Mark T. Mustian on Researching His Historical Novel The Gendarme
As we noted on Monday, Mark T. Mustian's The Gendarme tackles those most difficult of subjects for fiction: genocide, war, cruelty, and love. Narrated by the 92-year-old Emmett Conn, a Turkish immigrant to the United States, the novel follows Conn from the present into the past and a welter of ever-clearer memories of the protagonist's role in the Armenian genocide in 1915. Mustian gradually gives readers the often surprising details of Conn's entire life, from soldier in the Ottoman army through to living in the U.S., while keeping the focus on Araxie and Conn's relationship with her.
The novel comes with glowing blurbs from the likes of Robert Olen Butler, Bob Shacochis, Sandra Dallis, and Atom Egoyan, and already has been picked up for reprint in several countries, including Greece, Spain, Brazil, Italy, Israel, and France.
In a starred review, Library Journal wrote, "First novelist Mustian writes relentlessly, telling his haunting story in brief bursts of luminous yet entirely unsentimental prose and reminding us that, when life gets bloody, we had better watch out for our own humanity."
We'll hear from Mustian again--about his omnivoracious reading habits and his own "corollary to the Franzen/Piccoult-Weiner dustup," but for now here's more on the background of his novel...
Research and Experience
by Mark T. Mustian
I’ve always taken James Michener’s quote to heart: “Really great writers are people like Emily Brontë who sit in a room and write out of their limited experience and unlimited imagination.” Particularly for writers of historical fiction like me, there’s no real way to completely experience what our characters experience. Research is our guidepost, and with the plethora of Internet and other sources now available, the temptation becomes, particularly when the modern geographic area has grown difficult to access, to write from research alone. My novel The Gendarme takes place in what is now eastern Turkey and northern Syria—the latter an area included in State department travel warnings until earlier this year. I’d never been to either and contemplated not going, relying instead on the extensive research I’d undertaken for the book. In the end, though, I went.
I’m glad I did.
The Gendarme is the story of a 92-year old man, Ahmet Khan, who fought for the Ottomans in World War I, was injured during the war and lost much of his memory, and only later in life begins to recall some of the things that happened at the beginning of the war, including the forced march of Armenian women and children out of Turkey. My heritage is Armenian, albeit a ways back, and I’ve always been asked about my ancestors and known little of them. Eventually I began researching, and learned of the atrocities that occurred in 2015, an event some have termed the 20th century’s first genocide. Most Americans know it only by vague reference to the “Starving Armenians”. People still ask me, “Now, where was that?” “What happened then?”
And so I journeyed to Anatolia, from New York to Istanbul and on to Cappadocia. I was guarded with my guides, for it remains a crime in Turkey to this day to refer to the slaughter of the Armenians as a genocide. I I traveled in an air-conditioned van down roads where almost a century earlier caravans of deportees huddled and plodded. It would have been hot for them, dusty and dangerous, with little food or water—I knew this from the accounts of those few that survived it. I’d read them again and again. And yet there’s something different to being there, to pick up on the little things that otherwise would have gone missing: the subtle changes in geography, desert to mountain forest to desert again; the similarity to things known; the slight differences in small facts and details. Even the air has a certain smell to it. But it’s the feeling that stays with you, the renewed sense of what it would have been like to have been there, without cars or highway but on donkeys, on foot. The fear that must have been present. The heartache. The numbing illness and death.
My novel is, paradoxically, a love story. I wanted to examine things from the other side, to try to understand how someone could do horrible things but perhaps in the end not be wholly bad. Entering Syria, past barbed wire and modern borders, I mounted the steps and walkways of the old citadel at Aleppo. Here in my novel Ahmet Khan elects to desert the gendarmerie, to try to stay near the young woman with whom he’s in love. Smoking a hookah looking out over this ancient city, I could almost feel his anguish, his desperation to turn history’s tide. He would have stared at the same metal gate, watched the same black-clad women. The haze, the stone walls, even the streets are much the same. A hundred years becomes the blink of an eye.
And for an instant I can be him, and he can be me, and that is all we as writers, and readers, too, in the end want to be.