Check This Out: Like Water on Stone (Part 2)

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.

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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?
André MauroisDana: 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.

Aliceheimer_s-AA_cover-demo-faceEl 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:

Barnes and Noble

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 Armenian pattern from Comic from

Check This Out: Like Water on Stone (Part 1)

Hello! Glad you made it here. Today and tomorrow I’ll be talking to the way fabulous Dana Walrath, another awesome author friend from VCFA. Dana is here to tell us about her young adult novel-in-verse: Like Water on Stone, published November 11 by Delacorte Press/Random House.

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Dana is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette at Erin Murphy Literary Agency. I’ll announce a giveaway at the end of the interview tomorrow. Intrigued? Stay tuned. Now, let’s get started.

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Dana: Thanks so much for having me here! I started out as a visual artist. Though I was always a voracious reader I never imagined myself a writer until recently. The act of writing a dissertation in anthropology—my attempt at being practical—made me start to think of myself as a writer. I love growing older because these disparate threads have finally become integrated!

El Space: Like Water on Stone seems to be a very personal story for you. What made you decide to tell it now?
Dana: As the granddaughter of survivors of the Armenian genocide, I’ve been sitting on this story for most of my life. I was haunted by my family’s story but confused when teachers in grade school would ask me about Armenians. The realization that my teachers, who were entrusted with educating me, did not know about a genocide in which 1.5 million people died, became my first introduction to the politics of writing history. My Armenian mother responded to this vacuum by marrying an American and raising us to aspire to be blond and to climb the American hierarchy. I responded, in turn by chasing my Armenian identity for much of my life.

I travelled to my grandparents’ homeland, in what is now Eastern Turkey, in 1984; to Soviet Armenia in 1977. I filled my college language requirement with Western Armenian; I made large oil paintings and intaglio prints inspired by the Armenian landscape; I gave my children Armenian first names. When I discovered writing, this story began to come out. Because I tend to work on many things at once, the “now” of when Like Water on Stone was written is quite long.


El Space: How did you decide on the novel-in-verse approach?
Dana: Considering that I had spent most of my life poetry-phobic due to my own inability to “interpret” poetry adequately, writing in verse wasn’t so much a decision I made. Instead the story decided its own form, appearing in fragments with line breaks. I never put two and two together about poetry, the rhythms of language, and my love for picture books until I started to write. Along the way I fell in love with this fascinating hybrid form through books like Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust and Witness; Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade; and Margarita Engle’s The Surrender Tree and The Poet Slave of Cuba. This let me trust the voice of Like Water on Stone as the fragments grew in verse form.

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Looking back, I’ve come to realize that the subject matter dictated the form. The brutality of genocide, the heaps of emaciated bodies, walking dead, rape make us all turn away. Just as I could only let fragments in, I did not want readers to turn away. I wanted them to have the white space to feel and process this experience. I wanted readers to know that people can turn their pain into hope and can emerge ready to reach and touch others. On a personal level, I was also reaching back across cultural and temporal divides to connect with my ancestors. Free verse gave me a way to both transcend and embody that connection. Today I love both reading and writing poetry, though my other fiction, picture books excepted, is written in prose form.


El Space: What was the most challenging aspect of working on this book? How long was the process from start to finish, including research?
Dana: I found the various characters’ voices and the verse form of this book long before I found a true nuanced story line. As a survival journey I already had that basic outline of a story, but had to figure out how to create the details of the flight and character’s inner journeys so that the three siblings survived not just alive but whole. From the earliest fragments to publication it took about a decade for me to write this story with two beautiful years getting an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts about halfway along the journey. I worked on this story along with a host of other projects while there, but did not have this story in submittable from until two years after graduation. During that time, the magical realism and the omniscient narrator, Ardziv the eagle, appeared. Once this happened, everything fell into place. I went from having a dozen or so distinct narrators to the four that remain. Ardziv and his magic kept me safe as I dug deeper into the story.

In terms of research, I would have to say that my entire life was part of researching this story. For example, when I travelled in Western Armenia—now Eastern Turkey—in 1984, I had no idea that I was doing research for a novel. I just wanted to walk the same earth that my grandparents had. I kept my identity hidden and was welcomed as part of a young American couple into people’s homes with the hospitality characteristic of the region. People fed us foods that I had known my entire life and said, “I bet you have never tasted anything like this before.” Anti-Armenian stories kept me cautious until I got to Palu, the place where my grandmother’s family had run a mill. We visited the crumbling defaced church set high on a hillside. In Turkish we asked people about whether there were any mills nearby, and were directed across the eastern branch of the Euphrates River and up into the woods. There, the lady of the house served us tea on the roof, mounds of apricots drying in the sun beside us. When I asked about the history of the mill, she told me that this mill had been her family for 60 years, but before that, it had belonged to Armenians. For a moment, as we held each other’s gaze, the official Turkish policy of genocide denial evaporated. I do not know whether this was my own family’s mill, but the mill became the setting for the book.

I’m afraid we’re going to have to stop here for today. But stop by tomorrow for more of this interview with Dana Walrath and to learn of the giveaway.

Can’t wait until tomorrow to catch more of Dana? You can watch her give this TED Talk now.


Jordie thought that being in water was a way to celebrate the title of Dana’s book. Perhaps he believed he would sink like a stone. Sigh. Forgive him. He gets a little confused, but he has good intentions.

Book covers from Goodreads. Poetry image from