Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Story Behind the Story:
“A Bitter Veil,” by Libby Fischer Hellmann

(Editor’s note: In this 40th installment of The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series, we welcome Libby Fischer Hellmann, a Chicago author with several books to her credit, including Set the Night on Fire [2010] and Easy Innocence [2008]. Below, she recalls the development of her latest novel, A Bitter Veil [Allium Press], which tells of a young student in Chicago, Anna, who falls in love with an Iranian man, Nouri, and subsequently moves back with him to his native Tehran in 1978--not long before the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the rise of the Islamic Republic.)

So there I was at Bouchercon a few years ago. I had just finished my sixth novel and an author friend asked, “What are you going to write now?”

I had no idea. I told him I liked writing about women whose choices have been taken away from them. Who have run out of options. How do they survive without becoming victims? Is it even possible for them to prevail?

As we chatted, a memory swam up into my consciousness. A few years earlier, I’d gone to a high-school reunion. I’d published a few novels by then, and one of my former classmates approached and said that she wanted to tell me her “story.” Like most writers, I’m a sucker for a story, so we grabbed a glass of wine and went into a corner.

She proceeded to tell me how she’d fallen in love after college with an Iranian student. They married and she moved with him to Tehran. Four months later the Shah was deposed, and her life went from wonderful to acceptable, from acceptable to mediocre, difficult, and finally intolerable. After a year or so she was able to flee Iran, returned to the States, and got a divorce.

Now I told my author friend at Bouchercon about my classmate. He promptly suggested I write about her experience.

“I can’t,” I said. “It’s not fiction, and there was no crime.”

He cocked his head and looked at me as if I were a little strange. “You write crime fiction. Find one.”

I took his advice.

* * *

I began by doing research. Usually I’m the type of writer who believes in field trips. I’ve gone to Douglas, Arizona; Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; neighborhoods in Chicago I would never visit alone; even Cuba. But I couldn’t go to Iran. It was--and is--unsafe for an American woman, particularly a Jewish-American woman. I would have been questioning and interviewing people about a delicate time in their country’s history. It’s possible some people might have gotten the wrong idea. It’s possible I’d have been stopped, even apprehended. So a trip was out of the question.

However, not experiencing Iran first-hand was problematic too. How could I capture the setting accurately? The culture? The struggle that erupted when a religious revolution was foisted on a previously (mostly) secular society? Perhaps, I reasoned, the story was better left untold. After all, there already are plenty of books--both fiction and non-fiction--written about that period. Indeed, I’ve included a list of some at the end of A Bitter Veil.

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. After much internal debate, I decided I wouldn’t write the book unless I did enough research to feel comfortable with the evolution, conflicts, and issues of the Islamic Revolution.

Fortunately I’m a former history major. Not only do I love research, but I have always been captivated by the past and how we bend it, learn from it, or ignore it at our peril. And Iran’s Islamic Revolution was one of the most well-covered revolutions in history. It was easy to find chronologies, books, articles, and reactions. I read nearly 20 books on the subject, both fiction and non-fiction. I took notes, read more, watched films, examined photos. A factor in my favor was that the revolution was relatively recent. Many of us remember TV news footage of the Shah piloting his plane out of Iran, followed by the triumphant return from exile of the Ayatollah Khomeini a few weeks later. It was not difficult to find materials.

I also put the word out that I was looking for Iranian Americans who’d lived in Iran during the early years of the revolution. Within weeks I found five people willing to talk to me. Some warned me not to be too critical; others not too gentle. One told me such a harrowing story that some of her history ended up in the book. As you might expect, none of these people wanted their names made public.

After sifting through what I’d learned, I decided I might be able to write the novel after all. The first 50 pages take place in Chicago, so that section wasn’t difficult. Once I moved the couple to Tehran, it became more challenging, but whenever I had questions, I did more research. For example, it turns out that my female protagonist buys two chadors. I discovered a chador shop in Tehran, read about chadors and their headpieces, and incorporated the information into the tale.

