A restless imagination
Chasing the essence of things. That’s how novelist Ariel Djanikian, MFA ’04, sees her life’s mission as a writer. But as an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia native felt conflicted about her future. A triple major, she split her time studying chemistry, English, and philosophy.
Then, one day in the lab, instead of focusing on her experiment, she found herself printing out pages of a short story she had written.
“I had this crisis,” she says. “I knew I had to decide. I would get caught up in the inner lives of people and their relationships. I could spend hours and hours working on a scene or even revising a sentence. That held my interest more than anything in the universe. Novels felt like the right path to me.”
Djanikian was accepted into U-M’s MFA program, where she honed her writing craft under her professorial mentors Peter Ho Davies, the Charles Baxter Collegiate Professor of English Language and Literature, and Eileen Pollack, professor emerita of English language and literature. Both academics are published novelists, and Djanikian knew she had found her place.
The author counts two novels to date. Her just-released historical saga The Prospectors (William Morrow, 2023) is a sprawling look at the Gold Rush and its corrosive, multi-generational impact. The Office of Mercy (Viking, 2013) is a sci-fi work set in a flower-shaped underground city surrounded by wilderness-dwelling tribes. Of this dystopian tale, NPR raved, “…an indisputable page-turner.”
While researching the Gold Rush, Djanikian discovered a bona fide family treasure trove from which to draw. Her great-great-grandmother on her mother’s side, Alice Bush, had struck it rich in the Yukon and left a literary vein to mine in the form of published memoirs. Local newspapers also ran Bush’s letters to relatives about her Canadian adventures. In addition, Djanikian’s grandfather gave her a box of his decades-old correspondence.
“You can hear the same wry, convivial tone in his writing from age 15 to 90,” she says.
She began work on The Prospectors 17 years ago when she was 24. After Michigan, her 2006 Fulbright grant took her to the Yukon, where she dug into the archives at the Dawson City Museum and the Dänojà Zho Cultural Center. Further research led her to “the deep corridors” of libraries. She pored over dozens of arcane histories, including ones on 1800s mining techniques that had been unread for decades.
But she put aside her early efforts when she realized her emerging skills were unready for the “big vision” she had for the frontier saga. Even after publisher William Morrow received her manuscript, another hurdle loomed. Her editor told her she had to cut 100 pages from the 500 pages she submitted.
“That forced me to take a hard look at every detail,” she says. “So, I cut, and I cut, and I only let the best moments stand.”
Storytelling runs deep in Djanikian’s DNA. Her Armenian father, an English professor, wrote poems about the Armenian Genocide and diaspora. His grandfather had made a narrow escape from Turkey, where his siblings and parents were murdered.
“You can imagine the difference between the stories coming from my grandparents on my mother’s side and the stories coming from my grandparents on my father’s side,” Djanikian says. “The struggle against ethnic erasure is one I’ve unfortunately been familiar with all my life.”
The author seeks to exorcise her family trauma in both novels. The rationalization of cruelty toward others is a recurring theme. The Office of Mercy raises questions about what makes a worthwhile life. Instead of being murdered, its wilderness-dwelling tribes are “swept” or, more chillingly, shown “mercy” so that a supposedly morally superior, high-tech society can achieve its goals of “World Peace, Eternal Life, and All Suffering Ended.”
In The Prospectors, a modern-day California couple tracks down a First Nations ancestor to try to grant her a hefty financial legacy that might atone for the family’s past injustices.
“When writing this book, I wanted to dramatize the way fortunes are made, how individuals position themselves within families to seize wealth, and how racism is used as a cruel instrument for maximizing profit,” says Djanikian.
While the Holocaust is well known, she hopes to raise awareness about other historical horrors.
“There’s suffering and intrigue and triumphs which don’t make it in the mainstream cultural consciousness. Deeply personal stories of family get lost. Even the big stories that are an important part of history can be brushed aside all too easily when it’s convenient to whoever is in power.
“I’ll be dealing with that material again and again,” says Djanikian. “It’s a story that repeats — the obliteration of one group of people for the convenience of another group of people.”
As a teenager, Djanikian’s restless imagination compelled her to haunt the local Borders Bookstore near her home. “I would be in every aisle, plucking things off their shelves,” she recalls.
Her favorite childhood book was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. She wrote her undergrad thesis on Milan Kundera. (“He’s so wildly imaginative and political.”) Her current literary loves are Hillary Mantel and Elena Ferrante for the depths of their characters.
Strong female leads dominate Djanikian’s books, with a white woman and a Tlingit-Hän woman sharing center stage in The Prospectors.
“The inner life of the main character will be something that interests me in every genre I’m working in. That is always front and center,” she says.
Not surprisingly, the author is currently pounding away at two novels — simultaneously. Both concern motherhood, one “more on the cheerful side and one rather dark,” she says.
The write stuff
Not one to stay idle, the former Fulbright scholar teaches fiction writing at Georgetown, where she is an adjunct professor. She is raising two children with her husband, Phil Sandick, a Georgetown English professor. They met in a writing class at Penn. “He was a critic of my work before we even got to know each other,” she says.
Time pressures prevent her from writing every day. But when Djanikian does settle down to work, she sets aside blocks from four to eight hours and lets the words flow from her pen onto spiral-bound, yellow-paper Mead notebooks.
“I love the puzzle of putting the pieces together, especially in a historical novel where I pick the most compelling moments from the past and fit them together,” she says. “There are so many moving parts. If I step away from the writing too long, I soon forget them.”
She plowed through 50 drafts of The Prospectors before being satisfied, she says. At one point, she realized she had to cut a 40,000-word WWII subplot. “For four days, I was absolutely despondent, but then you have to pick yourself up, open a new document, and start fresh,” she says.