SMP: Welcome, Lilas! Please tell us a little bit about yourself, such as: your family, where you live, pets, favorite color, favorite film, favorite book, favorite scent.
Lilas: I live in Sugarland, Texas with my true friend and husband. One child is already out of the house in collage, and the other is a senior in high school. So I will be an empty nester next year. Luckily, I have a free schedule that allows me to travel whenever I want, and I hope to spend time with my children in their new environments within reason. Maintaining a distance is healthy, I’ve been told.
I am a cat person, and used to raise three cats, not simultaneously, until my daughter developed allergies and we had to give them away.
My favorite color is the color of the clear sky on a sunny summer day. Blue is such a small word to describe it.
My favorite film would have to be “Quills” directed by Philip Kaufman and adapted from the Obie award-winning play by Doug Wright. The story is inspired by the life and work of the French writer Marquis De Sade.
My favorite book is Wuthering Heights.
My favorite scent is Jasmine.
SMP: Please share your favorite holiday memory.
Lilas: My first Thanksgiving dinner in 1991. Because of the first Gulf war, I had been in the country for just a few months visiting my brother on a visa that was about to expire, not sure what my future looked like at the time. Unable to return home, and cut off from my family on a frozen land with a different language, I tried to find my place, and applied to the graduate studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, hoping to make lemonade from the lemons fait had handed me. Two days before that thanksgiving, and before my visa expired, I received the news that I was accepted in the Masters program, granted a student visa, and offered a research position with a wonderful professor. Because of the war, I had lost my past and security, but I had gained an opportunity for a secure future. My brother and his best friend, whom I married a year later, threw a thanksgiving dinner for their close friends. It was my first time eating turkey, first time knowing the history behind the tradition, and first time truly appreciating the symbolism involved. I was indeed thankful.
SMP: How long have you been writing? Have you always wanted to write?
Lilas: Writing was always a permanent part of my life. But this my first attempt at writing a complete novel, and in English.
SMP: Do you write in a single genre, or more than one? What do you find most compelling about your genre(s)?
Lilas: I like to write stories that have cultural influences, and romantic elements. Not sure if that fits in a particular genre, but I would venture to say that soft romance, new adult, and multicultural fiction is where my stories fall.
SMP: Tell us a little about your writing journey.
Lilas: Two years ago, I was running a non-profit organization that helps domestic abuse victims. Although it was extremely rewarding when a success story materialized, the emotional load became too heavy, especially when a failure to rescue someone forced itself despite all the efforts exerted.
I quit my position when I noticed I was unable to be completely effective. The uprising started in Syria, where my mother’s side of the family is from, and I became overwhelmed with frustration.
To recover, I started writing my book Shadows of Damascus, as a form of therapy and to regain balance. I entered the book in the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, and was surprised to make it to the semi-finalist list from 10,000 entries worldwide. At a writer’s conference in Texas, I pitched my book to an acquirer from Soul Mate Publishing, and received a publishing contract.
SMP: Tell us about your process. Do you plot/make outlines for your WIPS, or are you a total pantser?
Lilas: I don’t work from an outline, and I don’t plot my chapters ahead of time. I just sit down and write the story in my head. But I do have a good idea what my characters are like, and I develop the events through their eyes. I’m working my way to the end of the book I’m working on now, but I still don’t know what that end is going to be. It will come to me as I write.
SMP: What has been your most significant inspiration on the road to publication?
Lilas: My belief that hard work pays off. I’ve always considered myself fortunate, or blessed, or whatever you may characterize a good outcome from bad circumstances, but I also have the conviction that working hard to accomplish my dreams will lead to success. It could be a different kind of the success I had in mind, but it would definitely be somewhere better. Many instances in my life reinforced my belief. Getting my stories published is one of them.
SMP: What advice would you give an aspiring writer?
Lilas: Stay in constant learning mode. No matter how good a writer you may be, there is always something to learn to enhance your ability and knowledge. And listen. Listen to fellow writers and attend critique groups.
SMP: Tell us a little about your current or upcoming release: your inspiration, main characters, setting, etc. What was the most difficult process? The easiest?
Lilas: Shadows of Damascus is a character-driven fictional novel with an unusual plot set in the Middle East and America’s dairy land. The story is derived from current events, and speaks of a softly developing relationship between a man and a woman, worlds apart.
When I wrote this story, my aim was not to describe a political climate that was, and still is, too volatile and complicated to explain without delving in history lessons. I wanted to write about emotions, about the people who have to endure the rest of their lives with unusually heavy loads on their backs. I wanted to write about life, rather than death and destruction. But how could I do that when the premise of the plot is set in two still active wars?
