Gardens of Water, L.A. Style:
Dinner with author, Alan Drew
In 1925, when writer/humorist Bennett Cerf decided to publish, “a few books at random,” he created Random House, Inc. — now the world’s largest English language general trade publishing house. Cerf began to launch books through a time-honored sales method, bookstore- by-bookstore. Random House, now owned by German based corporation, Bertelsmann, continues the tradition of taking their authors on the road to meet and talk directly with book buyers.
Last month, my bookseller friend Melony invited me to join an intimate Random House soiree in Los Angeles hosted by Random House sales representative, Wade Lucas. First-time author, Alan Drew, had just published a novel about Turkish Kurds and the events of the 1999 earthquake near Istanbul, and Lucas wanted Southern California booksellers to meet him.
I’d been in Turkey during the time of the earthquake and have traveled to Turkey’s Kurdish southeast. Istanbul is as familiar to me as my home town of San Diego, maybe more so, and is less intimidating to me than navigating L.A. freeways. I welcomed the opportunity to talk about Turkey with someone who knows and understands the culture.
Lucas chose the venue well. Campanile on La Brea Avenue features the cuisine of chef/owner, Mark Peel (formerly of Spago) and his wife, Nancy Silverton, known as the “Best Pastry Chef in the West.” He leads us to one of the private dining rooms upstairs that looks down to a large courtyard style dining room. (This building used to house Charlie Chaplin’s offices.)
Around the table, Barnes and Noble book buyers chat easily with those from Borders. Several booksellers, including my friend Melony, represent an impressive list of the independent bookstores (Diesel Bookstore, UCLA Bookstore, Vromans, and Latitude 33) from Malibu to Laguna Beach. In a past life, I had been a bookseller myself – a seller of travel books - and feel comfortable mingling with these voracious readers.
Lucas, as warm and unassuming a book rep. as you’ll ever meet, offers a toast to Drew and passes out copies of the hot-off-the-press hardcover novel, Gardens of Water, a page-turning story of Turkish Kurds and American Christian aid workers during the August 1999 earthquake near Istanbul, Turkey. Many of us have already read the book and between bites of baby Bibb lettuce, dive into our questions. We learn that the book was inspired by a novella Mr. Drew wrote while attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he completed his MFA degree in 2004.
Over prime rib smothered in black olive tapenade and a well-decanted, oaky California Merlot, Drew engages the booksellers in his life story. The lithe, blue-eyed Drew, with close-cropped mustache and goatee, grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household in Southern California. He now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“After I got married,” he says. “We looked at the cost of housing on the West Coast and decided to move to Cincinnati where my wife’s large Catholic family lives.” While his ties to an extended family and his profession as writer and teacher deepened in the Midwest, you could tell that he longs to be close to ocean breezes and palm trees.
Charles Hauther, a former Ohioan from the L.A. bookstore, Skylight Books, asks Drew how he likes living in Cincinnati.
“It was nine degrees when I left home this morning for the airport,” says Drew, then adds, “Let’s just say that I don’t intend to die there.”
The young Mr. Drew and his wife Mimi, both teachers, were drawn in the late 1990s to teach English Literature overseas.
“We thought we might go to China, but attended a conference where there was a table with brochures about available teaching positions in Istanbul,” says Drew. “No one else was there, and the representatives were so nice and friendly that we took a closer look at what was being offered. We’d never considered moving to Turkey, but jobs were there for the taking. Of course, our families were skeptical and concerned about us moving to an Islamic country.”
Like most good storytellers, Drew has pulled from his life experiences to tie into his story’s narrative. He was living in Istanbul at the time of the earthquake and tells us that while it was relatively long (forty seconds), nothing in his apartment even fell off walls or shelves. A slight tremor is no cause for an alarm when you come from Southern California, so he and his wife went back to sleep.
I remember feeling the aftershocks in my Istanbul hotel where the thick hotel room walls and four-hundred-year old construction proved safer than some of the newer buildings. Most of Istanbul’s twelve million residents, like my dear friend Ergovan, camped outside in their yards or in parks for several days out of fear of being crushed in their homes.
…the crash was so loud that it was like the silence of blood in his ears. He heard screams, explosions of gas lines rupturing, the bursting of water pipes thrusting up pieces of road, even the sirens of car alarms, but none of these sounds could be isolated; they were simply the cacophonous rush of destruction. Then Sinan’s stomach lifted into his throat and he was dropped through the air. For a moment he felt as though he were flying; he looked beneath his feet to find the rooftop falling. It dropped ten feet and tilted sideways as if the whole building was tumbling into the street. Then his body was thrown over the side of the rooftop. He closed his eyes, sure that this was the end, and fell for what seemed like minutes until he slammed into the tiled floor of the terrace beneath. He was rolled to his left, and got wedged against the railings of the terrace, his arms tangled in the wrought iron and his head dangling over the edge.
Only later, when Drew woke to sirens and people yelling, did he began to understand the magnitude. The epicenter of the quake, where between 20,000 and 50,000 people died, was several miles outside of Istanbul at the resort town of Yalova. Drew went there soon after the quake and watched well-meaning Christian aid groups dispense God along with medicine and bandages.
“The Turkish government was overwhelmed and needed the help,” says Drew. “But finally got it together and kicked out the religious-based aid organizations.” This would latter become the central theme for his novel.
By the time the chocolate almond cake with handmade vanilla ice cream arrives, even the most learned among the well-read bookies at the table want to know more about Turkey’s history and culture. Drew discusses the hot topic of an antiquated Turkish law that restricts portraying the republic or its founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, negatively. We talk about tribal laws that ask families to submit to honor killings of young women to save face – another issue Drew confronts in his novel.
When he was a child in the village, a beautiful teenage girl all boys had crushes on disappeared one day. Her father and her brother disappeared too, and the town became unusually silent, as though everyone knew something they were trying to ignore. Before this, people had been gossiping about the girl, saying she and a young married man were having an affair, saying finally that she was pregnant with his child. But during these three days, silence pressed down on the village like an oppressive pall. The girl’s mother was silent and she could be seen going nervously about her business in town – buying eggs at the egg sellers, stopping by the yufka maker, getting lamb legs at the butchers. Even Sinan had trouble sleeping at night, not because he understood what was happening, but because the village felt different, as though some dangerous stranger had wandered into town and taken up residence. On the third day, the girl’s brother and father returned to town without their daughter. No one ever saw her again. When the government police came asking questions, no one told them what they all knew: that the brother and the father had taken her out into the mountains and killed her. They were justified in their actions to protect the family name from shame, but Sinan never looked at them the same again.
“Why don’t we know more about the Ottomans?” one bookseller asks.
It’s a relevant question and says a lot about our lack of education about an empire that lasted though six centuries.
The conversation quickly turns to thoughts on the West’s equal fascination and fear with the Middle East. “Since 9/11, our readers have been asking for more books on this part of the world,” says Hauther.
The restaurant still hums at full throttle when our jovial party departs to retrieve cars and head out onto freeways.
“Let’s stay in touch,” offers Drew. “If you’re in Cincinnati, my wife Mimi will make Turkish food. She’s gotten quite good.”
Crossing cultures through food is universal. “No can really understand this country unless they’ve been there. It’s difficult to explain,” he says to me, then gives the Turkish goodbye, a two-cheek kiss.
It’s an evening we’re sure Bennett Cerf would have enjoyed.