A few months ago, Micheline Aharonian Marcom emailed thanking me for a review I wrote of her new novel, A Brief History of Yes, which you can read an excerpt from on Numéro Cinq. It was thrilling to get an email from an author whose work I admire so much. While writing the review, I’d become fixated with each of her novels because of their remarkable mixture of passion and formal inventiveness. They often recall for me passages of William Faulkner and Clarice Lispector. Gorgeous and original novels, they seek obsessively the ineffable within language. Here’s an exemplary passage from her most recent novel:
And yes is the hillside grove; the invisible songbird inside of it. Yes the three-legged dogs in the white clay city. The blue pushing the sky out like a girl pushes from behind her mother’s skirts with her hand to see what she has hidden from only moments ago. His feet, bony, ugly and black, and her toenails painted with lacquer a red or brown. Water. The water in the glass. The clear glass, the clear water. Water and the glass the same color which is clear and the word clear which doesn’t say the yes of the color or the isness of all the life in the color or nothing in the glass holding water oxygen like refracted on the glass which is the image on glass of the window, the blue peeking sky, fingerprints, greasy and earthy, so that the glass doesn’t fly off into ethereal metaphors and the girl herself, Maria, in the glass: thin stretched-down face, dark eyes, the right darker than the left, the right hand lifted in prayer, in benediction, and the mouth smiling now, open, saying, singing herself.
—A Brief History of Yes (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
After her initial email, I took the opportunity to ask her some questions about her novels, her working habits, and artistic vision. As Marcom says below she takes her obsessions with “stories that go untold” as the subject of her work and turns them into inquires. She has explored the Armenian genocide in her first three novels (Three Apples Fell from Heaven, The Daydreaming Boy, and Draining the Sea) and female sexuality in her most recent work (The Mirror in the Well and A Brief History of Yes). In each of these books, she proves herself again and again to be a writer with an unremitting gaze, depicting acts both tender and monstrous that push her characters to places—whether internally or externally—that is beyond or without language. Our interview took place over email in late 2013.
Herewith is an interview with Micheline Aharonian Marcom.
Jason DeYoung (JD): You’ve written a trilogy on genocide and now you are writing (or have written) a trilogy of ‘domestic dramas,’ as you’ve described them. What is it about trilogies that attract you? How do they serve you as an artist? And are there trilogies that have influenced you?
Micheline Aharonian Marcom (MAM): I don’t think, in either case, I knew or planned to write a trilogy—it was more that when I was finishing my first novel I realized that everything I wanted to think about would not “fit” into one book, and also the second one began to emerge in my mind. I realized, or decided at that point, that naturally there would follow three books, following three generations of Armenians, and in some manner, following my own family’s timeline and geographical movements (although neither the second or third book in that trilogy is biographical). Whereas the second trilogy I wrote, what I think of as a “domestic” one spiraling around women narrators in relations with men, and the questions of love including its big themes—adultery; unrequited love; the forces, drives and mania of eros—I didn’t realize until I had probably written the third one, The Nothing on Which the Fire Depends, that these were in fact three and in some kind of relationship to one another, and hence a kind of trilogy. Beyond those six novels, I have written three others which are not trilogies…so perhaps it had more to do with the subject matter into which those books inquired more than anything else. And three is an old and stable number: a triangle…the trinity. It is the “culmination of manifestation” as the Dictionary of Symbols says: nothing can be added to it.
JD: You said in your interview with Context that “books… ‘make’ writers into the writers that they are.” Could you talk about or describe what you mean by this?
MAM: I often tell my students that the books they are writing, especially, perhaps, the first one, “makes” the writer. When I was writing Three Apples Fell From Heaven that book was so beyond my ken, my skills, what I thought I was capable of, and so it pushed me—the material mattered so much to me, not only because it was the story of my own family’s survival of the Armenian genocide, but I also felt a responsibility to the unknown dead whose stories had not either been widely told. So there was high bar in the writing of that book, a steep learning curve. And language already didn’t feel like it could hold the stories, the losses, but it had to try to do so. I had to try my best and the book, as it emerged, responded in some way: perhaps this is the great mystery of making books: that the writer does her best, studies craft, reads and reads and reads, “everything,” as William Faulkner exhorted us to do—and she writes and fails and writes more—to fall into the rhythm of the stories and the “voices” and find, ultimately, and make, a book’s final form. Writing for me is akin to how I experience consciousness: it contains its highs and lows—the spiritual and the very mundane—one must, after all, sit in one’s chair and write and revise for years on end, it’s a quiet, unadventurous vocation, and yet the gods do come in…inspiration is also part of the process.
