Kim Barnes's novel In the Kingdom of Men follows a barefoot girl from red-dirt Oklahoma to a lavish oil company compound in Saudi Arabia. Tip Sheet caught up with Barnes to discuss George Bush, Bedouins, and the place of research in novel writing.
In the Kingdom of Men begins in a shack in Shawnee, Oklahoma but soon moves to Saudi Arabia, in an oil company's gated compound with marble floors, chefs, and gardeners.How does setting shape the characters in the book?
The physical setting defines the characters, as does the “boomtown” sense of urgency that sets the tone for the action of the story. My uncle, who worked in Arabia as a roughneck, once told me that “people were making more money than they knew what to do with it.” When my main character, Gin, and her husband, Mason McPhee, move to the Aramco compound of Abqaiq, they leave behind a setting defined by poverty and enter into a Disneyland version of the American Dream.
Inside the gated American “camps,” Aramco provided the best schools and medical care that money could buy. By the late 1960s, the compounds had been turned into vibrant oases outfitted with swimming pools, bowling alleys, and movie theaters. In a matter of months, Gin goes from being a poor school girl in Oklahoma to a roughneck’s wife in Houston to a “lady of leisure” in Arabia.
What Gin soon discovers is that, despite her new-found privilege inside the compound, outside the gate, her life is defined by the laws of the land, including certain aspects of shariah, which, finally, seem little different to her than the strict dictates of the fundamentalist religion with which she had been raised. It isn’t until she begins challenging those laws that the fairy tale of her new world starts to break down.
How much of the book is from personal experience and how much is from research?
The seed of this story has been with me since I was a girl, when my aunt and uncle, who had moved to Saudi Arabia so that my uncle could work as a roughneck in the oil fields, would come home for Christmas, bringing with them exotic gifts: I still have the small, camel hide purse painted with a Bedouin caravan that they gave me, but I knew very little about their lives in Arabia until they retired and moved close by. Even though the situation and action of the story are wholly fictional, my aunt, uncle, and cousin were able to provide me with memories that grounded the story in authentic detail.
Still, of the five-plus years that it took me to write this book, four were spent on research. I read every pertinent novel, memoir, and scholarly text by Arabs and Americans that I could get my hands on. I cruised used book stores and Amazon’s marketplace to ferret out old issues of National Geographic and Aramco publications from the 1960s. I learned everything I could about the flora and fauna of the peninsula and the oceanography of the Gulf. I watched Lawrence of Arabia multiple times and documentaries on the House of Saud. I did so much research that, at one point, my editor asked if the facts might be getting in the way of the story, but, even though it is a fictional telling, I felt a great responsibility to get the details of this story right and to honor the truth of the lives of the people who were witness to this astounding time and place.
Talk about the tidbit you discovered about the connection between George Bush's oil drilling company, Zapata Off-Shore (whom Mason McPhee works for in the novel), and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Ha! I wondered if anyone would pick up on that!
For the action of the story to move forward, I had to get Mason and Gin out of Oklahoma and give him the experience in off-shore drilling that would make him attractive to an Aramco recruiter. I knew that Houston was the likeliest place for him to land, and, from there, I began researching drilling companies who were around the area in the 1960s. I discovered Zapata Off-Shore, began clicking links…and down the rabbit hole I went!
Some of the most fascinating material I discovered about Aramco during the course of my research came from declassified CIA documents, but information about George H. W. Bush’s company and its connection to the Bay of Pigs fiasco is readily available, even on Wiki. In fact, the CIA codename for the invasion was “Operation Zapata.” Two of the invasion ships were named the “Barbara J” and the “Houston.”
Really, I wasn’t surprised, just intrigued. It was fun to imbed such trivia here and there, but it also reflects the astounding level of “cooperation” between various governments and the world’s major oil companies. I came away from the writing of this book with a sense that “Big Oil” is, in its way, an international government unto itself, whose power most of us have little true sense of but which informs and dictates our lives on a daily basis.
It took you five years to write the book. What has changed most about it in the five years since the idea was born?
Sometimes, it’s hard to remember the various and diverse drafts of this book, but the biggest change happened as I attempted to find that balance between the book’s element of suspense and intrigue and the character-driven narrative that belongs to Gin.
At one point, I actually rewrote much of the book in third-person so that my narrator could heighten the urgency of the action, but with the support of my editor, I came full circle and realized that I needed to go deeper inside Gin in order to understand what the story is really about. It is her transformation—the “education of Mrs. Gin,” her houseboy calls it—that embodies the enormous changes taking place all around her.
Really, it was incredibly difficult for me to not load up the narrative with all kinds of historical facts and political observations. The history of the American presence in Arabia is an important part of this book, but I had to give the discussion and enactment of that history to my characters and let them live the story.
What are you reading now?
In the Footsteps of the Camel: A Portrait of the Bedouins of Eastern Saudi Arabia in Mid-Century by Eleanor Nicholson. I just can’t get enough.