When the peaceful uprising in Syria broke out in March 2011, then quickly took a downward turn toward violence, I felt a deep desire to write a story that catches part of the struggles survivors go through. By no means, giving their agony its due rights. Although my characters are completely fictional, I drew on my own experiences, having spent a good part of my early years in Damascus.
When I worked with domestic abuse victims, I saw a different kind of survival, escaping the wars we carry within. I am constantly aware of the heavy price any meaningful success requires of people, among them, the American soldiers who were involved in Iraq.
I wanted to bring the two worlds together. The hopeful dreamer that I am, I wanted my hero and heroine, two destroyed souls by completely different wars, to have a chance in life. And so the story of Yasmeen and Adam began.
SMP: Any final thoughts you’d like your readers to know about you or your books?
Lilas: I’m working on my second novel. The plot is set mostly in the Middle East, and it involves a different war (so many to choose from, unfortunately). It follows the life of a young man who is raised in unusual and unconventional circumstances. Again, I draw on my background to create the events of the plot, though it is fiction. A love story blossoms in a volatile environment. I hope it would appeal to readers who enjoyed Shadows of Damascus.
Want to find Lilas? Start here:
Facebook Author Page: http://www.facebook.com/LilasTahaAuthor
Twitter: @LilasTaha https://twitter.com/LilasTaha
SMP: Lilas, thanks for visiting with us today!
Lilas has included an excerpt from her upcoming Soul Mate release, Shadows of Damascus:
Debt. Honor. Pain. Solitude. These are things wounded war veteran Adam Wegener knows all about. Love—now, that he is not good at. Not when love equals a closed fist, burns, and suicide attempts. But Adam is one who keeps his word. He owes the man who saved his life in Iraq. And he doesn’t question the measure of the debt, even when it is in the form of an emotionally distant, beautiful woman.
Yasmeen agreed to become the wife of an American veteran so she could flee persecution in war-torn Syria. She counted on being in the United States for a short stay until she could return home. There was one thing she did not count on: wanting more.
Is it too late for Adam and Yasmeen?
The seductive fragrance of Damascus roses drifted through the open window and flirted with fifteen-year-old Yasmeen’s olfactory senses. The potent flowers in her neighbor’s yard delivered the best awakening. She loved beginnings, especially early, mid-summer mornings like these. Stretching across the bed, her imagination raced with possibilities for the promising day.
Thursday. The day her older brother’s friends visited and stayed well into the evening. Yasmeen ticked off potential visitors in her head, dashing young university students who loved to talk politics with Fadi. Today, she would do her best to discover the name of the quietest member in the group, the thin one with round-rimmed glasses. On her nightstand, the sketch she worked on during the last visit waited for his name, and more details around the eyes.
Peeling off the covers, she tip-toed to the window. Lively noises matched her optimistic mood. Nightingales sang greetings. Clanging dishes and pots resonated from surrounding houses beyond high walls. Mothers called out for their daughters to get breakfast ready. Men’s deep voices describing fresh fruits and vegetables with tempting traditional phrases drifted above hidden alleys. One vendor claimed his cucumbers were small as baby fingers, and likened his ripe apples to a virgin bride’s cheeks. Another boasted his plum peaches shed their covers without enticement, and his shy eggplants hid well in a moonless night.
Yasmeen succumbed to the enlivening chaos spilling in from her bedroom window, her own special and personal opening to the world. Tilting her head back, she exposed her face and neck to the sun, allowing its invigorating rays to paint her cheeks.
Today, her mother told her she would be allowed to take a coffee tray into Fadi’s room once all his friends arrived. What would she wear? She should tell her best friend Zainab to stop by earlier than usual to go through her wardrobe. She could help her decide. Perhaps one of Fadi’s friends would notice her. More than one? Why not?
Draping her arms on the windowsill, she looked at the neighbor’s yard, counting the blooming roses, a ritual she performed each morning since the season started. In the north corner of the largest flowerbed, two violet buds grabbed her attention, their delicate petals about to unfold. Once they came to full bloom, their deep purple color would dominate the landscape.
A knock sounded at her door.
“I am awake.”
Her father walked in. “Good. We have work to do.” He held a hammer in one hand and a couple of boards in the other. “Move aside, Yasmeen.” He approached the window.
She stepped away and pointed at the boards. “What do you need those for?”
Her father closed the windowpanes, locked them, placed one board across the frame, and hammered it in place.
“What are you doing?”
“This window is not to be opened again, child.”
She could not believe her ears. “Why?”
“Neighbors moved out last night.” Her father nailed the second board in place. “Mukhabarat took over their house.”
M4 Carbine rifle ready, Sergeant Adam Wegener scanned the street, skimming from window to rooftop. Nerves on edge, his neck and shoulder muscles strained to keep him focused. His heart thumped against his ribs.
