After reading her novel Bone Ash Sky, I was lucky enough to be invited to interview author Katerina Cosgrove at the offices of her publisher, Hardie Grant. Bone Ash Sky is Katerina’s second novel and “is the story of an American journalist who goes home to unravel three generations of war and genocide, love and renewal, in Armenia, Beirut and modern-day Lebanon. When Anoush Pakradounian steps off a boat and feels Levantine heat on her cheek, she thinks she knows where she’s going: she thinks she knows who’s right and who’s wrong. Yet nothing about her family’s past is black and white.” (Quote from Hardie Grant’s UK website).
The interview below was transcribed and edited from an audio recording, so please forgive any grammar issues. It also contains spoilers! My questions and comments are in italics.
My first question is what got you started – what made you want to write about the Armenian genocide, and then into Beirut in the 80s as well.
For me I didn’t know anything about the Armenian genocide for years, as most people don’t; and I had a friend whose parents had survived the Jewish Holocaust and he always used to say ‘Armenian Holocaust’, and what’s that? So then I started reading here and there and ended up being so inspired that I went to Armenia.
So I went to Armenia, Syria, Lebanon, and just took the same route as those deportations through the desert – saw the bones, the lakes, you know, I was just so overwhelmed by this genocide that none of us know about, and that the Turks still deny. I thought this is a story that needs to be told.
And then it segued into Beirut, and I’ve been to Lebanon a couple of times and I always felt an affinity with that culture, so it was an easy way to encapsulate all my loves into one book.
And it carries through to the future quite nicely, it’s a nice connection.
So, I know you conducted a lot of research – I remember reading on the Hardie Grant website that you went to all these archives and libraries to find all these records and so I imagine you had a lot of material to work with. So how did you go about collating it, putting it all into one volume?
It was hard! The book originally, it was much bigger, even though it’s quite a tome now! And my agent kept saying, cut it down, cut it down, but it was hard for me at the stage cos I was still so invested in it. But as time went by and as my perception of my characters journeys deepened, they were telling me what to cut out because the research was being focused into their stories, so it was much easier to say this doesn’t matter, this doesn’t matter – this is what matters.
So the characters lead, as it developed?
They lead me to focus on what I needed for their story. Which is always the way I think, it’s that characters who tell you. If you can’t have a reltauonship with the characters you’ll always be in the dark.
Yes, I’ve heard a lot of authors say that the characters sort of do their own thing – that the writer just has to let them do what they want to do.
Yeah, and it sounds quite wanky when we as writers say it.
But it’s true!
Yeah the more we get to know them the more they tell us and sometimes that takes years, as in my case – many years!
Each strand of the narrative could almost stand alone as novels because they’re so dense, and there’s so much there – so how did you maintain a sense of balance and continuity between them? And also because of the different time periods.
This is really interesting because I started the book chronologically, so I wrote the book from beginning to end, from 1915 to 1996; and then looked at it and went ok, and then started chopping and changing. So that’s how that happened. And then the nuances started changing because when you put two timeframes together, then the reader has alternate information.
They kind of reflect on each other don’t they?
Yes, so the reader knows something different each time.
There’s a huge cast of characters, and more characters come in later in the book – and even though they’re all intertwined in some way they’ve all got a very different story, a different viewpoint. So my question is how do you create each one vividly, fully formed?
That’s hard. I think that is just constant rewriting. I’m the sort of writer who will wirte a page or a scene or a chapter, and then go back it and go back to it and constantly hone it; and each time I go back to a scene I’m a different person, so obviously I bring more to it, so I’m morphing with the novel as I go.
It changes all the time.
And it’s probably why it took ten years, becayuse I needed to be that person to write this final form. And if I’d taken abother five years again it would be something different.
You could just keep developing it.
Well you could, but you’d go crazy!
History and legacy are hugely important in the book – were those things been important to you and your family and in your life already?
