Hello book lovers!

To keep you on your toes and tuned into Academy Chicago while you wait in anticipation of Lit Missives every Friday, we’re adding Writers Exchange into the mix. In our first installment, we have a Q&A with Gordon Taylor, author of Fever & Thirst, a biography which chronicles Dr. Asahel Grant’s intrepid medical mission in Iran during the 1830s. We hope you enjoy learning about this captivating tale, but also about Gordon Taylor’s uniquely unconventional path as an author!


Tell us a little about your background and your path as an author. When did you first begin writing? Who are some of the authors who especially influenced you?

No one could be inspired by an account of my authorial “path,” as you put it.  It has been a haphazard journey: several novels, only one of which was issued by a trade publisher; a series of travel sketches (never published); one-hundred fifty pages of an incomplete memoir about my mini-career in TV game shows (all five of them); a couple of novels optioned for films but never picked up; three articles, including a long one about Zsa Zsa Gabor and her early life in Turkey; and Fever & Thirst.  Oh, yes, and in recent years some blogging at “The Pasha and the Gypsy” (http://pashagypsy.blogspot.com).  Like all writers I’ve been alone in this endeavor.  I have no friends who are writers, no agent, no editor, no “support systems.”  My wife of thirty-two years has never read anything I’ve written, which is probably why we’ve stayed happily married for this long.  I’ve never taken a writing course or participated in a writer’s conference.  If I ever went to one I’d surely retreat to the nearest corner and try to crawl under the wallpaper.  One wonderful, irreplaceable friend, a woman I’ve known since college, has consistently propped me up and sent me forth when my spirits flagged.  And they flag almost daily.

I first began writing after winning $5410 on a TV quiz show in 1972.  This sounds like chump change today.  In 1972, however, it was enough to keep me going for a couple of years, including six months living in Turkey, where I had served in the Peace Corps from 1965-66.  Just as my game show money gave out, I sold a novel and got a bit more cash.  A producer in L.A. then purchased a movie option (a very cheap movie option) for a couple of years, the book was condensed in a magazine, and I got a bit more cash.  In the meantime I worked at whatever came along: digging up junipers for a landscape grower; doing Manpower jobs; hefting windows and sheet glass (and getting my hand torn open) for a glass company.  In 1980, after getting married, I started driving a bus for Metro Transit of Seattle, and that’s where I’ve been to this day.

My earliest influence, first encountered in high school, was S.J. Perelman.  In Westward Ha! he described a bowl of soup, encountered in Malaya, as “puce in color and dysenteric in effect.”  One writer’s style was “Daisy Ashford out of Fenimore Cooper, with Superman acting as accoucheur.”  A fictional adventurer arrived at “Ishpeming, holy city of the Surds and the Cosines, fanatical Mohammedan warrior sects.”  I was hooked.  From him I learned the words torpid and soporific, among others.  It took about twenty-five years to get him out of my system.  Another influence, however, was equally important.  I learned lots of poetry by heart, and much of it stays with me.  I’ve even carried Shakespeare sonnets, printed on 3×5 cards, to memorize while I’m driving the bus.  No writer who cares about his sentences can ignore poetry, because poets—I mean good poets, not today’s prosy jotters—count their syllables and make every one work.  He disappeared in the dead of winter.  The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted, and snow disfigured the public statues.  The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.  If you don’t know who wrote that, and who his subject was, then you should find out.

 

Dr. Asahel Grant clearly led an inspiring life, but what in particular influenced your decision to share his story in Fever & Thirst?

