Today I’m pleased to introduce you to my good writing friend and inspiration, Hyba! I’ve mentioned her before on this blog: specifically to promote her podcast in my writing resources post, and to leave a glowing review of her novel, Apartment, in my last goals recap. I’m thrilled to have her on the blog to talk about how she developed her book, and I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.
Etta: Can you start by telling us about yourself and what you write?
Hyba: My name is Hyba Ouazzani, and I’m a Muslim author, podcaster, and blogger based somewhere on the vast continent that is Africa.
I enjoy writing in a range of genres. Apartment is my psychological thriller, and I’m currently working on a murder mystery called Marie/Elise, a high fantasy novel called The Pirates of Sissa, a futuristic sci-fi called Neon Vape: A Vaporwave Odyssey, a horror novel called An Entity in Your Midst, a GameLit serial fiction called The Beast of Ildenwood, an epistolary Gothic tale called Letters to Adam, and many, many more! Sometimes, I write poetry and short stories. In short, I enjoy writing in all kinds of formats and genres. If the story and concept idea are good enough for me, then that’s all that matters.
That being said, I am most interested in writing pieces that make certain statements about society and humanity at large. Pieces like Apartment are meant to challenge the reader, make them ask questions about the darker aspects of human nature and the world we live in. The Pirates of Sissa deals with justice, conflict resolution, and the lasting effects of imperialism. Neon Vape takes a hard look at the extent to which companies are willing to go to make a profit and be market leaders—in other words, the dark side of capitalism. I’m working on a short story that challenges the impossible beauty perceptions and other expectations pushed upon women. Anywhere there’s a good discussion to be had is where I want my books to be!
Etta: That’s a wonderful variety, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your works! I recently finished Apartment, so I wanted to know, what gave you the idea for that story?
Hyba: Apartment came out of the blue as I was sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce on my bed. I had the urge to write something, and I started writing it—though I wasn’t even certain what I was writing at that time. There was just the apartment building, huge and ugly and empty. And there were just the two inhabitants—two in the midst of this great, big beast of a building. Those first words that the book starts off with are the first words that I wrote for Apartment (though they’ve undergone a bit of editing ever since, especially when it comes to keeping track of the numbers!). I chose a place to anchor my ship and got to work.
It was weird, messy, and entirely unexpected. But somehow it worked together in such a way that I began to see it take some kind of form. These characters that went about their mundane everyday lives but were just a little off. That sticky suspense that clung to their skin like sweat. The cold, isolated, hollow building set in that sprawling hot desert. All of it came together, and as I started weaving all of these elements into a picture that made sense, I knew that this was an intriguing project.
I wanted it to mean more than what I was putting on paper, so I took a lot of care to craft the story in such a way that it could be analyzed, read and re-read. The story unfolded, the characters came to life, and even when I got to that muddy middle, I somehow found a way to trudge through and see the whole book to the end. It was the first book I’d ever finished.
Etta: This story is labeled as ‘magical realism.’ How did you choose which aspects of the story to make fantastical and which to keep grounded in our world?
Hyba: I knew that the fates of certain characters needed to be metaphorical and symbolic of wider themes—for example, James and Eli have very fantastical ends as characters. In other areas of the book, I chose to insert magical or fantastical elements to highlight key points about the plot, characters, settings, or themes—and almost always signal to readers that “This means something deeper!”
In other words, the fantastical aspects are almost never added just to be there. Most, if not all, convey specific messages and invite readers to think about what these strange and unexpected events and characteristics actually mean about the characters, the settings, or the themes found within the story.
Etta: Do you think horror and suspense stories based on speculative fears (demons, supernatural, ghosts etc.) or real world fears (stalkers, serial killers, natural disasters, etc.) are more effective? Or do you think it depends on the particular story?
Hyba: Not only do I think it depends on the story and its execution, but I also think that it depends greatly on the reader and what they believe in. For some readers, the supernatural is a very real thing, and is therefore a very real fear, but others scoff at the supernatural and find pure entertainment within the pages of such horror. For some, fear of the unknown is stronger than fear of the known, while the opposite is true for others. An unstoppable event, like a natural disaster, may be much more frightening for some readers than something that could potentially be stopped, like a stalker. And yet, there are also some that will find a natural disaster much less horrifying than a malicious, evil human being.
I think it boils down to the psychology and beliefs of the reader. We all have those little things that really make us tick—that make us smack those pages closed and check to make sure our doors are locked and the windows are closed and the bathroom light is on before we fall asleep. At the end of the day, any kind of horror will find its intended audience, and that audience will appreciate it as a horror that is true to them and, in some ways, very real.
Etta: Psychology plays a large role in the story: how did you develop the characters with such specific neuroses that play off each other so dramatically?
Hyba: The characters’ psychologies are based on real-world issues, arguably magnified (and arguably not). I think when you get a cast that has such a diverse set of vices, opportunities for these vices to come head-to-head start popping up naturally. While I didn’t set out to have their neuroses play off of each other, I did enjoy pairing together characters that are destined to meet again (ex: Alex and Eli), and characters whose meetings are unexpected (ex: Angela and the Manager).
