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After A 20-Year Wait, Louis Edwards' Latest Novel Is Out

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

New Orleans writer Louis Edwards takes us on a journey to the Middle East with his new novel, "Ramadan Ramsey" - his first book in 20 years. It's a coming-of-age novel about a boy in search of his identity. The story begins in New Orleans with the opening line Ramadan was blessed. Ramadan is the son born of a secret relationship between Mustafa, a Syrian immigrant, and Alicia, a young African American woman. Alicia makes a play for Mustafa by commenting on his looks, his skinny build. Louis Edwards told me that the plot line was inspired by an encounter he observed years ago.

LOUIS EDWARDS: I was actually at a convenience store pumping gas into my car and one of the gentleman, Middle Eastern, who worked in the store came out and he had this little flirtation with a local girl, African American. And they were so charming and the whole scene was just cinematic in a way to me and sparked the idea that, wow, what comes of this? I wanted to know what that was. Immediately, there was a child, and that became the spark. Now, Ramadan and that line, Ramadan was blessed, came many years later. I knew about the character. I didn't know his name. I didn't know much else. But I found his name while I was traveling in 2012, traveling in Istanbul, and it just happened to be Ramadan.

ELLIOTT: Would you read from the first chapter, starting with that line for us?

EDWARDS: Here we go. (Reading) Ramadan was blessed. Of course, as with everyone, the blessed and the bewitched alike, he didn't always feel the pleasures of being his natural divine self. Indeed, he would sometimes become tempestuous and unruly, losing himself and the ability to sense his great fortune even to be alive. And he would stomp around his grandmother's house, gritting his teeth and growling like a madman, or rather like a mad little boy, because at the age of 5, say, for the purposes of introduction and with a scrawniest that made some refer to him as skinny as a rail, he couldn't really quite pull off madman.

ELLIOTT: Skinny as a rail becomes a nickname he gets in - his father, actually...

EDWARDS: Yes.

ELLIOTT: At the beginning. Talk to me a little bit about how the relationship develops between Ramadan's parents.

EDWARDS: Well, it's - again, I - in trying to write about it, I wanted to capture the sweetness and the charm of that moment. We're talking about teenagers here, at least in the fictional telling, 19-year-olds who are at that moment in life where they're just open to love in a way that they're not even aware. And romance can be kind of - there's a sparkle to it. So the moment, as it appears in the book, of their meeting is funny (laughter). And there's the misunderstanding of the term skinny as a rail. Mustafa is also slightly built. And Alicia, Ramadan's mother, refers to him that way. He hears skinny Israel. And it's a running joke between the two of them that - the way lovers have inside jokes.

ELLIOTT: So theirs was a bit of a forbidden romance. His family was not happy about this, and it results in a pregnancy, and Ramadan is born. And we don't want to give away too much, but this boy goes through a lot. His mother dies. There's Hurricane Katrina. And eventually, he embarks on a quest to find the father that he never met. What is Ramadan searching for here?

EDWARDS: You know, it becomes the metaphorical search, of course, for just the creator, you know, that source of life. I mean, we all have that. I didn't really shy away from that metaphor once it became clear that Ramadan has this existential issue here (laughter). He doesn't really think about his father. He grows up in a very matriarchal arrangement for his family. He's got the great-grandmother who's the leader of the family. And that's what he knows until one day, as this great storm is approaching, indeed, in 2005, one day his aunt Clarissa lets him know you, of course, have a father.

ELLIOTT: I was drawn to the bind between Ramadan and his great-grandmother, Mama Joon. Tell us about that.

EDWARDS: You know, I've known - I've dedicated this book to my grandmothers, and I had close relationships with my grandmother on - my paternal grandmother. And I didn't know my mother's mother, and she barely did, too. She passed away when my mother was really young. But there was the surrogate grandmother, Mama Bert (ph), who played a key role in my mother's life and in my life as well. But I have friends who were raised by their grandmothers and who I've witnessed these relationships, which are very powerful. And it works both ways, of course, because grandparents and that affection that they have for that next generation, it's so unconditional.

ELLIOTT: So throughout the novel, as we get to know all of your characters, time and time again, we're confronted with sort of these notions of secrets that have been held, secret relationships, notions of sin, redemption. There's, like, juxtaposition of religion.

EDWARDS: This is all true. I mean, we're in the realm of the spiritual. I wanted to keep everything grounded but not shy away from the language of religion and spirituality, not shy away from the symbols of language - of religion and spirituality, to embrace that and to use all of that in the telling of this really unique story. I felt that when Ramadan came to me in a hotel room in Istanbul, that I was being given a gift, and it felt very somehow important (laughter), you know? It just really felt that there was something special. And in order to honor that, I needed to embrace the milieu of that experience, which is spiritual.

ELLIOTT: Louis Edwards - his new novel is called "Ramadan Ramsey." Thank you so much.

EDWARDS: Thanks, Debbie.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAKUYA KURODA'S "RISING SON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.