Vera Nazarian

Vera Nazarian: ‘My Armenian Side Emerges in My Fiction!’

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN/VERMONT — Vera Nazarian is a two-time Nebula Award Finalist, a Dragon Award 2018 Finalist, and a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. She was born in 1966, in Moscow, immigrated to the US as a kid, sold her first story at 17, and has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, honorably mentioned in several volumes, and translated into eight languages.

Vera made her debut with the critically acclaimed Dreams of the Compass Rose, followed by Lords of Rainbow. Her novella The Clock King and the Queen of the Hourglass made the 2005 Locus Recommended Reading List. Her debut collection Salt of the Air contains the 2007 Nebula Award-nominated “The Story of Love.” Recent works includes the 2008 Nebula Finalist novella The Duke in His Castle, science fiction collection After the Sundial (2010), The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration (2010), three Jane Austen parodies, Mansfield Park and Mummies (2009), Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons (2010), and Pride and Platypus: Mr. Darcy’s Dreadful Secret (2012), all part of her Supernatural Jane Austen Series, a parody of self-help and supernatural relationships advice, Vampires are from Venus, Werewolves are from Mars: A Comprehensive Guide to Attracting Supernatural Love (2012), Cobweb Bride Trilogy (2013), and the four books in the bestselling international cross-genre phenomenon series The Atlantis Grail, now optioned for development as a feature film and/or TV series, Qualify (2014), Compete (2015), Win (2017), and Survive (2020).

After many years in Los Angeles, Vera now lives in a small town in Vermont.

In addition to being a writer, philosopher, and award-winning artist, she is also the publisher of Norilana Books.

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Dear Vera, fantasy writers can be compared to illusionists. Do you agree?

Yes, absolutely. All writers in general create a world out of nothing, bringing the literary universe into being from a combination of their life experience and a fertile imagination. Fantasy writers take it a step further and create multiple worlds, each with their own unique rules, different laws of nature, and different wonderful realities that do not resemble our own ordinary physical world. And yet, every fantasy world has to feel real and possible, a place the reader can visit and experience the magic. Science fiction is a subset of fantasy, so the worlds we create have to be scientifically plausible in addition to everything else.

So does it mean that a science fiction writer should follow the progress of science?

When writing science fiction, you have to do research to avoid stupid mistakes and to make your scientific elements feel true to reality even if they are fabricated constructs proposed by the writer. Science is the logical stepping stone from which you build your imaginary worlds. When I research my science — such as the intensive research on black holes I did for The Atlantis Grail series — I try to consult with experts. I was fortunate to have two NASA experts help me with the astrophysical elements of the story. Science fiction writers have an unusual responsibility to the readers and the coming generations — they often predict the future and inspire future technologies, so their science must be as accurate as possible.

What inspires you as a fantasy writer?

Inspiration is the spark that makes any story come alive and burn inside you. What inspires me is a sense of wonder found in history, languages, traditions and ancient world cultures, as well as the wonders of nature. I am proud to have included Armenian sensibility and a piece of my Armenian soul in my works, and will always continue to do so, in addition to my Russian half. My characters are usually inspired in some way, they lead others by inspiration.

My children, as many in the world, are just obsessed with Harry Potter. It will be interesting to know your opinion on this novel — how you explain such excitement around this novel?

Like most people, I love Harry Potter. No one can deny that J.K. Rowling has created a cultural phenomenon for all ages. I firmly believe that the rich details and world-building of the Harry Potter universe and the many wonderful mysteries based on the elements of magic are at the heart of the appeal. However, the story of a poor orphan boy who has a magical talent and powers and who must defeat a dark lord is a universally powerful story trope that pulls at all our heartstrings. Everyone can secretly relate and want to live in such an enchanting world and have these adventures with friends. The power of Harry Potter is fundamentally based on love overcoming evil.

In my life I have had a mystical experience only once. Have you had mystical experiences?

My grandmother used to tell me a story that that when my grandfather was lowered into his grave, all the windows in our Moscow apartment flew open. I think that in subtle ways magic is all around us and most people never notice. Whether it’s a bunch of tiny, seemingly insignificant coincidences that make things come together in certain amazing, positive ways, or what some of us call “luck,” there is always something that helps us succeed in life. Belief in wonder, truth, and good, helps us keep going and pursuing our goals and dreams even when life is difficult and obstacles pile around us. Confidence is part of it. But a great deal of the mystery is the courage to discover that which is hidden. Be brave and take chances and mystical things will happen to lend color to your life.

We know that Chuck Norris recommended your book. How did it happen? Do you keep in touch with him?

I am very pleased and honored that Chuck Norris and his wife have enjoyed my work, but I have had no personal interaction with him and would not want to impose. My guess is, he simply found my book and enjoyed it. Such is the fun of being a writer — you never know who might be reading your books and stories! I’ve been fortunate to have been quoted by other famous celebrities such as Sir Richard Branson, Charlamagne Tha God, and others.

Music is also a wonderland; please tell us about your musical involvements.

I am a singer, play a number of instruments which I taught myself, adore music of all kinds, especially Classical Baroque and vocal madrigal and medieval a capella and opera. Music plays a huge part in many of my stories. Music, tones, and sound-based technology is the science fictional basis of The Atlantis Grail series. I’ve created characters who wield “power voices” with the most powerful called the Logos Voice — the Voice of Creation.

