Exclusive Q&A with Roxana Arama

Exclusive Q&A with Roxana Arama

TSM: Can you tell us about your debut thriller, Extreme Vetting?

RA: Extreme Vetting is a legal thriller that takes place in Seattle in 2019. The protagonist is an immigration lawyer who fights to keep her client from being deported to the country where his family was murdered many years ago. Then she finds out the killers are coming here—for both of them. And for their children.


TSM: What inspired you to write about the US immigration system?

RA: In October 2018, I had a conversation with my husband about my being an immigrant. Some months before, I had watched the president of the United States at a rally, where he compared immigrants to venomous snakes that people shouldn’t shelter but crush underfoot. While his crowd loved it, I was horrified by his act of dehumanizing us. So when my husband later suggested I write a novel about what it felt like to be an immigrant, I just knew I had to do it. Not only because I’m very familiar with the subject, but also because it was a constructive way to push back against that hateful rhetoric and to assert the humanity Trump had denied people like me.


TSM: What do you want your readers to take away from the novel?

RA: Immigration is a hard problem and not the clear-cut issue some politicians make it to be. Most people flee their native countries not because they hope to profit from the American taxpayer’s dollars but because their lives are no longer safe there and because they want a better future for their children. Leaving behind your family, community, language, and culture, and starting all over again somewhere else is hard, and the hardship doesn’t end with the first-generation immigrants. Their children grow in a culture different from that of their parents, and they have a hard time finding role models that straddle both worlds. And children of undocumented immigrants can’t rely on societal structures their peers take for granted, such as calling 911 when in need. In addition, the legal framework is arcane, convoluted, and in need of rehauling. Understanding some of these issues could help our society better deal with immigration, an issue that won’t go away any time soon.

TSM:  On your website, your byline includes the phrase “storyteller from a foreign land.” What is the significance of this for you?

RA:  Writing Extreme Vetting has forced me to think hard about my place in the US, where I’ve spent half my lifetime. But for many people here, I’m still an outsider who speaks with an accent, while for people in my native Romania I’m someone who left a long time ago and who writes in English. For everybody I’m someone from a foreign place. And when I write, that otherness shows up for my readers, both English-speaking and Romanian. That’s why when I had to create an author tagline that describes me to my readers, I came up with “a storyteller from a foreign land.”


TSM:  I have read about your work documenting the experience of Radu Codrescu. How has his story influenced your own work?

RA: Years ago, I interviewed him hoping to write his story as a novel one day. He’d been a young man in communist Romania when I was a child, and he’d tried multiple times to flee our country when our borders were closed and the punishment for trying to cross them was prison, if not being killed on the spot. He did go to jail, and he witnessed people being killed by soldiers at the border between Romania and Serbia (Yugoslavia at the time) before 1989. He eventually fled to Canada, then moved to the US, where we met at the software company we both worked for. These interviews became the inspiration for my protagonist’s father in Extreme Vetting. It seemed natural in a book about borders trying to keep people out (the US) to also have borders trying to keep people in (communist Romania).


TSM: I know that you have previously published your short story, “The Way to Robot City.” How was the experience of writing Extreme Vetting different from this? Were there any particular challenges you faced?

RA:  Extreme Vetting was a fourteen-month-long project that involved a lot of research into our immigration system, including extensive interviews with an immigration lawyer. It required multiple revisions, and then rounds of sensitivity reading to make sure everything was as accurate and respectfully depicted as possible. In contrast, the sci-fi short story The Way to Robot City was inspired by a conversation I had with my then-seventh grader when I started to see how loneliness has a dimension of choice. I wanted to explore that in the realm of speculative fiction, where the only research I needed was my experience as a parent.


TSM: What drew you to the thriller genre?

RA: I like thrillers. They have an intrinsic way of hooking readers. Extreme Vetting is an issues novel written to entertain its audience, so the thriller format seemed like a good fit. Also, thrillers have an expected structure, which acts as a roadmap for the writer.


TSM: I saw that you have also worked in science fiction with The Odin Chronicles. How is this different from writing thrillers?

RA:  My favorite genre of writing is speculative fiction, and Extreme Vetting might just be the exception. I completed a grounded historical fantasy, and I’m now revising a sci-fi. But when I decided to write a book about our current immigration landscape, I didn’t think speculative fiction was the best genre for it. So I started studying and reading thrillers. Once Extreme Vetting was on its way to publication, I returned to speculative fiction. Among other things, I worked with a wonderful group of sci-fi writers and editors on The Odin Chronicles, a shared world saga on a mining colony at the edge of the galaxy.


TSM: I know that you have previously worked as a software design engineer. What prompted you to start writing and switch careers?

RA:  Programming and writing are quite similar. They both deal with big, abstract worlds we create, worlds that only become real when users or readers interact with them. Designing these worlds, developing them, testing them—these are all similar processes in coding and writing. When I was younger, I liked both literature and math, and I kept shifting my focus between these two fields: I went to national literature contests, studied computer science in high school and college, applied for a theater directing program, got a job in software development in the US, yet kept taking writing classes. At some point I had to choose.


TSM:  Have you ever experienced writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?

RA:  I’ve been lucky enough to dodge it so far. When I can’t make a plot work and I’m stuck, I try to give it time so I can see my story from a different angle. I try to read things that might inspire me. If that doesn’t work, I ask my writing community to help me with feedback and advice. I also have more than one project going on at the same time, so if I’m stuck with one, I might make progress on others. I try to keep moving, but I fear one day I’ll have to face the dreaded writer’s block.


TSM:  Do you have any other advice for aspiring authors?

RA: The publishing industry has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years. My advice is to try to understand the game of today and not play by outdated rules. For some of us, that could mean abandoning old-fashioned ideas of what publishing is. Instead, consider new ways of reaching readers, ways that didn’t exist a few years ago. Once you decide what to try next, keep learning about the options available to you, as the industry is constantly evolving.


TSM:  What are you currently reading?

RA: I’m rereading A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins. I’m also working through a series of books, short stories, and essays about artificial intelligence I gathered from Ezra Klein’s and Michael Shermer’s podcasts. My major in college was artificial intelligence, but that was before the current AI renaissance. So I’m reading everything I can find on this subject as inspiration for my sci-fi thriller, which is another immigration story, but this time with androids and spaceships.

Jennie Knuppel

(940) 600-2985 | jennie.knuppel@gmail.com

© Jennie Knuppel, 2023