Interview with Vera Nazarian

February 7, 2010 at 2:21 am | Posted in Articles | Leave a comment

This interview appeared a few years ago, but still has a lot of information.

Vera Nazarian is a rising star of the Fantasy genre. Originally from Russia, she brings vivid new stories to Fantasy that readers can enjoy. A writer and artist among other other areas, she is a multi-talented woman. She creates intriguing worlds filled with interesting characters in both short stories and novels. Her two books are Dreams of the Compass Rose and Lords of Rainbow. She is also owner of her own publishing company Norilana Books (http://www.norilanabooks.com). More information can be found at her web site at: http://www.veranazarian.com . Ms. Nazarian tells more about herself in the interview:

Debbie Ledesma: What led you to become a writer? Was it hard getting published?

Vera Nazarian: Good question. I think I became one despite myself — tricking myself into it, really.

When I was a little kid back in Moscow, Russia, I’ve always thought I would
become an artist or a folk dancer or an astronomer. In fact, if you’d asked me then about a life of solitary writing I would have said, “Oh how boring! Imagine, to sit at a desk all day and just write.” I was forgetting that an artist also just stares at a piece of paper or canvas all day. It somehow never occurred to me to connect these two diverse creative modes.

However I’ve always been creative verbally, had a flair, my teachers said — wrote great expository essays in elementary school, scribbled little poems, embraced all writing assignments. And all along I read voraciously — first in Russian and then, after we left the USSR, in English, and even Spanish. At some point in the US, in junior high, seventh grade, inspired by our recent reading of Tolkien, Piers Anthony’s Xanth and Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara, a good friend started to write a fantasy novel. And I said to myself, “Hey, why don’t I do that too?”

And so I started to write. And I wrote and wrote all through high school. At some point, sitting in the school library, during reading period, I looked up from my leopard print hardcover composition notebook where I was scribbling a derivative Tolkien epic full of purple prose in tiny handwriting and thought to myself, “Damn! I am a writer! How did that happen?”

In those days, I relished the sweet sense of keeping a unique secret in my
mind — a wonderful magical universe that I could go to any time, any place, and no one had to know. It was my personal place, better than any I’ve read about in any other book. And when I wrote, I was in the process of pulling that personal universe out of nothing and into the cold reality of the greater world. The act of sharing with readers was at first too much of an intimate thing. But it evolved into an intense necessity to share.

As far as publication, I was supremely lucky that in my senior high school
year I came upon an issue of _Writers Digest_ with a market listing for Sword and Sorceress #2, edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Before, probably around 1982, I had sent out some occasional poems to vanity contests (knowing nothing about the facts of vanity publishing and actually paying one of such poetry anthologies to “feature” my poem). I also sent out humongous and terribly overwritten stories to places such as _IASFM_ and _F&SF_ and _Fantasy Book_, and started acquiring rejections, with my very first one being a personal and very kind scribbled note from Shawna McCarthy. But here, Marion Zimmer Bradley took apart my first submission to her, covered the manuscript in red ink revisions, and told me to try her again. I had never been so reeling with authorial joy as I had been that day, holding Marion’s letter and seeing that ravaged manuscript — finally, it meant that someone cared!

And so I sat down and wrote a short story in two weeks and submitted it to her. And Marion bought “Wound On The Moon” for S&S #2. My first sale and my first pro sale rolled into one.

(See it reprinted here: http://www.fictionwise.com/ebooks/eBook5882.htm)

Since then I’ve sold about fifteen more stories to MZB’s various anthologies, and many other short pieces to other markets, not to mention
the two novels to the wonderful small press owned by John Gregory Betancourt, called Wildside Press. However I will never forget what Marion did for me by accepting that first story from a stupid enthusiastic kid.

Of course at that point I had no idea that the adventure was only beginning and that the struggle and the rejections were to pile before me, a typical young writer, in an implacable mountain. But I was on my way.

DL: What authors, Fantasy or otherwise, influence your writing?

VN: At first, I would say it was all the Greeks and the Russian classics like
Tolstoy, Goncharov, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, and the international classics in Russian translation like Victor Hugo, George Sand, Charlotte Bronte, Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain. Then came fluency in the English language and with it modern fantasists like Tanith Lee and genre icons like Marion
Zimmer Bradley, CJ Cherryh, Andre Norton, Gene Wolfe, Charles de Lint,
Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny.

If you ask me now, I think every single writer whose work I’ve read has had some influence upon me, and I continue to be influenced, subtly, by
everything I read, like a sponge. But then, what writers aren’t? Being a
literary sponge is one of the prerequisites for this insanity.

DL: You’ve written short stories before your novels. Which length do you
prefer?

