I’m really happy to introduce you all to Libby Fischer Hellman, author of ‘A Bitter Veil’. She’s here today to tell us how experiencing something can impact on your writing. Enjoy!
Being There: How Important is It?
By Libby Fischer Hellman.
I believe in field trips. I’m the kind of writer who thinks they should explore their settings. That means actually visiting, talking to people, taking lots of photos and notes, and doing even more research after the fact, until I’m comfortable enough to describe it meaningfully. I’ve gone to Douglas, Arizona; Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; neighborhoods in Chicago I’d never visit alone; even Cuba.
But I broke my own rule when writing ‘A BITTER VEIL’. I did not go to Iran and I am clearly not a part of its culture. And yet I wrote a novel set there during the Islamic Revolution. Which was not without risk. I can understand if some find it unacceptable, especially Iranians. I understand their resentment, perhaps even anger. How could I write about a time and a place I’ve never seen? How could anyone? How could I understand their lives? Their pain?
I’ll try to answer.
Iran is not a place one can easily visit. Particularly a US citizen and a woman. A Jewish woman, too. Especially since I would be questioning and interviewing people about a delicate time in Iranian history. It’s certainly possible some people might get the wrong idea. It’s possible I might have been stopped. Maybe even apprehended. So a trip was out of the question. In fact, knowing that, I debated long and hard whether I should write the novel at all. Maybe its story was better left untold. After all, there are plenty of books—fiction and nonfiction—already written about that period. I’ve read many of them, and, indeed, I’ve included a list of some at the end of ‘A BITTER VEIL’.
But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. I am drawn to stories about women who have no choices—whose options have been taken away from them. What I had in mind was just that kind of story. Plus, I’m a former history major, and I have always been captivated by the past and how we bend it, learn from it, or ignore it at our peril.
So I dug into the research to see if I could find the comfort level necessary to write the story. Fortunately or not, the Islamic Revolution of Iran is one of the most well covered revolutions in history. It was easy to find chronologies, books, articles, reactions. I started reading. Over a dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction. I took notes, researched more, watched films, examined photos.
I also put the word out that I was looking for Iranian-Americans who were in Iran during the revolution. The mystery writers’ community is a wonderful place, and within weeks I’d found five people who were willing to talk. One of them had such a harrowing story that some of it ended up in the book. Some warned me not to be too critical, others not to be too gentle. And, as you might expect, none wanted their names made public.
All of my research and planning took about two months. After sifting through what I’d gathered, I decided I might actually be able to do write this novel. The first fifty pages take place in Chicago, so that section wasn’t too difficult. But, then, the two main characters travel to Tehran. I plunged in, but it wasn’t as complicated as I thought it would be. Of course, I had to do more research, so I asked the people I’d interviewed more questions and looked up more information. For example, it turned out that my character buys two chadors. I discovered a chador shop in Tehran and incorporated it into the story.
Eventually, I finished a draft and sent it to one of the Iranian-Americans I’d interviewed. This person 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, we checked with yet another person for the proper pronunciation of Farsi phrases.
‘A BITTER VEIL’ is not perfect. I’m sure astute observers will point out what I got wrong. However, I’m comforted by the thought that I wrote about the setting as seen through the eyes of a young American woman. What she observed was the result of 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. I hope the critics will take that into account.
Download a copy of ‘A Bitter Veil’ here: http://amzn.to/HQud96