The Compass of Fourteen Dreams
An Interview with Vera Nazarian
by Nick Gevers
Vera Nazarian's unusual, episodic first novel, the sensuously written and audaciously structured Dreams of the Compass Rose, appeared from Wildside Press in May 2002, and immediately marked her as a Fantasist To Watch. Critical acclaim has been considerable. Interviewing Nazarian by e-mail in July 2002, I asked her in detail about the creative genesis and elaborate symbolic structuring of her "weird", intricate masterpiece...
NG: Dreams of the Compass Rose has quite an unusual texture for an American fantasy novel--exotic, poetic, full of unexpected imagery. You were born in the old Soviet Union, and travelled extensively as a child; how has this background influenced your fiction writing? Are Armenian, or Russian, myth and folklore integral to your work?
VN: First, let me present to you my many-layered problem. My mind is a quaint antique, steeped in nineteenth-century and earlier classics--particularly the Russian classics such as Pushkin, Goncharov, Lermontov, Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky--and in ancient Greek mythology, old stodgy books by George Sand, Victor Hugo, the Brontes, Stendhal, Zola, Jane Austen, Thackeray, ancient Persian and Georgian epics, and folklore and fairy tales of all lands and times. It is also a modern techno-geek mind filled with computers and integrated circuit diagrams, source code, and future-bound internet trendoids, not to mention 21st century social and sexual sensibilities. Add to this mishmash a layer of languages (Russian, English, Armenian, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, a smattering of German and Arabic), Eastern philosophies, metaphysical eclecticism, and an animal rights-based ethical vegetarianism. Now take a big spoon whittled out of strange humour and stir it all up till I start giggling uncontrollably at the same time as I wordlessly cry. There you have it. It's a wonder that I can separate any of these elements.
But wait, it gets worse. My father was born during the Communist Russian Revolution in the Georgian mountains of the Caucasus, my grandfather was a captain in a tank division in the Soviet Army during WWII and he helped liberate Berlin, my mother was a teacher in a tiny village in Siberia, and in Crimea and Moscow, a great-grandfather was a bishop in the Armenian Orthodox Church, another was a leather merchant in the Middle East, and yet another a peasant school teacher in a tiny Russian village. As for me, I was born in Moscow during the Cold War, tasted my first glass of real fruit juice when I was 6 years old, my first Pepsi on a train near the Turkish border of Armenia when I was 8, slept on a bench in a train station in Riga, Latvia, watched missiles fly overhead from the window of a stone house in sniper-ridden Beirut, Lebanon, collected polished sea-stones and dingy wildflowers from the shore of the Aegean just outside of Athens, and together with my parents was finally admitted under refugee status into the Unites States in 1976.
Indeed, I have no idea if anything is integral to my work, but everything seems to pop up at one time or another, and in the oddest places.
NG: How were you first attracted to the writing of fantasy? The Marion Zimmer Bradley shared-world Darkover anthologies seem to have played a major role in your development as a writer...
VN: I think appreciation of fantasy is one of those natural things that incidentally enters your mindset in childhood and either takes root and grows like a weed out of control, or lingers for a bit through the formative years and then primly withers in adulthood. Mine just happens to be the weed kind.
Always an avid reader, I started to write very early, but never consciously wanted to be a writer, but an artist. As soon as my English skills were adequate, in 5th grade here in the United States, I promptly began to write pretentious poems about Platonic ideals and philosophy (never about love, since that would've been beneath me) and rather creative homework assignment class essays, and began a horrible first novel in 7th grade. It was strongly influenced by Tolkien--like, whose novel wasn't?--and also influenced by my obsession with Greek myth, and everything else in the arsenal mentioned earlier.
It was an overwritten monstrosity, with grammatical structure rivaling that of Proust (but which would not have made a Russian even blink) and multi-page long sentences that I continued in tiny handwriting inside black hard-bound college-ruled composition notebooks all through high school, until my junior year, when I discovered magazines such as Asimov's, Fantasy Book, Amazing, and figured it might be a good idea to try my hand at short fiction. I wrote a 20,000-word embarrassingly bad novella (my idea of "short" at the time) and submitted it and got thankfully rejected everywhere after months of waiting.
I also found a Writer's Digest call for submissions for Sword and Sorceress II, a DAW anthology of heroic-women-fantasy, edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley--a writer whose work I was just in the middle of devouring at that time--sent in my misfortunate novella, but unlike the other editors Marion kindly took it apart in red pen and criticized the hell out of it, and told me to send her something else.
