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Mark T. Mustian on The Gendarme

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. Conn, it soon turns out, served as a guard or gendarme for a forced march expulsion of Armenians, one of whom, the young woman Araxie, makes him doubt his purpose.

The novel 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. It's a harrowing novel in places, but one that comes to the reader from a place of hope. 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 later in the week--about his novel, about his omnivoracious reading habits, and his own "corollary to the Franzen/Piccoult-Weiner dustup," but for now here's a short interview I conducted with Mustian earlier this month. What sparked the novel for you? And then, after the spark, how long did it take to get to your final version of the book?

Mark T. Mustian: People have asked me all my life if I’m Armenian. I’ve always acknowledged that I am, but a ways back. I’ve never known much about it. One day someone asking this same question asked if I’d read Peter Balakian’s book Black Dog of Fate. I hadn’t, and did. Peter’s book describes his search for his Armenian roots, and his coming to understanding of the events of 1915. I begin reading other books on the subject, including the accounts of those who survived the forced march of Armenian women and children out of Turkey. After a year or so I began to write, but I didn’t come to the decision to try to approach things from the view of one of the Turkish gendarmes until much later. What kind of research did you do, and at what point did research stop and reimagining begin?

Mustian: I read everything I could get my hands on, particularly the survivor accounts. Many of these were so heartbreaking I could only read them small bits at a time. I also read all the fiction I could find on the subject. Eventually I went to Turkey and Syria, and traced the path where many of the caravans would have gone. I had written much of the book by then, so it was interesting to see how my research intersected with on-the-ground reality, albeit almost a century later in time. Much was the way I’d described it, but there were enough things that were different that I was glad I went. Actually seeing the roads and areas where some of these events took place had an emotional resonance, as well. This is your first novel from a major publisher. What’s the experience been like so far?

Mustian: It’s been great. To work with Amy Einhorn has been a tremendous honor, and I’ve been at this long enough to appreciate the odds I’ve defied to get to this point. To be the fall hardcover “rep’s pick” for the entirety of the Penguin Group’s imprints and see advance reading copies flying around and reviews coming in is quite gratifying after the seven years or so I’ve been at work on this book. You serve on the city commission for Tallahassee, Florida, and are also a lawyer. How do you balance all of that with writing?

Mustian: I write a little bit every day, usually first thing in the morning before others in my household are up. Then I’m off and into the day. I try to read a lot as well, mostly on weekends, on vacation and when traveling. The corollary is that, except for the occasional sporting event, I watch almost no television. I may be the only person in America never to have seen a full episode of “The Office,” “CSI” or “Lost.” Are you taking a break to savor the success of the new novel, or already working on another?

Mustian: I’m at work on another, and another beyond that. Occasionally a short story will pop into my head and I’ll take time out to work on it. I’m blessed in that I like writing, and I like the way I go at it. I’m not sure that it would be much fun (or that the quality of my work wouldn’t suffer) if I sat at a desk and tried to write for eight hours a day.


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