Sunday, May 23, 2010
Interview with Kay Mouradian
You can find out more about Kay and her work at http://www.agiftinthesunlight.com
A Gift in the Sunlight was inspired by actual events that happened to your mother. How were you able to distance yourself emotionally from that traumatic history and craft a novel out of historical fact?
It was tough at times. I went through a lot of Kleenex and wrote a lot in a meditative state where the scenes would just come to me so I could write them. The driving force for me was a sense of responsibility to history. Some say I was too easy on the Turks in my novel, but that was intentional. I did not want to write something inflammatory or too painful to read. I just wanted to educate people about what really happened.
What sparked your interest in writing this book? You’ve remarked that you used to be uninterested in the story; what changed your attitude?
In the last five years of my mother’s life, she made some remarkable recoveries from death’s door, and her entire attitude and personality transformed. Her life until then had understandably been affected by the Armenian tragedy, and she held much anger and self-pity. However, in a series of miraculous physical recoveries, she also became more loving and appeared to have released her hatred of the Turks. In witnessing these changes in my mother, I became curious about the events that had shaped her life. Of course, she’d often told me stories about her childhood in Turkey, but I’d dismissed them as not relevant to me. However, my interest in my family’s history grew as I started reading about events that happened in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and this research really opened my eyes.
You manage to avoid stereotypes in the characters of this novel; for example Captain Khourshid, who leads the Turkish soldiers enforcing the deportation order, is shown as a kind and honorable man. How did you manage to create such well-rounded characters?
Many of the characters are based on real people, so that helped. For example, the Captain really existed, and he did break his leg in my family’s village before the war. My mother’s aunt was actually the healer who treated him, but I needed to fictionalize some parts of the real story, to keep number of characters manageable, so she isn’t included. Some of the other characters were based on stories my mother told me.
Miss Webb, the missionary, was also based on a real person (in fact one of the translators I consulted regarding my family’s documents happened to know her.) I wanted readers to know she existed, as she was a very noble human being who made huge sacrifices to help the Armenians.
Your book is full of authentic details about life in that era and environment. Can you tell us a bit about how you went about your research?
There’s a saying: “If you want to know the facts, read the newspaper. If you want to know the truth, read a novel.” I kept that in mind as I became overwhelmed by the amount of material that confronted me.
I went to Turkey four times, and visited the village of Hadjin, where my family’s journey began. I followed their route into Syria, although I had to make two separates trips – you couldn’t just cross the border because of the political situation. I’d heard Hadjin described as a beautiful place, and it was – but also something of a letdown in comparison to some of the other scenery I encountered; it’s fairly isolated, as there aren’t many roads going there. In my family’s day, there were 20,000 to 30,000 people living there, but the number had dwindled to about 5,000 by the time of my visit, and these were mostly Kurds. Many Armenians, of course, didn’t survive the massacre.
I also read a lot of my family’s letters, although they were in Old Arabic and Turkish so I had to find translators.
And I did a lot of reading. I read books by diplomats, missionaries, and journalists. At Bart’s Books in Ojai, I looked at all their histories and memoirs, and if I saw “Constantinople” in the table of contents, I bought the book. At the UCLA Library, I researched Turkey during World War I. I contacted the Library of Congress and ordered ten reels of microfilmed documents written by Henry Morgenthau [who was the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the First World War and the most prominent American to speak out against the genocide.]
I also contacted the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library and got copies of Morgenthau’s “letters to his brother” which were essentially his typewritten diaries from that era.
Overall, I spent about three years doing the research.
You faced another set of challenges in getting published. How many times did you submit the novel to agents/publishers? How did you ultimately find your publisher?
My novel was rejected by 60 agents. One told me, “Only Armenians will read it.” I then located a small London publisher who specialized in historical works and emailed him the first chapter. He called me from London and said, “I want it.” It turned out that his family came from the same town as my grandparents.
You’ve written nonfiction books on yoga and meditation, as well as newspaper and magazine articles. What prompted the move into fiction?
I would’ve been too limited if I’d stuck to just the facts. I wanted to tell the whole story, not just pieces I knew to be facts. I wanted to be able to amplify the story, make it more emotional.
Because most of my writing until then had been academic, I had to learn how to write a different way. I enrolled in a class at Pasadena City College on getting published, and it led me into library research where I studied books on how to write a novel and began to understand principles like point of view and character development.
Have you been able to incorporate any of your experiences as an educator into your writing?
Yes, since so much of the studying for my Doctorate was research-oriented. And one of the real skills I learned in the process was determination. My social life, however, has never recovered!
You’ve “taken your show on the road” with presentations at libraries and other venues to explain the background to A Gift in the Sunlight. How has that worked out for you?
I’ve had to do most of my own publicity for the book. I started by phoning libraries and asking about speaking engagements. Persistence paid off at the Pasadena Library, and they asked me to speak to one of their book groups. After I created a Power Point presentation, the head librarian gave me advice on it. One of my tennis partners belonged to a book club, so I had an “in” there.
Some recent exciting developments are that Congressman Adam’s Schiff’s Deputy Director saw my Power Point presentation and requested a copy to Fed Ex to Washington DC. I also sent copies of my book to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton; when I contacted Congressman Schiff’s office for the mailing addresses, they suggested I also send a copy to Michelle Obama – which of course I did.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you and/or your work?
My objective is to fulfill my responsibility to history. I have a strong desire to educate and a sense that there’s more for me to do. The Armenian story still feels like it hasn’t released me. Every time I think about releasing myself from it, something comes up to pull me back in. I have to see where it all leads me.
What’s up next in your writing agenda?
No more novels! You have to have a story. With A Gift in the Sunlight, I knew I had a story, and a structural understanding of how novels are written, but that’s it for me. I want to work on my yoga stuff, to rewrite my original book Reflective Meditation. It’s hard to find the time to do it all.