On an evening six years ago in the exclusive Bay Area hamlet of Tiburon, Micheline Aharonian Marcom was having dinner with her husband, David, and two of his close friends from Istanbul. They were having a lovely time at Guaymas restaurant--good food and conversation and plenty of laughter.
Then Marcom, who is half Armenian, brought up the Armenian genocide. A chill rushed over their table like a biting wind coming off the San Francisco Bay.
"At that moment it was like a giant chasm opened up in the middle of the table," said Marcom, author of the recently released "Three Apples Fell From Heaven" (Riverhead Books), a provocative novel about the genocide.
The Turkish woman erupted in anger.
"She went on this tirade like most Turks do," said Marcom, 33, who grew up in Sherman Oaks. "She said all the usual stuff. 'There was a civil war. It was not genocide. Many Turks died too.'
"All I knew was she was wrong, but I didn't know much more than that. I couldn't back it up. There was a lot of shame for me at that moment."
Not long after that, inspired by the sweet remembrance of her grandmother and the bitter taste of the dinner in Tiburon, Marcom immersed herself in the history of the genocide. She read every survivor's account she could get her eyes on. She read historical accounts, including the memoirs of Henry Morgenthau, the United States ambassador to Turkey during World War I, who graphically described the atrocities that killed more than a million Armenians. She read literature on the genocide and the Holocaust.
After poring through it all, she decided to write a novel.
Little in the way of fiction has been written about the genocide. The most famous work is Austrian writer Franz Werfel's 1933 classic "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh," a story of how a small band of Armenians held out against a contingent of Turkish forces. Last year's "Forgotten Fires," a historical novel about the genocide by Ross Bagdaserian, was a finalist for both the National Book Awards and the Los Angeles Times Book Awards.
Marcom felt the pressure of writing a novel about such a horrific event. "How do you write about genocide in a way that doesn't make it sentimental?" she asked recently while sipping a cafe au lait and munching on a baguette at Cafe Fanny in Berkeley. "I wondered how I was going to represent the genocide."
In addition to wanting the book to be a success on a personal level, Marcom was burdened by the responsibility she felt she owed to those who died and to those who survived. Most of all she wanted to make it right for her grandmother, Anaguil, who died when Marcom was 9 but who infused the author with her spirit.
The novel, whose title comes from an old Armenian saying--"Three apples fell from heaven, one for the storyteller, one for the listener, and one for the eavesdropper"--is not a classic narrative. There is no one voice. It is a series of vignettes. Some tied together, some not. Some tender, some utterly brutal.
The main character is Anaguil, based loosely on her grandmother.
In 1997, Marcom wrote the opening vignette of the novel. It begins, "Rumor tells stories, this is the story she writes. Don't believe her, she's a liar of the first order."
Later in the chapter, the first of the dead bodies appears: "In a ditch, in a well on the banks of the Euphrates River, the trajectory of the river has been altered. In the desert, the Mesopotamian beetles drink blood and soup. There is a lake that overflows its bounds, transshapen by flesh."
The novel moves to a tender scene of Anaguil trying to buy eggs at the Turkish market. All the Armenian men have been sent out of town to be killed. A Turkish egg seller offers extra eggs in exchange for sexual favors. Anaguil refuses, coming away with only one egg.
"I was interested in what survivors didn't talk about," said Marcom, who has a 9-month-old son. "There was so much shame for the survivors. Some of it unspeakable. Shame of rape. Shame of having survived."
One of the characters in the book who doesn't survive is a little boy. The seven-page chapter, called "Dickran Whose Name Went Unrecorded," ends with the boy narrating the end of his life on Earth: "The holy books and the holy houses had been burned. So I looked at the stars and I reached for them through the night blue coverlet with my small hands until I could touch the stars and then the heavenly bodies. That was how I was miracled into heaven."
At a June book signing at Vroman's in Pasadena, Marcom told the audience that hers is not a historical novel and that she felt no need to limit her story to factual events. "I wanted to write it on the edge," she said.
It is Marcom's vivid prose that has earned her several rave reviews. "What is wonderful about Micheline's novel is the style she developed to render chaos, ferocity and tragedy," said Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW-FM's (89.9) Thursday afternoon show, "Bookworm." "She makes it a matter of art, not of history."
Harout Yeretzian, owner of Abril, an Armenian bookstore in Glendale, agrees. "It's not written in the usual style, but she uses such fantastic language to describe the atrocities, it's beautiful," said Yeretzian, who also hosted a Marcom book signing.
The store has sold 60 copies of "Three Apples." "For a little place like mine, that's a lot," Yeretzian said.
Marcom was vague about her future projects, but her literary agent wasn't nearly as coy. "Three Apples" is just the first of a trilogy, said Sandra Dijkstra. The next two installments will follow the travels of Anaguil to Beirut and then on to Los Angeles.
About six months before the book's release, Marcom and her husband went out to dinner again with the same Turkish couple who had denied the genocide.
The conversation went like this:
"So what have you been up to?" the Turkish woman asked.
"I wrote a book."
"Oh, what's it about?"
Marcom flashed back to that dinner in Tiburon and how her mention of the genocide had ruined the evening. She didn't feel like getting into it again.
"My grandmother," Marcom replied.
But she couldn't hold it in. She told the truth. It was a novel about her grandmother and the Armenian genocide.
This time, six years later, there was no explosion. "They seemed so much more open," said Marcom, a smile crossing briefly across her face. "This time they seemed like they were considering the fact that the genocide had really happened."