick with beggars, mud-brick hovels the norm, while less than six percent of the country has electricity. After the initial hopes for freedom the 2001 liberation had raised, most women are back in burqas, in fear of their own men-folk, not the Taliban. Hundreds of girls schools built by foreign aid are once again shut. Islamic sharia law trumps any pretence at freedom and human rights. People express far more concern over the corruption and brutality of the local police and government officials than Taliban. In Kabul, an estimated 1/3 of all salaries are siphoned off by the bribes authorities demand for every service–or just to be left alone. Figures recently released reveal incredibly that Afghans were forced to spend on bribes this year for ordinary government and even medical services an equivalent to the entire opium industry–more than two billion dollars, or almost a quarter of their average salaries. These are of course the same government officials and agencies siphoning off Western aid money into their own pockets.
In stark contrast are entire neighborhoods of turreted, gabled and towered mansions, many owned by government ministers, representing hundreds of millions in squandered aid money and opium. Add to that the high-priced malls, shops, restaurants catering to Afghanistan’s new aristocracy and the expatriate community, where a cappuccino costs more than the average Afghani makes in a week. It is easy to understand why so many lash out in anger and violence. Ironically, even at the height of Taliban fighting, 90% of the country was open to aid work (I met many expatriate families, even with small children, who were there throughout the Taliban era). Today with all the foreign troop presence, that figure is reversed with 90% of Afghanistan closed off to aid work because of security concerns.
What prompted this story? It is quite different to your other books which focus on South America.
Part of it was God opening doors to travel on three new continents when my husband and I went from ministry across Latin America to around the world in 60+ countries on five continents. As I began researching different possibilities, this was the story God laid on my heart. The core message of what is true freedom is seen through the lens of Afghanistan, but is true for far more than one small country.
The countries you travel to are quite different to America. What was it like for you to return to America after working as a missionary, and after a research trip for your writing?
I guess I’m used to it, so I really don’t think much about moving back and forth constantly between countries. Except that coming back to Lancaster, PA, where we’ve paid taxes now for five years (I refuse to call it my home, because it isn’t!) is always a sharp reminder that I have no true home anymore on this planet and am indeed an ‘alien and a stranger’ (Hebrews 11:13) just passing through. But the flip side is that I have been privileged to know brothers and sisters in the family of God all around the world, and I am so looking forward to being together with them when I arrive home Heaven-side.
I’d love to hear more about your experience of being questioned/interviewed by authorities because of you intimate knowledge of the subjects you write about.
That too is best left without too much detail. However there was the time, soon after writing my first major suspense novel CrossFire, when I found myself in the DEA compound of a certain Latin American city being grilled by a furious Special-Agent-in-Charge. He was very competently using six-foot, four-inches of Special Forces-trained body language to intimidate one petite female civilian--me! Among his list of infractions was a description I’d made in CrossFire of an interrogation room within the DEA compound. I had at one time been privileged to take the same tour of that compound as any visiting congressional junket. But certain areas were off-limits, and that was one of them. The SAC was determined to find out which of his agents had let ‘that author woman’ into a ‘classified’ zone.
The guy was good. I can honestly say that if I were trying to lie, I couldn’t have kept it straight five minutes. But since I was telling the truth on all accounts, I rather enjoyed myself as only a writer can, taking plenty of mental notes of what it felt like to be grilled by the ‘best of the best’. And I got my revenge (as any good writer should do with obnoxious people in their lives) by writing him into my next book, The DMZ. Yep, that large and furious U. S. task force commander berating a certain female reporter protagonist in the Colombian jungle. I hardly had to change the dialogue.
Then there was the SouthCom intelligence officer who was sure I was way off base on the anti-American rhetoric of the Colombian guerrilla commander until I pointed him to said commander’s personal website (which then promptly disappeared off the internet). The Special Ops officer who was furious when I asked about his recent mission to the Colombian guerrilla zone (so if it’s supposed to be classified, keep your group picture landing on the town airstrip out of the local newspaper in the guerrilla capital where I spent my teen years!). And the FBI agent who pulled a badge to question me after I detailed Hezbollah activity in South America’s Triple Frontier during a writing seminar (who could have thought that mild-looking wannabe writer was part of the counterterrorism task force sent down to the Triple Frontier after 9/11?).
