Today we welcome Dana Walrath to the Launchpad to celebrate the release of her debut young adult novel, LIKE WATER ON STONE!
It is 1914, and the Ottoman Empire is crumbling into violence.
An eagle’s quill falls from the sky.
The ones who find it will be protected
But how does a feather overcome guns and swords?
Beyond Anatolia, in the Armenian Highlands, Shahen Donabedian dreams of going to New York. Sosi, his twin sister, never wants to leave her home, especially now that she is in love. At first, only Papa, who counts Turks and Kurds among his closest friends, stands in Shahen's way. But when the Ottoman pashas set in motion their plans to eliminate all Armenians, neither twin has a choice.
After a horrifying attack leaves them orphaned, they flee into the mountains, carrying their little sister, Mariam. But the children are not alone. An eagle watches over them as they run at night and hide each day, making their way across mountain ridges and rivers red with blood.
A writer, artist, and anthropologist, Dana Walrath earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She completed her first novel, Like Water on Stone (Delacorte Press 2014), while in Armenia as a Fulbright Scholar working on a project that builds on her graphic memoir Aliceheimer’s (Harvest 2013).
Welcome, Dana! Tell us, what was the spark that ignited this book?
This story began, as many stories do, with a long ago conversation. As a kid, at the height of the civil rights era, I had asked my mother about her mother’s childhood in western Armenia. I had never known this grandmother. She replied, “After her parents were killed, she hid during the day and ran at night with Uncle Benny and Aunt Alice from their home in Palu to the orphanage in Aleppo.” Learning about my family’s past at that historical moment, combined with the privilege of being one generation further away from the horror, made the Armenian Genocide into a human rights issue instead of the tragedy for one people.
Connecting with my Armenian identity has been a lifelong quest. My Armenian mother had felt the sting of racism and bigotry as a child in New York City and married an American to leave that behind. Though we had Armenian foods and music at home, my mother guided her children toward fitting in and being American, but she remained conflicted about what being Armenian meant to her. Without a big close extended family here, my mother sought some connection with a host of first cousins through a trip to Soviet Armenia in 1977. But she shut down these connections shortly thereafter.
I responded to this trip by studying Armenian in college and joining the Armenian Students Association. But as a half-Armenian unconnected to any of the churches, who went to Quaker instead of Armenian summer camp, I was a bit of a misfit. My political beliefs were also problematic. I remember arguing with other students about how we should be linking the Armenian Genocide to the Cambodian genocide happening right then, but not getting very far, and I couldn’t at the time figure out how to lead the way. My Armenian quest continued in a private fashion.
Few things are more private than the process of writing. In this story, I have done my best to honor the truth of genocide, the glory and strength of Armenian culture, without crossing over into an alienating, oversimplified rhetoric of “us” and “them.” I have separated the horrific systematic actions of the Ottoman governments from the actions of individual citizens. Though some citizens behaved abominably, the book is filled with characters who took risks, who crossed ethnic divisions in order to help those in need. I want contemporary readers to be able to find both a sense of forgiveness and justice in this story. Now that Like Water on Stone is a public “property,” it has been so gratifying to see the evolution that has taken place in Armenian Genocide studies. Today it is firmly integrated within a global human rights framework. Armenian and Turkish scholars and intellectuals and artists of all sorts contribute to creating justice and peace in this region.
What specific research did you do for this story? What's the most interesting thing you leanred that didn't end up in the novel?
Writing Like Water on Stone was driven by a desire to connect with my Armenian grandparents, both survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915. So much of my life’s experience—Armenian food, music, dances; interactions with Armenian friends and family; and Armenian history books, memoir, and fiction that I had read — were part of my “research”. Two specific experiences especially stand out. In 1984, I travelled with my husband all across Eastern Turkey—what was Western Armenia—to see my grandparents’ homeland. This was a time when Armenians did not travel to Turkey, so we presented ourselves as young Americans, there for an adventure. Turks welcomed us into their homes, feeding us the same foods I had grown up with, saying, “I bet you’ve never tasted anything like this before!” When we got to Palu, the place where my grandmother’s family had been millers, we started asking, in Turkish, if there were any mills nearby. We were directed across a modern bridge, built next to one of crumbling stone with eight arches. We followed the river’s bank to a fast-flowing stream, then headed up the stream into the woods until we reached a mill with a series of attached buildings running up the slope.
On the rooftop of the largest building, the head-scarfed lady of the house served us sweet tea in clear glass cups. A half-dozen children with big brown eyes watched and listened. Mounds of apricots dried in the sun. She said that the mill had been in her family for sixty years; before that, it had belonged to Armenians. At the time, I had no idea that I was conducting research for a book, but when I began to write this story, decades later, this mill became the beloved family home.
Delacorte Press acquired Like Water on Stone the fall of the year I spent in Armenia as a Fulbright Scholar. This gave me total immersion in Armenian culture as I worked through the final set of revisions with my editor, the wonderful Michelle Poploff. Research included everything from conversations with old people about their family’s experience during the genocide, to Sunday masses filled with incense and singing, to fruits and vegetables piled high on roadside stands, to the generous access to the library and the scholars of The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute. Open-air folk dancing with Armenians of all ages enriched a thread that was already present in the book. This bit of “research” began my second night in Yerevan, when I heard music calling me like the Pied Piper from several blocks away. I followed the music and discovered the Karin Ensemble dancing at the foot of the magnificent Cafesjian Center for the Arts. (http://www.cmf.am)
Folk dancing in the U.S. can seem like a frou-frou activity, but in Armenia it was cool, powerful, passionate, and strong. Before I knew it, I was taking classes twice a week and learning a host of new dances. The lovely women’s circle dance “Madzoon”—the Armenian word for yogurt—in which we move our legs as though stirring the milk in a pot, reminded me of making yogurt with my mother and precipitated yogurt-making scenes in the book. My favorite dance, a tight, fast paced, intricate men’s dance, the Alashkerdi Kochari, made its way into the story: At a moment of intense flight, young Shahen takes his strength from its pounding rhythms. I know from experience that as the tempo increases, lines of six to eight people, moving as one, arms linked around waists, seem to lift off the ground, flying in arcs around the floor.
