I’m so honored to be given this chance to interview the author of Gazelle in the Shadows, Michelle Peach!
Before that, a little background on this historical thriller/coming-of-age book:
Gazelle in the Shadows
In the mid 90s, Elizabeth Booth, a young British college student studying Arabic at Durham University, travels to Damascus to immerse herself in the Syrian language. Taken aback by the generosity and kindness of the people there, she easy slips into a life in the ancient city. She has friends, her studies, and even a handsome boyfriend. But things aren’t always as they seem. Soon, in a world where mistrust and disloyalty are commonplace, Elizabeth finds herself navigating a web of lies, betrayals, and a murder involving MI6, deadly terrorist factions, and the shadowy Syrian secret police.
Thank you Michelle, for agreeing to do this interview. Please start by telling us a little about yourself.
I was born in Chester, England but grew up in Plymouth, Devon. I met my husband in 1998, then in the US Navy, while I was working in Dubai and moved to America shortly afterwards. We have been married 20 years and have three wonderful teenage children.
Previously, I had worked for the Foreign Office in London in the News Department and was posted to the British Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen Arab Republic. I served during the unification of YAR and PDRY and during the Iraq/Kuwait war.
In 1995, I graduated from Durham University with a BA (Hons) in Arabic with Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. In the second year abroad, I travelled to Beirut, Lebanon to research and study in the American University where I translated documents for Dr. Andew Rathmell; and I also freelanced for UNHCR.
I am a stay-at-home mom, who loves hiking, gardening, and socializing with family and friends.
What inspired you to write Gazelle in the Shadows?
I had procrastinated about writing the book for many years but the catalyst came when my children started to ask me what I had done before marrying their father and I felt a need to tell my story for them in addition to the urging of many friends.
How did you come up with the title?
I searched for a title that would point to the Arabian setting of the story. I liked the gazelle because not only is it an Arabian animal but it is also a symbol of femininity and love in Arabic literature since pre-Islamic times to the present day. Also, the gazelle aptly represents Elizabeth who is preyed upon by many predators. The second part of the title “in the shadows” relates to the unknown which Elizabeth faces when heading to Syria where her “predators” operate in the clandestine world of betrayal and espionage.
How much research had to be done for the story?
As my memory since living in Syria has faded somewhat, I researched online to verify place names and to check facts on the political history during the reign of Hafez al-Assad. Uncovering facts about Syria from the 1990s proved difficult and time consuming as most of the search engines were full of information about the ongoing civil war. For example, in my quest to be authentic, I wanted to know the real name of the hospital which I visited with “Hussein”. I had a mental picture of it but when I googled images of Syrian hospitals, my computer pulled up many hospitals which were in rubble. The pictures were heart-breaking and only served to renew my determination to tell my story of the people and beauty of their country.
What’s the most unexpected thing that occurred when researching and/writing this story?
I had lost touch with Dr. Andrew Rathmell (Matthew from the book) with whom I traveled with for many months in Syria and Lebanon. While I was writing the book, I reached out to him to verify some stories and to ask him to be a beta reader which he accepted. It was a happy and unexpected bonus to be reconnected.
What do you find most challenging about writing this story?
I had a contentious relationship with my father starting in my teenage years through to when he passed in 1996. Elizabeth’s relationship with her father mirrors mine as my father was a disciplinarian and emotionally unavailable to me. I never fully grieved him but writing my book helped me come to terms with some of the more egregious memories which were too painful to include in my story.
Were the characters based on anyone you know?
Most of the characters were based on people I know from the main characters Elizabeth, Hussein, Matthew, Astrid, Fatima and John to the smaller roles like Asim, Naguib, the old couple, the girls, Abdullah and Ronald LeBrun. Some are historical figures like George Habash, the leader of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Sultan Abu al-Aynayn, the commander of Fatah in Lebanon.
What’s the best part of writing this book?
The best part is a feeling of accomplishment and being able to share my story with readers. I never thought of myself as a writer and even less as an author so writing a book seemed a far-fetched dream to me. I now fully embrace if you can dream it, you can achieve it.
Thank you, Michelle!
Gazelle in the Shadows is now available on Amazon!
Michelle lives in Atlanta, GA. She is a stay-at-home mom, married with three children. Readers can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads. To learn more, go to https://michellepeach.com/
An excerpt from the first chapter:
With my legs bunched up near my chin, I buried my face into my knees and rocked. I smelled the rusty, iron scent of blood on my jeans. Strands of long hair that had been pulled out of my braid after the struggle were sticking to my neck and cheeks, held in place by sweat and blood. I reached up and felt the sore skin around my neck, where my hood had been tied. Welts had formed around my wrists, where the ropes had been. I moaned.
Who are my kidnappers? Could it be Hezbollah? The Syrian Army? Or the South Lebanese Army? God, please let it not be Hezbollah.
My heart beat in my neck at the thought of being held by a terrorist group. I squeezed my knees even tighter and whimpered from a sudden, sharp pain in my ribs.
I remembered the Sunday I broke the news to my parents that I was going to study in Damascus. Mother made me promise that I would not go to Lebanon, even saying that it’s because she feared Hezbollah.
“Elizabeth, I want to hear you promise.” She had insisted when I shrugged my shoulders and grinned.
I thought she was being over-protective, after all Hezbollah had ceased taking hostages three years ago and released their last captive, Terry Anderson, last year.
It can’t be them.
My heart rate reduced to a dull thud. So, perhaps it’s the Syrian Army? Adrien had told me during my last visit to see him at the embassy that the Syrian government knew I was a former British diplomat, and even though the Syrian Army was in Lebanon, he vouched that I would be safer there than in Damascus. I trusted Adrien implicitly, as I had done so with the MI6 officer in my former embassy in Sana’a.
I prayed the Syrians had picked me up, or even the South Lebanese Army. After all, I told myself, they are on the same side. I whispered to myself Adrien’s reassurance that I still had diplomatic immunity, and that this meant I would be released soon and sent to the British Embassy.
I lifted my head up and looked around the room. It was dimly lit, with one bare bulb and a fan in the centre of the ceiling. A grimy, thin mattress lay on the filthy floor, with an empty nightstand beside it. The one window the room had was crudely boarded up. I could see daylight, which seeped in from around the ill-fitting plywood. Gingerly, I stood up gripping my left side as pain seared in my ribcage and took three steps forward. Through a crack in the board, I could make out a gravel road and the bonnet of a black car. My field of vision was disappointingly limited, as I peered in all directions for any clues as to where I was. I pulled at the wood to see if it was loose, but it had been nailed to the window frame and then I discovered one, additional barrier. Like so many homes I had seen in this part of the world, windows on the first floor were barred, perhaps to keep inhabitants in rather than prevent break-ins. My hope of a possible escape route was dashed. I collapsed onto the mattress in a heap and wept.
I thought of my parents. I couldn’t take my mind off the intense longing I had to see them again and put my arms around them. I had felt loneliness before, but this was different. It was an aloneness that you are somewhere in the world where your loved ones don’t know, nor have any hope of finding you or even dream what is happening to you. It was an emptiness of unfathomable depth.
I reached up to the empty nightstand and pulled open its small drawer. I was surprised to find that it was full of rubbish, which I sifted through. A rush of relief washed over me, when I saw a pen and a possible scrap of paper to write on.
Then slowly, I began to write.
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Till then, HAPPY READING!