Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Talk with Nancy Kricorian, Whose Neew Novel, "All the Light There Was," is Through the Eyes of an Armenian Teenager During the German Occupation of Paris.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, there’s something special about Paris, and to Boswell devotees, the feelings are event more powerful. In 2011 we noticed that anything with an Eiffel Tower on it seemed to immediately double in sales. But two moments in my life most defined Paris to me. One of course was my only trip to Europe, back in 1990, when I visited a college friend who had moved there. That’s the real life experience.

The other experience was in books. It was the fall of 2008, when I seemingly read one Paris novel after each other, and all of them wound up being huge sellers (yes, even the one you’ve probably never heard of). They were:
--The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
--Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay
--Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston

Look it up. The first and third came out as paperback originals at the same time, while de Rosnay had a paperback release that followed an incredibly quiet hardcover publication, and all came out in September or October.

So when novelist Nancy Kricorian told me that she was going to Paris to research her third novel, I was not only jealous but excited about the publication. Perhaps this is just the first in another round of wonderful novels set in Paris. Talk about nostalgia--it's like it's 2008 all over again.

All The Light There Was (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) has just been published (it actually goes on sale today and I fixed the jacket image, which was originally posted incorrectly), and it’s set during the German occupation of ParisThe focus is on Maral, a teenage girl whose older brother has joined the resistance. The family lives in Belleville; her father is a shoemaker and her mom takes in piecework. Her family, including her Aunt Shakeh survived the Turkish massacres of the teens, when the rest of the family perished.

Kricorian delights in the small details of survival, and naturally inhabits the voice of a young girl. It’s a style that has served her in her first two novels, Zabelle and Dreams of Bread and Fire. I think we wound up having half a dozen readers of Zabelle back at Schwartz*, and their enthusiasm led to a good amount of handselling.

Having talked to so many authors about the issues of writing historical novels (there is a lot of disagreement on how much research to do, and whether it should be done before or after writing, for example) I thought I’d write to Kricorian and ask her directly. It turns out that some of the questions I had were answered in an article she wrote for Armenian Weekly. I highly recommend you read this article after you finish the blog.

DG: I heard you did go over to Paris to research this novel. Do you think you could have written this All the Light There Was without the trip? How would it have changed?

NK :I don’t think I would have been able to write this book without the research trip to Paris. I met with Armenians who had lived through the occupation and heard their stories. The chicken in a diaper was a story told to me, as was the story about sheltering the Jewish child when her parents were deported. I met people who had been in the Resistance, and a man who had gone underground rather than go for the STO to Germany. I also needed to walk the streets of Belleville, to wander the Butte Chaumont Park, and to see the courtyard of the Lycée Victor Hugo.

DG: Were there any factual details that got in the way of the story? Knowing you are writing a story, did you change your story to fit the facts, or change the facts to fit the story?

NK: The first draft was bristling with facts—so much so that the narrative got bogged down by my knowledge and the extensive timeline of the war that I had done. I had to hoe more than half of that material out of the text in the second draft.

DG musing later: So my concern was correct. Facts can get in the way of a story, but you can fix that with editing. We’ve all read a novel or two where the author could have taken that advice.

DG: Zabelle was the story an Armenian girl who survived the genocide of the teens to find a new life in America. Dreams of Bread and Fire, your second novel, was about an American woman, the child of Armenian and Jewish parents, who left the United States to find herself. So clearly your Armenian heritage plays a part in your story, but Paris seems to also figure prominently in your work? What’s the connection?

NK: My editor recently pointed out that my three novels so far are a series of portraits of Armenians in the Diaspora. It’s going to be a quartet because my next book is about Armenians who leave Beirut during the Civil War to come to New York. The French connection is both personal and historic—I studied French in high school and college, and lived in Paris twice (once for four months and once for ten months) and also spent three months in Toulouse and three months in Vence.