JD: I just finished up a large project on Joseph McElroy, and during my research I came across his essay on 9/11 and in it he asks himself “what knowledge have I that’s of any use.” This statement really shook me because (as I took it) here is one of the great fiction writers of the Twentieth Century asking what his role is in the face of this tragedy. But his question got me thinking again about the role of the writer, and the many definitions I’ve read; two that come quickest to mind are E. L. Doctorow’s assertion, “The ultimate responsibility of the writer is to witness”; and William T. Vollmann’s “We should portray important human problems.” Each writer seems to have a personalize definition of the “job.” What’s yours?
MAM: I respect William T. Vollmann’s work tremendously and am, I think, in great accord with what you’ve quoted from him how a writer “should portray important human problems.” Writing for me is inquiring. And what I inquire into has varied and continues to vary as my interests broaden, my concerns are raised, my heart and mind are involved…my obsessions reveal themselves. I am always interested in stories that go untold, are censored, denied, erased: the interstitial stories, the ones, also, that many turn their heads from, where shame is a form of censorship. I suppose you can see these “obsessions” already in my earliest novels: the genocides of Armenians and the Ixil-May in Guatemala, but they are also evident in Mirror with its story of unhindered uncensored female sexuality, and in my latest novel, The New American, about an undocumented Guatemalan-American college student who is deported to Guatemala and returns to California riding on cargo trains with other Central American migrants. I guess you’d say I only write about things that feel urgent to me, that I believe matter. But this also includes small things—like the hummingbird I wrote about that came and sat on my back porch, or the orb spider who spins his web anew each night in September in the garden. Natural beauty matters also.
JD: From what I can gather from looking at some other interviews with you, you are a deeply read person. I’m always curious about author’s reading habits and how they read. Do you have a method to your reading, to the texts you study? Are you looking for anything in particular?
MAM: I’d like to be a deeply read person, I love books, and there are so many I haven’t yet read or read only one time. When I began writing and studying more seriously in my late twenties I read everything—the old, the new, the recently released, etc. Now I find I am only more or less interested in reading books that are masterful, that are “at pitch”…something which years of reading means I can now sense more quickly. With the books we call classics we trust that there is this “aesthetic achievement”: they’ve lasted and been lauded for a reason. With newer books one must trust one’s own instincts and follow one’s own predilections, because time cannot yet help us. But I am always so happy to discover new writers and new books! And basically toward this end I ask writers and critics and deep readers I know for recommendations. I try to read widely, across time and space. I’ve never understood reading only one’s peers in one’s own country. But I also think of someone like Montaigne who read fewer books, great ones, over and over again—that seems to have tremendous merit as well: reading deeply. Many books won’t stand up to a second reading, after the plot is discovered, all the energy falls out of the book—it’s why a second read (and third and fourth) tells you so much, reveals so much about a text.
JD: One of the striking characteristics of your writing—and something I admire—is your exploration of the body, as in A Brief History of Yes, the lover’s concave chest; in The Mirror in the Well, the woman’s cunt; and, of course, Draining the Sea has a lot to say about the body and bodies. Some of it is beautiful and some ugly (but there’s a freedom and warmth toward that ugliness, too, of giving it witness). What role might the visceral, the body, the flesh play in your work? This question is in part inspired by two sentences in A Brief History of Yes: “Have you not seen your Christ on the cross? And why does the Protestant deny the image where the knowledge can be felt.”
