“Caught Between Worlds is a fantastic story set in Iraq in 1980 about a kidnapping—except instead of a kid, it’s his father who is taken hostage when war breaks out with Iran. Tom O’Hara’s father is taken by armed militants shortly after they move to Baghdad. Grieving the loss of his mother a year ago, Tom relies on his memories of her, an anthropology professor, and their mutual interest in Alexander the Great who appears to Tom as a guide. With the help of his new friend Mikhail and a dog named Ursa, Tom rescues his father and learns the power of friendship which transcends religious or cultural differences. A page-turner with a terrific plot twist.” – Jill Swenson
Therese has been a voracious reader since early childhood. Heaven, as she saw it, was discovering the Carnegie Library in walking distance of her Springfield, Illinois, home. Her father’s sisters and her mother were readers and tale-tellers. Her two grandfathers were instrumental in forming her core value that everyone can hold their own beliefs and still get along, a central theme of her writing.
Therese’s connection to the Arab culture came from her Iraqi husband, whom she met in college, and his family. As soon as they met, she started reading everything she could on Iraq. When she opened a conversation with him based on her reading, he often said: “Really? How do you know that?” He spent his youth dreaming of America. She dove into Iraqi culture and cooking as if she were born into it. Their six children had an interesting old world/new world upbringing. The three boys and three girls revealed to her any life experiences she may have missed on her own.
The death of her son, Michael, inspired this book, her first novel, and is the model for the character of Mikhail. Therese teaches workshops on grief and inclusion, and spent her mid-years working at schools and child-learning organizations. She is the author, with her daughters Mary and Catherine, of a book for young children titled Me and Green, a guide to small everyday things that can save the planet. Today, she is a Certified HeartMath® Trainer and Somatic Intuitive Training™ Certified Practitioner, with six books published and awards won in non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. Her passionate belief is that all people can learn to be together through finding common interests. In recent years, she’s found this to be more and more important.
Therese is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; The Society of American Poets; International Women’s Writing Guild; International Coach Foundation; and Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).
To celebrate the release of her book, I am excited to share this Q&A with Therese.
Audrey Arnold: What has the journey of writing and publishing Caught Between Worlds been like?
Therese Tappouni: The journey has been long, arduous, and joyful. I began with a short story written to commemorate the death of my 11-year-old son Michael. That was a sprint. The story lay unfinished for fifteen years. As my mourning lessened, I had a strong desire to memorialize him in a book as a character. The characters took control of my daylight hours and my dreams. (Mikhail is Arabic for Michael.) Compared to the writing, the quest for a publisher was a marathon for which few are prepared. Finding Jill was a wonder. Though I did decide to self-publish with BookBaby, an excellent self-publishing company, I published a better book.
Audrey: You mentioned in your bio that you have a connection to Arab culture through your husband. In what ways did that connection help you in writing this book?
Therese: It meant everything to the believability of my manuscript. I would never have written this personal look at the Iraqi community without having thirty years with Iraqi in-laws. I cooked the food I write about; traveled in the country I write about; and observed a Christian Iraqi culture I couldn’t have learned any other way. I don’t believe, as some do, that you must “BE” who you write about. Shakespeare would have written only one play if that were so, and what about science fiction? That said, having a personal connection, deep research, and a respect for the culture you write about is essential.
Audrey: What was the largest hurdle you had to overcome in writing and publishing this book?
Therese: I believe it is what I mentioned in the last answer, plus a fear in the entertainment industry that American readers won’t read anything positive about a culture they have been taught to mistrust and dislike. This is one of the main reasons I wrote the book. My son loved everyone—he didn’t know a stranger. That is a chord I wanted to strike. Everyone is different, yet at the core we are all human and our hearts can be touched.
Audrey: There must have been a lot of research involved in writing this book. What was your favorite thing you learned?
Therese: There were so many things. In researching, I visited the Oriental Museum at the University of Chicago. That place is a hidden gem, containing thousands of artifacts unearthed in the Middle East. There is also a huge library. I was there until the guard came to get me, warning that taxi cabs don’t come to the Southside of Chicago after dark, and I would be in trouble.
In researching Alexander, I became fixated on finding every book I could on his life and why they never found his body. I loved the affection he had for his teacher, Aristotle, but also his chief enemy’s mother. Darius’s mother traveled with Alexander’s army after the defeat of her son, and became a surrogate mother to Alexander. I learned so much.
Audrey: What do you hope readers will take away from Caught Between Worlds?
Therese: Please know that all cultures have similarities, and when we vilify others we cause great harm. Tom and Mikhail created a rescue plan for Tom’s father using the “Can-do” of America and the “Insa’Allah” (God willing) of the Arab world. Together, they succeed and learn that they are more alike than they are different. I would love people to take away that human connection.
Also, many of the wise guides in the book are women: from Tom and Mikhail’s mothers to the mother of Bogasian, the leader of the Kurds, and Mikhail’s sister Mariam. Even their Samoyed dog, Ursa, is a female. This book has been read and loved by both kids and adults, and I think that’s because somewhere, on a page, they see themselves or someone they love.
Get your copy of Caught Between Worlds today!