VN: I am a novelist at heart. Short stories are like individual jewel stones
on a necklace, wonderful in themselves like standalone gleaming entities of semantic intensity. And yes, they often burst to come out, and I certainly
enjoy it when they do. But the satisfaction of short fiction does not come
close to the rich pleasure I get as a writer in the long deep immersion in
the same long work and its growing complexity. I suppose you might say I love to wallow in my characters and imaginary worlds. I love to play with
the whole necklace, not just one glittering stone.

DL: Your book Dreams of the Compass Rose is set in a desert. What do you find fascinating about a desert setting?

VN: Well, right now I technically live in the desert — Los Angeles being an
artificial oasis — but my interest stems even farther to my own ethnic roots and to my love of antiquity, of the Old World and of the east.

I also find the desert a wonderful metaphor for desolation and yet the exact counterpart of the ocean with its hidden depths. Both are vast, harsh, implacable, homogenous to the untrained eye, and beautiful. Both
allow the wind to roam on the surface. And both serve as wonderful
vehicles for human survival stories.

A made-up proverb from Dreams of the Compass Rose says, “In the desert, the only god is a well.” I love exploring the intensity of such juxtaposition, the dangerous edge. In the desert, water gives life, while in the ocean an island stands to give anchor. Opposites are desirable and necessary. Once again, you see the theme of taking away a precious element of the world or making it rare and precarious.

Also, the desert is an ideal illusion of a blank slate — so much mystery in endless layers is hidden underneath its bright, pseudo-sterile surface.

What more can you ask from a fantasy setting?

DL: Who is your favorite character in your books?

VN: The answer to this question tends to change, depending on what book or story I am working on at the moment. I usually focus on the whole group of characters in any given work-in-progress, and as a result they become particularly dear to me as I delve into their innermost motivations and live out their lives.

However I must admit that I do have a particular soft spot for the character of the chameleon-trickster goddess Ris in Dreams of the Compass Rose. Ris has gone through the whole spectrum of personal change and has had the longest road of all. And in the end she chooses to come back to the world, to guide, and to help, and to open the eyes of those who are suffering. In that is her true strength and humorous wisdom. I really do like her a whole lot.

DL: What themes do you find most compelling to include in your writing?

VN: One of the things that I’ve noticed over the years is that I seem to be
fascinated as a writer with the notion that we already have all that we need.

It is right here, all of it, here for the taking, right before our eyes — happiness, fulfillment, hope, peace, justice. And most of all, there is truth, ordinary and simple, just sitting there to be plucked, if only we get our lazy rear ends off the pillow of complacency. But first, we need to open our eyes to this banal fact. And for that we need a periodic bit of shakeup in the form of an infusion of wonder — fantastic literature.

And a related recurring theme is the exploration of how we take for granted the things in our immediate environment that are common and ordinary. Existential blindness, of sorts.

Our world is so bursting-full of natural wonder that we are all experiencing a sensory overload. We are no longer perceiving all of Ú the details, just the ones that immediately interest us. Indeed we often engage the defense mechanism of tunnel vision, just to keep ourselves focused on our daily lives. This makes us terribly jaded in our perception of what is really around us.

And here is where I like to burst in as a writer, to take one strong sensory detail or image and instead of enhancing it or directing attention to it by shouting about it, I simply take it away.

For example, in Lords of Rainbow I start out by taking away color from the world, and in the process show color’s vital place in our lives. At least I hope that by the end of the book it’s a portion of what the reader comes away with — a sense of how much color perception enriches our lives and how its lack can make our sensory experience incomplete. Even for the people who are color-blind to any degree, I believe their experience would also be affected if everyone else too only perceived the world in colorless monochrome.

In Dreams of the Compass Rose, there is the running theme of the loss of water in the desert, and its ultimate reclaiming.

In some of my other works I take away other elements of the world —
normalcy, sex drive, sense of time, memory, a loved one. Without some of
these basics, characters have no choice but to do something to reclaim
their lives.

Seems to me that there is no better way to experience the depth of loss
than after the fact. No more powerful instrument of imbuing value in an
object than parting with it.

And it is a quiet terrible thing, too, to discover the value of love this
way — when the object of love is no longer there, when love dies or goes
away or changes. When it is too late.

My characters often start out with a loss of some sort, usually a loss of
emotion or purpose or hope. What I do in the course of my writing is weave a thematic arc of fulfillment. It is my constant theme as a creator. It
also hinges on expectations met and not met, and the act of genuine surprise. I love to fool my readers, but in a good way. If you’ve read any
of my work, there’s a good chance that at some point I surprised you.

DL: Do you use any mythology sources for you writing?

VN: So glad you asked — I was nurtured on Greek Mythology and the classical epics. I lived and breathed Homer. Other mythologies — the Russian, the Norse, the Persian, the Indian, Egyptian, etc. — all came later. First and foremost were the Greeks, and they were all living in my head as though I were Zeus and they were a clamoring Chorus of Athenas.

