Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Unwritten Pact between a Writer and a Reader


Most books of fiction or poetry involve an unwritten pact between the writer and the reader. That pact takes the form of an understanding that the reader develops based on the tone and topic of the book; the title and early chapters or poems; and the cover, genre, and publicity for the book. Based on all those, the reader develops certain expectations.

For example, the tone of a book could seem romantic, such as a book that has the word “love” in its title: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda, for instance. Or, if a book is classified as a mystery, such as Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we are prepared for a certain amount of blood, since there will probably be a violent murder. As likely as not, more than one.


Readers often choose a book because they are in the mood for a romance, or a thriller, a mystery, or a historical novel, so if the author varies greatly from the initial expectations, the reader can feel cheated, bored, shocked, or betrayed. Readers have their threshold for how much they want of violence, sex, philosophy, romance, etc. One of the surest ways for a writer to lose a reader before the end of a book is to violate the unwritten pact that s/he has made with the reader.

When I was listening to the audiobook of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was prepared for there to be some gore. What’s a mystery without a body? But the type of sadistic rape/murders in this book took me by surprise. I thought this was going to be more of an English-style mystery with quirky characters and a detective with a loveably odd personality who turns out to be uniquely suited to solve the crime. But the farther I got into the plot, the more I realized this book was about a team of sadistic rapist-murderers who committed the most violent and sick acts, not once, not twice, but over and over. I did something I never do when I’m reading a book—I gave up only twenty pages from the end, because I couldn’t stomach one more drop of blood. Essentially I felt betrayed by the author. I had been lured into a world that seemed relatively in balance except for a random crime, but that world turned out to include a cascade of horrible and almost unstoppable atrocities.

It may be an author’s Weltanschauung that the world is endlessly violent and cruel, and who am I to second-guess anyone’s worldview? But it did feel to me as if the author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had violated a pact with me as a reader. Yes, the author has an obligation to make a statement, and also to surprise the reader. But in my opinion that surprise cannot go so far that the reader feels cheated out of the type of experience that s/he was led to believe the book would provide. I think we as authors have to be sensitive to a reader’s expectations, not to coddle the reader, but we do have to deliver on what we promise.


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Writing the Historical Novel: An Interview with Jasmin Darznik, author of Song of a Captive Bird

I recently read the wonderful novel Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik, about Forugh Farrokhzad (1935­–1967), one of Iran’s greatest poets. It’s a fascinating and beautifully written story. I asked the author several questions about how she wrote the book and the challenges of writing a historical novel about a real person.

Jasmin Darznik
For those who are not familiar with Forugh Farrokhzad, could you give a very brief summary of who she was, what she accomplished as an artist, and what she represents to those who revere her?

Brought up in Tehran during the 1940s and 1950s, Forugh Farrokhzad, was the first woman to transcend the label of “poetess” without the support or patronage of a man. She was not yet twenty when she wrote “The Sin,” a poem so candid and daring that its publication in 1955 made her the most notorious woman in the country. Her five books of poetry cemented her reputation as a rebel and a powerful voice for women’s rights and social justice.

Her poems still offer an extraordinary reading experience more than half a century after they were first composed: the subject matter is daring, the language unfettered, and the point of view direct and unapologetic. More than perhaps any other writer, Forugh Farrokhzad gave Iranian women permission to be bold, furious, lustful, and rapturous. She remains an icon in Iran—one of the most influential women in the country’s history.

Forugh Farrokhzad (1935–1967)
Why is her story so compelling to you?

The longer I write, the more I believe that stories choose us, rather than the other way around, and that it’s not so much our work to make up them up as to let them be told through us. Art, if it is art, will tend to go its own way, and in the words of Theodore Roethke, we learn by going where we have to go. To be less elusive: Writing Forugh’s story was where I had to go to understand Iran and forces that shaped the 1979 Revolution and sent so many thousands of Iranians—my family among them—into exile.

Why write a novel about her life as opposed to a biography?

