The Story Behind A Story

My mother comes from a big old family, one of those you read about in stories. Her grandfather was a merchant who did business with the Russians, more than a hundred years ago. He was one of the richest men in the town until the Russian economy started to suffer, so my great grandfather’s business started to suffer, and so the wooden and iron chests full of Russian money valued no more than toilet paper.

My grandmother had given me a small chest that I keep on top of my bookshelf; now it’s full of my childhood books, but when she gave it to me, it was filled with old Russian money, which I used to play with. And she told me stories about her father’s house with rooms full of gold coins and silver coins, and about the Russian merchants who came to meet her father and she – being a small curious girl – hid in one of those rooms and peeped at her father’s guests. One day, one of those men had seen her through a door, and the beautiful girl that she was with light blue eyes, he had told her: “Your eyes caught me like a hound dog…”

Or perhaps, this never happened, because my grandmother didn’t speak Russian… Perhaps it happened with an Iranian merchant, a wealthy man from Tabriz, because her father worked with all kinds of people. Perhaps it was even a Turkman, a traveler, or it could have been all made up by my childhood imagination…

My great grandfather, though, was real; he was a merchant, with a big family, which he built a big house for. And he did have business with the Russians. I can send you a picture of my small antique chest! The Russian money, unfortunately, is gone; my parents’ house was rubbed twenty years ago and the burglar who thought we had hidden jewelry in this old mysterious box, broke the lock but found nothing but useless paper in it – my writing included! Long story short, I’m here to tell you about where this big family of my story comes from! And the interesting part, I just discovered it myself a couple of years ago, when my great grandfather’s house in my hometown – which had turned into a ghost house – was handed to a company to be refurbished, and one of the seven yards of the old house was open to the tourists.

This was where it hit me: wait! I have heard this story before! No, I have written this story myself! Now, did I have the ‘Big House’ on my mind when I was writing the Palazzo Bellini? Honestly, no! And trust me, the picture of the Italian fashion manager Alberto Bellini with his Italian suits and silk ties is nothing like my great grandfather, Haaj Mohammad Reza Bagheri, whom you’ll see a picture of attached to this post! But accidentally, both their surnames start with B, they were both businessmen, were famous and rich, had a big heritage house, and a bunch of kids who just let that heritage go to the dogs.

It seems that the outlines were drawn for me long before I called myself a writer; I grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories of the Big House, that’s what we in the family call the place: Manzel Bozorg. And I used to visit my mom’s aunts and uncles who lived there when I was a child. Every year we went to see my grandmother’s half-brother for Nowruz, and I used to run around with my cousin, playing hide and seek in the yards of Manzel Bozorg, and call every yard by the name of the aunt or uncle who lived there: Hayat e Daei Majid, Hayat e Khaleh Zobeyde’s… And we wished to find the treasure that was said to be buried in one of those yards, the gold and silver coins my grandmother used to tell us about.

Eventually, my mom’s uncles and aunts left Manzel Bozorg one by one, leaving their memories and names in the yards and rooms they had lived in. One by one, we went to their funerals, and dinners which were cooked on huge bonfires in huge copper pots in the main yard of Manzel Bozorg, and the smell of steamed rice and lamb stew filled the narrow allies and the old bazaar outside the long walls of the house. They left and the house got older and emptier, until the heirs decided to sell it to the Department of Heritage and Arts to be preserved. It was already a ruin when they sold it. And I didn’t see the house until two years ago when my mother told me about this company who was going to repair the place and turn it into a hotel.

And it was four years after I wrote Silk and Roses.

On my first trip to my hometown, my husband and I went to the house. I was happy to see the changes; they had opened only the main yard, and were working on two others: the stables and the kitchen yard, which seemed to be dug by gold diggers, the gold no one had found in any of the rooms and yards of Manzel Bozorg and it’s still said to be buried somewhere.

So, yes, I used my ancestors’ house in my story, and who know? I might have adapted my great grandfather’s character for the handsome Italian Alberto Bellini whom I wrote 5000 pages about (which I haven’t published). I could’ve given the color of my grandmother’s eyes to my Italian family with their Bellini blue eyes, but let me tell you, none of it I did on purpose. They were just in my head, somewhere, and they came out in another form. Ironically, they were even out in another language that neither my grandmother nor her father spoke. And when I realized how the little writer in my head has kept all those stories and re-written them, I was filled with joy. Of course, I could have saved myself from all this trouble if I had just written the story of Manzel Bozorg and not the Palazzo Bellini. I could have written in my mother tongue, which – trust me – would have been much easier, and I could have been an honor to my big and old family as everyone was going to read my book and sympathize and be proud.

Then why didn’t I? I had a perfectly suitable old house in my hometown with an attractive character of a merchant great grandfather who had married four times and each of his children was a unique story to tell; why on Earth did I make an imaginary palace in north of Italy with an imaginary family who needed names and personalities and whatnot, which I had to write about in English, when I could have simply written about my own family in the language I was born with?

If you’re a writer, you know the answer. No, I didn’t do it to show off about my skills or boast about speaking a second language. The answer is: we writers love a challenge. Tell me, where’s the fun in writing about something which is actually there? Don’t get me wrong; it is fun sometimes, but I can also give you the address of this house so you can go and see it yourselves, and give you my mom’s number who can tell you all about the history of the Bagheri family much better than I would. Writing my great grandfather’s biography was no challenge to me. Writing about a non-existent family who owned a non-existent palace in another country in another language was the challenge, which I took. Fortunately, our roots always take us back to where we come from, so if you step in the Palazzo Bellini, please go to the library on the second floor. You’ll see Alberto Bellini’s picture hung on the wall; look carefully, and you might just see something of my great grandfather in him, or you may remember a pretty little girl spying on her father’s Russian guests, by searching in his blue eyes.

