The House That War Minister Built: Q&A Part 4

November 25, 2010 1 Comment

Q: Andrew, I have a particular question for you: Did you find it hard to understand the Iranian characters you were trying to write? The cultures are so very different.

A: (Andrew) I was worried about this at the beginning. I was trying to ask myself how a woman, for instance, would feel about being one of several wives in the andaroon– that’s the harem – especially when a new wife was brought in. That was hard. Elahe would explain to me that the women felt comfortable with this. It was part of life. Growing up, Elahe was close to her grandmother, who was one of four wives, and so she had considerable insight. However, I refused to believe any of the old wives were very happy with the arrival of a newcomer. Eventually, after many discussions with Elahe, I was able to conceptualize the old wives’ attitude towards a new wife: it was something like confronting death or menopause. It was natural. It was accepted. But, no one welcomed it. And individual responses varied considerably. Some older wives were very savvy and arranged for their husbands to marry simple servant girls whom they could then easily manipulate. Some went through depressions. Some found lovers – yes, they found ways to do that – Some just gave up and drank tea the rest of their lives. The cultures – American and Iranian – are vastly different. The emotions people feel are universal, it’s just that different buttons set them off. And, of course, I had Elahe to help me understand how they would feel about things. So the challenge was not in understanding the Iranian characters, but in emotively communicating to western audiences what they felt, while, at the same time, employing culturally correct facts, artifacts and scenarios.

Q: What would you say were the biggest differences between western and Persian cultures?

A: (Elahe) Again, you have to read the book. It took us four hundred pages to answer that and we hardly scratched the surface.

A: (Andrew) True. But, if I had to give a short answer, I’d say, other than religion (which is pretty obvious) it would be family structure. The patriarchal archetype for Americans is someone like Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In Iran, Big Daddy would have (concurrently) four permanent wives and an untold number of temporary wives. All of the permanent wives and many of the temporary ones – and of course, all the children – would live in one compound. Now, look at the intrigues within Big Daddy’s simple family. Expand that exponentially, and you get what happens in extended Iranian families. The large, extended families would seethe with intrigue, typically along the lines of the children of one wife vs. those of another, let alone between children from the same mother. But, the family would also be brimming with support. There was always someone to be an affirming adult to an abandoned child, always someone to go to for advice or help. These large families represented an instant community where everyone had – for better or worse – a place. And, since the population tended to be rooted for generations in a single locale, strong family ties extended throughout the neighborhood. So, family dominated all aspects of community, much more than it does here. This engendered intrigues and paranoia on a per capita scale much larger than you get in typically uprooted American families, but, conversely, gave everyone a sense of belonging, which is so lacking in American culture.

A: (Elahe) Westerners typically obsess about the polygamy issue. But what they miss is the supportive aspect of Iranian families. If your mother is too busy to give you love or show you how to sew a hem, there’s always your grandmother, or your aunt.

Q: I’m curious, how did the two of you split up the writing?

A: (Elahe, laughing) Well, we survived – without splitting.

A: (Andrew, also laughing) Just.

A: (Elahe) Andy did most of the actual writing and plotting…

A: (Andrew) But, I couldn’t make a move without Elahe, not a page. I needed her for a lot more than describing Iran – it’s history, how it looks and feels, how it works – all the detailed accoutrements. I needed her to explain a lot of what the characters were feeling and what options were open to them that were culturally correct. In many cases, even though all the characters were invented – or at least melded personality traits of several real individuals – I often needed her to help me understand them – and invent them, too. Particularly the female characters. Also, one hundred percent of the Persian poetry was from Elahe. She either selected the poems – and here we should thank Daniel Ladinsky for being very generous with permissions for his Hafez poems – or translated them herself.

Q: Did you read extensively about Iran, as well as listen to Elahe and her family?

A: (Andrew) Yes, of course. On our website I list a number of books I used as source material. The two best of these are “The Garden of the Brave in War,” by Terrence Odonnel, and “Blood and Oil,” by Manouchehr Farmanfarmaia. Of all the books I’ve read about Iran, Terrence Odonnel’s memoir (The Garden of the Brave in War) is far and away the most evocative. It’s short, but it gives a deliciously charming picture of rural Iran. Blood and Oil is worth reading to get an insider’s view of the history of Iran seen through the prism of oil politics. Even after 34 years of stories about Iran, I still find it an eye-opener.

Dan Fleuris: Well, I want to thank you both for your time – and for The House That War Minister Built.

(Andrew): The pleasure is ours.

(Elahe): Khoda hafez!

Dan Fleuris

Octavio Books

Octavio, LLC

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