Today we have an opportunity to speak with Shaggy Dog author Sahar Abdulaziz, who writes in a wide variety of genres. I would say from dark psychological thrillers to warm-hearted satire covers quite a range! Sahar, I’ve read many of your excellent books and enjoyed them immensely. Most recently, the third volume in your Abernathy and Crane series.
SMJ: One thing I appreciate about your books in any genre is how alive your characters become to your readers. Since I mentioned the series, where did Irwin Abernathy come from? He’s truly an unforgettable character!
SA: Thank you. My stories are all character-driven, for sure. If I can make them feel authentic to me, by extension, I hope they will have the same impact on my readers.
I absolutely and unequivocally adore the character Irwin Abernathy. Admittedly, he’s a grump, often gratingly sarcastic, and despises all forms of change. But inside, where it counts, Irwin’s a big ole mush––a man who has lived his entire life trying to stand up for what is right, even, as they say, if he has had to stand alone.
Irwin showed up on my writer’s radar right after completing The Gatekeeper’s Notebook––my tenth book and a psychological thriller. At the time, I wanted to try and write something outside of my usual genre. Something entirely different and fun. Irwin and crew fit the bill, and then some. And in all honesty, the first book in the series, Unlikely Friends, practically wrote itself. I’ve never laughed so much or had so much pleasure writing as I did that book, along with its subsequent stories.
I think what makes Irwin so loveable and unforgettable is his honesty, integrity, and his relentless pursuit of fairness. Plus, he’s a book lover and stockpiles words like a coin collector, so what’s not to like?
SMJ: In your earlier works, you often included characters suffering from various forms of mental illness. Am I correct in recalling your first book, But You LOOK Just Fine, was co-authored and dealt with exactly that?
SA: You are correct. But You LOOK Just Fine, Unmasking Depression, Anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder and Seasonal Affective Disorder, [non-fiction] was my first book, co-authored with the gifted and brilliant author, Carol Sveilich, MA. It acts as a user-friendly guide by providing innovative information and genuine compassion to men and women living [and battling] with an easily concealed mood disorder by putting real faces, real stories and experiences, and real bravery against the backdrop of devastation caused by these all-too-real diseases. Lastly, the book tries to dispel the myth that looking just fine on the outside constitutes everything is just dandy on the inside. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Like a large majority of our country’s populace, many of my subsequent characters suffer from one form of a mood disorder or another. Writing fiction opened a door, permitting me to explore the impact my characters would face living with an easily concealed illness on their everyday happenings, choices, and the consequences. Writing fiction also made it possible to highlight the devastation caused when these illnesses are left untreated, unbelieved, or villainized.
SMJ: And you created some interesting if troubled characters in Expendable, a psychological thriller. Can you discuss one or two of those? Bella and Prim come to mind.
SA: Bella suffers from severe clinical depression––a consequence of being subjected to years of emotional abuse––first with her family, as a child, and later, by her narcissistic, sociopathic husband.
Prim, a veteran, returns home, suffering from severe trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] exacerbated by her self-medicating with alcohol.
The two women meet in the hospital, where they forge a friendship and an alliance, all while helping the other battle the effects depression and PTSD can leave on a body, mind, and soul.
SMJ: Another intriguing character from one of your suspense-filled thrillers is Nour Ibrahim, the heroine of Tight Rope. She truly is a heroine in my eyes, on many levels.
SA: I agree, but it was due to systemic racism, bigotry, sexism, and brutality that forced Nour Ibrahim to become a fighter to survive. She is also a talented and brilliant orator, a relentless champion of human rights, and now, sadly, the prey of a psychopathic, racist, deeply depressed stalker. Tight Rope is a political, psychological thriller maxed out to the brim with a collection of polarizing personalities. I wrote this particular novel to address the political, racial, religious, economic, and familial fractures of today’s times––not only in America but globally.
SMJ: Your blog frequently includes book reviews, which indicates to me that you are an avid reader. Are there any authors who have influenced you or whom you particularly admire, and will you elaborate a bit on why?
SA: “I love big books, and I cannot lie.”