MAM: In his wonderful essay “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” and in response to fierce criticism of that novel, DH Lawrence wrote: “The body’s life is the life of sensations and emotions. The body feels real hunger, real thirst, real joy in the sun or snow, real pleasure in the smell of roses or the look of a lilac busy; real anger, real sorrow, real love, real tenderness, real warmth, real passion, real hate, real grief. All the emotions belong to the body, and are only recognized by the mind.” In response to your question, I would say that I have long been and remain interested in the real, and intuitively and sometimes consciously, as Lawrence says it here, I know that the real is experienced in the body. It’s how we know anything. He goes on to say: “The Christian religion lost, in Protestantism finally, the togetherness with the universe, the togetherness of the body, the sex, the emotions, the passions, with the earth and sun and stars.” Perhaps that’s part of my “writing the body,” my interest in writing the whole, the “togetherness.” I have long thought that there ought to be a word in English that encompasses to think-feel, this seems to me how we come to know things, and then just recently I realized that the Latin word “sentire,” which in English we define as “to realize” and is the root of words like “sentiment,” actually does mean that! Think-feel.
JD: You’ve spoken about your novels being inquires, and that you write by instinct, but at some point formal concerns must become a priority. Can you talk a little about that point? Does the work expand or contract at this point? How do you think about the patterns in your work?
MAM: I always am thinking about form, and patterns. It is not an afterthought, but concurrent with the making of a book. I follow what I think of as “heat” as a writer. Write scenes as and where I feel energy, I guess you could say. Over time, the mind makes patterns and the form begins to become apparent. But I make a lot of conscious and deliberate decisions about form, I’m the artist and I know it’s my job to hold the reins of the book, fine-tune it, order it, etc. To that end the editing process can be a very long and detailed one. First drafts I’m kind of free-wheeling, but later I batten down the hatches and read and edit and revise until a book is finished. Until every comma is where I want it. Every word. To the degree I am capable of.
JD: You’ve written “social” novels and “domestic” novels, can you give any insight about the process of writing the two, the differences? Do you value one over another? Or are they the two sides of one coin, meaning one cannot exist without the other?
MAM:I write what I feel like writing, what I feel called to write, what is urgent. The only real difference between the “historical” and “social” novels I’ve written is that the former usually require a significant amount of research and travel, whereas the latter have needed less. Although as I say that, I then remember how I traveled to Portugal to write A Brief History. I also did a lot of research about Lisbon and fado music and listened to fado regularly as well as studied icon painting and its history and went to museums to look at them, and then at some point found myself studying bird migration and hermit thrushes. So in some ways all of my books go hand in hand with some things I’m researching and learning about. I suppose it’s not only that writing is inquiring for me, it’s also that I’m curious and like to know better than I do and books are one way for me to deepen my various interests of the moment and plus everything I’m interested in tends to make its way into my books!
JD: You are (or have been) a teacher. What is the one teachable component to writing? What would most students say you teach them?
MAM: I’ve been teaching for twenty-five years, one subject or another—I was a teacher before I became a writer actually. For the past eleven years I’ve been teaching in an MFA program, working with creative writers. I teach writing from my own experience as a writer. The biggest influence on my teaching style was my former teacher, Ginu Kamani, who taught me to “apprentice” with books. The one teachable component to writing? Read! Love books and read read read—the books are the teachers. I think my students might say that I encourage them to be their own best editors, to train themselves to be their books’ best readers, and to trust themselves: the work is theirs, and only they can do it and only they can determine if it’s done to their satisfaction.
JD: Any new work forthcoming?
MAM: My sixth book, The New American, will be published by Simon & Schuster.
—Micheline Aharonian Marcom and Jason DeYoung
Micheline Aharonian Marcom is the author of five published novels. The first three—Three Apples that Fell from Heaven (2001), The Daydreaming Boy (2004), and Draining the Sea (2008)—take as their subject genocide, and operate loosely as a trilogy. Her new novel, A Brief History of Yes, is the companion novel (and the second in a new trilogy) to The Mirror in the Well. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the PEN/USA Award for Fiction, and a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship. She lives in Berkeley, California
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His fiction and other writing has appeared recently or is forthcoming in REAL: Regarding Art and Letters, Music & Literature, New Orleans Review, The Los Angeles Review, Numéro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012.