Hope and luck fired me up, and in record time (two weeks) I produced "Wound on the Moon," a 9,000-word story (exotic and garish-coloured high fantasy influenced strongly by the work of Tanith Lee, another of my idols; incidentally, this story is about to be reprinted by Fictionwise) and submitted it, and Marion bought it a month following my high school graduation. My second written story was my first professional sale, and here I was, a 17-year-old, and life was never to be the same.
In the following decade, while I attended Pomona College in Claremont, California, double-majoring in Psychology and English, then worked in the computer industry doing printer and PC hardware tech support and then other tech stuff, I sold Marion thirteen more stories--eight to Sword and Sorceress anthologies, four to Darkover anthologies, and one to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine. I will always consider Marion Zimmer Bradley my beloved editor, mentor and friend, and owe her my start in the writing business, and an introduction to the industry itself.
NG: Speaking of direct literary influences: Dreams of the Compass Rose is indeed reminiscent of your idol Tanith Lee's Flat Earth novels, in its setting, its Arabesque characterizations, its particular air of eroticism; reviewers seems struck by parallels with the story-cycles of Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith. Dreams is, of course, a highly original work in its own right; but are these comparisons apt?
VN: Speaking of that sublime goddess Tanith Lee, why yes indeed. Ever since I stumbled upon The Birthgrave, Tanith Lee's writing style, exotic themes of dark, proud remote beauty and elegant cruelty, exalted love, gods and demons--all of this somehow lodged inside me and I would say that I went insane with subconscious emulation of her.
No one else was writing such stylish larger-than-life characters; no one else seemed to have this richness of imagery, the kind of poetic prose that left me mute with wonder. This was a rebellion against the mundane, the so-called "realistic" flawed characters like ourselves, and to tell you the truth I was compelled immediately. I'd been looking for a way out of the mundane--indeed, it had brought me to fantasy in the first place, that wild pull of things larger than life--and I was sick to death of blandness and ineptitude in characters. If I wanted mortality and human incompetence all I had to do was look in the mirror or at the street outside the window. But Tanith Lee gave me realistic gods in human shape, paragons, beautiful dark angels.
This might come across as contrary to modern standards of good writing, since portrayal of human fallibility is often considered to be a primary goal of the author, and ordinary everyday people are supposed to make the most likeable authentic characters, real people we can all relate to. Well, yes, that may be so, but I was so starved for intense beauty that I did not want "likeable," and was even willing to be emotionally tormented by some of these creatures in their perfect ivory towers and their disdain. Some readers complain that Lee's creations are too cold and remote for their taste, but to me they were heroes. I fell in love with Cyrion, cried for Jane and Silver, smiled in quiet satisfaction at all the rest, and forgave the beautiful villains their crimes. These were amazing other realities and I was consciously suspending my real-life judgment in order to be steeped in the wonder. And yes, there was a different kind of human fallibility here, hidden underneath all the glitter and verbal pyrotechnics--an undercurrent of mercy, a profound understanding of mortality itself. Lee showed me in her portrayal of gods the flip side, the base imperfection of those close to the earth, crawling upon it and downtrodden, those disdained by the perfect disdainers.
If by any remote chance Tanith Lee is reading this, let me just fall down now and beat my forehead on the floor in front of her and cry in all earnest, "Ms. Lee, I'm not worthy to kiss the hem of your shining robe! I'm not worthy!"
Seriously, Lee and other romantic fantasists are at the core of my perception of fantasy, but to get back to your initial question, I am ashamed to admit that I am not at all familiar with Clark Ashton Smith and James Branch Cabell, and only a little bit with Lord Dunsany's work.
The Middle Eastern flavour is rather deceptive actually, and comes from a combination of many ethnic elements. Dreams is riddled with Armenian tidbits, including most of the "made-up" terms. The "Kingdom in the Middle" is alternate ancient China. Nadir and Yaro are both African black. Cireive is blond and Grecian in the classical sense. The desert and the ocean are both realms of Ris and are no-man's land or everyman's land, beyond ethnicity.
NG: When, and how, did you first conceive the world of the Compass Rose? What has been its creative evolution?
VN: In the summer of 1983, I think, the word "Amarantea" came to me at the edge of a dream. Oddly appropriate, wouldn't you say? I was in bed, drifting off to sleep, in that semi-waking state, and suddenly this word appeared in red letters, and it just stood there in my field of vision like a brand, burning, burning, so that not only did I wake up completely, but I sat up in bed and scribbled the word on an envelope. Initially it had no meaning but I knew it was somehow terribly important and that I must not lose it.