 

 

Have You Met My Character Before?

There is one thing almost everyone wants to know about a story, so when they see an author, they usually ask, ‘Who’s the inspiration of your characters?’ which is a polite way of asking ‘How many of your relatives are copy-pasted into your story?!’ And the answer most of us authors give you curious and polite readers, is: ‘I might have had my second second cousin in mind for one of my characters, but they’re all based on my imagination!’ which is, erm, not exactly true!

Of course, there are more honest authors who would answer: ‘Actually, my first character’s life is mainly based on my own, or I’ve had this friend in college who had this unique personality, or my grandfather once told me this amazing story about the time he was a soldier in Russian fronts, blabla…’ And I, my dear curious friends, am in this group!

Wait! I did not just say that we only write our neighbors and colleagues; I can assure you that none of my cousins is a fashion designer, I’ve never met a Mafioso, I have no twins in my family, and no one that I know has ever been in love with a sibling. So, yes, the whole famiglia in my book series is ‘based on my imagination!’ Yet, my main character – however a guy – looks like me quite a lot, according to my friends who have read the story. And almost every other character has an avatar in my real life! Not copy-pasted; we just pick some people who have ‘unique personalities’, crop, cut, rotate, and do a hundred other tricks to fit in our little fairylands; as a result, if that person in question reads our stories, no way in hell will they recognize themselves in their new costumes!

Don’t get me wrong; the most amazing fictional characters are based on real people. It’s like stories based on real events. Actually, they can tell you a lot about the author, how crafty he or she is to turn a real-life event or person into an everlasting phenomenon which remains with you for the rest of your life.

The reason why I decided to start writing about ‘writing’ with the character was that in my idea, most of the stories today are character-oriented. Sometimes – and believe me, I have seen this! – there is no plot, no subject, no theme, and miraculously the character is all there is! So, although I believe that the plot and the character need to have the same weight and value in a story, plotting is not very popular these days, so…

The character!

Adopting them from the environment, good idea or bad idea?

Good idea!

Pay attention here; I said adopting, not re-writing! And remember, your second second cousin needs to have one hell of a personality to be adapted to a fictional character, because we all have that friend who’s told us how dramatic their life has been. ‘My life is like a story!’ they say. ‘You should use it in your next book.’

Now, should you?

Let me see; my mother had this childhood friend, who was beautiful and intelligent and talented, then her parents married her to an old man when she was hardly 17; soon he started cheating on her, beating her up, torturing her and she endured this life with three kids, until she could get a divorce, then she started living alone, got her college degree, practiced law, took care of her daughters who all got married and divorced. She bought a farm, bred dogs, had a shotgun for protecting herself, and whenever she saw me, she said, ‘You should write the story of my life one day!’

Did I?

Not until today. I just told you the story of her life. It’s interesting, true, but is it worth writing? Only if I adapt her character, and her husband’s, and change a few things to add more drama, it might be a book worth reading. For instance, let’s add a love interest, a cliché, the eighteen-year-old neighbors’ son who was in love with her when she was seventeen, or to make it more colorful we can bring this guy back to the story when she’s married and being beaten up and cheated day and night, and he’s married now, but still in love with her…

I guess I’m starting to have your attention! Right?

Why? Because her personality is qualified to be adapted, but the story of her life has nothing to offer for a good read. So, we pick her, but she needs to be trimmed, cropped, cut, we need a background for her, a history, she needs ambitions, flaws, traits to make us both love and hate her, because no one in real life is either black or white, pure or evil, so why should we have black or white characters in a story? Characters need flaws, no one is perfect, we all have skeletons hidden in our closets, so let’s re-build my mother’s friend until we have a brand new character who just reminds us of her, in a way.

I think we need to talk about it more later!

So, let’s keep her on hold, for now!

I’ll be back with a character-dresser kit soon!

Stay tuned!

Be Careful What You Wish For…

Fontana di TreviThe first time I went to Italy, at 28, I fell in love with Rome, and of all the streets and squares, I fell in love with Fontana di Trevi, The Trevi Fountain, which is the most beautiful fountain in the world, well, if you ask me! It is said to make your wishes come true if you throw a coin in it, or to bring you back to Rome again. I – being sure that I’d be back to Rome, because clearly Rome and I were in a romantic relationship now – threw a coin and wished for my only dream: for my novel to be published, the story I had been writing about an Italian family since forever.

Guess what? My wish came true. Seems the magical Fontana did work, however it did not work as I hoped.

Not. Even. A bit!

12 years later when I visited Rome again, with my published novel in my hand, I spent hours sitting in front of Fontana di Trevi and wondered ‘what did I do wrong?’ I had a book in my hand, a book I had written in my second language, and it was a dream come true, but nothing in it looked like my dream. My book was published, but no body had read it; in my country people didn’t read English books, and I didn’t have access to the outside world to people who read English books! And here I was with a book in my hand which felt as useless as the Greek or Roman God sitting at this magnificent fountain, because I had made the wrong wish at the first place…

I stared at the fountain for hours, and no, I didn’t make another wish. This one still had work to do! I simply decided to start over. I had worked four years on this book, and made mistake after mistake. It was time to go back to square one and restart everything.

And by everything, I mean EVERYTHING!

This is one of my first steps: writing about this presumably easy job of writing. It sounds easy. Just start today and you will agree with that humorous quote which says ‘Writing is like riding a bike, except you’re on fire, and the bike is on fire, and the whole world is on fire…’

And yes, you’re in hell!

We’ll write more about writing stories and books here! Stay tuned!