Patrol leader Lieutenant Clifton moved his troop with caution through the street, Adam’s fire team at the rear. They’d done street sweeps many times before, but this one was different. Something was not right. Apprehension took hold of his insides and squeezed tight with every step.
Adam turned and walked backwards a few steps, establishing eye contact with Corporal Scottsdale. He nodded at the big guy’s expressionless face, assurance at having Big Scott cover his back. He checked on the other two members of his team trailing his left, Corporals Andrews and Bradley, and faced forward again.
The neighborhood seemed unnaturally quiet. No children walked to school, no laundry hung outside windows on this breezeless day, not even alley cats explored the overflowing garbage containers.
From a corner of his eye, he caught a movement in one of the windows. Wood shutters slammed closed against the windowpane.
A loud boom burst the air. Adam hit the dirt, his head pounding the pavement. The world went silent. He spat blood mixed with something solid. Parts of his body armor and uniform had been ripped off, along with patches of skin. He rose to his knees, his hands searching for his rifle. Finding it, he clasped the rifle in his arms and crawled. He moved as if swimming in a viscous liquid, not knowing which direction to take. He saw only clouds of smoke.
He screamed the names of the soldiers in his team, not sure if his voice even worked. He couldn’t hear a damn thing. His elbow landed on something hard, a boot. He moved his fingers up the leather, across the twill fabric of the pants, until his hands sank in soft flesh and wetness. The man mumbled something, his voice muffled and distant.
“Big Scott, that you?” Adam shouted.
A shower of bullets rang by his side. Helmet gone, he ducked and covered his head. His ears popped from the pressure, jump-starting his hearing.
“Take cover.” Big Scott’s voice penetrated the sounds of warfare.
He scrambled to his feet, hoisted Big Scott on his shoulder, and dashed to the nearest house. He kicked the door and threw himself and Big Scott inside. Propping the injured soldier’s back to one wall, away from the windows, he snatched the M9 Beretta pistol from the holster mounted on his chest rig and forced it into Big Scott’s hands.
“Cover the door.”
Rifle raised and ready, he moved from room to room to secure the small house. He entered the kitchen, coming face-to-face with an old woman. Sitting motionless on a wooden chair, hands clasped on the Formica table in front of her, she stared down Adam’s raised barrel.
Keeping an eye on the wrinkled, tanned face, he scanned the kitchen. No place for anyone to hide, not even a closet door to check behind.
“Anyone else in the house?”
She held her stare, unflinching.
Adam tried to recall Arabic words he heard Fadi, the interpreter assigned to his patrol unit, say in situations like these. But he couldn’t recall a single one.
“Where’s your husband?”
The woman blinked. She craned her neck to one side, looking past him toward the front of the house. The white scarf covering her hair slipped down to her shoulders, revealing gray strands pulled back in a tight bun. She lifted the scarf and refastened it under her chin.
His hand shook. He aimed a loaded weapon at a woman the same age as his mother. Hell, she even resembled her.
“Rajul? Rajul?” Was that the right word for man? Why was she so calm?
The only point of entry was the door he came through. He heard heavy movement outside. The sounds of shouting men grew closer. The old mother could yell to alert the insurgents any second. He snatched a towel hanging on a hook to his left, and held his index finger to his lips, motioning for the woman to go with him to the front room.
She followed without uttering a sound.
Adam pointed his weapon for her to sit on the cement floor. He tore the towel into strips and kneeled in front of her.
Big Scott moaned. He slumped to one side, pistol aimed at the door.
“I got you, man. Have to secure the old mother first.” He used a towel strip for her hands and tied another around her mouth.
He turned to Big Scott, got his first aid kit out of a side pocket on his torn pants, and dug for supplies. He applied bandages to Big Scott’s bleeding midsection. Keeping pressure on the wound with one hand, he pulled the radio from his pack and reported to his platoon sergeant they were trapped inside one of the houses.
“Damn it, which one?” Lieutenant Clifton’s voice crackled.
“Don’t know. Scottsdale’s injured. It’s bad.”
“Andrews, Bradley?” The lieutenant screamed back.
“God damn IED was right under them. Can’t confirm.”
“Second platoon’s six blocks away. They’re en route and—”
A loud explosion silenced the radio. Cursing, he flung the radio across the room.
“Hang in there, big man. QRF’s on the way.” There was no way the Quick Reaction Force could come to their rescue if they didn’t know where they were.
“How long?” Big Scott’s voice came out calm, surprising him.
“Ten minutes.” He fumbled with more bandages. Could second platoon make six blocks in ten minutes? It was possible. “Stay with me. Think about that sweet girl you got back home. Sandy, right?”
He slumped beside Big Scott. Sticky stuff on his back squished. He closed his eyes, hoping to God the sensation resulted from an injury he hadn’t yet felt, rather than the blood and flesh of his missing team members splattered all over him. He needed to find a way to signal their location.
