Carol Edgarian, VERA

Carol Edgarian, VERA

Although author Carol Edgarian is not a San Francisco native, she has managed to capture both the beauty of the city and the fear that comes from living in a place so frequently touched by natural disasters. Carol joins Zibby to talk about her latest novel, Vera, which elegantly blends together these two themes, as well as her Instagram Live show about the roots of different words and the work she continues to do with her nonprofit, Narrative Magazine.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Carol. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Vera.

Carol Edgarian: Thank you. It’s so good to be here.

Zibby: This is so fun. Would you mind telling listeners what Vera is about and also how you came up with the idea for this novel?

Carol: Vera, it’s set in 1906, San Francisco. It features Vera, who is a fifteen-year-old young woman on the cusp of womanhood. She is contrary. She is whip smart. She is unconventional in a time when young girls and women were expected to sort of fit a mold, but in a town that didn’t fit a mold. San Francisco in 1906 was one of the most murderous towns in America. It was a corrupt society where the mayor was about to be indicted on the morning of the great San Francisco quake. Vera is the daughter of the most successful madame in town, but she’s not being raised by her mother. She’s being raised by a foster mother who’s the anthesis of a madame. She is a character who, even before the quake, is housed but homeless, surrounded by family and unloved. She’s looking, really, for a moral center in a very corrupt world. Then the quake hits followed by three days of fire. She not only has to survive, but she has to take care of what family is left and a band of fellow misfits she joins forces with.

It’s a book a lot about displacement. In a disaster, in a crisis like what we’ve all been through and are still going through, who becomes your people? Who do you count on? How do you count on yourself? In terms of where it started, I started collecting books on the quake years ago. Didn’t think I would do anything with them. When I started fashioning this idea of an adventure story about a girl, I think we have lots of adventure stories about boys and men, but young women and women who have their own sense of self and their own drive, I was also looking for a moment when society was really tested. I started writing it right before the 2016 election when it looked to me like our society was really on the cusp of pivotal change and crisis. Thinking back to San Francisco in 1906 when the mayor was about to be indicted and everything was sort of at play and in the space of a minute, society collapsed, seemed like a really fertile ground to talk about all the things I wanted to talk about.

Zibby: Wow. Now I feel like I should go write about this. There’s so much intrigue and everything. You mentioned figuring out who your people are or were when things hit the fan, so to speak. Who have your people been? Who are your people when things have happened even with the pandemic or recently? Who do you turn to? Just curious.

Carol: I think about you and so much about what you say about moms don’t have time to do X. I’m the mother of three daughters, two of whom have come home during the pandemic, grown daughters who’ve come home. This has been such a painful time, such a time of so much loss and so much loss of potential, so much change, particularly in young people’s lives. I think the younger you are, in some ways, the more this has impacted you. On the other side, it’s been stolen time to have my grown daughters eating dinner with us every night. I feel both grateful and I feel like coming out of it, we’re just learning what we’re going to carry with us. It’s an interesting question. Is this a moment of recalibration and reinvention and profound change in our country? I hope it is.

Zibby: What did you learn about that period of time that kind of echoed this? What does happen when characters who you paint so vividly — Vera, for instance, and her — I don’t even know what to call her. It’s not really a stepsister. Pie is her, what? Her adopted sister, whatever, and her mom, you paint such clear pictures of who they are as people and how Vera never really felt accepted because she wasn’t actually part of their family. She had this funny arrangement, hocked by this glamorous madame, the doyenne of town, if you will, in this secretive arrangement. Yet she’s always just a little bit off and so direct. I loved how she confronted the mayor. How do you feel about it? You’re about to go to prison. What do you think about that? I loved that outspoken quality in her. How do you take the characters and then put them through something like this? I don’t even know what my question is. You take these characters, you form them, and then you put them in the most difficult scenario ever. Then what? How do you figure out what to do with them? Did you figure it out as you wrote? Did you know how they would go through it? I feel like it’s so hard to know how even we go through crisis, let alone fictitious characters.

