Q & A by the Washington Independent Review of Books
It’s hard enough to write a novel, but doing it with your spouse adds a daunting degree of difficulty. After many years of marriage, Andy and Elahe Dayton took on this challenge when they set out to write The House That War Minister Built, a multi-generational saga that follows the often-tortured history of Iran over the last century. Elahe, raised in Iran, provided the expertise while Andy built the narrative.
Andy and Elahe Dayton will present a book talk on Saturday, September 24, at 3 p.m., at Books A Million, 11 Dupont Circle, N.W., Washington, DC.
Q&A with Andy and Elahe Dayton
Why did you decide to write about Iran – a nation that Americans have grown to loathe for decades now — in The House That War Minister Built?
Andy: It’s such a fascinating culture. For over thirty years I’ve been spellbound by my Iranian in-laws’ evocative stories. They cover every aspect of Iran, from family life to business life, from counter intuitive modern politics to graphic historical events: fabulously wealthy princes tossing gold coins to their servants on celebration days; powerful warlords committing suicide rather than surrender; international intrigues and oil politics. I just had to write it.
I wanted to do more than write a novel set in Iran, I wanted to write a novel about Iran, to use the vehicle of fiction to present the culture.
I was originally intimidated not so much by my lack of first hand experience with the country (other than interactions with Iranians in America) but by the fear that I wouldn’t understand how Iranian characters would feel and that I might make them too American. But I quickly realized that their feelings were universal, it’s just that you have to push different buttons to elicit them.
Elahe: I felt there was a lot of beauty in our culture and I wanted to share it, particularly because the news media in the West portrays so little of that. The Western press makes a big deal about polygamy and the roles of women, but they rarely get it right and see it only through the color of their own glasses. I wanted Western readers to see Iran simply as a collection of people, with lives and aspirations and fears, not as a nation of intractable clerics and terrorists.
How did you manage to collaborate in writing a novel, an act which is often depicted as the projection of the singular imagination of the lone author, wrestling demons by the flickering light of the computer screen? Were marriage counselors involved?
Andy: Writing a novel with your spouse is no different than working with a proactive editor, except that when you lose you do the dishes. In all honesty, at times it could be very frustrating. I would spend weeks writing a story and Elahe would look at it and say, “I thought we were doing Iran. This isn’t Iran, this is America.” But somehow we decided to stay together and duke it out. Elahe was my eyes and ears to the country. For instance, she was close to her grandmother who was one of four permanent wives in a harem, so she could speak with authority about not only what went on (mutual understanding and support as well as internecine intrigues) in those marriages, but how the individual actors felt. We in the West tend to think of polygamy as utterly debasing to and enslaving of women, but many of the wives found ways to gain and exercise power – and many didn’t.
Elahe: Communicating many aspects of the culture in terms that Westerners would understand was very challenging, but we worked together and Andy proved very patient…
Andy: A necessary talent in this sort of situation.
Elahe: … Translating the poetry was the most fun. It was an impossibly difficult task, but I was able to do a basic translation and then we could work together to get the cadence and (usually) at least a couple of the layers of meaning right.
How did you divvy up the writing?
Andy: I guess it’s fair to say I did most of what we typically call “the writing.” But I couldn’t make a move without Elahe. She told me how the culture worked. She told me how the people felt. She told me what things looked like and what the customs were. Although all the characters were fictitious, we would work together to try to decide ahead of time what kind of person each character was and then I would try to write them. Her insights into how they would feel were invaluable and constantly she had to correct me.
Elahe, are these stories all from your family?
There’ve been some recurring misperceptions on that score. We drew on many stories about my family and many stories about other families, but in a fictional sense – as opposed to simply “assembling” them.
By depicting a full century of Iranian history, did you intend to draw parallels to Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude?
Andy: Interestingly a number of readers have mentioned that The House That War Minister Built reminds them of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I clearly pay brief homage to Marquez in the opening line of the book: “Many years later, when Nargess had lived one hundred and eight winters and had spent the last week of her life teaching herself to write the words “Help me,” she would recall one last time the morning of General Z.’s visit…” but other than that I didn’t try to draw parallels. I have to admit Solitude is one of my all time favorites and I did reread it shortly before starting the writing in order to get a feel for how a century long family saga might be structured. It gave me a feel for how a multigenerational family saga could be multiple stories, sometimes separate, sometimes interwoven, but that was about it. And there’s certainly no magical realism in War Minister.
The novel blends tragic scenes with rollicking humor. How did you balance between those very different sensibilities?
Andy: Iranians have a wonderful sense of humor that ranges from the subtle to the farcical and they are as good at merrymaking as any. On the other hand, the Iranian psyche is plagued by a recurring preoccupation with tragedy. It’s there in their sense of history. It’s there in their religion. It’s there in their sense of self. The pain of the martyrdom of Mohamed’s followers resonates much more strongly with Shiiite Moslems than Christ’s martyrdom does with modern Christians. We’ve seen these emotions erupt episodically in the Christian West with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, in Iran they are front and center every day. It’s hard to explain, but I felt conflicted about juxtaposing humor and tragedy because of the permeating sense of tragedy in the culture, but I wanted to portray both. So, I tended to keep them somewhat separate, either in separate scenes or in separate chapters. In retrospect, this may not have been necessary, but it does have the effect of accentuating the culture’s love affair with tragedy, while showing that all Iran is not doom and gloom.
Elahe: I feel that’s a good way to put it. We wanted a balance, but the two sensibilities seemed better presented with some separation.
Is there a tradition of novel-writing in Iranian literature? Are there modern Iranian novelists that our readers should know about?
Elahe: There is a long tradition of all types of literature in Iran, including novels, though the form of which we Iranians are most beloved is poetry. Not surprisingly, Iranian fiction historically has tended to be very poetic.
Andy: In truth, I have not followed Iranian novels very closely. I did read and enjoy My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad, which was a hugely popular comic novel about modern Iran, but mostly I’ve read (and continue to read) memoirs. By far the most evocative of these is Garden of the Brave in War, by Terrene O’Donnell.
Since the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses, fiction about Iran and Islam has seemed more hazardous than novels about other subjects. Did that enter into your thinking while working on War Minister?
Andy: I would die for that kind of publicity. Bring it on.
Seriously, though, this was never an issue. Khomeini issued a fatwa on Rushdie for (imagined) slights to the Prophet’s teachings. We deliver slights to the Qajars, who were the dynasty that fell in the 1920s. We deliver slights to the Pahlavis, who replaced the Qajars (and whom we know today as “the Shah” and his father). We deliver slights to today’s clerics and the Americans and the British and a whole lot of Iranian characters. But we never slight Islam — or any religion, for that matter. If anything, we portray the humanity of Islam and the pull it has on the Iranian heart. Saying bad things about mullahs may get you arrested in Iran, but it doesn’t get you fatwas in absentia.
Elahe: We were pretty positive towards Islam. In fact, the issue of what attitude to take towards religion never came up. We did portray some ways Shiism diverges from Judeo-Christian sensibilities, but never disparagingly.