Dan Fleuris interviews Andrew Imbrie DAyton & ELahe Talieh Dayton
Q: Well, I’ll start with the obvious question: what led you to write War Minister?
A: (Andrew) If I can answer first: Elahe and I met in 1976, and for thirty-four years now, she and her family – particularly her late father – have regaled me with exotic tales from Iran – many of the tales involving her own ancestors, many not. They were wonderful stories: wealthy princes who would wander the palace halls tossing gold coins to children and servants; oppressive theocrats sending child warriors to die in the Iraq war as human mine sweepers; wives plotting in the harem; foreign interventionists playing “the great game;” foolish mullahs; star crossed lovers; Qajar Shahs who shot miscreants from cannons…”
A: “Well, they were before they fired the cannon – The stories were endless, and endlessly entertaining. So I just had to capture them. And in doing so I sought to write a novel not “set in Iran,” which is an easy trap to fall into, but about Iran – because a culture’s stories are what really define it. As a writer, you have to believe that.
A: (Elahe) I felt there was a great opportunity for a description of Iranian life and culture that was richer than what is currently out there. I wanted to see some fiction that just accepted Iran for what it is – the good and the bad.
Q: Did you know where you wanted to go when you started writing the book?
A; (Andrew) Yes and no: I knew I wanted the end to be in the beginning, or at least foreshadowed in it. We both agreed upon the character of Nargess (which would translate as “Narcissia,” loosely inspired by one of Elahe’s grandmothers, who did live to the age of one hundred and eight, and whose life just spanned parts of three centuries. So the first chapter was fairly clear. Each of the five or six stories required considerable thinking at each of their respective beginnings, but in each case, it wasn’t long before the characters were writing the story on their own.
A: (Elahe) My main concern was cultural accuracy – particularly the characters. It’s often hard to appreciate cultural differences. Much of what seems daunting or oppressive in another culture isn’t any worse than one’s own mores. I think Azar Nafisi’s work has been good about this. At our web site, www.aidayton.com, we list a lot of published material that gives insight into Iran, probably the best of which is The Garden of the Brave in War, by Terrence O’Donnell.
Q: War Minister takes place over such a long period of time – some eighty years, if I calculate right, and involves a host of characters. Were you intimidated at the magnitude of such an undertaking?
A: (Elahe) Not really. A hundred years is not very much to Iran. Persian history going back 2500 years is clear and present in the modern Iranian consciousness – as much as George Washington is in the American consciousness. Our biggest problem was to keep the length down.
A: (Andrew) Yes. I was intimidated. But I’m obsessed with the struggles of successive generations to cope with the legacies of their forbears, and the cultural weight of such an extensive history resonated with me, so I forged ahead. Understandably, the story involved more than the usual number of characters, which posed the problem of keeping the reader from feeling intimidated, but this problem really never materialized. There are a lot of characters, but the book consists of five basically separate – but interwoven – stories. Each story has it’s own unique cast plus several central characters whose presence spans the novel and ties the stories into a coherent narrative. It might be hard if you read 3 pages at a time on the subway – rather than each chapter straight through – but that can be said of almost anything.
Q: I was intrigued by the range of literary styles you used in different chapters. What led you to choose that?
A: (Andrew) As I said, this was always intended to be a novel about Iran, not just a novel set in Iran. And some sides of the culture were just better presented by different styles – you might even call them different genre types, though, unlike some of the genres they mimic, they are all character driven. For instance, there’s a chapter – “Blind Justice,” if you remember – about a very nervous, elderly Saeed returning to Iran many years after having fled Khomeini’s revolution. The plot structure is dominated by cloak and dagger developments. This not only resonates with Saeed’s fears about returning to the legal morass of post-revolutionary Iran, but accurately captures the Iranian proclivity for paranoia. Honestly, they trade conspiracy theories the way we trade sports scores…
A: (Elahe) Of course, the west calls it paranoia. Americans haven’t experienced thousands of years of being attacked and dominated by a series of foreign powers, from Alexander the Great to the Mongols to a slew of modern powers. When you have that history, you take nothing for granted…
(Andrew) And we tried to capture that, the real intrigues throughout the book, and the comparative simplicity of the west, particularly in the last chapter…
(Elahe)… and despite those thousands of years of strife we managed to keep the culture intact, through the arts – and through adapting.