I went back to bed and as I was falling asleep this time I had the vague image of something ancient and intense, a wonderful island surrounded by waters and silver haze and containing the world's greatest mystery. The next day I started to write, and in the third paragraph, as I was writing "So it was told in the lands of..." I suddenly had to insert something there. Lands of what? I needed a name or even better a symbol, but it had to be different somehow, a symbol that was archetypal and charged with the power of summing up a whole ancient milieu. The Compass Rose just slipped into my mind, very solid and three-dimensional, sort of floating there between ancient times and the middle ages, made of wood or painted stone, rich and earthy.
I've always imagined the flow of history to be a line of colour, a sort of weird analogy to the spatial redshift--a yellow-brownshift that describes time. In my mind, ancient Greece was brilliant white fading to yellow, then came Rome in beige, then it deepened into oak during the Middle Ages and became rich sienna brown in the Renaissance, and mahogany during Napoleonic times, and then transparent as it neared our own time. The "now" is always transparent in my mind, and the immediate future begins to blur softly into dove-gray silver.
And all this clamour of images came together in this one silly Compass Rose image. But I still did not know what it meant. All of the fourteen Dreams that comprise Dreams of the Compass Rose were written as standalone stories (mostly out of order of their inclusion in the book), the first five or so only remotely connected by the mention of the Compass Rose somewhere in the narrative. Suddenly around the fifth story I began to see lines of logical structure that reached out from one story to another, like semantic tentacles, and things and characters started to intertwine aggressively. The rest of the stories were written with the final connecting structure in mind, a mental puzzle that hurt my head, but up to the very last story I had no idea how I would finally connect them all. I had no explanation for Amarantea up till the end. And even now peculiar new connections occur to me, as I look back at this book; even now it refuses to go away and stop haunting me....
NG: As what you've just said indicates, Dreams is fascinatingly structured: stories resonate and interplay with other stories, the narrative thread moves back and forth in time, so that the tapestry is constantly enriched, fresh levels of explanation and significance emerging. The end is essential to an understanding of the beginning; the head devours the tail. Why this (really very elegant) circularity?
VN: Let's just say I had no choice. This is the resolution of my own curiosity, a challenge to work backwards in logic and to take a finished mysterious end for which I had no detailed explanation and find it a plausible beginning, to take a fixed set of images like a still painting and to make it into a motion picture where the still is the last frame of the movie, which is set to constant "play" mode...
And in the process it also became a challenge to incorporate other stories and elements and tie them all together, bind them tightly within a meta-arc of meaning. Funny, even now as I think back upon the process, I see that it too resembles the damn Compass Rose. The many details bound together at the heart are the rays of directions, and the beginning and end both reside in the same place in the centre of the Rose.
NG: The Compass Rose is thus an ontological, a cartographic and chronological, guide to your text and the world it depicts...
VN: In some ways the Compass Rose is the symbol of infinity, an anchor. It allows the reader to perceive the world all at one time, which is a rather fun thing in a quantum kind of way, since normally we don't think about time in that way, don't assign history a "centrepoint." If anything, we tend to think of history as a long line stretching into the past behind us. We are normally the centrepoint. And the future ahead of us is this probability haze, a very short barrier of a couple of feet.
But the Compass Rose symbol allowed me to take a fantasy world and pin it like a butterfly for your viewing pleasure (minus the cruelty involved in pinning a butterfly, of course) in all its temporal fullness. It's like a fountain circulating water and coming to life through the illusion of movement while standing still-or is it the illusion of standing still while moving?
I can't think off the top of my head of any other work of fiction where the structure does this weird kind of fourth-dimensional thing.
NG: The narrative directions of the Compass Rose: why are the fourteen sections of Dreams labelled just that way, as Dreams? What is their precise relationship to the reality inhabited by their characters?
VN: Initially they were simply to be chapter headings, and then I thought, they are all floating around like scraps of a collage of lives, or maybe stacked on top of each other like Mah Jong pieces, so then, what else could they be but dreams? Surely not memories, for that would imply linearity, while dreams can be taken out of context.
NG: You have a striking style; this kind of sensuous prose poetry is hard to master and keep in proportion, but you've managed it rather well. Is this pure inspiration, arduous craftsmanship, or something in between?
VN: I tend to overwrite, then end up paring it down, with much swearing and fuming at the editing and revision process, which I happen to hate. To me the joy is in the linear flow of creation, and all the loaded purple prose garbage comes simultaneously with the character development and the story line, in a sort of manic spouting state.
The bizarre thing is, I love poetic prose and lushness of style but actually I am not particularly fond of actual poetry in the English language, nor even in Russian--though in Russian the lyrics usually rhyme and there is no stigma associated with such, and Russian poetry to me sounds somewhat more musical.
