Ariel Djanikian holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan and is the author The Office of Mercy. Her work has been published in Tin House, The Paris Review, The Rumpus, The Millions, and elsewhere. She has received a Fulbright and a Hopwood, among other awards. She teaches at Georgetown University and lives near Washington, DC, with her family. More information can be found on her website, arieldjanikian.com
The Gloss Book Club: Can you give us an overview of the premise of “The Prospectors” and what inspired you to write this story?
Ariel Djanikian: The Prospectors tells the story of the Bush-Berry family, poor fruit farmers from Selma, California, who travel North and strike it rich during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. The book is closely based on my own family history, particularly on my great-great-grandmother, Alice Bush, who left behind a memoir and many letters from her journey to the Yukon. When I was a child, I was fascinated by this story. I wanted to live it myself. In my early adulthood, I was anointed the family archivist, and all the letters and photographs and first-person accounts came my way from various branches of the family. In many ways, the novel grew out of my desire to viscerally experience the past and also to write into its silences and more subtle reverberations. It was a highly specific story about a handful of people, but the gold rush had a reach a century long.
TGBC: What appeals to you most about writing historical fiction?
AD: I love deep diving into a narrow sliver in time and feeling awed by its vastness. For this novel, I was dealing with a somewhat forgotten moment in American and Canadian history–but every detail had for me the bite of true, lived experience. The spices in their pantry and the potatoes cooking in a sheet-iron stove, the pans they used for swirling creek water and the appearance of flecks of gold from the gravel—all of it called to me. Historical novels are wonderful because they take a world that should be inaccessible and summon it into roaring life. I also loved writing into the relationships and rivalries of the nineteenth century. The passage of time can act as a filter, and leave you with the quintessential moments of a person’s experience.
TGBC: Are there any specific scenes or moments in the book that you found particularly challenging or rewarding to write? What made them stand out for you?
AD: I knew that I wanted to have the chapters on the Klondike Gold Rushed interwoven with a more recent story. But at first, I chose to tell the story of Alice’s grandson, Peter, during World War II. Compelling as his narrative was, I realized that the two historical eras weren’t rubbing against each other in a way that created real sparks. So, after much struggle, I deleted those chapters and instead interlaced into the Gold Rush story the account of Alice’s much later descendants in 2015, based in part on my own trip to the Yukon. Right away, I knew this made for a better novel. The present and past spoke to each other in ways that brought heat and light to the page. One was a trip to the North to seize a fortune, the other was a trip to the North aiming to give that same fortune away.
TGBC: How did you get into writing and what inspired you to write your first book?
AD: I always thought I’d have a career in science. (I was a Chemistry major in college!) But eventually, I realized that it wasn’t the lab work I loved most about chemistry and physics, but the way science forced me to take a big, sweeping look at the world and all of its interconnections. As it turned out, it came more naturally to me to think through novel writing—and through the lens of a character’s mind—than through the lens of pure science. But I’d like to believe that my training in that field stayed with me. My first book was a dystopian novel set hundreds of years in the future, which imagines a new morality that disallows for suffering, even when it means ending human lives in great numbers.
TGBC: When you start writing a new book, what is your goal? What do you aim to invoke in your readers?
AD: We’re locked inside our own heads most of the time. Even the deep conversations and interactions are insufficient when it comes to communicating the fullness of what we each think and feel. I love art because it turns us inside out and makes the invisible experience visible. Most important is finding a story that will crack the smooth surface of life and show its depths.
TGBC: What does your writing process look like? Do you map each story out from start to finish or do you begin with an idea and see where it takes you?
AD: My process changes depending on the book! For The Prospectors, the historical record gave me many key events—like the Palm Sunday Avalanche, Clarence Berry’s discovery of gold, the family’s grand return to San Francisco—that yielded a natural structure to the novel. But the trajectory of each character’s emotional arc worked itself out in the writing, and was always shifting from one draft to the next.
TGBC: What kind of research did you do for this novel and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
AD: I was writing even during the earliest months of research; it was my way of holding on to good details and feeling out what I needed to know. I traveled to Selma, California, up the Inside Passage to Dawson City, Yukon, and I studied in the archives at the Dawson City Museum and at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Center. I must have read hundreds of books and first-person accounts from the era, including books on nineteenth century gold mining techniques that I’m sure no one had touched in decades. My goal was to have the voices and social world of 1898 at my fingertips.
TGBC: What makes a book great, in your opinion? What elements does a great story possess?
AD: I love richly peopled books that make you feel all the jumble and noise and delights of real life. I like the sense while I’m reading that the fictional world is bigger than what the pages can hold. I’m always in search of the kind of prose that doesn’t lay everything bare, but instead leaves space for what cannot be expressed. I like suspense in the plot, but I also like suspense in the sentences. I want to start a sentence, and feel it curl and twist, and take on velocity, and have it bring me somewhere surprising.
TGBC: Any advice you can share with the aspiring writers within our community?
AD: My advice is to write as much as you can while putting self-criticism and self-doubt aside. I’ve wasted too much time fretting over first drafts that didn’t live up to my expectations, and I know others face that same challenge. Sometimes it takes many revisions and many years for a piece of writing to match your vision. This is a familiar mantra, but “trust the process” is council I still regularly give to myself and to others.
TGBC: The last book you read that you loved?
AD: The Guest by Emma Cline. The prose is exquisite and the main character is deliciously odd. I can turn to any page and start reading and feel the hot sand under my feet. I regularly dip into Sense and Sensibility, and take a moment to savor the company of a vivacious and intelligent mind.