War, Quakes, and Crashes

Carol Edgarian's Story of Home

Photo by Lucy Jenks

No one captures our need for sanctuary and grace better than the award-winning novelist Carol Edgarian.  Her books center around our longing for a fixed foot of the compass—a safe and nurturing place that shields us from the pressures of the outside world. 

Her first novel, Rise the Euphrates, begins with a devastating loss of home during the Armenian genocide and shows how this trauma echoes through three generations. This is a heart-rending portrait of a family struggling to redeem the past and embrace a new life America.

Edgarian’s second book, Three Stages of Amazement,  is a portrait of a marriage on life support, set during the Great Recession of 2008, and the tech bust in Silicon Valley.   It’s  an indictment of America’s unbridled ambition, asking, “How much is enough?” But it is also a love story—and an affirmation of family and home as the things that truly matter.  

Vera, Edgarian’s most recent offering,  shows how San Francisco residents rebuilt their homes after the 1906 earthquake.  We learn about the resilience and diversity that brought this town back to life and the way it was shaped by shady politics.  As an added bonus, this book gives us a spiritual roadmap for reinventing ourselves in the wake of a pandemic.

Critics have said that Edgarian’s writing is “so good it can raise the hairs on the back of your neck” and praised her ability to capture the beauty and sacredness of daily life.

Join us for an extended conversation about home as the central character in the American story.   (Audio file and transcript below.)

Welcome to Reinventing Home, a digital magazine about culture, creativity, and character.  I’m your host Valerie Andrews and my guest today is the award-winning novelist Carol Edgarian. Carol, I’m pleased to have you with us today. 

Carol:  Thanks for having me.

Valerie: In Rise the Euphrates, one of the main characters is a woman who’s lived through the Armenian genocide. Her house bristles with her fierce determination to survive, and then to nourish and protect the people she loves.  

Carol: The book is centered around three generations of Armenian Americans. The first is the grandmother who survived the Armenian Genocide, but the narrator of the novel is Seta Loon, who’s third generation and half Armenian. The book is not in any way autobiographical, except in the key aspect of trying, as a third-generation Armenian American, to unearth how to hold this legacy of an unreconciled genocide. That was interesting to me. 

My father was Armenian so, I’m half Armenian.  The story of the genocide was a ghost that lived in our house but was not often discussed.  The question that drove me in writing Rise the Euphrates is what of this trauma gets passed on through the generations and how to heal that.  How does each generation turn over the inherited story and make a new story?  

Valerie: What I found so powerful in your writing was that this sense of loss actually breathes in the walls of the house. You can feel the emotion in every room.  I’m wondering how, as a writer, you were able to capture that?

Carol: I’m glad that comes across. This is an American problem, this notion of displacement. So many of us have had the story of displacement in our lives. That sense of a lost home whether that is a physical homeland, having come to this country by choice –or not by choice.  So it’s a physical home to be displaced from, but it’s also a spiritual displacement. You know, where is that safe place, that resting place? I think that’s a particularly American problem. And it’s something that I’ve looked at in all my books.

Valerie: There’s also a clash in Rise between the different characters and their sense of home. The third generation really takes it for granted. And the older ones, they’re still wounded, they’re still smarting.  And so the built-in conflict in the novel is: How can these people even begin to talk about what their definition of home is when it’s so different?

Carol: That’s right. But isn’t that true? How do the generations talk to one another, how do they find that common ground? That is, by definition, dramatic and it’s a daily soul fight. But it’s also, I hope, driving towards moments of real connection. And those moments of real connection have to be earned. In the novel, Rise the Euphrates, there is that moment when people can put down their swords and just be, a moment that I hope invites the reader to feel that, too.

Valerie: The book is important because there are so many people coming into this country, and there are so many generations with different expectations of home. And some people are just unable to talk about their losses. The grandmother, Casard, keeps it all bottled up for years, and truly, it is not until the end of her life that we see some kind of resolution. So, I’m wondering if there’s a counsel here, that we’re dealing with a big theme, and we need to be patient?

Carol: I think we do. I mean, here, we’ve just marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Last year,  during this traumatic period of Covid, the BLM movement came forward and, and as a country, we had to really face the trauma, the unassuaged essential scar of slavery. These  issues are so different from the Armenian Genocide. We are a traumatized nation on so many levels. How do we deal with that? How do we unpack it, so that it doesn’t fester and gain more power? At the same time—and I think this is really important—how do we find joy? How do we  find hope? I think for a novel to succeed, at least what I try for,  is that what’s at stake feels essential like news of the day. It has to have that feeling of urgency, but it also has to bring the reader to a place of joy, a place of humor, It has to be an entertainment.  

