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Dreams of Bread and Fire


The Birds of Beirut

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Mar Mikhael steps, Beirut

I arrived in Beirut on Friday night, and on Saturday my hosts drove me to the Armenian village of Anjar in the Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian border. The women of the ABC Book Club had set up a large television set and thirty chairs on a spacious home patio. Members of the book club made short speeches about the history of their group, an introduction to my work, and a brief reading from my second novel, DREAMS OF BREAD AND FIRE, which they had read and discussed. Then I presented my “Armenian Diaspora Quartet” slideshow, weaving in two poems, “The Angel” and “Homage to Bourj Hammoud.” After the presentation, we ate homemade Armenian and Lebanese desserts in the garden. My favorite was a fruitcake called kumba, a specialty of Anjar (made from a recipe the Armenians of Musa Ler had brought with them in the late 30’s). My hosts insisted that I take home the entire platter of kumba. When I asked, “What will I do with all this?” I was told, “It has no eggs or butter; it keeps forever. Eat what you like, and at the end of the week you can put it in your suitcase.” (Believe me, I did it.)

The next evening was April 24th, and I went with friends to the Armenian Genocide vigil in Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut. After listening to the speeches for a while, we walked around the soulless ghost town that is the Solidere reconstruction of the old Souk area. The following day when I ventured out on my own—trying to get to the Sursock Museum to see the Assadour show—I got horribly lost. When I had showed the receptionist at the hotel a map, and asked for directions from the hotel to the museum, she looked at the map as though she had little idea of what it was, let alone how to read it. People in Beirut don’t use maps, and the available ones are pretty terrible, so for a person such as myself with absolutely no sense of direction, navigating the city was a challenge. A soldier at an intersection noticed my confusion, asked me where I was going, told me that I was very far from my destination (I had walked for fifteen minutes in the opposite direction), and explained that the only way for me to get there was by taxi.

The rest of the week, volunteer guides—old friends, new friends, and an aspiring fiction writer who is a student at Haigazian University—accompanied me. They were all locals who negotiated the maze of streets without maps. After the first afternoon of walking around in Bourj Hammoud, I despaired of ever being able to properly situate my characters in the space. But by the final day of my trip, I had determined the street where the Serinossians resided, the church they attended, the school where the children were enrolled, the father’s occupation, and his place of work. For later reference, I took photos of old wooden houses, mid-century apartment buildings with balconies and awnings, Armenian schools, Armenian churches, streets signs, and old doors. I also identified a few common birds: laughing dove, house sparrow, rock dove, and white wagtail. In Bourj Hammoud and Nor Hadjin I saw canaries in wire cages and zebra finches in wooden ones.

Equally importantly, I heard stories of the war years—the kinds of anecdotes that provide me with the small details I need to create the narrative world of the novel. Here is one line I heard that opened up a universe of feeling: “Sundays were sad days—because the ships took them to Cyprus, and from there they flew away.”

 

Nancy Kricorian

New York City


The Nightmare of Publication and the Happy Afterlife of Books

novels

 

NIGHTMARE

Much has been made of the analogy between publishing a novel and giving birth to a child. Having given birth to two children and published three novels, I can say the two things have very little in common. One of traits they do share is that the pain involved is quickly forgotten, almost erased from memory, so that one is willing to undertake the process again. When I was in labor with my first child—a labor that lasted 24 hours—at the height of the agony, I insisted that my spouse repeat this sentence, “I promise I will never let you do this again.” Of course, several years later I was the one lobbying for another child, and when I went into labor a second time, the pain of the first rose up in my bodily memory like a hammer, and I thought, “Oh no! I didn’t want to do this again.” But by that point I had no choice.

About six months before the publication of my first novel, I had lunch with a writer friend who had already published three books. He kindly offered to pen a laudatory quotation for use on my novel’s back cover, and we talked shop about publishers, first print runs, foreign rights sales, and the like. I was working as a literary scout for international publishers at the time so I knew a fair amount about the business, but I was a neophyte as an author. When he said, “The three months around publication are a complete nightmare,” I was shocked. For years I had been longing to hold in my hands a copy of a book with my name printed on the cover. Wasn’t that the whole point of writing? Wasn’t that every unpublished writer’s dream? And here he was telling me that the achievement of my heart’s desire was going to make me miserable. I didn’t believe him, and even if I had believed him, it wouldn’t have made any difference because, as with childbirth, no amount of intellectual knowledge can prepare you for the lived experience.

