Best Chapter: Your novels are all historical novels, set in exotic times and places. Your novel Harem introduces readers to the intriguing world of the Jewish quarter in Persia. In Courtesan, we read about Belle époque France and the closed domain of women in 19th-century Persia. The Last Romanov is set in the royal court during the final days of the Tsar. Your latest novel, Scent of Butterflies, a story of betrayal — and revenge — moves from Iran to Los Angeles. Can you tell us a bit about your research into some of your work?
Dora Levy Mossanen: The process of research for each of my books has been entirely different. Not only because each novel takes place in a different era, but also due to the internet that has made it possible to virtually stroll through the labyrinths of Tehran after the Islamic revolution, explore an imperial palace in St. Petersburg, or riffle through the sumptuous wardrobe of a courtesan, all without stepping out of your home. For example, years ago, for my research for Harem, which by the way has been translated into Hebrew, I spent long hours in my public library, poring over books and newspapers to learn about harems and poisons and eunuchs, and so much more. For Courtesan, I traveled to Paris for a six-week course in the Belle Époque. But by the time I began writing The Last Romanov, technology had come so far, it was as if I was living with the Imperial Family, albeit virtually, snooping through their intimate quarters, eavesdropping on their conversations, becoming privy to their likes and dislikes, their characters, every juicy morsel of gossip online for the taking.
With Scent of Butterflies, my most contemporary and most personal novel, my research took me on an entirely different path. First, this is a period I’ve lived through and experienced firsthand, so memories play a big role here. Second, this book took me so many years to write that my research started in libraries and continued online. And as I did so, the Iranian political background after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which plays an important role in Scent of Butterflies, kept on changing so that I was involved in an ongoing and seemingly endless research. This was also a time when I was experiencing a major cultural shock and my personal life appeared to be turning upside down. So, it required a different kind of research, tapping into my own emotional reservoir to create the gloriously unraveling Soraya, who possesses the courage to take revenge in ways some of us long for but never dare.
BC: You were born in Israel, moved to Iran, then to the USA after the overthrow of the Shah, making English your — what? — third language? How has the change of countries impacted your writing and language?
DLM: Yes, you are right. English is my third language. I was born in Israel and moved to Iran with my family. At the time, I only spoke Hebrew. It was a traumatic move for a nine-year-old, who had lived in Israel, a country that respects children and allows them their own voice. To add to my misery, we happened to enter Tehran at the most unfortunate time: the week of the 1953 coup d’état of Dr. Mosaddegh, when the entire city appeared to be on fire. Despite all the early hardships, I was lucky to have an invaluable source of knowledge and history right next to me — my late grandfather, Dr. Habib Levy, a renowned historian, who introduced me to Mahaleh, the Jewish Quarter, spoke of being the shah’s dentist, and the many dangers of being Jewish in a Moslem country. My late father, Sion Levy, who had fought in the Israel War of Independence, shared his own dramatic experiences, adding to my ever-growing repertoire of invaluable information.
Then, the 1979 Islamic Revolution disrupted my life again. I was forced to leave Iran for America — a different culture, another set of expectations, another country to learn about and adjust to. This time with two kids in tow. So, the answer to your question is that, although I didn’t know it at the time, I kept on filing and hoarding the valuable information I witnessed and experienced in the amalgam of cultures I lived in, unaware how important they’ll become one day and how they’ll find their way into every single one of my books.
BC: You write in Courtesan that women “who were denied any voice…became the voice of freedom and self-expression.” Does that idea resonate with today’s women’s fiction writers who are examining the interior life of women?
DLM: I can’t speak for all writers, but I can say with certainty that, having lived in Iran, a country that continues to deny women their rightful voice, compels me to create female characters that have no qualms about taking matters into their own hands and expressing themselves loud and clear. Look at Soraya in Scent of Butterflies. She is a wonderful example! Her husband has betrayed her. The mullahs demand that she cover herself from head to toe, conceal her femininity, not wear makeup, stay home and cater to her man’s needs. She meets a mullah on the plane on her way to Los Angeles. Does she hide under her headscarf and dark overcoat, accepting the injustice of it all? No! Not Soraya.
BC: Can you tell us a bit about your writing style? What are some rules you follow for your writing? Do you write an outline? Did you know the end of your novel before you got there? And what are you working on now?
DLM: I’ve always envied writers who say they get up in the morning and step into their writing cave, cut out all outside communication, and write for so many hours. Perhaps being a wife, mother and grandmother makes it difficult to cut all communications with the outside world, even for an hour. Or maybe having lived for so many years in Iran, a country that was constantly on the brink of some political disaster, I still think that it might be foolish to isolate myself from the outside world, even if temporarily. So, the way I’ve learned to balance life and writing is to get up in the morning, workout for an hour, have my coffee, and sit in front of the computers with the intention of writing a good eight hours until my brain is fried and unable to produce another coherent word. Sometimes I’m successful. More often than not, life and family and what not pull me away from the computer. But, I’m lucky enough to possess the ability to refocus after an interruption and pick up where I left, write, even if in short increments of time, even if for half an hour, if that’s all that day will allow. But the joy of having a full day of uninterrupted work is incomparable!
I never have an outline for my novels and never know where my stories are going and how they will end. It’s amazing how often the beginning of my novel might end up being the end or visa versa. I like the element of surprise; not knowing what turns and twists my story might take. What I start with is one fully developed character to whose signals I’m acutely sensitive. Well, most of the time. Sometimes I need to take hold of the reins and coax one or another of my characters away from their intended path. More often than not, I corner them into an impossibly dramatic situation, making life difficult for all involved.
Strange this process of creating, isn’t it?
I’m working on my fifth novel, which takes place in the 1940s in Iran during World War II. It’s the story of a dentist who introduces Novocain to the country. But his success and fame proves to be a curse. The powerful Director General, who has become dependent on the doctor to take care of his rotting teeth, refuses to allow the doctor to travel to Israel, Palestine at the time, to have his daughter’s eyes checked by a retina specialist. Until… Well, until the Director General’s beautiful wife and the kind eunuch, Tulip, step in. Stay tuned.
BC: Finally, The Best Chapter explores how to write your best chapter and also how to live your best chapter each day in the story of your life. You have a family and, I would guess you cook mouth-watering Persian dishes (or at least, you get to eat them!) What are some of the things you do to take care of yourself each day?
DLM: Yes, I do cook Persian food, although not as often as I used to because there’s simply not enough time. Most of my cooking takes place on Fridays for Shabbat dinners when everyone in the family, from the small kids to the great grandparents, look forward to shedding the week’s workload and welcoming a day of rest. As for how I take care of myself, there are a number of things I do everyday that are sacrosanct. Working out in the morning. Starting my daily writing with the ritual of brewing tea and enjoying some chocolate to encourage feel-good endorphins. And then again, when I’m done with work, I go through another ritual to slow down my mind, which requires taking my time to close all the open files on my computer, the internet, mail, etc. and eventually the computer itself. After that, nothing beats cuddling up with a book…
Thank you so much for joining us!
(Originally posted at THE BEST CHAPTER)