I know that some people regard Dr. Grant’s life as inspiring, but I did not write Fever & Thirst as an inspirational piece.  Don Marquis once wrote that publishing a book of poetry was like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.  I would never say that the life of Asahel Grant reached that level of futility.  He was a wonderful human being, the soul of kindness and a paragon of courage.  In every word and deed he exemplified the ideal of the Christian gentleman, and the people of Kurdistan, Muslim and Christian, Jewish and Yezidi, loved him for it.  Even the English liked him.  The fact that a rose petal passes quickly from the earth does not make it any less a rose petal.  It’s quite fitting that the building which houses the new Consulate-General of the U.S., in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, has been named Grant House in his honor.  But no one who has carefully read Fever & Thirst can come away without knowing that in many ways Dr. Grant was a failure.  The medicine he practiced was quackery, pure and simple.  Any salutary effects he achieved probably came about through kindness, not technique. (Remember, he poisoned himself with his own medicine!)  He abandoned his young sons in New York, causing them much unhappiness, for the sake of a missionary delusion.  His plans for a mission house in the heart of the Hakkari country were madness, pure and simple.  His very presence in Kurdistan exacerbated an already tense stand-off between the Christian Nestorian (i.e., Assyrian) tribes and the Kurds, and possibly accelerated the onset of the war, with its attendant massacres, that broke out in 1843.  The “money quote” about Dr. Grant, where I sum up his life and tragedy, is on pages 316-17 of Fever & Thirst.  No one who talks about Asahel Grant as an “inspirational figure” can ignore it.

 

Describe the trajectory of this book. What did your schedule look like in terms of research? (How long was this process?) Describe the process of translating your copious research into the book we see today.

It began with the land.  Asahel Grant is a figure in a landscape, and that landscape forms my real inspiration for Fever & Thirst.

I first heard about Hakkari, the heart of Kurdistan in Turkey, as a Peace Corps teacher living in Ankara, 1965-66.  English friends described a place of high mountains, tightly packed, incredibly steep, and virtually lawless. From a book by Denis Hills I learned that Hakkari’s canyons had been inhabited by Aramaic-speaking Christian tribesmen (“Assyrians” or “Nestorians”), who fought hard but were eventually driven out of their homes during the Great War.  This astounded me.  I had no idea that such a people existed. In the coming years, the history of Hakkari became a pastime for me.  I read the accounts of travelers: Wigram, Earl Percy, Ainsworth, Isabella Bird, and Freya Stark, to name a few. I also collected maps, and from them I began to learn the names of valleys and districts: Tal, Baz, Oramar, Julamerk, Tkhuma, Tiyari, Jelu.

This went on for years.  I even wrote a bad novel about that area, which mercifully was not published.  In the early 1990s, in the stacks of Burling Library at Grinnell College (in my home town in Iowa), I found a book called The Nestorians; or, The Lost Tribes, by Asahel Grant, M.D.  This was published in 1841.  Next to it sat a book by Rev. Thomas Laurie, called Dr. Grant and the Mountain Nestorians, published in 1853.  Both books were originals, and barely holding together.  It didn’t appear that either had been checked out since 1910.  It took a lot of care, and coins, but eventually I got both books photocopied on a machine in the library’s basement.

In the summer of 2003, while trying to assemble a book-length collection of travel memoirs (which I knew no one would ever publish), I decided that I should try writing a short article about Dr. Grant, his travels, and his world.  I thought maybe I could stretch it out to twenty pages: I never imagined that I was capable of writing a full-length biography.  This required reading both books from the Grinnell library more closely than I ever had done before.  I began to write the article, and the more I read the more questions I had.  To answer the questions required more research, and that research led to other questions.  The Internet was making more and more works from this period available, both as hard-copy reprints and online files.  In general, though, I still relied on inter-library loans.  A blind email inquiry uncovered a woman in New York whose husband drove to work every day past Dr. Grant’s birthplace, on Grant Hill Road, in Waterville, NY.  She sent me a brick (in a box, via parcel post) from the foundation of the old homestead.  Another email went to an old friend in Wisconsin, who just happened to have a friend whose mother had been a missionary child in Urmia, Iran, where Dr. Grant and his wife had begun their mission.  This friend’s mother, then in her late 80s, provided me with the single most important find of my research, a map of the American mission graveyard on Mt. Seir, overlooking Urmia, complete with names and dates of the deceased.  This was a gold mine, because it showed in graphic detail the awful onslaught of infant and adult mortality among the Americans who went to Persia.  No other document put me so immediately and deeply into the reality faced by those people.