When I finished a draft, I sent it to one of the five Iranian Americans I’d interviewed. She vetted the entire manuscript and told me where I’d gone astray. I made revisions. Then I sent it to my editor, who sent it to a second Iranian American for further checking. Finally, when producing the audio version of my story, we checked with yet another person for the proper pronunciation of Farsi phrases.

I was comforted by the thought that I was writing about the era as seen through the eyes of an American woman. What she observed was in large measure what I learned during my research. Some of it was beautiful--for example, the sheer magnificence of the Persian culture. Some of it, less so. In all cases, though, I tried to be faithful to the research.

* * *

There’s one more component to the back-story that made writing A Bitter Veil irresistible. As crime writers, we learn early that “conflict” is the most essential ingredient in fiction. We learn that there must be conflict on every page, even if a character just wants a glass of water and can’t get it.

What triggers more conflict than a revolution? Whether it’s the French, Russian, Cuban, or Chinese revolutions, or what we’re now calling the Arab Spring, nothing shakes the foundations of a society more than internal conflict. That kind of conflict turns some people into heroes, others into cowards. The most satisfying part of writing for me is placing a character in the middle of such a conflict and seeing how he or she behaves.

That happened in A Bitter Veil. Some characters did what I thought they would, but others surprised me with their actions. In fact, I thought I knew who the culprit was when I began the book. But that changed several times during the writing, and it wasn’t until the climax that the perpetrator was unmasked. I hope readers will be as surprised as I was.

The conflict triggered by the Islamic Revolution manifested itself in a non-pluralistic way, as well. Through my research I learned that Persia had been invaded many times over the centuries. However, Persia’s invaders always tended to assimilate the Persian culture rather than imposing their own on Persia. In some cases, the invaders even allowed the Persians to retain a semblance of autonomy. That didn’t happen this time. Iranian customs, culture, and politics changed dramatically.

Why? Was it because the revolutionaries were insurgents, not foreign invaders? Was it because there was no choice--Iranians were required to “assimilate” the new republic’s dictums? I’m not sure, and it was a compelling question--one which I ultimately had to leave open.

* * *

Now for the punch line.

I finished the book, recorded the audio, planned my promotional campaign. I had decided early on not to use my high-school classmate as a source, so she knew nothing about the book. When it was done, though, I chose to dedicate the book to her if she agreed. It took almost six weeks for us to connect because she was traveling, but when we finally did, I said,

“Hi. You remember the story you told me about moving to Iran?”

“Iran?” She said. “It wasn’t Iran.”

“Of course it was,” I said. “You fell in love, you got married and moved to Tehran. When it became impossible, you came home.”

“No.” She corrected me. “It wasn’t Iran--it was India.”

“But ... but ...” I sputtered. India?? She’d gone to India, not Iran? How had I screwed that up?

“I can’t believe this,” I said. “I just finished writing a novel about Iran. And it all began with you!”

“Actually, I do believe it,” she said. “I moved to the Punjab area of India, which is predominantly Muslim. The Shiites in India tended to follow and do what Iranian Shiites did. The same customs, the same restrictions. So don’t feel badly; it was a similar situation.”

But of course, I did. Feel badly, that is. I spent a couple of days shame-faced and embarrassed. After a while, though, I realized it didn’t matter. Clearly, it was a subconscious error. I’d written the story I was supposed to write. A Bitter Veil is that story.


Picks by Pat said...

I'm reading this right now, and it's a great story. Nice to hear how it got its start.

Hal Fonts said...

Having lived and worked 3-years throughout Iran in the late-60s, and returning for a wonderful 2-week visit in 2006, I think it is utterly outrageous that such misinformation is overlaid on such a totally false premise.

Surf, and you will find that Iran, even today under stress of the Western Embargo is one of the safest most hospitable places to visit -- many single women travel there, always have. That is the story that is far more interesting, and true to reality.

The author should well be "shame-faced and embarrassed" ("it didn't matter"???). Her Editors should have demanded a re-write.

But hey, all them furiners, they all the same, 'specially them rag-heads; right?

gge said...

Obviously doesnt know what it's like to be woman traveling alone...there are places I won't go for that 'simple' reason, esp certain backgrounds to certain regions of world...kudos Libby. Twilight author had never been to Washington either...