Reinventing the Past: In Conversation with Agop J. Hacikyan

Agop J. Hacikyan is a Canadian academic and writer of Armenian descent. He is the author of over 30 books on literature and linguistics as well as five novels, including A Summer Without Dawn, an international bestseller. Hacikyan, now Emeritus Professor of Literary Studies, has been awarded several prizes in Canada, France, and Armenia for the ensemble of his literary work and contribution to Armenian culture. He has resided in Montreal since 1957.

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His latest novel, The Lamppost Diary, has just been published by Telegram Books, in London. It is a spine-tingling love story between Tomas and Anya–the daughter of white Russian emigres—burgeoning sexual desires, rituals of growing up and of startling fortitude of a group of youngsters living in Turkey during and after World War II before moving to Canada and the States in the sixties.

I was sure the writer would grant me an interview. After all , not only am I an enthusiastic reader of his novels, I happen to be his daughter. When I was a child his study was right next to my room. Many a night I’d fall asleep to the rat-a-tat-tat of his typewriter. I often wonder if this lulling sound–reminiscent of tropical rain on a tin roof– that repeatedly seeped into my subconscious had something to do with my own desire to write.

My father and I sat in his present-day study in the basement of his Westmount home, where he has not one, not two, but three desks. A sleek PC has replaced the mighty black Remington of my childhood, but the book-lined walls are just as impressive as the ones I remember, like a mosaique of mysterious characters, places, and plots.

Talleen Hacikyan: You have said that every novel is autobiographical. What are your thoughts on this?

Agop J. Hacikyan: My novels are often about incidents that I have lived. I’ve written five novels and they are all based on experiences as a child, adolescent, or adult in Turkey, Europe, or Montreal. In general, every novel is autobiographical in that the author chooses his words according to what he has seen, lived or even imagined. He has a particular background—his or her own warehouse of expressions, phrases, and words that come out when he writes. Fiction partly comes from experience and imagination—both merge and then suddenly that experience turns fiction. In The Lamppost Diary there is a lot of fiction as well as many episodes based on reality. It reflects a crucial phase in my life in a particular country, which, eventually with distance and the passing of time, regain new visions and awareness. For example James Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man is certainly autobiographical, not only the plot but the ideas and emotions. A novel is often autobiographical in terms of plot, emotion, ideas, and personal principles and philosophy. These then often become part of the story and most of the time unconsciously. This is turning into a lecture!

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Cover page of Tomas

T.H.: Tell me about the experience of writing your first novel, Tomas.

A.J.H.: I wrote Tomas during a sad transitional period in my life. Sadness activates creativity. I wanted to produce a collage, very much in vogue at the time. There was no outline. I call this novel “evening writing”; I added something every night according to what I felt or thought on that particular day. My sadness took me back ten years to when I first came to Montreal, which was a good and bad experience, full of changes and shocks. I wrote the book during the peak of the Quebec separatist movement and FLQ activism and I was inspired. There was something in the political climate in Quebec at the time that echoed my experience in Turkey. A novel is a slice of life—not a clear-cut slice, but a mixture of how people lived and how they should have lived otherwise.

T.H.: The American-Armenian novelist, Oscar and Pulitzer winner, William Saroyan, prefaced Tomas. What role did he play in your development as a writer?

A.J.H.: I’m an admirer of Saroyan, read everything he wrote, including his grocery lists. I had access to him through our common friend and writer David Kherdian. When I was busy writing Tomas I sent some chapters to Saroyan and his warm sincere comments encouraged me, and I kept on writing an experimental hodge podge and it happened that it was published. At that time to have a preface by William Saroyan was a big deal so I figured I should continue writing. He was a great great man. I owe him so much.

T.H.: Tell me about the first time you met Saroyan.

A.J.H.: I met him for the first time in Fresno, California, where he lived. He gave me an appointment at the zoo, but he warned me not to buy an entrance ticket and to sneak in from a hole in the back fence, which I did. We spent the first three hours talking about animals, establishing a peculiar interaction between them and comparing them with human beings.

T.H.: Your latest novel, The Lamppost Diary was just released last week in London. What can you say about the process of writing that book?

A.J.H.: I wrote it over two years. I knew where to start and where to end—everything that came in between was spontaneous—snippets of a past turning into fiction. I decided to write it because there were many unusual incidents and events in the 40’s in Turkey, which were obscured by the government. I’ve lived these events but no one pays much attention to them; the majority of people don’t know anything about that. Armenians are busy to have the genocide recognized by Turkey but after that tragic period there were so many unjust, cruel incidents against the minorities of the new republic. If I wrote a documentary about that particular period only scholars, students, and interested parties would read them. So I fused these events into a narrative, a love story between Tomas and Anya.

T.H.: All of your novels feature a character named Tomas. Who is he?