Big Scott clamped a charred hand on top of his. “Won’t make it.”
“The hell you won’t. Sandy’s waiting for you.” He pulled himself to his feet and approached the door. “You’d better not disappoint her.” If he opened the door and his patrol didn’t spot him, the insurgents would be alerted to their position, and that would be the fucking end. If he didn’t do anything, Big Scott would bleed out. He looked back at the corporal. His friend didn’t have much time. There was only one thing to do.
“We have to get out of here.”
He propped Big Scott on his shoulder and opened the door. Clouds of smoke blocked his view. Using the cover of smoke, he edged his way along the side of the house, unable to see a yard past his face. His foot stumbled over a chunk of cement, and he collapsed against the house, slumping down on the dirty street, overcome by how absurd this mission was.
A clomp of boots on the gritty pavement caught his attention. They were trapped. They could not fade into the concrete, not a car nor a bush to hide behind, and he didn’t have time to retrace his way back to the door. He aimed his rifle in the direction of the approaching boots and counted the steps. One man, probably a scout. Shots would draw others.
He slung the rifle across his chest and let it hang. Clamping a hand on Big Scott’s mouth, he stifled the soldier’s agonized moan. Adam stretched to full height, flattened his back against the wall, and pulled his knife.
Heavy fire erupted around them. Bullets shattered the wall to Adam’s left. He hit the dirt again. Big Scott’s limp body fell on top of him, pinning him down. Knife gone, he tried to push Big Scott off. Pain shot through his body like electricity. He doubled over and collapsed once more, trapping his rifle under him.
Leather boots slammed right next to his face. He wrapped his hand around the ankle and tried to topple the guy down.
“Don’t fight me, Adam. I’m here to helb you.”
“Fadi? That you Fadi?”
“Shut ub before zey hear us.”
Fadi took hold of Big Scott’s shoulders and pulled him into the house. He returned to Adam and dragged him until they were inside. He checked their injuries.
Multiple holes on Adam’s left side bled. Big Scott lay flat on his back, praying aloud.
“Clifton knows where you are now.” Fadi applied bandages to Adam’s leg.
He sucked in a sharp breath and tried to stay alert, his eyelids too heavy to keep open.
Fadi shook his uninjured shoulder. “Do what you always do to stay awake.”
Adam opened his eyes. “What?”
“Count, man. Count za bains. Double za number if zey were very bainful, half if zey were minor,” Fadi urged in his particular accent.
Adam’s mind kicked into counting mode. Shit, was he crazy?
“How’d you know where we were?”
“I heard za insurgents shouting to each ozer.” Fadi moved fast to administer the articles in his first-aid kit to Adam’s other wounds.
Crunching numbers didn’t do much to alleviate his pain, but the process helped him filter through Fadi’s heavy accent.
“At first I didn’t understand the words they were using for directions,” Fadi explained. “Arabic has two words to indicate left. One can mean north, depending on the dialect. I had to get closer to figure it out, and that’s when I saw you. Clifton was very mad. Didn’t want me to leave the team, but hey, I’m a contract interpreter, not one of his soldiers.”
The woman moaned from her corner. Fadi shot his head up and approached her.
“Who did this?”
“Needed to make sure she didn’t scream.” Adam tried to lift himself on his elbows. He groaned, the full force of deep searing pain setting in.
Fadi untied the woman’s mouth, released her hands, and spoke to her, his tone low and gentle.
“She’s an old woman, Adam. She’s trapped here just like we are. This is her home. No one and nothing is going to drive her out of it. You didn’t need to tie her up.”
“Not taking any chances.”
Scott’s praying voice disturbed rather than comforted Adam. He concentrated on breathing. Why couldn’t he just pass out and be spared this agony?
The woman placed her hands in her lap, flipped her palms upward and muttered something.
“What’s her problem?”
“She’s praying,” Fadi said.
“I didn’t hurt her. See what else you can do for Big Scott before I lose it.” Adam found it hard to formulate his words.
Fadi kneeled in front of Big Scott, tore a bag with his teeth, and spread its contents over his gaping wound.
Adam’s eyes darted between the old mother and Big Scott. Never hesitant Scott. Never questioning and never smiling either. Were they praying to the same God? Would He listen?
“Tell her I’m sorry I tied her up, will you?”
“Itlaa barrah balady,” the woman responded to Fadi.
“What the hell did she say?”
“She wants us to leave.”
“We wouldn’t be here if her people hadn’t planted that Goddamn IED. Tell her that.” Adam spat blood.
“She meant leave her country.”
Darkness closed in on Adam, the bliss of unconsciousness threatening to take over. He closed his eyes.
“I’m okay with that . . .”