To me, books are a treasure, and the words encapsulated within their pages––the priceless gems. The plain truth is, I am an avid reader, hopelessly in awe of so many esteemed and talented authors across a wide array of genres. With that said, I am a fawning fan of everything Fredrik Backman writes, Matt Haig, Roxane Gay, Kristan Higgins, Camille Pagán, Anthony Doerr, Isabel Wilkerson, and Erik Larson. I remain forever a mega fan of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
These writers, without exception, create or tell impactful, forever-lasting stories laden with content that is engaging, entertaining, inspiring, educational, but most of all, thought-provoking. Their writing voices and stories leave an indelible mark on the reader’s heart and mind that never goes away. How powerful is that!
This is why, when I find a book that I have relished, I post about it on my blog, anxious to share with other readers the new book goodies I have found. I find word-of-mouth [and blogs] to be the best way to do this.
SMJ: Back to the Abernathy and Crane series. The other partner in the series, Harper Crane, is another character I’ve enjoyed watching grow during the first three books in the series. An unlikely friendship indeed between this troubled teenage girl and Irwin. What gave you the idea to bring the two of them together?
SA: I had no plan or outline for this book at all. Nothing. Each day I’d sit down and write the story exactly as I saw it being played out in my head, which meant I never knew from one minute to the next who or what would happen. Pantsing 101.
However, I do remember thinking to myself while writing about one of Irwin’s antics, ‘Man, how would I have reacted to a person like Irwin Abernathy as a teen?’
And in all likelihood, I would have been not only enthralled but inquisitive––definitely determined. I probably would have kept watching him, [not minding my own business] waiting for Irwin’s next entertaining, goofy move. Then, I would have done or said something to force him to take notice of me, much like what Harper did. Because really, one can’t meet an Irwin Abernathy and just walk away. It’s impossible.
I like to think of Harper as a free-spirited yet troubled teen who has had to contend with food insecurity, poverty, a parent in the prison system, and the threat of homelessness. However, she is so much more than her current circumstance. Harper is a vibrant, intelligent, kindhearted, and, yes, a snarky young person who just needs love and stability in her life like every other child in the world.
I think what saves Harper is her books. Her love of reading and the ability to compartmentalize her struggles while investing in her imagination. And, what magical place has books galore? ––and–– if you’re lucky enough, a grumpy librarian named Irwin Abernathy? Why, the local public library, of course.
To Harper, the library is her haven, a place where she can feel safe and protected from the intrusions and hurts of the outside world, but when she meets Irwin, it becomes her second home.
At first, Irwin, who is just as lonely and vulnerable as Harper, cannot fathom why the contentious, annoying teen has decided to latch onto him, of all people, and wishes she’d just go away. I mean, Irwin’s made being anti-social into an art form.
But fat chance. No matter what Irwin does or says to try to dissuade her, Harper just keeps coming back, more determined than ever. And for whatever reason, what began as fractured, starts to heal––for both of them. I think bringing these two struggling, kindhearted, hilarious, lost souls together was kismet and a natural fit, or what I like to refer to as an unlikely friendship.
SMJ: Do I understand correctly that a fourth book is currently in the works? This series is filled with humor and unique characters. Have you found it difficult to continue writing in this vein during the turbulent times we’re living in?
SA: Yes, indeed. Irwin, Harper, and I are busy working on the fourth and final installment of The Abernathy & Crane Series. I started book four just before COVID-19 attacked. Had this book been a thriller or suspense, I probably would have kept writing because, honestly, my gloomy mindset would have enhanced the overall morbidity of the stories I tend to create. However, this book, like its three sisters, is supposed to be a satire. Lighthearted and fun. Nothing about the last year-plus has been remotely that, and my writing, what little I managed to accomplish, proved to me how my writing intersects with real life.
The overwhelming loss of life, the daily influx of uncertainties, the concern for those I love and care about, coupled with the foreboding, could have been all-consuming had I not consciously pulled away from my computer. I needed to permit myself the right to exist without feeling guilt from not producing. Surviving, staying alive and healthy, doing our part not to strain the already jeopardized, overworked health system were my family’s goals, and during a global pandemic, that had to be enough.
I’m back at my computer now, but not nearly with the same fortitude I once had. Perhaps this is a good thing. Maybe I have learned to find a healthier balance. I don’t know yet. The jury is still out. While I still guard my writing time with the same tenacity as before, I also have also made the conscientious effort to break away from my desk to ‘just be’ …and you know what? That’s okay.
Author of the Augusta McKee Mystery Series