Carol: One of the reasons I became a writer was, from my earliest days, I always wondered what makes people tick. What makes people tick? I think you have a real character — I know I’m working in a place that’s interesting if you have that complexity, that contrariness, what I like to call a character’s wrong rightness. In fiction, I just keep pushing the characters to moments where they have to show different sides of themselves, where they’re stressed. Surviving the quake and the fire is the definition of a stressful moment. It’s also, how do they show up for each other or fail to show up for each other? What I try to do in the book is show as many sides, as many moments of possibility. One of the things that is so fun in the writing is, at a certain point, characters become these full people. They surprise me. I have a certain notion about who they are and what they mean to themselves and to each other. Then they make a turn. I have to be smart enough to go with them.

Zibby: Interesting. Tell me about how you got started writing. I know you’ve written multiple novels. You edited a collection of writing. By the way, I have to get that advice book. That sounds awesome. How did you get into this? Where did you grow up? What’s your whole story?

Carol: What’s my whole story? How much time do we have? I think that for so many writers, this is true. I was the kid, the voracious reader in a house that was tumultuous. In many ways, books were home to me. Books were my safe place to go. I just unearthed a journal from when I was nine, ten years old. I was writing poetry. I was writing stories. That was always the place to go. I was always thinking about story. I didn’t really think of myself as a writer. I would never have said “I’m a writer” until in college. I started writing my first novel that ultimately became Rise the Euphrates, but it took me ten years to finish it. I’m not the fastest writer, alas. I think it’s always been how I make sense of the world, is through story. What connects us? What’s universal? Again, what makes people tick? It’s fascinating to me. I just took my first plane ride since the pandemic. Sitting in an airport listening to people talk, I could eavesdrop all day long. You parachute in on people’s lives. You get the whole thing in a moment. That’s always the challenge on the page. Can you get the whole life from a moment?

Zibby: It’s so interesting. I’m always wondering about people. I didn’t realize this was something shared by so many people until I started interviewing authors. Turns out, I’m not the only one who’s wondering and listening and imagining. People always say that you should focus on something you’re interested in. If you’re writing a book, for instance, people will say, pick a topic that you don’t think you could get tired of. You were endlessly fascinated by the earthquake already. You were already researching that. It’s super natural, very natural, I should say. I feel like the same is about people. Learning about new people just does not get old. I don’t think I would ever get sick of hearing people’s stories for their lives. If you can somehow put that into literature, how great is that?

Carol: That’s the impossible challenge. It’s an endless loop of how we’re all connected, the news of the day. I think good fiction has to read like the news of the day. It has to feel really important and urgent. The news of the day tells us the who, what, where, and when, but stories tell us how and why. How did they come together? Why? What was moving through each of these characters that made this moment possible? That ability to see behind the screen and have insight, what’s better than that? Also, to fly on a magic carpet as much as the entertainment factor, I really wanted this book to read as an entertainment too. That sounds contrary to the central disaster, but people are funny. We’re full of folly. We do stupid things. We can’t help ourselves. I love that aspect of human nature. Can we, in our folly, come together?

Zibby: Especially in the face of natural disasters. I feel like those are happening, particularly in California, all the time. There’s all the fires and all these tragedies that still are happening today. It’s two hundred and — don’t make me do the math. Two hundred and fifteen years later or something from the earthquake, people are still running from the hills and dealing with fire and dealing with, what do you do when your home is suddenly gone? There’s sort of a timelessness to the theme of your book. Who does what in a disaster like that?

Carol: That’s really the question. That’s the question I think we’re all being asked right now. Ultimately, what is your own moral compass of what is right and what is wrong? When society gets leveled or challenged, that really becomes the question of the moment. In terms of living out here, I grew up in Connecticut, so San Francisco’s my adopted home. You can’t live on this coast without being constantly aware of being on the edge. If it’s not the quake, it’s fires. I’ve now written two novels about San Francisco. Clearly, it’s caught my fancy, this beautiful place that’s intrinsically dramatic, the hills and the valleys, the microclimates. If you dig just a little into the history of San Francisco, it was founded by miners. It was founded by the ultimate entrepreneurs who bet everything on finding gold. The city grew up around servicing those miners. In the early days of the city, the prostitutes were revered. They were very powerful people. I wanted to look at this character of Rose who wasn’t just a madame. She was one of the major power brokers, as I imagined her, in the town. She knew everybody’s secret. Of course, if you know the secrets, you have great power. She also was a mother. Vera is looking for that sense of family that her mother denies her. That’s one of the currents in the book. Where is the love?