On the historic side, Armenians have had long connections to France and the French, dating to the time of the Crusades. My grandparents came from Adana and Mersin in Cilicia (was at one point an Armenian kingdom)—Leon the last king of Cilicia died in Paris and was buried at Saint Denis.

DG: While the Jews do not play a big part in All the Light There Was, Maral knows the Jews in the building, and has a Jewish friend at school, all of whom disappear after the Vélodrome d'Hiver roundup of 1942. Your characters were more prone to resistance than say, certain other minorities who felt persecuted by the French. Why do you think that is?

NK: The Armenians in Paris were outsiders and had survived a Genocide, which is not to say that most of them joined the Resistance, but they tended to be sympathetic to the plight of the Jews. Also the neighborhood of Bellevile was filled with working class Communists and Communist sympathizers—once the pact between Stalin and Hitler was abrogated, they flocked to the Resistance. (See also my note in the Armenian Weekly piece about Missak Manouchian, the most famous Armenian in the French Resistance.)

DG: Maral is a good student who also has good handiwork skills. Maral’s parents, despite having a daughter who could bring a decent amount of money into the household, are happy to have her continue schooling instead. Was this common at the time, or rather unusual? Base on how Maral made some decisions regarding love for the good of the family, I wondered why she didn’t give up school to provide for her parents.

NK: She does piecework the way her mother does even when she’s enrolled at the Sorbonne. Armenians prize education, and her exceptional intelligence was prized by her family (even though her father was disappointed that it wasn’t his son who was the good student).

DG: Is Maral based on an actual person? Is she a composite of several people?

NK: Not based on an actual person—but I’m reminded of the Armenian proverb, “The bird builds its nest with the feathers of other birds.” I collect anecdotes and details from stories I read and hear and use them as I build a character.

DG: I thought the book was quite young-adult friendly (and you can read that as saying that Daniel recommends it to young adults). Was it your intent to makes the novel amenable for teens? Though there’s both sex and violence in the story, it’s more veiled than a lot of titles coming out of children’s publishing. If you were coming to Milwaukee, I’d absolutely book you in a high school.

NK: I didn’t set out to make it “young-adult friendly”—but that modesty came from the character and the muted violence came from her situation. (She wasn’t at the front, and she wasn’t herself involved in the Resistance.)

DG: What changed about the novel as you wrote it? Any interesting characters or subplots that disappeared during the editing process?

NK: The hardest part was deciding which of several characters would survive Buchenwald. It changed from draft to draft.

DG: I’m always interested in where the story ends. Did you know your story would end when it did, or did you get there and realize you’d reached the conclusion?

NK: I knew from the moment I started writing how it would end.

DG: Were you inspired by any writers in particular? Do you have a favorite French author or book that hasn't been translated into English?

NK: I spent ten years researching and writing this novel, and read voluminously—histories, memoirs, letters, essays, and novels. I purposely avoided historical novels about Paris during the war (e.g. no Alan Furst), but I read many novels that were written during and immediately after the war, such as Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, La Silence de la Mer by Vercors, and Jean Dutourd’s Au Bonne Beurre. Among the most helpful were two memoirs of “The Dark Years”: Micheline Bood’s Les Années Doubles: Journal D'une Lycéenne Sous L'occupation and Jean Guéhenno’s Journal des années noires, 1940-1944. For the Armenian experience during the period, I relied on memoirs (e.g. by Charles Aznavour and his sister Aida Garvarentz) and a wonderful novel by Clément Lépidis called L’Arménien, which was the story of an Armenian shoemaker in Belleville spanning from the late twenties through the war years.

DG: Oh good, now we have a reading list too. Much thanks and hope all goes well with your novel's publication.

NK: And thank you for your kind and generous interest.

*Zabelle came to my attention because I knew Nancy in college. Don't you wish every critic and blurb writer offered that kind of acknowledgement. I can honestly say that if I didn't like All the Light There Was, I would pretend that I never read  the book. That's what they teach us in etiquette class.

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