Everything I write now might have roots in such myths, often disguised,
often dissolved into new multi-ethnic myths of my own making. For example, when reviewing my novel Dreams of the Compass Rose for the _Magazine of F&SF_, master fantasist Charles de Lint called it “engaging and resonant, creating a new mythology that feels so right one might be forgiven for thinking that it’s the cultural heritage of some forgotten country or people that have been lost to history.” This of course I take as the highest compliment, since it was indeed my sincere intent.

DL: Your latest book, Lords of the Rainbow, is receiving some good reviews. Please tell me a little about the book. Where did you get the idea?

If you knew, you would laugh. The idea came to me about 18 years ago, the summer after my graduation from high school — yes, this is how long it
took me to write this book. And yes, Lords of Rainbow was the first novel I actually completed.

I was watching TV, possibly Saturday morning cartoons, and saw, stuck
between cereal commercials, a silly commercial for a little kid’s doll. There was something to do with the rainbow, some sugary sweet jingle, and the doll was so cutesy that she annoyed me immediately.

And in a weird moment it occurred to me — what if someone took the
phenomenon of the rainbow and treated it not in this treacle-sweet, cutesy,
little-kid manner but with deadly seriousness? With high tragedy, even? What if I made the rainbow sad, beautiful, ideal, and what if I took it so
far that there was even a philosophy based on it?

And the book was born.

LORDS OF RAINBOW is subtitled the Book of Fulfillment. I admit there were residual influences of all the epic fantasy that has gone before — but primarily Tolkien and Brooks — in my kid imagination. I remember reading and liking and yet being dissatisfied on some level, and wanting to write an epic where women and love and emotional relationships were just as important as the world-scope element of wonder (in this case the colorless world). I also wanted to portray a warrior woman whose main personal strength was not brashness or pride or military prowess or even nobility of character — but humility and simple quiet loyalty.

The book became very complex. In addition to all the character layers
there was also the mechanism of Rainbow, what it stood for, what it meant.
The colorless world itself became a character with personal trait Òs — the
impotent gray sun, the surfaces that were distinguished only by textures
such as matte or metallic, the fall of night like an instant blackout upon
a gray environment. And superimposed upon this monochrome fabric was color — an alien, pasted-on thing that could never blend.

In this world, the avatars that were the ancient demigods of each major
color also represented human qualities, almost like a bizarre Tarot system
of personality. I’ve even come up with a personality test to determine
which of the Tilirr, or Lords of Rainbow each one of us “serves.”

(Take the Tilirr Quiz here: http://www.veranazarian.com/lorquiz.htm)

I have been accused by some of mixing fantasy and allegory, of making
something out of nothing when assigning personality traits to the colors
and to the avatar Lords of Rainbow. But my response to that is, not at
all. Having thought long and hard and listened to my instinct as to what
each color represents, on some organic primeval level I honestly believe i Òn the association of red (Werail) with passion and aggression, of orange
(Melixevven) with joy, of yellow (Dersenne) with inspiration and
enlightenment, of green (Fiadolmle) with growth and creativity, of blue (Koerdis) with intellect, and of violet (Laelith ) with love and the higher
senses and the final mystery. What remains is Andelas who represents white as the union of all colors, and Feale who represents black, the absence of all colors.

There is no notion of good and evil, only completion and lack, need and
fulfillment. I would like to underline that I have no intention of associating white with good and black with evil — that is complete nonsense, as anyone would see if they read the book. My villains are simply alien to the rest of us. They intend no evil, only the perpetuation of their own existence. Without giving any more of the plot away, I’d like to say that my “Dark Lord” is not the typical epic fantasy villain at all but is an integral part of the whole thing.

In short, there is no allegory here, only an alien — and yes, fantastic — way of perceiving the elements of our world.

Also, my brand of fantasy is completely devoid of the traditional notions
of magic as ritual. Instead I see the fantastic as a meta-layer of existence beyond the real world.

No waving of enchanted wands but heightened perception. No magic objects, but a transformed and enhanced reality. No spells or chants, but the raw power of the human will to enact supernatural change upon the universal fabric. This is the kind of “magic” that fills Lords of Rainbow – elemental, organic, humanistic — an extension of reality.

DL: What do you think is the important function of Fantasy literature?

VN: I think fantasy literature is the one true literature of hope and
imagination.

Now, some writers whom I respect very much, like China Miéville and some others of the New Weird, consider the true role of fantasy to be not
Tolkienesque consolation but subversion — a kind of rebe Ûllion from
complacency. Yes, I can see what is meant here. And I also see the need
to change, to fix, to drastically improve the human lot.