Valerie: Well, you did that with your second book with just the title alone, Three Stages of Amazement—who could not want to open a book with that name? This one also starts with a household under siege. But this is not a generation that has been living with the trauma of loss in the past, they are living with a very real trauma in the present, which is the Great Recession.  Your novel opens with a gathering of bright young things from Silicon Valley during the tech bust. The American Dream is about to fall apart, and we see a young couple who are about to be tested on every level.  What drew you to this examination of home?

Carol: You know, the economic collapse of 2008 seems to me a moment when the old American Dream died—this sense that every generation with the right schooling and the right ambition, could exceed, could rise, could claim the golden ring of American bounty.  I think 2008 was a recalibration, and it was a rude awakening, kind of “the jig was up.” So here you have a young couple—Lena and Charlie Pepper—who seem to have everything going for them, and the Fates challenge them on every level, not only economically.  They have also suffered the loss of a child. Their marriage is really being tested, their hope is being tested, All the characters in the book of multi-generations–they’re in a moment of crisis where they’ve got to recalibrate everything they thought was true about their lives and about their expectations. I always start with questions. And for Three Stages of Amazement, I was guided by two questions, and they really bookend the novel. The first question is, What is grace? and I mean that in a secular way of Where is real connection? Where is that moment of resting? Where is that moment when things are right?

And the other is, What is enough? I think that’s a really interesting question, for fiction and for life in general.  When do we stop striving and say, “This is enough”?  To use your framing,  Isn’t that home? Home is where it’s right. It’s a place where you’re okay.

Valerie: It’s sanctuary.

Carol: It’s sanctuary.

Valerie: In the first few pages of this novel, there’s this croupy baby who’s struggling to breathe and that feels like the metaphor for the whole book. Everyone is struggling for air on some level, and the marriage feels like it’s on life support.

Carol: That does capture it. And in that crisis, even at the worst moments, there is possibility for connection, there’s possibility for joy, there’s possibility for folly. Someone asked me recently, Why did you become a writer?  I realized when I was really young, I was curious about what makes people tick.  Why do they do the crazy things they do? And what joy it is to dream up these characters and throw them together, yo watch their folly with a lot of empathy, and also with discrimination. We are creatures of desire, and particularly in a story, characters want things and they want them immediately. There’s nothing casual about desire in fiction. What happens when they can’t get what they want? What happens when they get tripped up? How do they maneuver?

Valerie: There’s a really interesting way that Charlie Pepper gets tripped up. He’s trying to create this company so that he can be a success in the eyes of his wife so that she will love him, and he wants to save all these lives with his medical device company. But he forgets to come home.

Carol: Yeah, he’s such a do-gooder. He’s so involved in succeeding on all levels. And you could even argue on the right levels.  But then he forgets the most important thing, and that is his family. He can’t do everything. So if you can’t do everything, what do you do? What do you decide to do?  Where do you put your heart? Where do you put your effort? Aren’t we all up against that problem of “too-muchness”?

Valerie: This is a really big theme in the book, In the age of ambition, somehow home and sanctuary became obsolete. The whole arc of the story is, How do we come down from that pinnacle of thinking we have to do it all?  

Carol: In the last year and a half, the pandemic has taught us a new lesson. We’ve all been in lock-down, the entire world.  And for the first time in our lifetime, everyone has been experiencing the same thing.  What lessons are we going to take out of this moment?

That’s interesting to me but I don’t have the answer. But if everyone has had to slow down, are we immediately going to speed up? Are we headed for the roaring 20s once Covid lifts? Or have we changed?

Valerie: Your third book is a preamble to this conversation.  Vera is about the 1906 earthquake in California, the great one that drove people out of their homes and made everybody scramble to survive. And this book came out just as we were scrambling to survive with the pandemic. I wonder how you see the connection between that event and what we’re living through now. 

Carol: I finished Vera in January of 2020,  a month to two months before we all went into lock-down.  I’m always looking for those moments where there is a crisis where society is being challenged, and where there’s a political aspect. In the 1906 earthquake, in San Francisco, the mayor was corrupt. He was about to be indicted on the morning the great quake occurred. And what got me thinking about all that was the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election and realizing that our society was at really a crossroads where so many of the norms would be challenged, and how we agreed to treat each other.  How we agreed to what was true and what was untrue. All those aspects seemed up.  I thought how. in the 1906 quake, within the space of 45 seconds society can collapse. Everything suddenly gets challenged in a primal way.  Who and what rises?  Is there a moment for recalibration, for reinvention, coming out of such an epic disaster?

