2013 July

Building Beirut in My Mind

Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon

Bourj Hammoud, Lebanon


When I was in college, I studied with a poet and short story writer who gave me an instruction that still echoes in my head: “Respect your process.” But my “process” has always been a changing one. When I was a young poet, I wrote a poem by hand, then typed it, made corrections on the typed copy, rewrote it long hand, then typed it again. This process was often repeated up to twenty times.

After graduate school, when I started writing fiction, the technology had changed. I was no longer working on my Olivetti Lettera 100 portable typewriter, nor on the IBM Selectric machines I had access to in my administrative assistant jobs on campus. I was now using a computer, which made the drafting process at once easier and yet harder to keep track of.

The idea of writing a novel was daunting so I thought of it as producing interconnected short stories. Going from writing a one- to two-page poem to a ten- to twelve-page short story was tough, but it didn’t seem impossible, and my first novel Zabelle grew out of this endeavor. Having done it once, the thought of a second novel seemed manageable. My first two books required some research, but they were based in family and personal history so the worlds I described were not so difficult for me to imagine and create.

With my third novel, I was no longer writing about family experience, and it took place in a foreign country and in a time before I was born, so the research process was long and extensive, although fully engrossing. I set out to learn everything I could about Paris during the Nazi Occupation, and as much as possible about the Armenian community in France. Slowly, as I read my way through over one hundred books and talked with dozens of people, my characters’ world became a place I went to in my head each day as I wrote. It was as vivid as the world that I myself inhabited. But after ten years living with the Pegorian family in Paris’s Belleville neighborhood, All The Light There Was went to the copy editor and it was time to move on to my next novel, which would tell the story of Armenians in Lebanon during the Civil War.

Last summer I visited Beirut for the first time. I had read a tall stack of books including novels, histories and guidebooks in preparation, but my process works best with immersion and so I went. Knowing no one in Lebanon, I was armed with a list of the names and contact information of friends of friends. They were mostly Armenians, and they without exception welcomed me as though I were a long-lost cousin. I stayed in Dbayah for the first few days to be close to a friend’s sister, and then moved to a hotel near Hamra for the rest of the visit. I spent five afternoons wandering around the streets of Bourj Hammoud with a new friend who had lived his whole life there and who introduced me to shopkeepers, actors, musicians, jewelers, bankers, and array of other local people. Another new friend took me on a walking tour of the East Beirut neighborhoods of Sanayeh, Zokak el Blat, and Watwat. An acquaintance drove me to Ashrafieh for an hour just so I could have sense where the Armenian churches were in that quarter, and what the houses looked like. I took photos and made copious notes.

Since that trip, I have continued researching, and I have started informally interviewing people about their experiences. As I read novels set in Beirut during the Civil War—such as Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game, Ghada Samman’s Beirut Nightmares, Zeina Abirached’s A Game for Swallows, and Mischa Hiller’s Sabra Zoo—I feel as though I am visiting a familiar landscape. Beirut is slowly becoming a place I go to in my head. I have begun sketching out my characters and choosing names for them. The plot is slowly emerging. As I’m working on my fourth novel, I recognize that my current process will require some additional months of research, more thinking, and internal building. But when I hear the voice of Vera Serinossian for the first time, I’ll know it’s time to start writing.



Nancy Kricorian


Book Report


Book Report


In Time Magazine Lev Grossman covered the literary drama of the summer: J.K. Rowling was revealed to be the author of a mystery novel entitled The Cuckoo’s Calling, penned under the name of James Galbraith. The book, which was published in April, had sold approximately 1000 copies in the U.K. and the U.S. before the story broke. Predictably enough, once it was known that Rowling was the author, the book shot to the top of bestseller lists. As Grossman put it, “If nothing else. l’affaire Galbraith is an object lesson in how hard it is to get attention for even a well-received first book. Its slim sales notwithstanding, the reviews of The Cuckoo’s Calling had been almost universally good. The book was widely ignored by the mainstream critics, but the trade magazines, which cover most new releases, loved it.” Once the J.K. Rowling “brand” was made known, sales skyrocketed, and there was some suspicion about the timing of the reveal, but then the law firm that represents her apologized for being the source of the inadvertent leak.

This week there was also a funny piece on Book Riot by Jennifer Miller, a first-time novelist who decided to try to break the world record for the most book club visits by an author in one month. The gimmick got her a fair amount of media coverage, but also drew the attention of another writer who claimed to hold a record for book club visits that would be hard for Miller to beat.

Speaking of book clubs, I’ve accepted an invitation from the Carleton College New York City Alumni Book Group to join a September discussion of ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS. I am also trying out a new online platform called Togather that allows writers to connect with readers and reading groups by setting up real-world events and online meetings. I have scheduled a book discussion to be held on September 25th at 7:30 p.m. via Spreecast, another new online service that allows for group video chats. If you are interested in joining the September 25th discussion of my book, you can register here. If you are in a book club that would like to read ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS, let me know. If it’s within reasonable commuting distance from New York City, I may be able to visit in person, or we can set up an online event.


