The Sweetest Debut: Emily Robbins on Being Inspired by a Famous Arabic Love Story


Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

This week we hear from Emily Robbins, whose A Word for Love arrived on Tuesday. A story of romance, language, family, and danger set in Syria in the recent past, PW says, “this is a rich, understated novel that offers an absorbing story full of longing, political intrigue, and the beauty found outside the familiar.”

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

Set in Syria on the cusp of unrest, A Word for Love is the story of a young American woman transformed by language, risk, war and a startling new understanding of love. It is a story that questions what it means to love from afar, to be an outsider within a love story, and to take someone else’s passion and cradle it until it becomes your own.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

A love triangle set in Syria. Or, about learning Arabic.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I started writing in 2010, and the book sold in 2014. But really, I began thinking about this story when I lived in Syria years before, between 2005-2008.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.


A book you’ve read more than two times.

Most recently, The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz.

A book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project.

The story of Qais and Leila! It is a famous love story in the Arabic and Farsi-speaking world. I first read about it in a textbook for Arabic-learners, and then later I read the version that a classical Iranian poet Nizami wrote. In this story, Qais loves Leila so much that he stops being called Qais, and is instead called Majnoon Laila – that is, Crazy for Laila. This seems like pretty much the most romantic thing ever for a language-learner: to love someone so much, you end up with a new name!

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

Treme. Also, The Good Wife.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

The Salt of the Earth, about the photos of Sebastiao Salgado. Which are stunning.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

Never! I speak out loud when I write (actually, I’m speaking out loud right now while I’m writing this). I like to think of it as making my own music. My husband disagrees.

Who is your fashion icon?

Katherine Hepburn. I like her trousers.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

Right now, the British countryside. Or, anywhere where my family is.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

A living history interpreter. Actually, I was that for a little while. I played the piano at a house from 1911.

Did you have a New Year’s resolution for 2017? If so, what?

I try not to wait for New Year’s. My general resolution is to be more generous, and to speak up more about what I believe in.

What freaks you out the most about four years of Trump as US President?

Registering Americans based on religion.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Silent library.

Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?

All three. Except, my husband and I just moved and we haven’t gotten a new couch, so now it’s mostly desk or table.

Is morning writing or late-night writing your go-to-time?

Morning. I am from a long line of early risers. It goes back generations.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

Something in between. I perfect parts, not knowing where they’ll go, and then fit them together, which is the messy part.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

Right now, I’m on a Fulbright grant to do research in Jordan. I’m not sure about next year yet – we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

On the Fulbright, it’s easy – I’m being paid to write, there’s a lot of unstructured time. Before then, I taught creative writing and English.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

Edgar Allen Poe. He’s so melancholy, and had such a mysterious death!

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

“Your teeth are like hills: they need leveling.”