Matar’s My Friends (Random House, Jan.) chronicles the decades-long friendship of three Libyan dissidents living in exile in the U.K. during the Gadaffi era.

The novel begins at the end—a farewell between friends in London—which sets a poignant tone. Had you always imagined beginning the book this way?

For a long time, I had only that, but I didn’t know who these people were, nor why this farewell was so important. Yet I instinctively thought it was a good place to start. When you have to say goodbye to someone you love, taking them to a station or to an airport, the way the world outside appears, through the window of a car or train, is very charged. The moment they leave, the air seems to change: the velocity of time itself is altered. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a novel open in that precarious place?

So the genesis of the novel was friendship, rather than the political events presented?

Yes. I had no conscious intent of wanting to write a book about Libyan politics. What I did intend was to write a novel about temperament, which is a hard thing to write about, hence why the novel is such a suitable place to explore it. And temperament concerning what I witnessed during the events we now refer to as the Arab Spring. I was embroiled in them, as were many of my friends, and during this period I observed that the positions and life choices people ended up taking had less to do with their political opinions or their system of beliefs and much more to do with the temperament of their character. I found that fascinating.

The main character has a particular nature—he’s referred to by his friends as “reluctant Khaled.”

It served my purpose to have the principal character be so reluctant, because he created a pool of magnetic sensors, which drew everything else towards it.

When did you begin writing?

I had the idea in 2012, the year after the Arab Spring. I also felt, however, a kind of reluctance: it was too soon. I needed a space of doubt and open consideration towards an event about which I felt so passionate. I didn’t want to write a novel that was adamant in its political views. I was much more interested in the human event.

Why is friendship so fascinating?

In other relationships, familial or amorous, there are some agreed-upon norms. With friendship however, there is no stated protocol, so they’re very promiscuous! We can have many at the same time, and most of us are lucky enough to have enduring friendships—miraculously. What holds them together is mysterious.