So my writing style tends to embrace metaphor and imagery, but only when embedded in a narrative. For shorter expressive forms I much prefer proverbs and fable over poetry. Concentrated meaning affects me more than random beautiful imagery, but on the other hand imagery flowers within me when meaning is already present. Is that loony or does that make sense?
NG: Dreams is full of strong women, often triumphing despite the worst insults patriarchy throws at them. Would it be fair to describe the book as a feminist fantasy?
VN: Yes and no. I am very much an equal opportunity dreamer, and in some ways the goal of all my pieces is to show both men and women in roles of strength and weakness, confusion and enlightenment. Notice I do not say good and evil, because that is not how I see the world--our world.
However, I do seem to have a tendency to allocate some striking roles to the women characters, positions of power, wisdom, and endurance. Without giving plot points away, I would like to say that my women do, think, and say things that are often assigned to men. And yet, none of it is planned; none of it is an overt feminist statement. Rather, I do this with a combination of hidden glee and a sense that it is the most natural thing in the world.
NG: Why is Illusion such a strong preoccupation of Dreams? All those men dedicated to impossible absolutes, women englamoured...
VN: Illusion is my metaphor for evil. Lack of clarity, lack of real perception, lack of focus upon that which truly matters. All the darkest cruellest things happen because someone refuses to see things as they really are, or to see the truth of their own place in the world. Evil happens when we waste time on things that ultimately do not matter; everyone and everything has a natural function in the universe and evil is ignoring one's function or refusing to search for it in favour of a false pursuit after illusory matters. But what I say is deceptive--one's function is not immediately clear. Indeed, it is the purpose of existence to recognize the true nature of one's function. And once discovered, it is our natural duty to perform it. One hint--your true function is what gives you the greatest joy. And illusion in the shape of false dreams and non-existent sources of fear is what most often gets in the way of that joy.
Evil also comes about when someone tries to suppress, corrupt, or distort another's function, or to place an obstacle before those who are engaged in the search for their own meaning. For that reason, all of the "villains" in the book can be us at our darkest moments, when we lie to ourselves or limit the freedom of others. And all of the "heroes" are those who open doors of knowledge and awareness, and facilitate the difficult way to personal enlightenment.
NG: Dreams is published by Wildside Press, a major Print On Demand publishing house. What's it like working through this medium?
VN: First let me confess that I do part-time work for Wildside related to website publicity. Second, let me say that I was a Wildside author long before I became associated with Wildside in any other way. My editor, Alan Rodgers, also happens to be a friend whom I'd known before I submitted work to Wildside.
Now, although it is a rapidly growing and evolving press, it is still small in reach and distribution when compared to the large New York houses, and the author needs to be prepared to take an active role in the book's presentation and promotion. This is a given. If you are a beginner or not a self-promoter, then small press is not for you. However, if an author is interested in reprints or bringing back their out-of-print backlist, then this is an ideal situation. Wildside is in a somewhat unique situation for a small press, because it has over 500 books in print at one time, mostly classic genre reprints.
What also makes it ideal is the level of control an author has about small decisions such as cover art, etc. For example, I could take my own oil painting and have it incorporated as the novel's cover art. There is no way I could have gotten away with something like that at a bigger house. And believe me, I am a control freak.
I was recently asked this at a convention, so let me state for the record that I went directly to Wildside to publish Dreams of the Compass Rose. This book has not been seen by any other publishing house, has never been submitted anywhere else.
The reason is, it is a "weird" book, and my instinct told me that no major publisher would want to touch something like this with a ten-foot pole, especially as a novel debut from a Published Small Fry such as myself. I may be wrong of course, but I feel very comfortable about having made such a decision, since for a niche small press hardcover book with a potential for a cult following it is doing extremely well.
NG: What's next for you? More Compass Rose material? A book called Lords of Rainbow has been mentioned...
VN: I believe there will be more Compass Rose material in the future, but it will not be the near future. I know there are more stories to tell, but the task is a bit too immense for me to even imagine right now.
The book I've just completed and turned in and which is currently in production is Lords of Rainbow, an epic gender-bending standalone fantasy about a world without colour. It is also with Wildside, and has been scheduled for release in March 2003. I am extremely excited about this book, and it is very different from Dreams. Very, very different....
It is also very different from the current crop of epic fantasy that's out there. I've spent many years writing this novel, too many to mention in fact, and have put some very painful things there, and some very exultant things. It is the culmination of half a lifetime, and it represents what I think epic fantasy should be--not tired tropes of corporeal magic-by-numbers, elves, unicorns, dragons, and sword-wielding questing barbarians, but the mind-blowing sense of wonder and nostalgia and emotional fulfilment which is the real reason why we read fantasy.
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© Nick Gevers 27 July 2002