Yet when the novel Zabelle was published in early 1998 I entered, as he had predicted, a dreadful realm where I couldn’t see the cover of a newspaper or magazine, including automotive trade rags, without wondering if my book were reviewed in its pages. I read all the reviews, getting a quick, temporary high from the good ones, and inadvertently memorizing the nasty bits from the bad ones. In the middle of the night the derisive comments would come echoing up in the voice of a wicked Disney Queen. The book tour had similar highs and lows—at one reading there were over a hundred people in the audience and for an hour I felt like a rock star; at the next gig only five souls showed up and I felt humiliated. I checked my Amazon.com sales rank on a daily, if not hourly, basis. I was still working in publishing then, and when I heard news about novels my editor had subsequently purchased, I was jealous if she had paid higher advances for them than she had for mine. I was, in fact, suffering from jealousy about what other “literary” (as opposed to commercial) writers that I knew had achieved: advances, print runs, foreign sales, film sales, starred reviews, twelve-city book tours, awards, honors, speaking gigs, and teaching positions.

But eventually the publication ordeal was in the past, the anxieties receded, and life got back to relative normal—until the aftershocks of the paperback launch a year later. It was difficult, if not impossible, to work on another novel during the months around publication of the hardcover and later the paperback. Then I was finally writing again—working on a second book. I went through a similar process when that one was published in 2003, except that it was a less successful book (fewer reviews, fewer copies sold, no translation sales). The Armenian community had avidly embraced Zabelle, which was a fictionalized account of my grandmother’s life as an Armenian genocide survivor and immigrant bride. The second book, Dreams of Bread and Fire, was a coming of age story about a half-Armenian young woman named Ani Silver who hops a freight train, has sex, experiments with drugs, and gets involved with a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary who sets off a bomb outside a Turkish airlines office. Two years after the 9/11 attacks was not a great moment for a book with a bomb in it, and if Zabelle was everyone’s beloved grandmother and mother, Ani was the daughter and granddaughter nobody wanted. If I had titled the book The Bad Armenian Girl it would have sold more copies. But my imagination resists commercial considerations.

I started my third novel not undaunted, but definitely unbowed. By the time the All the Light There Was, a novel about Maral Pegorian, a young Armenian girl growing to maturity in Paris during World War II, came out, the publishing world had undergone a sea change. While the book was a success in many regards—I earned out my advance, I sold over three times as many copies as I had of the previous book, and it was well reviewed—the process was fraught for all the old reasons and a few new ones. In addition to the mainstream reviewers and Amazon customer comments, there were now dozens if not hundreds of places people could vent their feelings about a book: Goodreads, Library Thing, and professional, literary and personal blogs. No matter how many four- and five-star reviews my book accrued, I had to train myself NOT to pay attention to the snarky one-star reviews. Then, in what seemed like an unimaginable setback, the publisher decided not to do a paperback. For a few weeks I was devastated, but rather than wallowing in despair, I followed my hero Grace Paley’s dictum, “The only recognizable feature of hope is action.” My agent was able to get the publisher to revert the paperback rights, and I approached my friends at She Writes Press about the possibility of doing the paperback with them. She Writes was in the business of producing paperback originals, but the publisher told me I was the third writer who had recently approached her with this kind of reprint saga and they would indeed be able to help me.

The paperback of All the Light There Was appeared in October 2014, and the sales have been good, far outstripping the low expectations of the hardcover publisher. Now I’m starting work on my next novel, the fourth in what my editor has labeled The Armenian Diaspora Quartet. I have been researching for over a year—the book will be focused on an Armenian family in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. I haven’t started writing yet, and my psychotherapist asked me, “Are you sure, after how hard the publication process was on you, that you want to do another one?” I answered, “The writing is the good part, and the rest… I’ll deal with that when the time comes. I’m such a slow writer that it won’t be for another five years in any event.”

