Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Interview with Anita Amirrezvani, Author of The Blood of Flowers (Little Brown, June 2007)

Interview with Eduardo Santiago, Author of Tomorrow They Will Kiss (Little Brown, 2006)

In a beautiful debut novel, author Anita Amirrezvani takes the reader back in time to 17th century Iran to tell the story of a fourteen year old girl caught between the history of tradition and her talent as a rug designer. An engrossing and entertaining read, the novel illuminates and brings to life a time and place unknown to most of us. The author took some time out to talk with Literature Chick.

LT: You were a journalist - why write a novel?

AA: Journalism is fast-paced and immediate, while a novel requires an intense and sustained effort. The approaches are so different that in some ways, they are quite complementary. When I was writing about the arts, I enjoyed the speed and the instant gratification of daily journalism. When I went home at night to work on my novel, I had to stretch my skills in another direction. It takes a different part of the brain to develop characters over time, to create a viable plot, and to immerse readers in an unfamiliar historical period. And patience! The key is endless and enduring patience as you get deeper and deeper into your book.

LT: What was the primary impetus to writing a historical fiction work such as The Blood of Flowers?

AA: Before I started to develop the plot, one of my main concerns was to provide a more nuanced view of Iran than we normally see in news headlines. Many people probably think of Iran solely in terms of the 1980 hostage crisis and now, the nuclear issue. For nearly thirty years, the United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations, which means that knowledge of each other at an ordinary, human level has steadily decreased. After so many years of blackout, I thought people might be interested in learning things that go beyond the politics of the moment. After all, Iranian culture has been around for thousands of years, and that’s what will endure into the future. In my book, I focus on typical traditions like the craft of carpet-making and the art of storytelling to provide a broader view of the people and the place.

LT: The book takes place in 17th century Isfahan - what type of research did you do to insure accuracy?

AA: I went to Isfahan twice while I was writing the book to visit the buildings that I describe in my novel. The great square where much of the action takes place, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, has a beautiful palace, historically important mosques, and an extensive bazaar, which are much loved by locals and tourists. Isfahan also has beautiful bridges, outdoor teahouses, ancient fire-temples, and long tree-lined avenues. Naturally, I took photos so that I could remind myself of the exact details when the time came to write about them. Back at home, one of my great pleasures was to spend time reading about the seventeenth century. Shah Abbas, who ruled for more than forty years, had a scribe named Eskandar Monshi who wrote an extensive chronicle about his reign. My book is not particularly tied to historical events, but Monshi’s account gave me insights into the way that the people of the period, especially powerful men, thought about things. I also consulted many art books, such as Arthur Upham Pope and Phyllis Ackerman’s Survey of Persian Art, which has extensive photos of Iranian architecture, paintings, textiles, coins, carpets, and so on. I used these massive tomes to help me paint an accurate picture of the art of the seventeenth century.

LT: Your female characters ring true. Were they based upon actual people?
AA: No, but they are based on actual situations that female characters might have faced during the time period. My heroine, for example, expects to get married at the age of fourteen, like most of her friends and her relatives. That was typical in Iran until fairly recently. My grandmother, who was born in 1910, married at fourteen, and her daughter, who was born in 1933, did the same. Today, the average age of marriage in Iran for women is 23, according to government statistics, while in the United States it is 25.

LT: What part did your own background play in the writing of the book?

AA: Probably the most important thing is that my daily experiences with my Iranian family are reflected in the book. What I mean by that is that I have incorporated typical practices -- dining habits, expressions, marriage customs, celebrations -- so that people get a sense of what life might have been like for an Iranian family. However, the main characters and the plot are wholly invented.

LT: It took you many years to research and finish the novel. Did you ever want to give up? What drove you to finish?

AA: Since it was impossible to know whether I’d ever sell my book, I ascribe my persistence to the role that the book had in my everyday life. Generally, we are all subject to the demands of people around us, in particular our bosses at work and our families, and we have to work within those frameworks. While writing my book, I enjoyed an imaginative freedom that was not possible elsewhere in my life. Even when I was stuck, tired, or disappointed, I always returned to my writing because it was one of the few places where I could proceed entirely as I wished. I didn’t tell anyone close to me that I was working on a novel for about five years, and this gave me additional liberty to develop it as I saw fit.

LT: The characters tell stories in the book. Tell us a bit about these stories - where do they come from? Their allegorical nature?

AA: When I was writing my book, it occurred to me that although Westerners are familiar with European tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, as well as with the Greek and Roman myths and with A Thousand and One Nights, Iranian oral culture as such is little known to the general American public. There are seven tales in my novel, some of which come from sources that are about a thousand years old. I wrote the first and the last tales myself because I needed stories that matched the arc of the plot. As for as the allegorical nature of the stories, I chose them carefully and changed them as needed in order to reflect the heroine’s emotional development.

LT: What are your future plans?

AA: A second book, naturally. It’s not a sequel, but it will continue my explorations into Iranian history. Recently, I’ve noticed a surge of non-fiction books on medieval leaders such as Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, but to my surprise, there have been few novels on pre-modern Iranian movers and shakers, and even fewer on powerful women. That’s fertile terrain for the novelist, and I’m happy that there’s so much rich material to enjoy and to share.

Interview with author Eduardo Santiago, author of Tomorrow They Will Kiss(Little Brown, 2006)

LC: Tell us a bit about how growing up in Cuba and then Miami has influenced your writing.

ES: I lived in Cuba until I was nine years old, after that we spent some time in Madrid, Spain, then we moved to Los Angeles. I spent all my summers with my aunt in Miami. But leaving Cuba physically was not the same as leaving Cuba emotionally. My childhood memories remained very vivid. There are a lot of factual events in my novel that seemed unreal to me, maybe because they were filtered through a child’s eyes. Those memories nagged at me until I discovered a way to put them down, as creatively as possible, into my novel.

LC: Do you consider yourself a multi cultural writer?

ES: Absolutely, I still have my Cuban passport (although it’s not valid), and very strong ties to the Cuban community, both in the U.S. and back in Cuba. But I live an American life. Although I am fully bilingual, I mostly speak English in my daily life, even with my siblings and my Cuban friends. In my writing, I always try to bring both experiences together, as I have done in Tomorrow They Will Kiss. I don’t think I would know how to write from just one side of the Florida Straits.

LC: Where you influenced by women in your life? You write with such understanding and knowledge of female character.

ES: I don’t think the women in my life knew how profoundly they were influencing me. My aunts were just all very colorful and outspoken. They were natural storytellers who had opinions about everything and weren’t reluctant to express themselves. So they handed me a large palette of color that I can now use when I write the way a painter would use colors. None of my characters are based on any one woman, they all composites of women both here in the U.S. and some who stayed behind in Cuba.

LC: How long did it take to write this first novel?

ES: All in all about a year and a half. Including about a dozen rewrites. This novel, once I got the idea, practically wrote itself, and as soon as it was finished, Michael Mezzo who at the time was an editor at Little, Brown and Co. approached me and I sold it – before it even went out to other publishers. But the way I looked at it, when Little, Brown and Co. says they want you, what are you going to do? Wait for a better offer? Our relationship has been wonderful so far, just supportive as any first time author could want.

LC: Why the telenovela element in the book?

ES: Telenovelas were always a huge part of our family life. In Cuba they were on the radio, that was in the 50’s. Here they are on tv, every single night, so even though I didn’t sit down and watch them with my parents, they were always background music. So it was inevitable that they would find their way into my work. Even now, my parents watch three a night, five nights a week. If they’re bad they watch them so they can rag on them, if they’re good they watch them because they love them. Basically, they’re addicts. But in Tomorrow They Will Kiss what I tried to do, and I hope I accomplished, was to give readers an understanding of how important telenovelas have been to the immigrants and exiles. How they connect them go each other in a country where they feel so disconnected.

LC: Does the novel's title have double meaning - i.e. freedom of Cuba?

ES: Yes! Not just double, but multiple. I actually expected my publisher to ask for a different title, but they never suggested it, not once. I know writers that have to submit lists of titles. But was always Tomorrow They Will Kiss. I don’t want to tell you what all the meanings are because I think part of the fun of reading the book is to find out for yourself. But, yes, the title was chosen very carefully to convey a multitude of meanings.

LC: What would you say is one of the key problems with the identity of Cuban Americans?

ES: Well, when this novel takes place we were all very new to this country, and our identity was much more in question than it is today. Also, we must keep in mind that back in the 60’s we expected our exile to be much more temporary than it turned out to be. Now that we’ve been here such a long time, and many of us expect to be here for the rest of ouir lives, it’s not really a problem. Personally, I enjoy having one foot here and one foot there. I’m Cuban-American, but Cuban first. I’m very clear on that.

LC: Is this book a commentary on the nature of immigration in America?

ES: I don’t think so. Certainly, that was not my main intention. Although from what I hear from people who’ve read the novel, it’s definitely a key ingredient. I was much more concerned with the nature of friendship and how often good intentions go awry. When I was writing this novel I was much more focused on how sometimes the people who claim to love you and care for you will often hold you back – and what it takes to break away and become your own person, live your dream, follow your destiny.

LC: Do you consider yourself a political person?

ES: Only in the sense that I am constantly horrified, saddened and baffled by the choices and decisions of world leaders. So I try to take a long view of the world, which keeps me from being too much of a reactionary. Has there always been terrorism, injustice, senseless poverty, tyranny, political dishonesty and gut-wrenching suffering in the world? Yes! Has there been some progress since the Middle Ages? Yes. My faith remains with the individual – and so I do vote and I try to live responsibly. In spite of all this chaos I try to carve out a little corner for myself where I can live out my days with some dignity and (increasing) sanity. And I try to surround myself with people, who, if the ship sinks, will be willing to be on the life raft with me. That’s about as political as I get. I read the papers, I watch the news, I cringe, shudder, and I grab my two-year old niece, Olivia, and go get some ice cream and try to make her feel safe.