One discovery that did not make it into Like Water on Stone is that missionaries, acting also as recruiters for the fabric mills of industrializing New England, had found their way into Anatolia in the years leading into this story. When the missionaries discovered that they might get killed for trying to convert Muslims, they focused instead on the local Christians, the Armenians, the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion way back in 301 A.D. Though Europeans and North Americans were present in Anatolia as diplomats, missionaries, and teachers, and though I used a variety of their works as primary sources, none of them made their way explicitly into Like Water on Stone.
What are some of your favorite Armenian words? Did you discover any new ones while writing Like Water on Stone?
What a fun question! I would have to say that the diminutive affectionate “jan” (a hard “dj,” rhymes with “on”) placed after someone’s name is at the top of my list. It not only made it into Like Water on Stone, but has made its way back into my English. Though it translates as “dear,” it is actually a Persian word that means soul. I love the notion of addressing each other’s beings and cores so directly and with affection.
I also especially love the use of common words like sun, moon, Sycamore tree, dream, and sweet—Arev, Lusine, Sosi, Yeraz, Anoush—as common first names. This keeps speakers much closer to the natural world through their everyday language. Among these, only Sosi made it into Like Water on Stone. Though Armenia is quite a patriarchy, I love that the same word keghetsig (the gh like a French r) was used to talk about beauty for men and for women. This word, like so many others, contains earthy guttural sounds like kh and gh, common in that part of the world. The only two English sounds that Armenian can’t accommodate easily happen to be the W and th found at either end of “Walrath”!
Armenian is filled with words built out of smaller parts. This means that many words are very long but at the same time poetic and inherently metaphorical. In western Armenian, for example, the word for brown is “coffee-colored” or surdjakooin. All of these words are more easily written with the Armenian alphabet.
Iharke and anbayman both mean “certainly” or “of course” but were said with such gusto that I had to fall in love with them.
Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent? Were there lots of revisions along the way?
Selling Like Water on Stone, my first novel, was quite a journey, some of it snail-paced and other parts taking place at lightning speed! During my years at VCFA I worked on many things simultaneously, so this story, begun before I started the program, was not finished when I graduated. Instead it had powerful fragments that still needed to be formed into an integrated whole. At first, it contained at least a dozen individual voices and no overarching narrator in the style of Karen Hesse’s brilliant books Witness and Out of the Dust. [Interviewer's note: there's a very nice blurb from Karen Hesse on the cover of Like Water on Stone!] While I was searching for an agent, writing partners were telling me that the story was hard to follow, that the horror was too hard to take. This is when the eagle, Ardziv, came into the story. His magic could ground readers and make it safe for them. It certainly did this for me as I wrote. I had found the voice at last and from there the story flowed. Once Ardziv appeared, I signed with Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Shortly thereafter, I left for Armenia for the year as Joan assembled the group of editors to whom she would submit. One of them called her back within hours of getting the manuscript and she contacted the others and the book ended up going to auction.
The privilege of going to auction is that you get to discuss the vision of the book with the interested editors. Both editors were gracious, intelligent, compassionate people with whom working would be a pleasure. One was concerned about some of the vivid brutality that I had included. Following the ages of my protagonists, this editor suggested we pull back on the violence and keep the book firmly Middle Grade. The other editor suggested making the protagonists older so that the truth of the horror could stay. In the end this is what swayed me. Once Michelle Poploff acquired the book, we brought it through two more revisions. The process flowed and included additions instead of cuts. She would ask the perfect question at a place in the text that had a gap and scenes appeared to answer her questions. Using some of the sources from the Armenian Museum and Institute, I realized that I had to shift the calendar of the story. These mechanics also created some new scenes. Revision was a process of building and clarifying.
How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
VCFA made me a writer. I had come to VCFA to do the Picture Book semester and to provide a bit of structure into my life as I had just taken a leave of absence from my teaching work at University of Vermont’s College of Medicine, shortly after my mother and dementia moved in with us. After being on campus for only 36 hours I was sure that I should do the entire program. Every lecture and reading by faculty and the graduating students demonstrated just how much one could learn there! On top of that, it was magic to be surrounded by such a generous community dedicated to bringing good books into the world. Instead of competition, VCFA emphasizes that this world needs as many good books as possible and everyone is encouraged to grow and contribute to this common goal. Workshops during the residency and 10 intense days of dorm life make the community fully integrated. Working intimately with 4 individual advisors over the course of each semester (in my case, Julie Larios, Tim Wynne Jones, Rita Williams Garcia, and Margaret Bechard) is such a privilege. Each has their own style and perspectives but the dedication and generosity they share and give to their students is mind-boggling. Being a part of the program also forces each of us to put our writing first. Up till then, my writing took place during stolen hours. Even though I was in the midst of caring for my mother, getting my youngest son off to college, and co-authoring a textbook, the program kept my creative work front and center. Through it, I developed habits and friendships that will last forever. VCFA was the biggest gift I ever gave to myself. But the real thanks goes to all the people that make this extraordinary community.
Very well said, Dana. I couldn't put it better myself! Thank you for stopping by!