 

HAPPY AFTERLIFE

The other aspect to all this is that, despite my complaints and pains, all three of my novels are still in print. And when I reference the “happy afterlife of books,” I’m using the word happy in its original, archaic meaning. The word “hap” comes from Middle English for chance, luck, or fortune. I have the great good fortune that my books are available in paperback, in e-book versions, and in audio format. I have even recently signed a contract for a French edition of my second novel. I am lucky and grateful.

Each time after the promotional push around publication, I’ve had the feeling that my novel, which has the shelf life of yogurt in the brick-and-mortar bookstores, has been laid to rest. As far as the publisher is concerned, it’s done and they have moved on to the next season’s titles, but the funny thing is that my books are out in the world—in libraries, in people’s homes, available through online retailers, and in second-hand bookstores—and they continue to circulate and to have lives of their own, lives that I know nothing about except when I see a new customer comment on Goodreads, or when someone contacts me via Twitter or Facebook to express appreciation, or when I receive a fan letter through my agent. Another way that I’m fortunate is that I have a readership that cares about my work. I’m a minor celebrity in a minority community. At a recent Armenian fundraiser, a man seated at my table, when he found out that I was the author of Zabelle, told me that his mother has kept a copy of the book on her nightstand for many years. I love the idea that Zabelle Chahasbanian, Ani Silver, and Maral Pegorian are living in the hearts of unknown readers. It gives me the necessary drive to breathe life into my new heroine. Her name is Vera Serinossian.

 

Nancy Kricorian


The Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Heard

Just published in paperback by She Writes Press

Just reissued in paperback by She Writes Press

 

You hear all kinds of advice about writing, and there are dozens of handbooks offering guidance, most of it is abstract and pretty useless, or else it’s so specific that it doesn’t suit. Many years ago when I was a student, a poet and teacher gave me a piece of advice that didn’t mean much at the time, but which I understood much later to be the best writing tip ever offered to me.

“Respect your process,” is what she said, and she said it before “writing process” had become a registered trademark. Her words echo in my head at moments when I am annoyed with myself for how slowly I write, or for how much time I spend researching before I even start to write, or for the fact that I don’t have the book mapped out in my head before I begin, which means that I will have to do multiple drafts to get it where it needs to be.

What I have recognized lately, however, is that process, like everything else, doesn’t stay the same. I have written three novels, and each time, the process has been different. With the first book, as I made the transition from poetry to fiction, the only way I could possibly think about taking on something as enormous as a novel was by breaking the narrative down into 10-15 page episodic chapters. I also had two small children, and was running a small business as a literary scout for foreign publishers, so the only time I could devote to writing was Friday morning. I never had writer’s block, because if I didn’t churn out those pages once a week, the novel was never going to get done.

By the time Zabelle, a fictionalized account of my grandmother’s life as an Armenian Genocide survivor and immigrant bride, was published, I was already two years into researching my second novel, Dreams of Bread and Fire, a coming-of-age story about someone of my generation growing up in the Armenian-American community. My kids were in elementary school, I had quit the scouting business, and my writing process had changed: I wrote for two hours each day. I knew other writers who could sit at a keyboard for six hours or more a day, but for me two hours was the upper limit of productive writing time. Of course, I kept tinkering with it in my head while I was sitting on the playground or even when I was sleeping, but two hours in front of the computer was my process.

When I started researching my third novel about Armenians in Paris during the Nazi occupation, I was working twenty plus hours a week for CODEPINK Women for Peace. There were many days when being at a street demonstration against the Iraq war took precedence over laboring on the novel; still I tried to stick to the two-hour a weekday regimen. But I added a new rule: even if I didn’t have two hours, I would write for twenty minutes. Twenty minutes was enough to keep the characters and the language active in my mind so that the passive work would continue. It took me ten years to write the third book, partly because of CODEPINK and the miserable state of the world, and partly because as my kids got older they took up more space in my head than they did when they were small.

All The Light There Was, my World War II novel, was published in hardcover in 2013 and has just been reissued in paperback by She Writes Press. For two years now I’ve been researching a new novel, the fourth installment in what my editor has dubbed “The Armenian Diaspora Quartet.” It’s about Armenians in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. I haven’t started writing, and I feel anxious when I think about the fact that I don’t yet hear the sentences that will launch this story. But then I remember my mantra: “Respect your process.” I’m not entirely sure what the process will be. One of my daughters is in graduate school, and the other is a freshman in college. I’m still engaged in grassroots social justice organizing with CODEPINK, and I’ve started doing more speaking engagements, traveling, and teaching. I do know that the name of my main character is Vera, and that she grew up in the Armenian community of Bourj Hammoud before she and her family immigrated to the United States in 1980. I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time with her.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian
New York City


Hopping a Freight Train from Denver to Salt Lake

 

Hopping a Freight Train from Denver to Salt Lake

Conversation in a Denver rail yard

 A friend sent me an old photo taken one summer when my college boyfriend and I traveled from Boston to Seattle using all manner of transport, including hopping a freight train from Denver to Salt Lake City. The photo was taken by my boyfriend and pictured me and his best friend, who drove us to the Denver rail yard. About an hour later the two of us hopped the “jackrabbit,” what the watchman had called the next fast train out. I used this adventure in my second novel, DREAMS OF BREAD AND FIRE. Below is an excerpt from that section of the book.

 

Ani and Asa crept alongside the train until they located an open boxcar door and clambered in. The yard lights cast a parallelogram of brightness on the grimy wooden floor. They found several large sheets of heavy cardboard and pulled them to one end of the car. As they were settling into their corner two figures climbed in.

Hello, people, said a tall lean man. He was wearing soiled jeans and a denim work shirt rolled to the elbows. Don’t mind if we share the accommodations, do you?

No problem at all, Asa responded. He stood and pulled Ani to her feet.

This here is Ray, the taller one said, pointing to his short sidekick, and I’m Wiley. Ray bobbed his head while Wiley extended his hand.

Asa shook Wiley’s hand. I’m Asa. This is Ani.

Wiley’s face cracked into a smile that cried out for a dentist. I haven’t seen a girl riding the rails in a good long time.

As the train rattled out of the yard, the men set up in the opposite end of the car while Asa and Ani retreated to theirs. The train picked up speed, dashing along the tracks.

Ani whispered, Did you catch the naked woman tattooed on Wiley’s arm? I think there’s something the matter with the short one. He looks like an ax murderer.

Will you please calm down? Asa whispered back.

Great. We’re in a boxcar with a couple of deranged derelicts and he tells me to calm down. What are you some kind of dahngahlakh?

Asa said, I’m not going to let anything happen to you.

Thanks, Superman, Ani said.

Ani drew her knees up and closed her eyes. She pretended to relax, but actually she was envisioning Asa wrestling Wiley to the floor while Ray chased her around with a knife.

After a while, Asa and Ani moved to the boxcar door and saw a tunnel through the mountains looming ahead.

A lineman standing near the track waved frantically and shouted at them, Get inside! Cover your faces.

As they entered the tunnel, Asa and Ani lay on the floor with sweaters over their noses and mouths. Wiley and Ray pulled their shirts over their faces as well. It seemed like a long time that they were hurtling through the dark with thick, acrid air around them.

Asa drew her close with his free arm. Ani lay in his embrace, sure that their dead bodies would be discovered in the car when it arrived in Salt Lake. Her mother had begged Ani to take the bus. She claimed she wouldn’t get a wink of sleep until Ani called from Seattle. Her family would weep over Ani’s open casket. The Kersamians would forever curse the name of Asa Willard for leading Ani to an early demise. That ruled out joint burial in the family plot in the Ridgelawn Cemetery.

Finally, light and clean air flowed into the boxcar.

The four of them moved to the door frame, where the clustered lights of small mountain towns passed by. Soon there were only isolated houses and then they were in the craggy wilds of the Colorado Rockies. The moon cast a creamy carpet of light over the angular peaks.

Wiley said, Me and Ray broke out of a work camp near Lubbock a few days ago.

What were you in for? Asa asked.

Picked up for vagrancy. Sent us out to the farm. Barbed wire all around. The foreman had a whip and kept at us from dawn till dusk.

To Ani it sounded like something out of a fifties chain-gang movie.

I didn’t think that kind of thing was legal anymore, Ani said to Wiley.

Wiley laughed. Honey, you wouldn’t believe the things that are legal in Texas.

 

Nancy Kricorian

NOTES: Dreams of Bread and Fire was published by Grove Press in 2003. Danhgahlakh means blockhead. Photo courtesy of John Ackerly.