Gayle Lemmon - Author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

Gayle is the deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy program.  Prior to joining the Council, Ms. Lemmon covered public policy and emerging markets for the global investment firm PIMCO, after working for nearly a decade as a journalist with the ABC News Political Unit and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” Gayle has reported on entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict regions for the Financial TimesNew York Times, International Herald Tribune, the Daily Beast, and Christian Science Monitor, along with Ms. Magazine, Bloomberg, Politico and the HuffingtonPost.  She has appeared on NBC News, National Public Radio and on cable outlets including MSNBC, and has published papers on women and business for the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, Harvard Business School, and the Center for International Private Enterprise. Gayle earned a BA in journalism summa cum laude from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and an MBA from Harvard Business School, where she received the 2006 Dean’s Award for her work on women’s entrepreneurship.  She speaks Spanish, German, and French and is conversant in Dari.  A former Fulbright scholar and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she serves on the board of the International Center for Research on Women.

AN INTERVIEW WITH GAYLE LEMMON
Where are you from?

I grew up in Greembelt, Maryland

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

I wanted to be a journalist.

What do you do to unwind and relax?
Recently I have not had much time for that! Yoga, Law & Order and fashion magazines is the answer, in that order, when I do.
Tell us your latest news.
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana comes out on March 15 from HarperCollins. Thanks for your support.
What inspired you to pen your first novel?
Well, this is a true story of the unsung heroines who pull families through impossible times every day. I started reporting on women entrepreneurs in war zones in 2005 and could not believe I had heard so few of their stories.  We are so used to seeing women as victims of war to be pitied rather than survivors of war to be respected, and I wanted to write a book that would do its part to change that.
Who or what has influenced your writing, and in what way?
Journalism has influenced my writing because I believe in good storytelling as the root of creating change. I want folks who have never read a book set in Afghanistan to know that they can pick up this story and see its universality right away – women fighting for families and communities and taking risks despite the dangers for the sake of those they love.
How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

I was raised by incredibly strong women who made sure I had all the opportunities possible despite all the difficulties they faced. That certainly helped me see the world through the same lens as some of the women I write about.

How much of your work is realistic?

This book is based on two years of interviews and on the ground research in Afghanistan. I worked very hard to show the Taliban period from a number of vantage points and to show what women’s lives during those years looked and felt like.

Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?

I hope to write another book as soon as next year, this one set in Liberia. Stay tuned.

Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?

Yes; I love to travel so this is a joy, not a hardship. It is a privilege to get to do work you love and believe in, and I am grateful for the opportunity.

What is the hardest part of writing?
Getting started. After that it is just a question of hard work.
What advice would you give to writers just starting out?

Do not give up. Even and especially when people tell you there is no audience for what you are doing, do it anyway. Get better at it. And stay at it.

Who is your favorite author and why?

I have so many! I love Albert Camus. Marcus Aurelius. Jane Austen. Hillary Mantle.  And I think Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains” was terrific.  Philip Gourevitch is another favorite.

How did you deal with rejection letters?
Take the hit, see if you can learn anything from the feedback, and remember that there is no giving up, so stay at it.
What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
A good dictionary. And a great Thesaurus.
Any recent appearances that you would like to share with us about/any upcoming ones?
Please do come join the public events in Boston, New York, LA or Washington — you can find all the details at http://www.gaylelemmon.com/events
If you could leave your readers with one legacy, what would you want it to be?

Stories of women and war are not soft. Pulling families through conflict is hard work, and I hope The Dressmaker will help readers see it as such.

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
That depends on how much other work I have. For much of The Dressmaker, I was working full-time while writing, so I would write from 430 – 630 am, then from 7:30 pm – 12:00 am.
When did you write your first book and how old were you?

This is my first book. I began writing it at 35 and it will publish when I am 37.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I like to work so I write nearly all the time.

What does your family think of your writing?
I am very blessed to have a family which supports my work so deeply. Especially when security was very tough in Afghanistan, they always encouraged me to push forward, though they never hid their worry.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your books?
How much work women did during the Taliban years in Afghanistan, years in which they were not even supposed to be on the streets.
Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
I am starting to hear from readers of The Dressmaker now. It’s a pleasure to hear their thoughts and what the book meant to them.
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I learned everything from writing this book! In earnest, it has been a rich learning process that has taught me even more about the power of perseverance, hard work and devotion to your family and your cause, whatever that cause might be.
What books have most influenced your life?
“The Plague,” essays from Ralph Waldo Emerson
Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.

85 Broads

Do you see writing as a long- or short-term career?

Long.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in any of your books?

Oh, goodness, perhaps. But I don’t believe in looking backward. I want to learn from this experience and use that learning for the next book.

ABOUT THE BOOK:

View Our Review

The life Kamila Sidiqi had known changed overnight when the Taliban seized control of the city of Kabul. After receiving a teaching degree during the civil war—a rare achievement for any Afghan woman—Kamila was subsequently banned from school and confined to her home. When her father and brother were forced to flee the city, Kamila became the sole breadwinner for her five siblings. Armed only with grit and determination, she picked up a needle and thread and created a thriving business of her own.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the incredible true story of this unlikely entrepreneur who mobilized her community under the Taliban. Former ABC News reporter Gayle Tzemach Lemmon spent years on the ground reporting Kamila’s story, and the result is an unusually intimate and unsanitized look at the daily lives of women in Afghanistan. These women are not victims; they are the glue that holds families together; they are the backbone and the heart of their nation.

Afghanistan’s future remains uncertain as debates over withdrawal timelines dominate the news. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana moves beyond the headlines to transport you to an Afghanistan you have never seen before. This is a story of war, but it is also a story of sisterhood and resilience in the face of despair. Kamila Sidiqi’s journey will inspire you, but it will also change the way you think about one of the most important political and humanitarian issues of our time.

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