(Andrew) If I can go back to the question about a range of styles: Iranian humor, like the British, has its farcical side, so, in the chapter about the foolish lawyer (Javad) we relied heavily on farce. Another absolutely charming side to Iranian culture is poetry: Poetry is to Persians as opera is to Italians. Iranians also recite poetry to one another the way we recite sports scores. The last chapter, which I have to admit I still find the most moving, relies heavily on Persian poetry, as Pari tries to come to grips with her life and embraces her cultural heritage with a Sufi-like spirituality.
Q: Elahe, how much of this story comes from your family?
A: (Elahe) I guess you would say all of it and none of it. Many of the events we used were based on events that actually happened, which, I think, confers a lot of credibility. But, we certainly altered them to fit into the story. We made a lot of stuff up, too, though it was always as culturally accurate as we could make it.
Q: Can you give us an example of one such true event?
A: (Elahe) Hmmm. O.K: The peasants fleeing from the “smoking carriage from America.” One of my ancestors did purchase the first automobile in Iran – the peasants called it a smoking carriage – arranging its purchase through visiting Belgian railroad engineers. And the peasants did collect to see it demonstrated and they did flee in fright, destroying the peach crop in the process. The fumes and noise made them believe that it was the return of the lost Imam, the end of the world. History proved them wrong.
Q: Any favorites?
A: (Elahe) That’s a tough one, there are so many. I guess I’d say it wasn’t a particular event, but a famous joke about Mullah Nasr al’Din sitting down to a feast with other mullahs, when a wet dog jumps in shakes itself all over the food.
A: (Elahe, laughing) And, you’ll have to read the book.
A: (Andrew) We tend to think of Moslems as religious fanatics – thanks, as always, to our fair and balanced news media – but we forget that much of the society, particularly the intellectual elite, retains a sense of humor – even disdain – concerning their mullahs.
As for favorite parts, I would say that my favorite part is at the very, very end – and again you’ll have to read the book. But we made that part up.
Q: How about the characters, which would you say was your favorite?
A: (Elahe) Another tough one. Well – I would say Pari, Nargess’s daughter. She gets a bum rap from everywhere, and all she wanted was to be loved. She was a very tragic figure.
A: (Andrew) I think I would agree with Elahe on that. But I think a close second would be Pari’s cousin, Javad, the foolish lawyer. Overtly, he’s a comic – even farcical – character, but underneath that are failings with which we all can empathize. Also, in the future, we’re planning to do a whole novel around Saeed, Pari’s brother in law. He doesn’t come across as very sympathetic in this story, but we think a more extensive development of his story will change that – and it will make a compelling contrast.
Q: So, you’ve already started a sequel?
A: (Andrew) I wouldn’t call it that – not started, not a sequel. The latter term has such derogatory connotations. I would say we’re planning to fill out the story. I always admired the way Faulkner wrote so many stories about Yoknapatawpha County. They resonated with one another and the whole turned out much greater than the sum of its parts.
Q: Andrew, I have a particular question for you: Did you find it hard to understand the Iranian characters you were trying to write? The cultures are so very different.