Did you base the characters of Steve, Jamil and Amy on anyone in
They are actually very much an amalgamation of many I’ve known from similar backgrounds–Special Forces, private security contractors, humanitarian aid, guerrillas and Islamic fundamentalists.
What exactly does a ‘missions journalist do/write about?
A missions journalist does the same as any journalist, except that the stories they cover deal with missions and their ministry around the world. I have written stories from Bolivia, Colombia, Trinidad, Venezuela, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Indonesia, Europe and countless others I’ve traveled as well as researched and interviewed long-distance.
How did you choose the characters names?
With difficulty. I’m not a good name-chooser and often resort to a phone book to find names. For Afghanistan, of course, I simply googled Afghan names.
Did you find it difficult to conclude the story and how it should
end? What was your process? What was your process in how to begin the story? Is the opening line difficult to decide upon?
That could be an entire book in itself. There are best-selling authors who write as though constructing a building with every scene, character, conversation, plot twist set out on three-by-fives before writing the book. Others write as though cultivating a tree, letting the story gradually grow. I tend toward the latter. By the time I’ve researched my next setting (Afghanistan, in this case), I have a solid idea of the first part of the story, what political and spiritual theme I want to weave through, and I know the ending (an essential because if you don’t know the ending, you end up painting yourself into a corner or wasting months of dead-end writing you have to cut). But the middle is rather broad, opening up in detail as I get to that part of the story.
In rough draft, I will take a week or two brainstorming all kinds of speeches, personal feelings and spiritual thoughts, descriptions of places I’ve been or researched, thoughts, interviews with DEA, Special Forces, etc. that give me authenticity to those characters, ideas I plan to work into the book, even if I don’t know the order they will come into the story. Then as I actually write the story, I can go back and pull those nuggets from my files. I also keep a notebook through each book so that if I think of anything, even if it is for a future part of the book, a conversation, thought, etc., I jot it down so I have it when I get to that part of the story.
As you can see, I do tend to grow a book like a tree. By the time I’m done, I have a great story with terribly messy prose. But I’m an excellent editor, so I start back at the beginning, rewriting, rearranging, filling in plot holes, etc. Then comes one last polish for actual prose and grammar. At this point, I am always surprised and excited at how well it has all come together.
As to opening and closing, sometimes I have the first sentence or last or both when I start, usually because they popped into my mind in the middle of the night. Other times I have no idea till I have rewritten the book. Of course with Veiled Freedom, the truth is that I didn’t manage to conclude the story in the 140,000 words I was allotted, which is why there is a sequel on the way!
Did you come across many Jamil’s in your visit to Afghanistan or is his
character based on what could be if men like Jamil came to know Christ
themselves and then carry God’s freedom to others, in their own country?
I did not in Afghanistan, for the simple reason that any believers or ‘inquirers’ there are so underground that visiting foreign believers don’t really have that opportunity. Nor did I ask as it would have put them in danger. But I’ve met many Jamils in my life, including growing up in the guerrilla zones of Colombia where teen conversations dealt with liberation theology and the rights and wrongs of armed conflict against oppressive regimes were more often topics of conversation than clothing styles or rock bands. I had friends with much the same passion for justice and reasons for retribution as Jamil become in turn guerrilla fighters, pastors if they came to faith in Christ, or throw in the towel and go for the money-making capitalist route. The thought patterns were surprisingly similar when I came in contact with hard-core Islamic thinking. And of course I have Muslim-background believing friends from such areas who have been able to give me insights.
Anger, frustration, humiliation. Even the feelings of modesty and shield prompt anger that men should treat women in such a way that they can feel safe only when made invisible by a burqa. That is, of course, my reaction as a woman who has known freedom. If I’d spent my life in those circumstances, I’d either be cowed into acceptance–or be one of those women who end up dead or in prison for rebelling.
The book is dated 2009 – what is the time lapse between finishing the writing and the book being available in bookstores?
Unfortunately (at least from an author’s position), it’s usually about a full year from turning in the final draft.
What other interesting topics do you have in the pipeline?
The sequel to Veiled Freedom is currently in Tyndale hands, and I am finishing the third of what will be a trilogy. After that I have a very different project in mind that is more sci-fi/fantasy than political/suspense, but I have no doubt my readers will enjoy it just as much. And I have plots brewing in the Ukraine and India among other countries.
The chapter describing Amy’s arrival in Afghanistan and subsequent meeting with the aide agency makes it sound as though they were very ill equipped and unaware of the challenges that they were to face. Have you in your travels and research found this to be a real problem or is this idea just for this story line?
There are all extremes. In my character’s case, I made it a sudden and unexpected move for her because I wanted to introduce the country to the reader as I did so to Amy. But even those who brush up well before going don’t usually grasp the challenges until they’ve actually been there. Keeping short-termers alive until we could send them home was always our biggest challenge when we were dealing with them overseas. One of the biggest difficulties was that peculiar American conviction (though the British and Aussies who came weren’t so much better) that since they were there to love the locals, those locals would naturally love them back, an attitude that made it difficult to convince them why they should take security guidelines seriously. In actuality, a pretty blonde foreign girl walking alone down a dirt street and stopping to talk to the locals with a big smile and friendly attitude is too often in the category of a nice, plump tuna wandering into a shark tank. Nothing personal, but we’re hungry, and you’re food! I could tell you dozens of true stories that I didn’t use because I didn’t want my character to come across like a complete idiot.
Are any of the characters in the book based on actual people you have met in Afghanistan?
They are actually based on characters I have met in similar backgrounds and occupations around the world.
How long did it take to research the book?
Researching and writing took about a year in between other ministry and writing.
Do you have a key message you would like Christians to take away from this book?
A message I’ve shared before in interviews on Veiled Freedom–the recognition that true freedom will only come to Afghanistan, or anywhere else in our world, through the love of Isa Masih [Jesus Christ] changing individual hearts. Change enough hearts, and you will see change in a nation. Without changed hearts, all the guns and aid are futile.
The character that left me with the most hope was Jamil – with his new understanding, perspective and choice of ‘vocation‘, would he be a walking target in Afghanistan today or would the Afghan leaders and officials ignore him as he ministers to the poor?
He would definitely be a walking target since there is no freedom of speech or religion in Afghanistan’s ‘new democracy’. Which of course comes into play in the sequel.
What are your thoughts on NGO work and what would you envisage as the most constructive way to assist this community and to show the love of Jesus?
Give and go. Your donations will be used far more wisely by the long-term on-the-ground Christian aid organizations than any government or UN program; so will your volunteer service.
How do you go about researching your books? Do you enjoy that part of
the writing process?
I love researching, just because I love learning about new places and things. Before I tackle a book set in a new country or political environment, I saturate myself in that place. Histories, biographies, political commentary, regional literature, travelogues, video documentary–I will have easily read 20,000 pages material before I ever pick up a pen or computer keyboard. For every place I write about, I also keep a Google Alert set for daily news digests. I follow blogs and travelogues of ‘boots on the ground’ whose lives and professions mirror the characters I am writing about. And of course on-site travel and extensive interviews.
Why does this message burn so strongly in my heart and soul? Because in our ministry we deal with countless thousands in so many countries, especially the children, who live in such oppression and misery and whose only hope of freedom and future are in Isa Masih, Jesus Christ. I can’t minister to all them individually, but I can raise a torch to encourage others to get involved.
Thank you so much, Jeanette, for giving your precious time to our book club members. We had a fantastic discussion of your book and your characters with people equally sympathetic and frustrated by Amy’s naivety and Steve’s bitterness but guess what? Jamil won all of our hearts! We are all hanging out for the sequel!
If you have enjoyed reading this interview, please comment and encourage Jeanette
Relz Reviewz Extras
Character spotlight on Steve & Amy
Read the first chapter of Veiled Freedom
Interview with Jeanette