The year 2003 passed into 2004, and the more I wrote the more it became obvious that I was doing a book, not an article.  Most historians, we assume, do their research, assemble heaps of 3×5 cards, make an outline, and then begin writing.  Had I done it that way I would have been dead before I started.  Instead I did my research as I wrote, jotting phrases on scraps of paper while I sat on the bus at red lights, staying up until 2:00 a.m. most nights, and spending Sunday afternoons in front of the microfilm machine at the library.  But I knew the background of the story—the land itself—from the beginning; that was vitally important. The story’s telling raised questions, and I had to answer those questions in order to continue.  What was a lancet used for?  What was Dr. Grant actually doing to his patients?  What are gall-nuts, and why would merchants deal in them?  The act of writing, by its very nature, creates miracles.  It did for me, at any rate.  Things seemed to happen just when I wanted them to happen: phrases appeared, unbidden; connections revealed themselves before my eyes.  In January, 2005, I wrote The End on a page, and the thing was done.

No one wanted it, of course.  Agents and publishers declined to look; university presses sent boiler plate rejections.  It’s always astounding to read the synthetic objections that publishing professionals can come up with when asked to look at something new.  It didn’t matter.  Anita and Jordan Miller had the good taste to see the book’s merits.  And they, not the publishing giants, can enjoy the satisfaction of having published a book that not only recounted history but made it.  Because of Fever & Thirst, the name of Asahel Grant was brought to the attention of officials of the U.S. State Department.  The building which houses the new U.S. Consulate-General in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, has been named Grant House in honor of Dr. Grant and his wife.  In the lobby hangs a daguerreotype portrait of Dr. Grant with an account of his contributions to Kurdish-American friendship.  And on the consulate’s official web page is a link to Fever & Thirst.

 

How was writing this biography different from your other work?

I had to find sources and verify them!  That’s the big thing.  In a novel, if you say that Eddy Fumble was born in Colossi, Iowa, on the 18th of March, 1952, people will believe you.  In a biography, you have to find a credible source.

 

What did you learn about the publishing process? (Both in terms of finding the right publisher, and then the actual process of publishing the book.)

I learned what I knew before: it’s impossible.  It’s virtually hopeless placing a book with a trade publisher, and you’ll get no money anyway.  It’s easy to see why self-publishing has become so popular.  (If you do that, however, you’ll probably end up with an inferior product unless you’re extremely diligent.)  I was lucky to find a publisher who had a good book designer, Sarah Olson, and whose standards for binding and printing were high.

 

What do you hope readers glean from the book (including readers without a background in medicine or (Turkish or Middle Eastern) history)?

This is easy.  Knowledge.  Excitement.  A sense of wonder.  The usual things one hopes to evoke in a reader.  The book was not written for specialists, or people with a certain background.  It was written for the general reading public.  Curiosity is one of the best of human impulses, and I hope I have aroused it.

 

What advice would you give to other writers?

Oh my.  I suppose I must answer this, even though I am the last person who would ever think himself qualified to advise anybody, let alone writers.  Well, they should get a job, of course.  But they know that.  Another thing: if you’re literary, weird, lonely, and depressive (and, hey, who isn’t?), don’t ever keep a journal of your deep thoughts, emotions, and personal relationships.  You’ll only end up (a) burning it or (b) wishing you had burned it when you’re in court listening to it being entered into evidence.  Instead keep a notebook of things you’ve observed: strange phenomena; funny names; vocabulary words; quotations; odd incidents; the details of life.  Those are the things that writers use.  I suppose would-be writers also could read two books by John Gardner: The Art of Fiction, and On Becoming a Novelist.  The rest is pixels.  And keystrokes.  And words.

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