Yes. I wrote The Glass Heart when I was 23 or 24 and it was very healing for me to go back to Greece and hear those old stories and feel like I belonged somewhere because I always felt displaced – my dad’s Australian and my mum’s Greek so I was always floating between two cultures, which can be great but can also be slightly amorphous. So, yes, history and heritage has been impotant – but at the same time the older I get the more my empahasis has shifted to universality – in the sense that I’m more interested now in the similairities between people’s histories and who they are, and their identities – you know we all need the same things – rather than their differences. I think that just comes with age. And since having a child as well, I look at all the other children and I think they all are the same, they need the same things.
Regardless of where they’ve come from.
Yeah and regardless of what prejudices they’ve been fed or whatever. For me that’s what I’ve tried to do in the book, is show that we are more alike than different.
I think that comes accrooss very well actually, because even though the people are on warring sides, they still connect with each other and they still have the same problems and the same issues.
We all need love, we all need to eat, we all need to sleep – you boil it down to that and you wonder why we have war.
Exactly, that’s very true.
So, gender I also found was a very important issue, throughout the different time periods – you can compare the women in the different time periouds. So I wanted to ask how strongly you feel personally about feminist issues in general, but also about the differences between Western and Eastern attitiudes to women and the treatment of women.
I would classify myself as a feminist – I was brought up that way by my mother, who always said, you know, you’re equal to anybody, not just men, but to anyone in the world. I strongly do believe that Islam is a repressive religion. Even though I haven’t been brought up in that culture, I don’t know how much I can say; but I’ve just come back from Abu Dhabi. I was in a 5 star resort where the men were all swimming and the women were all veiled, in black, in 40 degree heat. And you just look at that and you think how can you justify that? How is a woman’s body so polluting or so dangerous that it has to be covered up? I totally get 1000 years ago in the desert perhaps, but now? After we’ve been exposed to so much. It’s one of those insurmountable issues that you can’t get your head around and you can’t get to a point where there would be a change. I suppose it comes down to education. I think if a child is taught from year dot that this is the way we do things then what hope do they have?
If it’s ingrained in their society for thousands of years, you can’t just change that overnight.
And I think there’s a sense of superiority in it, even by the women, that our culture is right, we are right. We’re right and youre wrong. So the women perpetrate the injustives on themselves as well. Which makes it so much harder because they don’t see themselves as victims, they don’t see themselves as repressed. And they look down on us, they think that we are lost, that we don’t know the truth. I do not see how it could change. And I come from a culture – my grandmother, because of 400 years of Turkish occupation in Greece, Greece became very orientalised and still is in some ways. So my grandmother at the age of 12 had to put a scarf on – when she hit puberty she became a woman and she had to have her head covered. So I have first hand experience of that. She wore a scarf on her head until she died. She thought it was normal.
That’s the thing, whatever you’re brought up with is normal.
Unless you’re a rare person who questions everything; and I think that where education comes in. If an education can teach kids don’t take anything at face value just because an adult tells you – question it. I think that’s the key. But that’s in small pockets of progressive western society.
Several characters in the novel throughout the different time periods contemplate the morality of the war in the Middle East – so I wanted to ask about your viewpoint, obviously it’s a very complicated question, but morally justifying war – especially in this context when it involved religion and national identity – do you think that makes a difference?
On a personal level, I can’t justify war. But because I’ve written a book of fiction and I’m trying to get into my characrers heads, I can understand their motivation. I can understand why they would want to kill, why they would want to be suicide bombers, but I don’t know how I would be in that situation, because if I had nothing to live for, why wouldn’t I become a suicide bomber?
And I suppose that’s again to do with what youre used to and your culture. A character like Issa, it’s ingrained in him that that’s his life mission.
And he couldn’t do it any other way for him, but for another person they would look at him and think, that makes no sense.
And for him also he feels he might get killed anyway, so he might as well get killed with glory.
Kind of a death wish.
There is a mercenary aspect to it. So there’s two levels, there’s my personal view and the views of my characters that are embodied in me in a sense – they’re me too.
And you’ve got to communicate what they want to say.
And I try to understand as deeply as possible and not judge them.
That must be quite hard, going through, when you’re so close to them.
Yeah, like the women in Abu Dhabi – I was trying to understand what their motivations are without judging them, but the judging came through – cos I’m human.
So you have to balance those two things.
Part two of this interview will be posted later in the week. Bone Ash Sky is a very intelligent and moving novel that I highly recommend.