In fact, my main focus was on their demises. I knew that Eli and Alex’s fates were intertwined, and therefore their final scenes had to be with one another. I also knew that their destructive nature meant that one of them wouldn’t make it out of that final meeting alive. I knew that Angela’s new-found delusions of grandeur would lead her to her downfall, and what better way to do that than at the hands of the Manager, whose own superiority complex and history places him much higher up the abominable “food chain”, as it were? And, I knew that the Manager, for all of his arrogance and self-confessed hunting prowess, needed to be put to a stop in a way that was entirely unspectacular and unimportant—and so his death came at the hands of the driver. And, the driver, for his part, comes to meet his fate as a result of Eli’s death. Some deaths are interlinked in ways that are fantastical, which allows me to paint a broader, more profound picture for the reader.
That being said, I can see how putting two characters together because of their psychological conditions might turn out various intriguing scenarios. Say, for example, a pyromaniac and someone with a pyrophobia being stuck together in a setting rife with flammable items. I can certainly see this playing out into a very tense psychological thriller!
Etta: How fascinating! Thank you for explaining your reasoning! Now, of course, the setting is crucial in any suspense story, and especially in this one. What inspired the aesthetic of Apartment?
Hyba: It was so long ago, I’m not quite sure what first inspired me to create the Apartment aesthetic anymore. I want to point to the concept of the liminal space, and the idea of someone existing in an empty place on their own. I might also point to various architectural styles and buildings, especially the strange not-quite-rightness of brutalist and/or constructivist architecture—especially those huge buildings that seemed to dwarf everything around them. It seemed so alien, so impersonal, so isolating. I think these are a couple of aesthetics that may have inspired Apartment in its early days.
Etta: That makes a lot of sense! Carrying off the last question, what prose choices did you make to help build up the atmosphere such as a certain extended metaphor or motif or symbol?
Hyba: One of the big decisions I made, though it might have happened subconsciously at first, was creating a sense of the mundane in the prose, especially towards the beginning of the novella, to help strange events (hopefully) stick out in stark contrast to the regular everyday goings-on of the characters. For example, you have a scene where James is going about his usual morning ritual until something strange happens, something out of the regular day-to-day, something that stands out in contrast to what he has become used to. And from there, that little thing starts picking at him, again and again, becoming more and more apparent, demanding more and more attention, and ultimately transforming him.
There were many reasons for choosing this kind of narrative technique. Not only did it serve to create contrast, but it also served to pull the reader into an almost sleepy lull—until they come upon a little detail, pass it, recognize that it wasn’t altogether a normal thing, and go back again to double-check. I wanted readers to almost-miss these little threads that begin to unravel at the beginning of the story. In addition, it also created a sense of suffocation. We’re so trapped inside the characters’ heads—stuck with them in their minds, and stuck with them in this building—that it creates a sense of frustration and restlessness, a sense of suffocation. I believe it helps readers understand better why certain characters are so easily led astray once they are given the chance, and why some of them seem to act almost desperately restless, just looking for something to do.
There are quite a lot of other elements in the book—choices that I made for a variety of different reasons as it pertains to prose, symbolism, metaphors, and more—but it would take a long time to write about them. If anyone is interested in learning more, though, I’ve written and released an entire literary companion for Apartment that’s available here (for free). Check it out—but only if you don’t mind spoilers!
Etta: Thank you for sharing that resource! One last question, what was your favorite part about writing Apartment?
Hyba: Writing suspense—building it into my stories—is one of my favourite parts of writing in general.
With Apartment, I felt it was almost all suspense. In fact, that was one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much, and possibly one of the reasons that I was able to push through and finish it in a shorter amount of time than any other book I’ve been working on. That slow-burn, rising tension is one of my favourite things to write, especially when laid into the perspective and mind of a character that may or may not be completely alright—or completely reliable.
Up until Apartment, I didn’t think I could write something that was almost purely suspense-driven. I always stumbled upon plot, and how to reconcile suspense with other elements that were—well—not so suspenseful! Apartment was a huge learning experience for me as an author, and I’m very happy with the result, and so happy to know that readers have enjoyed it, too.
Etta: Well, I know I loved the story, and I’m sure others have as well. Where can people find you and your writing?
You can find me over on my blog (hybaiswriting.blogspot.com), where I share short stories and snippets, a range of updates for WIPs, talk about my characters and worlds, and sometimes write advice or research posts related to books and writing. To connect with me on my social media, find me on Twitter (@HybaIsWriting), Instagram (@hybaiswriting), Tumblr (@hyba), and Pinterest (hybaiswriting). Finally, you can also check out my podcast over on Anchor (anchor.fm/hyba) or your go-to podcast app!
Thank you again to Hyba for agreeing to do this interview with me and for leaving such thoughtful and thought-provoking answers! If you enjoyed this, be sure to go check out her other work. Thank you for reading, and until next time, happy writing!