Q& A with Catherine Dehdashti, author of Roseheart

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You’ve been an essayist, a food writer and education writer. How did you end up writing a novel?
Roseheart is so long in coming. I’ve always written fiction, but I’m not one of those authors who taps out a novel in three weeks on an iPad on my bus ride. I’ve pushed aside Roseheart and other works many times because I didn’t have the time or focus. Roseheart is the one that just kept sneaking back out of the drawer and making me work on it. That’s probably because there are parts that are semi-autobiographical, and the older I get, the more I find myself wanting to process and reprocess things.

Like Valerie, I had a mother-in-law who came for a visit and stayed for many years living with me and my husband. I miss her incredibly since she’s passed away, and looking back I see how she changed my life so much for the better. My mother-in-law is not Goli Joon, and I’m not Valerie, but I needed to explore the meaning of that time of my life through these characters.

The book reads like a diary. It’s fiction…but how much is you?
Roseheart is fiction, but it’s got a lot of me in there.  There’s a lot of “What if?” to the writing process–scenes that didn’t happen, but they could have happened! I hope nobody tries to pick apart what’s true and what isn’t true, or especially what characters line up with people in my life. None of the characters look like anyone I know when I think about them. I’ve been writing this for so long–the characters are just themselves to me now.

How is it being received by people close to you?
I’ve been really surprised by how supportive my family has been. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised–I should give them more credit. But I wasn’t confident. I delayed the whole process of finishing and publishing the book because of fear. My main character has a problem with drugs, for example. I felt a lot of shame about that, since people who know me will also recognize Valerie as being a lot like me. But I couldn’t leave out the drugs either. I dragged my feet, but I  started letting people read it in the summer of 2014.

I was just bowled over to find that people liked it so much, and were able to understand it as fiction. I was especially worried about my mom, and finally she said “I’m not stupid, you know. I understand  literature. Writers take from life to create fiction. I can take it.” So I let her read it, and my appreciation for her just grew even more when I saw how unconditionally she encouraged me to publish.

My husband didn’t understand why I couldn’t just write something entirely made up, why I had to cannibalize material from our lives to write a fiction story. But he’s still happy for me because he knows I’ve always wanted to write a novel, and Roseheart is the one I had in me.

How have others reacted?
I’ve had people read it in one or two sittings, and tell me they laughed out loud. Two readers told me they were reading passages out loud to their husbands in bed. Iranian-American friends have read it and could relate. I hope people will see it as a love letter to Persian-American culture, the arts culture especially, that Americans don’t know about unless they read Iranian and Iranian-American literature (which I hope they will; I can recommend dozens of books). And yet…if there is any criticism–if I’ve made mistakes or misrepresented things–I’ll learn from it and move on.

Food plays a major role. What do you want readers to learn from that?
I don’t know that they need to learn anything. It isn’t a preachy book, and it isn’t one of those high and mighty foodie elite books in which nobody ever eats a processed snack. I hope they laugh, and that they like the way food is this bridge between Valerie and Goli Joon. Cooking and eating can bring them together, but the bridge can fall away sometimes too. Sometimes it’s funniest when the bridge falls away.

Tell me about the role of secrecy
Family conflicts, addiction, things that happened that make people feel shame…I wanted to shine some light on all of these because they’re just so human.

My people–both my Minnesota stoics and my southern relatives–we really like to keep our chin up and be strong, and sometimes that means hiding truths that show our weaknesses. Iranians are the same way. But my characters had some things that just had to come out for examination. And then there are the fun, sort of special secrets too–like unknown ingredient in Goli Joon’s spicy potato patties, or what’s going on with the neighbors across the street. Valerie has to be patient in order to learn.

Roseheart seems to take place mostly in the space of family. Why?
Well, there are also the spaces of friendship and work life. But family is the center of my life. Families come in all types, and no one type is perfect. They all have good and bad things about them. Humans aren’t perfect. We just have to decide what we can tolerate in ourselves and how we live with others, and what we simply cannot need to put up with at all. It’s not always easy to decide what’s truly toxic, and what we just need to look at differently.

There’s this ebb and flow of strength and vulnerability that I loved exploring, especially in the female characters. Sharing the story with my mother and my sisters was a replay of that vulnerability and ultimately the strength of their support for me as a writer. I was only sad that I couldn’t share the novel with my mother-in-law.

You’ve never traveled to Iran. Did that worry you in depicting the culture?
I desperately want to go visit Iran, and I’m not afraid to go there. But the story takes place in the United States, and I don’t make any claim to depict Iran or Iranians living there. And as I mentioned, if I need to be corrected, I’ll learn from that. However, I’m hoping I might be able to write a sequel, and I hope Valerie and Naveed will go. What that means for me as the author is a mystery to me.

I’d like Roseheart to be thought of as a Minnesota novel too. It’s for people everywhere, but Minnesotans will recognize a lot about themselves and where they live, especially if they’re from around Wayzata, the Lake Minnetonka area, or Minneapolis.

Do you have any other books in the works?
Yes, too many. I just don’t know which one to work on next. We’ll see which one sneaks out of the drawer once Roseheart has had its turn. In Roseheart, Valerie is writing a novel called Shoedog. Would that be too bizarre if that novel-within-a-novel gets developed more and becomes my next book?

Tell me about the journey of publishing your novel
I’m publishing Roseheart with my publishing company, Causy Taylor Literary Publishing (in Summer 2015). I think I could have kept working the literary agencies and publishers to get published, but I was impatient.

I tried for a little while, and found that the market right now isn’t as friendly to my generation as it is to Young Adult (YA)  fiction and baby boomers. Generation X is sort of squeezed right now between those two larger generations. There’s more of a market for YA, so no blame, but I’m writing a different type of book…it’s about a young woman, sure, but it takes place from 1994 to 2001.

When I did get some interest, agents were intrigued by the idea of this Iranian woman moving in. But it seems like they expected something different, maybe more in line with the stereotypes of Middle Eastern women. They seemed disappointed that Goli Joon didn’t serve those images, whereas I see that as a major strength of the story.

I founded Causy Taylor Literary Publishing to publish Roseheart. But I’m wondering if in the future, I might be able to work with other authors. I’d like to find some first-rate gems and see what I could do. Not to make a fortune, but to support literature that doesn’t neatly fit into a best-selling genre, and of women who maybe aren’t 16 anymore.

 

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