I also wanted to write an adventure story that centered on a girl—a girl who was contrary, who was not quite the norm that society would expect. And Vera is, of course, the daughter of the most successful madam in town.  In 1906, the madams of 1906 San Francisco were revered. They were the power brokers. And certainly her mother was a power broker. But Vera’s not living with her mother before the quake, and coming out of the quake she has to find her people.  

She’s a half orphan in the beginning of the story—she’s housed, but living on the margins. And in the quake, she loses home, her essential home, as does everyone in town.  In the 1906 quake, 500 city blocks burned, There were four days of fire and a quarter of a million homeless people, all of a sudden, in the city.

Valerie:  Well, somehow, Vera makes her way to her mother’s house, which is empty, and she pulls together an extraordinary crew of people who reflect the cultural diversity of the city today. 

Carol:  Well, there’s Tan who is Vera’s mother Rose’s major domo. He’s her Butler, her cook. He runs the household. He is an incredibly adept, skilled person. He’s also a Chinese man living in 1906. So, despite all his accomplishments, his inherent dignity, he has to live in the basement of this grand house on a dirt floor with cast-off furniture and a chamber pot. Tan became a really central character He starts as Vera’s rival and ends up as her essential partner.

Also there are the prostitutes who are destitute, coming out of the quake, and, willy-nilly, they find their way to Vera’s door. They are this wise, joyous chorus that becomes her chosen family. There’s Valentine, there’s Capability, there’s Mercy, and each has his or her own story, their sense of what is home. They all show Vera different sides of what it means to be part of a family.

Valerie: I love the names.  You’re talking about love, ability, and mercy as the things that we need to run a household—and to bring people together after a great tragedy.  Your names are beautifully chosen.

Carol:  I think of names as destiny. So, the names become very important to me.

Valerie: It occurs to me that we are living in a kind of provisional post-earthquake world right now. We’ve been changed politically, we’ve been on the brink in many different ways. We’re all a little bit loopy, because we don’t know where we are anymore. Which is the feeling I would imagine people have after an earthquake. The sense that the ground beneath you isn’t trustworthy. And that lasts for a long time.

Carol: Absolutely.  I think,  for sure, we in that moment right now. And I would suggest that we’ve changed but we don’t know how we’ve changed. For me, that’s the power of fiction— to help us make sense of the how and the why.  To build some of the essential connections that the news of the day can’t provide.

Vera says, “All my life, I’ve been waiting for a catastrophe greater than my birth.”  And that’s the starting place of her story.

I’m always writing toward what I don’t know, toward what I wonder about, and it’s through the writing, through how the characters develop, that I know more. I think we don’t know, coming out of this, who we are.   There’s hope but we’re constantly being barraged with the underbelly of our society, with all the negativity.  It feels like both a dark period and I suspect it’s also a period when we’re moving forward in new ways that could be regenerative. It’s interesting having written a book that has a disaster at its center. We’re in this unfolding disaster, not just the pandemic, but  climate change and challenges on so many levels.  I think we’re all shell shocked, wondering, What is next, and who are we?

Valerie: The thing that can help us most I think in a time like this is learning more about  myths and stories that have to do with displacement.  That’s why I found it such a balm to go back and read through your novels in preparation for this talk.  In Rise you talk about the importance of myths—from Noah’s Ark to the many different stories we’ve had about losses in our own families.  I’m wondering what myths and what stories sustain you? What other writers support you when you’re asking these big, deep questions?

Carol: Every writer has her shelf of books that she goes back to again and again and again. I have the feeling there are voices on my shoulders.  We’re coming in on a story that precedes us, by hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of years. And in terms of literature, we’re coming in on a very long conversation.  I always go back to the Russians—Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov. They’re a starting point for me. Certainly Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, early Toni Morrison.  I reread E. L. Doctorow. Recent finds in the last 10 years? Penelope Fitzgerald, Jane Gardam, Edward P. Jones—I think his work is extraordinary. If you haven’t read his short stories, they’re amazing.

And, I begin every day with poetry, just to get the language flowing through me.

But it is also my job and my joy, as one of the founders of Narrative, to read manuscripts and to read a lot of new writers coming up. It’s really exciting to see what is bubbling up, what my fellow writers are working on, thinking about, conjuring out of all this complexity we’re living through.  It’s a really exciting time for story, for new voices coming to the fore. I’m reading widely, but once I get deep enough into a book, it’s the characters who talk to me. One of my daughters said to me the other day, “You get that glazed look, and I know you’re living in the novel. You’re here in body. But you’re really in your book.”