Peniche Anako: An Armenian Home Away from Home

The Peniche Anako, a cultural center housed on a canal barge in Paris

The Peniche Anako, a cultural center housed on a canal barge in Paris



When I was in Paris in May, my friend Virginia Pattie Kerovpyan invited me to join her on the Peniche Anako for a jazz concert one evening. The Peniche Anako is a canal barge docked on the West Bank of the La Villette Basin in the 19th arrondissement. The Basin, which is the largest artificial lake in Paris, was filled with water in December 1808 and is part of the 130-kilometer (80.7 mile) Parisian Canal Network that is operated by the municipality. Canal barges have access to about 22 kilometers of the network.

Peniche Anako opened its doors in the fall of 2008 under the direction of Patrick Bernard, an ethnologist whose work focused on the oral traditions of indigenous peoples. In January of 2009, the barge was purchased by the Armenian Red Cross Association (in French le Comité de secours de la Croix Rouge Arménienne, C.S.R.A.), which is an organization founded in the 1920’s by doctors, lawyers and other professionals to provide aid to Armenian Genocide survivors and refugees. In purchasing the boat, the C.S.R.A. intended to continue with multicultural programming, while creating a space where Armenian culture could also be showcased.

Virginia Pattie Kerovpyan took over as Director of Creative Programming starting in 2010, and a close-knit circle of friends and family keeps the project running. When I visited the boat on my recent trip to Paris, her husband Aram was working behind the bar, a friend was collecting tickets at the door, her son was handling the soundboard, and her daughter’s boyfriend was the chef for the evening. The excellent jazz trio concert that night, billed as Anne Pacéo a Carte Blanche,” was performed by the aforementioned Anne Pacéo on percussion, along with Maxime Bender on bass and Olivier Lutz on saxophone. The space is not large—the bar area can comfortably accommodate around 20 people, and the performance space has a capacity of 100—which adds to the intimacy and warmth of the atmosphere.

In addition to the musical performances, ranging from classical, to folk, to jazz, Kerovpyan also schedules visits by artists and storytellers, as well as film screenings, lectures, and dramatic readings. Each month the programming is focused on a different theme: for example this past spring March was devoted to the cultures of Spain and Portugal; in April the theme was Solidarity Encounters and France; The Near East and the Fertile Crescent were the focus in May; and World Diasporas in June. Annually the month of October is dedicated to Armenian culture, with a broad array of events featuring Armenian musicians, artists, photographers and lecturers. Local school children have twice been invited onto the barge for activities—once for an Armenian calligraphy workshop, and the second time for a lesson in Armenian song and dance.

Kerovpyan says, “The Peniche is a space where we aim to provide a warm welcome to all people. We also hope that Armenians from around the world who are passing through Paris will think of this as a home away from home.”



La Peniche Anako (http://penicheanako.info)

Bassin de la Villette

Across from 61, quai de la Seine

75019 PARIS 
Métro: Riquet, Stalingrad ou Jaurès



This piece originally appeared via The Armenian Weekly.


Nancy Kricorian


My Writing Life


ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS in the window at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco

ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS in the window at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, June 2013


Below is a recent interview I did with Pubslush, a “global, crowdfunded publishing platform for aspiring authors and trendsetting readers.”


1. How and when did you decide to become a writer?

I started writing poetry when I was in the first grade, and have never stopped writing. I earned an MFA in Poetry from Columbia’s Writing Division, and soon afterwards starting working on fiction. My first novel ZABELE, a fictionalized account of my grandmother’s life as an Armenian Genocide survivor and immigrant bride, was published in 1998. My second one, DREAMS OF BREAD AND FIRE, which was also set in the Armenian-American community, was released in 2003. My third novel, ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS, has just appeared from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

2. What is the most important piece of advice you can give to aspiring female authors?

1. Be disciplined about your writing. Try to set a schedule and keep to it. If your day gets hectic and you have only a half hour to write, use it.

2. Find a reader you trust who can give you feedback. This might be a mentor, or a friend or a partner. Sometimes the best way to find this kind of reader is by taking a class or a workshop. Half the work of writing is editing, and at least one other trusted voice is invaluable in that process.

3. What is the role of social media in your publishing process? Who are your greatest fans, what are their demographics, and what social media platform do you find most useful in communicating with them?

I have been on a steep learning curve in the past few years with regards to social media so I’m unable to fully answer the question about demographics. Because of my years as a grassroots peace activist, my connections in the Armenian community, and my network of literary friends, my impression is that my fans are evenly divided among those groupings. I would have to say that my favorite platform is Twitter, where I think I have become a good curator of news and information about politics, literary culture and things Armenian. About six months ago I set up an author page on Facebook and launched an author website in anticipation of the publication of my new novel. Initially I was worried that the self-imposed schedule of a weekly blog post for my site was going to feel onerous, but it’s actually been fun.

4. If you had to describe yourself in three words only, what would they be?

Three words: energetic, empathic and determined.

5. If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?

I have always wanted to visit Adana and Mersin, cities in Turkey where my grandparents were born. Because of the sad history of how they left those places—my grandfather after anti-Armenian massacres in 1909 and my grandmother after the 1915 Genocide—I have not yet made the pilgrimage. I’m hoping to do so in the next few years.

6. What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future? Do you have any exciting plans or projects coming up?

My new novel ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS, which is about an Armenian family in Paris during the Nazi occupation, has just been published. I am currently researching my fourth novel, which will focus on an Armenian family that emigrates from Beirut to New York City during the Lebanese Civil War. This will be the final volume in what I’ve started to call THE ARMENIAN DIASPORA QUARTET.


Nancy Kricorian