How did the change of literary language from Russian to English happen?

I am a Russian native speaker and speak basic Armenian (but not well). I also studied Spanish, German, and Mandarin Chinese. I started learning English in Moscow as a little girl in school (2nd grade), but of course it was only when we immigrated, that I started to write in it. The passion to write and tell stories was so great that I had to improve my English skills rapidly so that I could express myself. As a result, I worked very hard, and wrote and wrote and wrote (the secret to being a writer is simply writing), and eventually published my first professional fantasy story in English when I was 17 years old, in Los Angeles. The story was “Wound in the Moon” in the anthology Sword and Sorceress II (DAW Books, 1985), edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Would you say your Armenian-Russian background has been reflected in your literature?

Oh yes, immensely. I was born in Moscow, to an Armenian father and Russian mother, and most of my Armenian relatives come from Tbilisi, Georgia. I’ve been to Yerevan, Armenia for only a few days, before we left the USSR. Since I started writing, I’ve written a number of Armenian and Armenia-flavored fantasy characters, including several in my first novel Dreams of the Compass Rose that resembles the ancient story cycle The One Thousand and One Nights. I like to say that I have inherited an unusual personality combination — an Armenian sense of humor and a Russian sense of suffering. And there are many specific, subtle (and not-so-subtle) elements in all of my work. In my “collage” novel Dreams of the Compass Rose, the story of Seert and Ahiroon (Heart and Blood) in the story-chapter “Shimmering Scythe” is one such example. And, of course, there is my character Hasmik Tigranian in The Atlantis Grail who plays a very important, heroic part in the science fiction series. I also use many Armenian-based terms and words in my fantasy such as ter, taqavor, and taquoui, etc. I am a proud Armenian and that’s unavoidable that my Armenian side emerges in my fiction.

Please tell our readers about the Armenian side of your family.

My father was born in Tiflis (Tbilisi) in 1917 and they lived there and in Tskneti, a small mountain village. There is a story in my family that we are related to the great Armenian marine painter Aivazovsky (Aivazian), and also the famous Soviet film director Eldar Ryazanov. We lived in Moscow where I was born, and spoke mostly Russian, but when the Armenian family gathered, cousins and uncles, they spoke Armenian and Georgian too. I learned only a few Armenian words and phrases then, but I enjoyed my Armenian grandmother’s cooking. And more learning came later when I started to pick up the Armenian language from living for about a year with the Armenian community in Beirut, Lebanon.

Beirut? How so?

I honestly don’t remember — I was a little girl, and my parents have now passed away. I remember being in many Armenian churches, seeing many people. We lived near Nar street in a small alley, called something like Nor Hadjin, in an old stone house. Two weeks after we arrived in Beirut, the civil war started, so we lived under siege for some time. We were all refugees too, and the local Armenian organization sent my family and many other families to Greece to escape the war, then we came to America.

 Do you know any Armenian writers?

Besides William Saroyan and Hovhannes Tumanyan, unfortunately not as many as I would like; I have not kept up. But I have corresponded with American bestselling author Chris Bohjalian who also lives here in Vermont. There is never enough time!

Are you in touch with Armenians in the US and have you ever traveled to your father’s homeland?

I have not been back to Armenia since we immigrated. One of these days I will go back and visit. It’s definitely a dream of mine.

What was/is the most fantastic thing in your life?

Probably the act of writing and creating art and music — the act of creativity in all its forms. You make something out of nothing. You bring new things into the world. Permit me to quote my own words from several years ago, from my book The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration:

One of the strangest things is the act of creation.

You are faced with a blank slate—a page, a canvas, a block of stone or wood, a silent musical instrument.

You then look inside yourself. You pull and tug and squeeze and fish around for slippery raw shapeless things that swim like fish made of cloud vapor and fill you with living clamor. You latch onto something. And you bring it forth out of your head like Zeus giving birth to Athena.

And as it comes out, it takes shape and tangible form. It drips on the canvas, and slides through your pen, it springs forth and resonates into the musical strings, and slips along the edge of the sculptor’s tool onto the surface of the wood or marble.

You have given it cohesion. You have brought forth something ordered and beautiful out of nothing.

You have glimpsed the divine.”

It is really fine, high-class literature definition… Vera, and how do you spend this international quarantine period? Is this something that a fantasy writer would ever have imagined?

Believe it or not, technically very little has changed for me with the quarantine. A writer is a natural hermit, and I already work at home, so the only difference is the psychological level of anxiety and the constant need to wash hands and everything else. However, on the fine scale of human interaction, it is subtle and profound.

The outside world has become the enemy, the potentially hostile unknown. A fantasy writer’s imagination already covers every possibility and visits every contingency, so if you think you’ve imagined the worst, trust me, I have already been there and back in a blink, imagined even more, and screamed an existential scream in the cavernous recesses of my mind.

I must say that I have the utmost respect and profound gratitude for all the brave souls who must continue to work the essential jobs, such as the heroic medical professionals, delivery people, food service and transportation workers. They inspire me to write a book about a very different kind of superhero. Good thing I am a writer.

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