A: (Andrew) I was worried about this at the beginning. I was trying to ask myself how a woman, for instance, would feel about being one of several wives in the andaroon– that’s the harem – especially when a new wife was brought in. That was hard. Elahe would explain to me that the women felt comfortable with this. It was part of life. Growing up, Elahe was close to her grandmother, who was one of four wives, and so she had considerable insight. However, I refused to believe any of the old wives were very happy with the arrival of a newcomer. Eventually, after many discussions with Elahe, I was able to conceptualize the old wives’ attitude towards a new wife: it was something like confronting death or menopause. It was natural. It was accepted. But, no one welcomed it. And individual responses varied considerably. Some older wives were very savvy and arranged for their husbands to marry simple servant girls whom they could then easily manipulate. Some went through depressions. Some found lovers – yes, they found ways to do that – Some just gave up and drank tea the rest of their lives. The cultures – American and Iranian – are vastly different. The emotions people feel are universal, it’s just that different buttons set them off. And, of course, I had Elahe to help me understand how they would feel about things. So the challenge was not in understanding the Iranian characters, but in emotively communicating to western audiences what they felt, while, at the same time, employing culturally correct facts, artifacts and scenarios.
Q: What would you say were the biggest differences between western and Persian cultures?
A: (Elahe) Again, you have to read the book. It took us four hundred pages to answer that and we hardly scratched the surface.
A: (Andrew) True. But, if I had to give a short answer, I’d say, other than religion (which is pretty obvious) it would be family structure. The patriarchal archetype for Americans is someone like Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In Iran, Big Daddy would have (concurrently) four permanent wives and an untold number of temporary wives. All of the permanent wives and many of the temporary ones – and of course, all the children – would live in one compound. Now, look at the intrigues within Big Daddy’s simple family. Expand that exponentially, and you get what happens in extended Iranian families. The large, extended families would seethe with intrigue, typically along the lines of the children of one wife vs. those of another, let alone between children from the same mother. But, the family would also be brimming with support. There was always someone to be an affirming adult to an abandoned child, always someone to go to for advice or help. These large families represented an instant community where everyone had – for better or worse – a place. And, since the population tended to be rooted for generations in a single locale, strong family ties extended throughout the neighborhood. So, family dominated all aspects of community, much more than it does here. This engendered intrigues and paranoia on a per capita scale much larger than you get in typically uprooted American families, but, conversely, gave everyone a sense of belonging, which is so lacking in American culture.
A: (Elahe) Westerners typically obsess about the polygamy issue. But what they miss is the supportive aspect of Iranian families. If your mother is too busy to give you love or show you how to sew a hem, there’s always your grandmother, or your aunt.
Q: I’m curious, how did the two of you split up the writing?
A: (Elahe, laughing) Well, we survived – without splitting.
A: (Andrew, also laughing) Just.
A: (Elahe) Andy did most of the actual writing and plotting…
A: (Andrew) But, I couldn’t make a move without Elahe, not a page. I needed her for a lot more than describing Iran – it’s history, how it looks and feels, how it works – all the detailed accoutrements. I needed her to explain a lot of what the characters were feeling and what options were open to them that were culturally correct. In many cases, even though all the characters were invented – or at least melded personality traits of several real individuals – I often needed her to help me understand them – and invent them, too. Particularly the female characters. Also, one hundred percent of the Persian poetry was from Elahe. She either selected the poems – and here we should thank Daniel Ladinsky for being very generous with permissions for his Hafez poems – or translated them herself.
Q: Did you read extensively about Iran, as well as listen to Elahe and her family?
A: (Andrew) Yes, of course. On our website www.aidayton.com I list a number of books I used as source material. The two best of these are “The Garden of the Brave in War,” by Terrence Odonnel, and “Blood and Oil,” by Manouchehr Farmanfarmaia. Of all the books I’ve read about Iran, Terrence Odonnel’s memoir (The Garden of the Brave in War) is far and away the most evocative. It’s short, but it gives a deliciously charming picture of rural Iran. Blood and Oil is worth reading to get an insider’s view of the history of Iran seen through the prism of oil politics. Even after 34 years of stories about Iran, I still find it an eye-opener.
Dan Fleuris: Well, I want to thank you both for your time – and for The House That War Minister Built.
(Andrew): The pleasure is ours.
(Elahe): Khoda hafez!