A biography was impossible, at least for me. Given Iran’s tumultuous history, and its ongoing complexities, so many stories have been buried or obscured. Forugh’s is one of them. By the time I got to her, she was more myth than woman. There is so much that’s unknown and perhaps even unknowable about her. When she died her papers and letters went missing, those close to her were, and in some cases remain, circumspect. All that proved useful to me as a novelist because it opened the way for my imagination.

Could you give examples of some things that your research did not or could not reveal that you had to make up in the novel? How were you able to imagine those scenes or characters?

Song of a Captive Bird opens with a scene in which a fifteen-year-old Forugh undergoes a virginity test, with traumatizing and disastrous results. I didn’t know if Forugh had ever undergone such a test, but it was consonant with the other facts I was able to discover about her and, more broadly, about young women of her generation. The more I thought about it, the absence of any evidence only strengthened the possibility she had experienced something of this kind. This is precisely the kind of story that would have been repressed or suppressed, and also the kind of experience that could explain the dramatic rupture that occurred in her life when she turned sixteen.

Another example: It’s likely that Forugh, like many artists and progressive people of her era, was closely watched by the monarchy then in power. What shape that watching took was a mystery, and one I decided to solve through writing the book. I didn’t expect it would be such a central part of the book, but the more I wrote the more it felt impossible to disentangle Forugh’s story from the story of what was happening in the country in the 1950s and 60s.

Were there moments in the plot where your own experiences helped you identify with Forugh? Could you mention one of those and how your own story helped you write more deeply about a particular incident?

I left Iran when I was a child and haven’t been back, but the cultural taboos and prohibitions Forugh faced are deeply familiar to me from my upbringing. This is what so enraptured me about her writing when I discovered it. She was writing about a world I knew, and doing it with an honesty that still felt risky decades after her death. I found myself profoundly moved by the feeling that her poems weren’t just telling me a story, they were telling me who she was. Having grown up in a family where telling who you were could be, and often was, regarded as a betrayal, her poems were both a revelation and a provocation. The obstacles I’ve faced have been negligible compared to what she experienced, but I know well the voice that tries to keep Iranian women silent.  

You chose to translate the poems of Forugh Farrokhzad in the book yourself. Could you tell us about that process? At what points in the story did you feel it was important to insert part of a poem?

I chose poems that were critical to my composition of the book. Many scenes grew directly out of my reading of Forugh’s work, for example her poem “I Feel Sorry for the Garden.” In the novel I imagine the literal destruction of her childhood garden, an experience I imagine might have inspired her vision in that poem. Later in the novel there’s a scene that envisions the origin of her radically transgressive poem, “The Sin.” That poem totally changed her life—I couldn’t not include it. In other instances I was working less from what the poem expressed than what it implied. A mood, say, or frame of mind. The book’s final scenes are very much infused with the feeling of her late poems. I think that for American readers the inclusion of the poems does two things: introduces them to a writer they likely don’t know and, secondly, stages a dialogue between Forugh’s voice and mine.

You made an artistic decision at some point to have Forugh speak “beyond the grave,” so to speak, rather than to locate the narration of this novel at a point in her actual life. How did you decide to give her knowledge of events that occurred after her lifetime and what are the pros and cons of that choice for a writer?

In early drafts, the novel actually began with Forugh speaking “beyond the grave.” My editor helped me see that wasn’t the best choice for the opening since it gave away certain secrets. That said, I always knew that the story would embrace not just Forugh’s life—extraordinary as it was—but her legacy, and though there might have been other ways of capturing that legacy, it felt right for her to have the last word. I see the novel as her story, but also Iran’s. I wanted the reader to leave with a sense of the enormity of her influence as well as the ways the terrors and beauties of her Iran survive into the present-day.

What do you hope readers of the book will come away with, in terms of the life and work of Forugh Farrokhzad, and also the larger issues that her life brings into focus?

What Forugh’s life represents to me is the possibility of a woman becoming free. Free in her art, free in her life. She never achieved it, though she came close in some ways. Despite the seeming distance between her life and ours, between her country and this one, I think that in discovering her courage we can fortify and amplify our own.


Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry