Born to a Jewish family in Iran in the mid-sixties, Roya Hakakian fled to the United States in 1985 on political asylum. She has since become well known as a Persian poet and an Iranian-American journalist, publishing essays in prominent newspapers and a memoir in addition to working on several television news programs. Her latest book, 2011’s “Assassins of the Turquoise Palace,” delves into the complexities surrounding the 1992 assassinations of Iranian resistance leaders at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin.
Q. Is it difficult for you to write about Iran, knowing that you can’t go back?
A. Yes and no. It’s a mixed bag of lots of different feelings. On the one hand, I have created my own Iran in a virtual, literary, intellectual fashion, and that’s the Iran that to some degree I can remember. That’s the Iran I like the most. It’s sort of a medley of things I carry with myself that I love and are somewhat being forgotten since there are certain parts of Iranian history and tradition that have been made obscure in the past 33 years. So I connect to that virtual Iran. Also thanks to Facebook and the electronic media, my contacts over the past several years have suddenly increased, and the degree to which I now have access to those inside the country on a day-to-day basis has grown in a way I never expected. So not being able to have access to the physical Iran does cause a great deal of nostalgia, of course, but many other avenues have opened up that I look forward to every day when I wake up and can check messages from friends there.
Q. How does your Iranian heritage impact your journalistic endeavors? Do you think it’s easier for an Iranian to write about Iran?
A. I never write about things that require me to be anyone other than who I am. In every piece I have written, it is clearly established that I’m a person in exile, and I don’t try to pretend that I’m going to be objective and have sympathies for all sides. I also don’t cover stories that require me to have access to, say, the president of Iran. So I mostly do stories for which my own particular coordinates need not be hidden. Of course, there are stories for which my own particular coordinates bring a certain amount of cachet too. Being who I am gives me access to some who would otherwise be inaccessible. For my new book, for instance, I managed to spend tens of hours with those who had been in Europe and were victims of various terrorism operations by Iran, who were Iranian dissidents and had never actually told their stories to anyone. I have something close to 500 hours of interviews with people with whom I simply sat down. I allowed them to talk at any rate in any which way they wanted to. So no, I don’t think you have to be an Iranian to do that, but I think having a certain amount of familiarity does create the possibility for bonding.
Q. You’ve said that connecting to the people you interview is an important step of the journalistic process. How does this differ between television journalism and print journalism?
A. I find that whatever your medium is, you are required to tweak or adjust your strategies. When I was in TV, I couldn’t afford to be as open-ended as I am in interviewing folks for print. In television, the clock is always ticking, and it costs hundreds of dollars in camera, lighting and sound time — there is a huge team of people involved. Television production in general also does not allow you to arrive at that final interview and still not know what it is that you’re going to hear. You will have done all your legwork prior to arriving at the point of recording, so that there are no surprises. That really changes the nature of the conversation and in essence you’re doing the reverse of what I just suggested, in that you precisely ask questions to which you know the answers. You have to structure, prior to the final interview, the course of the interview itself.
Q. Do you then feel that people reveal less to you when you interview them for television?
A. No, but I think the processes by which [print and television journalism] unfold are very different. And what often ends up affecting the amount someone says in an interview is whether they are someone in power or a victim — their willingness to engage you ends up being totally different. Those who are in power will give you a lot less of their time and are less willing to be flexible, while those who are victims or have been victimized have a very different attitude.
Q. How does that impact your decisions about what to write?
A. I’ve generally been drawn to stories that aren’t ‘hot,’ so to speak. You’ll hardly ever see me write a story about the nukes in Iran, for instance, which is precisely what everyone else is writing. This is not to say that I’m against these stories or that they’re the wrong issues to cover, but I think that there are only so many people who can write about the same thing at once. On the other hand, then, there are those of us who, because of depth of cultural familiarity or other avenues of intimacy with the subject, can open up other windows on the Iranian landscape, which has been covered to exhaustion. So I think the contribution of someone like me to this whole debate about Iran is to open up precisely the windows that aren’t being opened by others on this very covered landscape of Iran.
Q. What, then, made you attracted to the topic of “Assassins of the Turquoise Palace”?
A. It started out really from sheer stubbornness. I had written a memoir that had been pretty successful, and many people including my editors and my publishers were interested in my doing a sequel to the memoir. My first reaction was ‘of course not’ — I’m going to do something different. I realized that in order to remain an artist and be a truly creative person, I needed to try something else. It was in a quest to find that other thing that I initially entertained the idea of writing a novel, but then I had an encounter with a survivor of the Iranian assassination that took place in a restaurant in Berlin in 1992. I knew the broad strokes of the incident, but spending time, something close to several weeks, with this survivor, convinced me that not just the killing itself, but also the investigation and the verdict of the trial, were some of the most important yet not properly told stories of the past several decades. I not only thought it would be a challenge for me as a writer to break away from first-person narrative, but that it would also perhaps be a contribution to extending and expanding the current understanding about Iran and the lives of Iranians for Western communities.
Q. In what ways did the project end up satisfying that quest for creative fulfillment?
A. It was like piecing together a mathematical puzzle. Not so much because I had to investigate anything — the material was all there — but because figuring out how to tell a very complex story that involves hundreds or dozens of important characters and takes place somewhere unknown to your readers about a subject they’re unlikely to have heard anything about truly requires mathematical precision. There’s so much background information that needs to be established. I had to decide which characters to keep in and which to leave out, and what aspects of the story to indulge myself in telling when they were slightly extraneous to the plot. It was interesting to try to figure out how to manage the tempo and how to keep the narrative moving forward while providing background. Everything required a lot of balance.
Q. What was your process for figuring it all out?
A. It took me more than a year after I first began writing. I was just mapping out for myself and trying to figure out the skeleton. In the office where I work at home, I have a wall that is covered with corkboards, and I had index cards that laid out the general chronology and the division of characters. It then took a year to figure out a skeleton of the story that I thought people could follow.
Q. And now that the project is done, are you looking into trying your hand at other genres? What are you working on now?
A. Certainly not another crime novel. I’ve been looking into the story, another nonfictional one, of the first Iranian who ever became an American citizen. I think the story of this first Iranian-American citizen is emblematic of where we are today. I don’t know if it’s a book yet, but it has certainly captured my attention. I also have an op-ed running this Sunday [in the New York Times].