I just returned from my personal Shangri La, or Incline Village, North Lake Tahoe. The artists, Tom and Mary Garrell, had arranged a book signing in Kris Moose, their lovely gallery that displays Tom and Mary’s imaginative paintings and photographs. It was wonderful to connect with the locals and enjoy the interest of so many book clubs that flourish in the community.
I fell in love with Lake Tahoe on a crisp summer day in the ’60s. I was visiting America for a short time. My brothers were studying at UC Berkeley and we decided to drive from San Francisco to Incline Village. It was a time of long-haired, save-the-earth, tie-dyed, bell-bottomed hippies. Simon and Garfunkel played nonstop on the car radio: “Mrs. Robinson” and “Homeward Bound.” We sped across highway 267 toward North Lake Tahoe. The lake, a majestic expanse of turquoise came into view around a bend. One glance and I was smitten. My first dip into the life-giving chill of those waters was magical. I vowed to live here one day, a seemingly out of reach dream at the time. Much has happened since. Above all, a revolution that forced us to flee Iran and settle in California. It took a few decades, but my dream came true. Nowadays, Incline Village is a second home.
An author now, I bring a different perspective to my novels, a point of view that springs from the amalgam of different cultures I experienced. Having spent my formative years in a country where poetry, myth and superstition are woven into the fabric of everyday life, these elements find their way into my stories. The Last Romanov is no exception. If we did not limit ourselves to our five senses, we might consider the fantastical a different form of reality. We might detect magic in ambergris that takes decades to cure under the sun, ambergris whipped by winds and bathed in saltwater to turn into an aromatic offer from the seas and oceans. We might possess the ability to sense the presence of the evil eye before misfortune strikes or believe in the afterlife and in reincarnation and celebrate Darya Borisovna, my protagonist, who has an opal eye.
The reign of Nicholas II is arguably the most tumultuous era in Russian history and the process of research and discovery was rife with surprises.
My research about Grigori Rasputin, who was alleged to possess extraordinary sexual powers and have an amorous affair with Empress Alexandra, revealed a complex man with hypnotic powers, who was believed to hold the life of the hemophilic heir in his hands.
I was faced with numerous challenges. Unaware of the extent of Nicholas II’s anti-Semitism and his indifference to the deadly pogroms around Russia, I had developed great affection toward the tsar and his family. How to address this injustice, when Darya Borisovna was devoted to the Romanovs? The solution presented itself in Avram, Darya’s lover, who becomes a spokesman for the Jews and Darya’s conscience.
During my many days of writing inspired by the lake below, the aromatic pines and trembling aspens above, I came across more than a few fascinating natural wonders. None was as mesmerizing as ambergris, which plays an important role in my novel. Ambergris is a fatty substance sperm whales expel when they suffer indigestion, caused by hard-beaked squids that inflict the poor animal with massive tummy aches. The verdict is still out whether ambergris, which originates in the whale’s intestines, is vomit or excrement. This rare substance, which can weigh hundreds of pounds, stinks when first expelled, but once it has a chance to float in the seas and oceans, and be cured by air, sun and saltwater, its foul smell transforms into a tantalizing aroma that encouraged many a myth.
The Chinese call ambergris “dragon spittle fragrance,” evoking images of perfumed dragons guarding jewel-filled caves. Throughout history, all the way back to ancient Egypt, ambergris was used to cure anything from simple headaches to hysteria and impotence. And in The Last Romanov, Darya adds ambergris to black honey; wine from Livadia grapes fermented in oak barrels, and melted saffron to create a healing concoction for Alexei, the hemophilic heir to the Romanov throne.
I’ve come to believe that the lake, with its crystal blue waters nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at an altitude of 6,225 feet, is a place where magic happens every day.