Debut Novelist: Alicia Erian

Photo: Michele McDonald

You’d expect provocations from a book called Towelhead, but Alicia Erian’s first novel is challenging in unexpected ways. Her 13-year-old narrator, Jasira—exiled to the house of her strict Lebanese father in Texas after getting too close to her American mother’s boyfriend—is alternately titillated and abused by most of the adults around her. Fittingly, American Beauty writer Alan Ball is planning to adapt it for his directorial debut. Erian talked to Boris Kachka about fame, shame, and the attractions of sexual violence.

How did you come up with such a provocative title?
The book had a different title initially—Welcome to the Moral Universe. It comes from a speech that Daddy makes to Jasira. Then I turned the manuscript in, and then my editor said, “Okay, new title.” I was flipping through the book just looking for words, and the word that kept jumping out was towelhead, and I thought, Oh, that’s horrifying—I could never call the book that. But then I thought, Well, this is a publisher’s wet dream—this has got to be the way to go.

Title aside, were you trying to shock people with the subject matter?
I don’t know. It’s not really a consideration. I just try to entertain myself. And I’m highly entertained by sex.

Are you nervous about the movie Alan Ball will make?
The things that he said about it made me just think he would do a good job. And the other thing is, you know, no one is going to blame me. If there’s something wrong with the movie, they’re going to blame Alan.

So your next novel seems to pick up in some ways from where this one leaves off—it’s about another pervy soldier.
I’m interested in soldiers, because they’re very … I really like a lot of intensity. I’m not particularly interested in straight violence, I’m interested in human violence. I think that this new character, he’s violent toward women and that’s why he interests me. He’s not only violent, he’s also intensely loving at times. I like people who are both.

I heard you like nonfiction more than fiction?
Well, I like trauma, anything where there is horrible trauma and misery. And I don’t like the artifice of fiction, which always takes too long to get to the good stuff.

Certainly Jasira has lots of unresolved trauma. Did you get depressed writing about it?
Oh, I was deeply depressed. I was very badly depressed, and my marriage broke up at the same time. It was a nightmare.

Are you happier writing this next book?
He’s depressing, too, but he’s so sexy and charming. So that’s a nice aspect.

When he’s not—
When he’s not attacking women.

Simon & Schuster, $22

Debut Novelist: Alicia Erian