Zibby: Now I feel like I should play that Black Eyed Peas song. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Carol: Yes, I love that song.

Zibby: If I did a highly produced podcast, I would que in some of that music, but I don’t.

Carol: We digress.

Zibby: I know this is off topic, but how did you end up doing your Instagram Live show where now you pick a word a week or a month or whatever? Where did that come from?

Carol: I’m a wordy gal. Words are stories. Every word has its root. Along the way, many, many words have changed. We’ve sort of lost the original meaning, but the original meaning is part of the story of what makes a word. I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus, but I’m going to pick it up again in September. Let’s take the word vote. The root of vote is vow. When you think about that resonance, that when you vote, you are making a vow, it’s got a whole different feeling to it, doesn’t it?

Zibby: Mm-hmm.

Carol: That’s so true about so many words. I just love going on that exploration of words. Tell me a word, if not this moment, another moment. What are you curious about? I love hearing from people telling me, would you look at this word? Would you look at this word?

Zibby: I would say overwhelmed. I probably say that word more than any other word.

Carol: With all you’re doing, I can completely believe it. I can completely believe that. It’s such a moment in time when you’re doing so much. I don’t know anybody who isn’t using that word right now.

Zibby: Everybody’s overwhelmed.

Carol: Yeah, of whatever life has handed you or that you’ve taken on.

Zibby: What do you do when you’re not working on a book? Do you always have a book going?

Carol: I always have something going. Right now, I’ve started a new book. I’ve got a couple essays and a story that is keeping me up at night that I have not been able to finish, literally, in seven years. I think I’m almost done with it. Also, the other half of my life is being part of Narrative, my nonprofit Narrative Magazine. We are a leading digital publisher of fiction, poetry, and art. We publish some three hundred artists a year. One of the cool aspects of not just publishing all the writers you know and love is mentoring and discovering new writers and bringing them to the fore. One of our original Narrative prize winners, Natalie Diaz, just won the Pulitzer Prize. Ocean Vuong and so many writers, seeing them early in their career and bringing them forward. Also, our library of thousands of stories and poems, because it’s all free and accessible, teachers all over the world are teaching from it. That has been just a really cool part of the legacy of Narrative, particularly in this pandemic when ninety percent of students around the world were learning online, to hear from teachers in little villages in India or Serbia or Africa who don’t have access to books but are reading stories. They’re seeing themselves in the stories. They’re seeing possibility. That’s my other gig. There’s never enough time, but it’s really fun to watch it grow.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. I love that. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Carol: Read everything. Reread the stuff that really resonates for you. Take scenes apart like you’re a surgeon. Why? What happened there? Why did that move me? Why did that work? Writing is about generosity. It’s about giving the reader as many gifts as you can, inspiration, entertainment, your curiosity on the page. How much can you give? Don’t save it for later. The bucket keeps refilling. That’s two things I would say.

Zibby: Excellent. This has been so nice, Carol. It’s so nice to have met you and chatted with you. You’re so elegant and classy. You have this way about you. It’s very nice. I feel like I should call you Mrs. Edgarian. Seriously, you’re almost from another era of class. You have such a presence. It’s very nice to see. It comes through in your writing, the way you write in such an elegant way. It was really nice spending time with you.

Carol: Really nice spending time with you. Keep on doing what you’re doing. You’re rocking it, girlfriend.

Zibby: Thank you. Maybe I’ll see you in Northern California if I go on my road trip. Take care. Have a great day.

Carol: Take care. You too. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Carol Edgarian, VERA

VERA by Carol Edgarian

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