Behind The Book With Peter Blauner

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Behind The Book With Peter Blauner 

I always enjoy being able to do different Q&As with authors whether it’s a regular Q&A, an Authors In The Media Q&A and a Behind The Book Q&A focusing on an author’s new release. With New York Times Bestselling Author, Peter Blauner, I am lucky to do all three! On this edition of Behind The Book we will discuss his novel Picture In The Sand. 

Q: For those who haven’t read Picture In The Sand, would you like to tell them a little bit about it?

A: It’s an historical suspense novel that I worked on for nearly a third of my life. It’s about faith, hope, terror and the movies. At one level, it’s a story of two worlds coming together. Cecil B. DeMille, the legendary director, brings the production of his final film THE TEN COMMANDMENTS to Egypt in the immediate aftermath of a revolution. A young Cairo movie fan named Ali Hassan gets his dream job working as the personal assistant to the great man. But that dream job turns into a nightmare when Ali gets caught up in the dangerous intrigues of the day, almost losing his life. Ultimately he finds love and redemption in the most unlikely place possible.

But at another level, this is a family story. Because Ali is relating this narrative, which he’s held as a secret for decades, to a beloved grandson who is about to forgo a golden future and make the exact same mistakes his grandfather made as a young man.    

Q: Peter, you did a ton of research for Picture In The Sand & spent twenty years writing it and making 6 trips to Egypt. What were your favorite spots in Egypt to see? What was the research process like? 

A: The pyramids, the Sphinx, and the Valley of Queens are the obvious places that everyone deserves to see in their lifetime. But I liked the off-beat places. The little cafes in Zamalek, the back alley koshari shops, the gardens of Maadi, the Mena House Hotel bar, even the golf course just down the street from the pyramids where you can see the sand traps in the foreground and the camels in the background.

As you mentioned, I went there six times over the years and it was a different experience every time. I first went in 2005 when the anxieties of 9/11 were still in the air and I knew nothing about Egypt at all. I must say I was welcomed graciously by almost everyone I met, treated with exquisite courtesy and had many surprising adventures.

The most memorable involved visiting Mount Sinai, where tradition says Moses received the tablets from God and where part of the DeMille film was shot. Even if you’re not particularly religious, there’s something mesmerizing and extraordinary about the place. As if the landscape has been shaped by centuries of belief. I climbed the mountain in the middle of the night so I could be at the summit for sunrise. Along the way, Bedouin children urged me to rent a blanket from them because it was “very cold at the top of the mountain.” I scoffed, thinking people who lived in a desert couldn’t have experienced much cold. I was wrong. It was the coldest I’d ever been in my life. But right before the sun came up, I saw this amazingly bright light in the sky. And then it moved in an abrupt fashion to the side and then down, and then up again. I thought my eyes were deceiving me. Later I learned there was a satellite station nearby.

When I came down, I stopped at St. Catherine’s Monastery, reputedly one of the oldest sites in Christendom. I spoke to one of the elderly monks in the hope he might remember DeMille’s visit. He said he didn’t, but he asked if I’d buy him some high-end tobacco in New York and send it to him at the monastery.

All I can say these days is that I hope things settle down in that part of the world.

Q: In our Q&A you mentioned that Picture In The Sand was rejected more times than you care to remember. I am astounded they would reject this story. Why do you think this book was rejected so many times?

A: Well, it didn’t have the format of the grandfather telling the story to his questioning grandson, so that made a lot of difference. The other thing is, this is kind of an unusual story. It doesn’t fit into an obvious category. It’s an historical novel, but it’s also about Hollywood and the roots of modern terrorism. And finally, it’s very different from my other books – which are mostly contemporary urban crime novels. So it took some effort to find an editor who would support that vision, and I’m very glad Kelley Ragland from Minotaur stepped up.

Q: Since Ali & his grandson Alex are fictional characters, why did you have them be the main characters in this story? What lessons do you hope readers take away from reading Picture In The Sand?  

A: One thing a novel can do is render world-changing events into something human-scale. So I wouldn’t tell a story like this from the point of view of Cecil B. DeMille or the Egyptian Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser. They’re too famous for ordinary people to identify with, and, besides, there are already books about them. It makes more sense to me to tell the story from the ground-level looking up. 

There’s a saying in journalism: look for the gravedigger. It refers to the fact that after the JFK assassination, when other journalists were writing about conspiracy theories and the impact on the White House, the newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote a beautiful eloquent piece about the man who actually took the shovel and honored the president by digging the hole for his resting place. So that’s what I tried to do in telling this story from the perspective of Ali, the regular guy who becomes the assistant to a Hollywood legend. Maybe that’s just because it’s easier for me to root for the underdog. But I also believe the commoner can be more observant than the aristocrat.

Q: I hope Picture In The Sand becomes a movie or a limited series one of these days. Who would be your dream cast to play the characters both fictional & real? If Omar Sharif were alive, he would be as great as older Ali. Khalid Abdallah who is Egyptian, would be great as young Ali, plus I enjoyed his performance in The Kite Runner & as Dodi Al Fayed in The Crown. 

A: They both would be great. And then there’s Rami Malek, who is a legit Egyptian-America movie star, and Ramy Youssef, who wrote and starred in the streaming show, Ramy. I think they’re both brilliant. 

Q: What lessons do you hope readers learn after reading Picture In The Sand? 

A: Normally, I’d say I don’t want to impart a lesson; I want to tell a story and let the reader decide what to get out of it. But with Picture in the Sand, there’s a matter of timing that makes it a little different. We’re in a very polarized period, where we’ve reverted to being very tribal and seeing people who look different from us as the enemy. If this book puts even a tiny hole in that hole, then I’ll be happy.