A.J.H.: Tomas is a detective of my personality. He started as my Doubting Thomas in my first novel and I liked him. He represents my different facets. He is my friend, sometimes he is me, my ego, or my alter ego. . . He has become part of my family: a father, a brother, a cousin or close family friend. I don’t want to leave him out—I’m attached to him. He writes my novels for me and turns me into fiction.

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Robert College, Istanbul

T.H.: Describe your early writing days. Who and what influenced you?

A.J.H.: I started writing poetry at 17. I was influenced by the contemporary Turkish writers at the time. I used to buy tons of poetry books for 10 cents each and collect them. These writers were older than me at the time and many turned out to become household names. The Armenian poet Zahrad really influenced me. At the beginning many didn’t believe what he wrote was poetry, but I did. My mother used to write poetry. Unfortunately I have lost her poems during my various moves. What really led me to write was my fabulous years at Robert College in Istanbul. I had two outstanding literature teachers—Professor Boyd, from Oxford, and Professor Child from New York. Professor Child conducted his classes from his home in Bebek, right next to campus. Every Wednesday a group of six of us would get together at his place to discuss books. Moris Farhi, The British-Turkish novelist and a dear friend was one of those students. We devoured all French, American, and British contemporary writers of the 40’s and 50’S. The most memorable years of my youth.

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T.H.: You co-wrote your bestselling novel A Summer Without Dawn with Jean-Yves Soucy. How would you describe the experience of co-authoring a book?

A.J.H.: My publisher at Libre Expression, read my novel, The Battle of the Prophets and wanted me to write a long epic novel in French. Those were the Mitchner and Clavell years. I told him I could write it in English but he insisted to have it in French and suggested I collaborate with Jean-Yves Soucy, who had read the novel and liked it. The publisher explained that I could write my part, and Jean-Yves could collaborate by adding his part. At first he did not know very much about the Armenian-Turkish conflict and history but then he read a lot about the subject. I left him very free. I had never written anything with four hands. We wrote 800 pages and gave it to the publisher. The answer was no. We threw it in the garbage and I swore I’d never touch the subject again. Then Carole Levert, our editor, and guardian angel encouraged us to repeat the experience under her supervision. And we did. We finished the novel, and one week after its release it became a bestseller here in Quebec. Then it was sold to Presses de la Cité and France Loisirs in Paris and it also was a bestseller there. Now it’s been translated into eight languages and has come out in thirteen different editions. And from that time on Jean-Yves Soucy became my very good friend and a precious colleague. The reviews consider it the best novel on the subject and we can’t complain of course.

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T.H.: What is the worse thing about being a writer?

A.J.H.: (After the first silence in our conversation.) No worst thing really about being a writer. Every profession has its drawbacks. Some people enter a profession because they have no choice. I had a choice, I was a professor. The hardest thing is dealing with the anxiety. There are three levels of anxiety: to satisfy yourself, to satisfy your editor, and to satisfy your reading public. Every profession comes with its set of worries. When a shopkeeper opens his store in the morning he wonders, will he sell three kilos of rice, or four kilos of lentils? Nobody becomes a novelist unless he or she wants to say something, to tell a story, share it with others hoping that it will interest them. If the novelist doesn’t have the strength to overcome difficulties and disappointments it’s better not to try. Every writer has a reader, himself/herself. He or she must first be satisfied himself/herself. The worst part for new writers is the insecurity. A new engineer knows he will be paid at the end of the week. But, in the beginning, to be a novelist is like gambling.

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A. J. Hacikyan receiving the Tekeyan Cultural Award, Mount Stephen Club, Montreal, May 2009

T.H.: What is the best thing about being a writer?

A.J.H.: Writing has an absolute cathartic effect but that’s not why I write. I write for the reading public. The most satisfying thing about writing is when readers appreciate you and you begin to hear the echoes of what you have produced. If you like what you have produced it is the first essential satisfaction and reward. When the body is gone, hopefully the stories stay and the author becomes part of what perpetuates. Furthermore, writing helps others be entertained, to be educated, and provides them ideas to discuss, even if they disagree. The writer, like the artist, leaves behind an eternal shadow—a shadow that elongates him even in the dark.

I stepped out into the crisp September sun with “the brilliant writer and philologist,” as William Saroyan refers to him in a dedication in his novel, I Used to Believe I Had Forever, Now I’m Not So Sure. As I was pulling out of the driveway, my father stopped me and said, “I have written so many anthologies and translations, there are still many novels I want to write, and finish.” We said our goodbyes a second time and he walked, deep in thought, toward King George Park.

Thanks, Dad.

Talleen Hacikyan

Novels by Agop J. Hacikyan

The Lamppost Diary (2009)
Les rives du destin (2005)
A Summer Without Dawn (2000)
The Battle of the Prophets (1981)
Tomas (1970)

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