Hey, thanks for returning for part 2 of the interview with Dana Walrath. As I mentioned in part 1, Dana is here to talk about her novel-in-verse: Like Water on Stone, published by Delcorte Press.
Now, on with the show . . .
El Space: How did you come up with Shahen, Sosi, and Mariam? Of these characters, who are you most like? The least like?
Dana: To honor my grandmother Oghidar, and her younger brother and sister, who I knew as Uncle Benny and Aunt Alice, I always wanted three siblings to make this journey together. But I never wanted to make this story literally theirs, so I started out with Shahen as the oldest looking out for his two younger sisters. As the mother of three sons, I am drawn to writing male characters. But Sosi’s voice was the one that came most easily. It took me time to discover Shahen’s inner journey, his frustrations at being small and not heard, but as I understood him, Shahen and Sosi grew into twins and equals. This explained their strong bond and gave more tension to their different stances toward their homes. An older Sosi also fell in love, adding tension to their flight.
As I was researching about eagles I was delighted to discover the shared experience between Ardziv and thirteen-year-old Shahen, that female birds of prey tend to be larger than males. Mariam got her name from a friend of my grandmother’s from the orphanage who went on to marry in NYC many years after the genocide. But the similarities stop there.
For Mariam, I thought long about how someone so young would process these experiences. Her magical thinking supported all three of them. In turn, the love and care Shahen and Sosi show for her enabled her to survive in tact.
Who am I most like? What an interesting but hard question! There are pieces of me in each of them. Like Shahen, I get frustrated when I see things broken in the world and want them to change but have only limited power to do so. Like Sosi, I find comfort in the domestic tasks that connect me with my ancestors. Often when I am preparing Armenian food at home, I imagine a group of women chatting together as they roll up the grape leaves or chop vegetables finely. Like Mariam, using my imagination keeps me whole. But this is something all three young ones came to do. Shahen and Sosi both used stories to nourish one another when the food ran out, not to mentions the music, dance, and weaving that sustained them. Like all of them, I believe in the transformative power of art.
El Space: What do you want readers to take away from reading this book?
Dana: I want readers to be touched by the strength and courage and the power of imagination that individuals marshal during crises. Like Water on Stone is not a story about passive victims; instead, it is one of agency and strength that can give readers hope and courage in their own lives. I want readers to know the richness of Armenian culture and to imagine the impact of such a loss on generations. I also want readers to see our shared humanity and not to fall into a trap of saying that all Turks and Kurds are bad because of what the Ottoman government perpetrated one hundred years ago. At the same time, I want readers to understand what happened during the Armenian genocide and to know that genocide does not end until denial ends.
El Space: Too right!
Dana: Without recognition and reparation, a signal is sent to people in the present that genocide will be tolerated. As a world we all need to understand the stages of genocide as outlined by Professor Gregory Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch, in order to prevent and end it globally.
El Space: I think inspiring people like you can make a difference. Which reminds me: what book, if any, inspired you as a child or teen? Why?
Dana: As a child I was completely in love with and inspired by a book from my father’s childhood: Fatapoufs and Thinifers by André Maurois (photo at left). First published in France in 1930 with fantastical illustrations by Jean Bruller, it was translated into English in 1938. It tells the story of two brothers who find their way to an underground world where two societies—the Fatapoufs, round, friendly food enthusiasts, and the skinny, efficient, driven Thinifers—are in the midst of a terrible war. The brothers, separated according to their respective shape and size, strive over the rest of the story to come back together and to bring about peace. A new, blended world comes about that uses the strengths of each of these cultures. As a political allegory that drew on the relationship between France and Germany through World War I, it eerily foreshadowed the coming war. This book gave me a creative context in which to place the activism and assassinations that were happening during the formative years of my childhood. Above all, it gave me an absolute commitment to our common humanity that is distinct from what we look like, and from our beliefs and practices.
El Space: What are you working on now?
Dana: As always, I am working on several things at once! The first is part two of my graphic memoir, Aliceheimer’s, tentatively called Between Alice and the Eagle. It blends Alice’s continuing story with the stories that I learned from elders in Armenia during the year I spent there as a Fulbright Scholar. I am also working on a contemporary novel called The Garbage Man about a daughter coming to terms with her father’s hoarding disorder. I am busy incorporating drawings into it. A second novel, Life It Gives, follows the story of Armenian immigrants in New York City. The main character is the daughter of Sosi from Like Water on Stone. I’ve also got several picture book manuscripts in the works. This strategy of jumping around might seem frenetic to some. But for me, it lets me let things simmer with my subconscious when I am stuck and also lets me respond to other demands in my schedule. This fall I have been working most actively on The Garbage Man. With the launch of Like Water on Stone last week, it was so good to turn to picture books to keep my hand in the writing process. I am speaking about comics and dementia at the American Anthropological Association meetings at the beginning of December and am creating some new comics that will advance Between Alice and the Eagle.
Thank you, Dana, for being a great guest! With all of your projects, you make me feel lazy!
And, as usual, thank you to all who stopped by. Like Water on Stone can be found here:
But one of you will find a free copy winging your way. Just comment below to be entered in the drawing. The winner will be announced on December 3.
Looking for Dana in the meantime? You can find her at her website and Twitter.
Have a great Thanksgiving! This one is for Andy of City Jackdaw:
Eagle from animalscamp.com. Armenian pattern from ms-seo.de. Comic from pinterest.com.