Carol Edgarian's bookshelf.

This is when you’ve struck a vein—your characters become more real to you, in some ways, than life. They get very active, then they take up a lot of space.

Valerie: Well, there is that sense when you finished writing, of having to part with them, too. That moment when you look around your house and realize they’re not there!

Carol: It’s a huge loss. Since, Vera came out in March I’ve been chatting all around the country via zoom about her and her people. And it’s been great because I’ve been a little lovesick for her, I miss her.

Valerie: Well, you know, you mentioned that you start each day with poetry and one of the things I love discovering was your conversations about what different words mean.

Carol: It’s actually an Instagram live feed. I took the summer off to start some new work, but I’m just about to start it up again. And it’s called “A word, please.” And for any of your listeners who want to follow me on Instagram @ cedgarian is my handle.

I love the story of every word. Every word has its origin and, through time, that’s also changed. If think for example of the word vote, its origin is “vow” and doesn’t that change things and give a hallowed connotation to it? Every time we vote, we are making a vow.  Each week, I chose a word, a word that is talking to me in some way.  Sometimes I bring on guests to amplify their association with that word.  It’s really fun. I love doing it. “A Word, Please” is for all the word nerds out there.

Valerie: Well, you know, this issue of our magazine is titled “The Alchemy of Reading, Writing, and Eating,” and  you also know your way around the kitchen.

Carol:  I love to cook. My dear Armenian father used to begin the day, literally, at breakfast asking, “What’s for dinner?” (In my family) there was this intense preoccupation with food. My  grandmother was an amazing cook. And, you know, she would spend all day cooking for the church. She thought nothing of cooking for 100 people. I love what happens around the table and I love nourishing people.

When I’m writing, (food) is often the thing I forget about.  I come to the point where I sort of pick my head up, and think, “Okay, what’s fuel?”

I don’t know if you have this ritual, but Sundays have become my day to cook. I think in part I do that to go back to my roots. My earliest roots.  Sunday was the day that my extended family sat at the table, after church. When we gathered.  I miss that.

Valerie: There’s a theme I’ve been more and more aware of in the fiction that’s been coming out lately, especially in magazines like The New Yorker—we’re seeing more about cooking, and reading, and housekeeping.

Carol: I don’t think we can underestimate what we’ve been through in the last year and a half, two years. Everybody’s been housebound.  It’s totally natural. you know. We’ve been denied a lot of our normal pleasures. What’s for dinner? What’s the treat of the day? I mean, don’t separate me from my bar of chocolate, or bad things will happen!

Valerie: George Saunders had a short piece in the New Yorker recently, where objects started speaking to him. This reminded me of Tom Robbins’  novel, Skinny Legs and All, where Can O’ Beans and Dirty Sock go on an adventure. Why can’t inanimate objects have lives?

Carol: I think they do. One of my most treasured possessions is a teacup that survived the 1906 earthquake. And a very dear friend gave it to me as a talisman, as I was drafting Vera, and the cup looks as if it’s bronzed—that’s because it lived through the Great Fire. I’m looking at it right now, it sits on my desk.

I have a collection of objects that I’ve acquired from my various books. And they have great power for me. If I hold them, they give me juice.

They also remind me what is essential. You know, a story, I think, essentially, has to be about generosity. From where I sit, I’m constantly thinking, how many gifts can I give the reader? Can I evoke all the senses as my reader walks through a scene, walks through a story? Can I move them? Can I open their hearts? Can I make them laugh? Can I make them cry? Or at least feel something they haven’t felt? Or remind them of a place they haven’t gone to in their lives? Can I leave enough openings so they bring their subjectivity into the stories?

Valerie:   When I read your novels, I feel held and contained in this world that is so rich, and so full on so many different levels. A world that, in some way, provides a sense of grace and home and sanctuary. This is one of the things that I think reading can do for us right now when we’re feeling so battered, and so exhausted.

Carol: Thank you for that. I’m so glad you feel that. I didn’t know this line until I wrote it, which seems like an odd thing to say. But they became the fulcrum for Vera:  “I think of our lives, their savor and spark, and all the ways we never could resist the three blind kings of Want, Stupidity, and Brashness. The heart leaps, the head conjures, the soul yearns, desire being the one renewable fuel we have on earth. Here is how we burned.”    

Valerie: Ah, beautifully said.  Carol, I want to encourage all of our readers and listeners to go out and buy your books and steep themselves in an incredible experience of home and sanctuary,  language and poetry. Thank you so much for sharing your work with us and for sharing your time with us today.

Carol: It was such a joy to be with you, Val.


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