However, I see no profound progress taking place when there is no hope, no inspiration, only drastic overthrow and rebellion. Before having a
revolution of thought there must be real ideals to aspire to, and they are
only to be found within.

These ideals are not new, bright, shiny things but old, hoary, deeply
ancient things. This goes back to my pet notion that we already have all
that we need, merely are oblivious to it. Fantasy plunders the well of our
deepest selves for existent truth instead of creating new truths out of the
illusory fabric of recent events or the flow of society.

Fantasy is not the literature of subversion of the status quo but of
_awakening to_ the status quo.

The difference is in the attitude, in the subtle delicacy of approach.

And consolation has been wrongly reviled. Consolation is not apathy or
inaction. It is not closing one’s eyes to the evils of the world. Rather,
consolation is the first step in regaining personal equilibrium and
strength, which necessarily precedes the ability to act.

Thus, true long-term change is brought about not by destructive passion of
the moment but by well-reasoned constructive action. Violent shock of
Armageddon that leaves nothing in its wake but a blank slate is not a
solution, only a postponement of progress. We don’t need fantasy to mess with our minds to the point of rendering us insane — real life horrors do that already.

What we need in fantasy is the sudden balm of clarity — a temporary
reprieve from life’s white noise and clamor of pain, a kind of time-out.
Such clarity, a new perspective, is made possible by fantastic metaphor.
Clad in metaphor, the world becomes newborn to our senses, like a phoenix. It is the most effective fresh presentation of the elements of our life for our jaded, numbed, even ailing sense of imagination.

Why? Because without such a reprieve we cannot pause and regroup and with the newfound strength go on to initiate that very change which is sorely needed by all.

Fantasy, at its best, is balm for the soul. But it is faulty logic to assume that balm is necessarily mind-numbing anesthesia. True balm takes away the painful irritation of life and simply heals, allowing one to begin anew. And that is what fantasy can do for us.

DL: What are you working on for the future?

A number of projects, actually, mostly novel-length. I have just completed
and turned in a far future SF or science fantasy novella titled “The Clock
King And The Queen Of The Hourglass” to the British specialty publisher PS Publishing, to appear in a signed limited edition of 700-800 copies in late 2004 or early 2005.

And now I am at work on a dark fantasy alternate-historical novel riffing
off the Persephone myth. It is called Cobweb Bride and the premise is that death, in the corporeal form of a grim 17th century Spaniard, comes to the world demanding a bride. Until a willing bride comes to him, says death, there will be no more relief and all acts of dying will cease in the world. As a result, the ill and the old and the mortally wounded are fixed in the same moment of agony without merciful release of oblivion. They are not able to pass on and therefore mount a search for the Cobweb Bride. Meanwhile, others who do not want to die ever see this as a selfish opportunity, and struggle to prevent the first group and make sure that no Cobweb Bride ever reaches death. This is very much an novel of ethical choices and sacrifice, and the protagonist, Percy (Persephone), an ordinary plain village peasant girl whose grandmother lies on her deathbed without release, ends up in the middle of this struggle.

This book is yet unsold, and will be marketed traditionally to the usual
publishers.

I also have a trio of other novel projects, but they are next in the pipeline after this one. One is a “kickass romance” aimed at a category fantasy-romance line, called Margot Phoenix Rising, about a female
superhero. Another project concerns the adventures of my character Ruricca NoOnesDaughter, and will likely be a medieval fantasy trilogy. The other, called Pantheon, will probably be an SF trilogy. Goodness knows, this should occupy me for the next 5 years at least. Beyond that, I am sure that inspiration will strike multiple times — it always does.

DL: Do you have advice for aspiring writers?

VN: My advice for aspiring writers is threefold.

First, read as much as possible, both within and outside the genre you are
working in. By reading you hone your internal ear for style.

Second, write. Everything comes down to it; unless you write, you are not
a writer. This is the necessary applied practice of your skill, just as you would practice to perfect your skills in any other field such as sports or music or baking cookies or scrubbing the bathtub.

Third, submit your work. But — stop chasing every seductive new market
out there, and stop trying to write for the tastes of specific established professional markets and editors. That way lies mediocrity and eventual
dissolution of your true voice, no matter how embryonic or pronounced it
may be now. The only way to help your unique literary voice grow and
eventually sing like a glorious creature of wonder is to write what you
excites you into a creative passion and brings you pure unadulterated joy.
All else is ephemeral nonsense (of course there are exceptions such as
being pressed for money here and now, but they are not long-term). Don’t
believe me? Just try it and see.

Oh yeah, there is one more piece of advice. If you really believe in your
writing, then never give up. Good luck on your journey, friend.

DL: Thank you very much for your time Ms. Nazarian.

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