Today I’m talking to Jasmin Darznik, the New York Times bestselling author of The Bohemians, a novel that imagines the friendship between photographer Dorothea Lange and her Chinese American assistant in 1920s, San Francisco. Her debut novel, Song of a Captive Bird was a New York Times Book Review editor’s choice book, and a Los Angeles Times best seller. She’s also the author of The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life. Her writing has appeared in New York times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. I had the best time talking with Jasmin about writing historical fiction, the creative life, and why Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters is the Best Book Ever.
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Note: Most of the book links this week lead to Jasmin’s favorite bookstore, the Book Passage in Corte Madeira. Please shop indies whenever you buy books!!
Discussed in this episode:
The Bohemians by Jasmin Darznik
Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik
The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life by Jasmin Darznik
Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon
Montgomery Block, San Francisco
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
Book Passage in Corte Madeira
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
The Oakland Museum – The Dorothea Lange Archive
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korleitz
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
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Hello, Bookworms welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where I get to know interesting people by asking them about their favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m talking to Jasmin Darznik. Jasmin is the New York Times bestselling author of The Bohemians, a novel that imagines the friendship between photographer Dorothea Lange and her Chinese American assistant in 1920s, San Francisco. Her debut novel, Song of a Captive Bird was a New York Times Book Review editor’s choice book, and a Los Angeles Times best seller. She’s also the author of The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life. Her writing has appeared in New York times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. I had the best time talking with Jasmin about writing historical fiction, the creative life, and why Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters is the Best Book Ever.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Jasmin, welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Jasmin Darznik: Oh, hello. It’s nice to be here.
JS: Before we start talking about your reading life, I really want to ask you about your writing life. My listeners will see the connection as we get to the book, but I can’t help but notice a parallel between what you read and what you write. Will you tell my listeners particularly about your most recent book, The Bohemians?
JD: Sure. So, I have written three books. The first one was a family memoir and the two novels I’ve written have been historical novels. You could call them historical novels. So they’re set in fascinating times and they have fabulous female characters. I’m really drawn to women’s stories. I’m also really interested in the kind of fiction that uncovers and recovers stories. When you’re telling stories about women, there’s so much that hasn’t been told in the history books or in official accounts. I think as a novelist I have this terrific opportunity to bring those stories to life through fiction.
JS: The Bohemians, which I can see a beautiful poster of behind you – tell us what that one’s about.
JD: Sure. The Bohemians is a novel about a young Dorothea Lange. You might not know her by name, but she is probably the most well known hotographer of the 20th century. Her most famous work is a photograph called Migrant Mother, which I bet you’ve seen. Even if you don’t know her by name, it’s probably the most reproduced picture in all history. She’s known for her Depression-Era photography. She took really, really scorching images of the human chaos and crisis during the Depression. The Bohemians tells her story, her origin story. So, before she became that woman who took these historic photographs, she was just a young woman who had made her way from New Jersey over to San Francisco, lost all of her money upon arrival. She was robbed of all of it. And she managed, within about a year and a half of arriving and being robbed, to becoming the most sought-after photographer in San Francisco. Portrait photographer. So when I read that in her biography, I was just fascinated. It was maybe it was a short section of her biography, but I thought, oh my gosh, there’s so much there. How did she do it is the thing I really wondered. And the way that it evolved is, I became really interested in this mention of her Chinese American assistant. So, Dorothea Lange, when she comes to San Francisco, her first portrait studio, she is working side-by-side with a Chinese American woman, which would have been pretty unusual for those times for her to have made that. And the novel has a lot to do with their friendship, with the circle of Bohemians. It’s called Bohemians because San Francisco, in the 1920s, was a fascinating place populated by so many crazy colorful characters. It’s sort of the Left Bank of San Francisco is where the novel takes place. It’s just this sort of love letter to San Francisco and the origin story of this phenomenal woman artist.
JS: I mean, you must’ve already been interested in Dorothea Lange. You were reading a biography about her when you came across this story? Or is this someone who has influenced you through your life?
JD: You know, I had read the biography when it came out, Linda Gordon’s biography that came out probably in 2011 or so. But the spark really was finding out about this place called Montgomery Block, or “Monkey Block.” It was an artists’ colony. If you know San Francisco, one of the icons is the Transamerica pyramid. Before the Transamerica Pyramid, there was an enormous building, you know, a huge building that had survived the earthquake. It housed about 800 artists and writers and journalists. Mark Twain lived there. Frida Kahlo lived there, Diego Rivera. it was just this hive of artistic activity, and Lange had lived there. Once I found out about this building, I just went sleuthing and I wanted to know more and more. Her first husband, who was a quite successful painter, they did have a studio in Montgomery Block. Through him, she would’ve known this whole world of the Bohemians, through Maynard Dixon. So that’s, the spark really, is finding out about Monkey Block and then through it, gaining a kind of deeper and deeper fascination with the artists who made their home there.
JS: How does all of your reading about these artistic lives of, primarily women I’ve noticed in your book reviews, how does that influence your artistic life?
JD: Well, long before I was a writer, I was a reader. Of course, as many writers are. But I’ve always had a fascination with artists lives. In women in women’s lives overall, but also just so interested in women’s stories of becoming artists, because that’s been a pretty hard path for women until – I mean, you could even say it’s still a really hard path to really stake that claim in your life and call yourself an artist. And to do that work has been really difficult for women. My favorite, favorite kind of book is to read literary biographies or artistic biographies. I love biographies, but I do have this feeling, often, when I’m reading biographies is, there feels like there’s something missing. Or I think that there’s more there. Biographies are bound to all kinds of rules. Right? They can’t just make things up or speculate, you know? No reputable book is going to do that. But I love biographies, and I have almost read them like self-help in my own life. I’ve always, you know, I feel like I get probably the great insights of my life by reading biographies of women. They’ve offered me roadmaps. In my own family, I was surrounded by really strong women, by my mother who was educated up to the eighth grade. My grandmother who raised me was totally illiterate. They just did not have those kinds of opportunities. As a young woman, and then, you know, in my middle age now, it’s been so helpful to me to go to biography, to go to history and look at other women and I almost think of them as my foremothers too, and they’ve offered me many lifelines since.
JS: How did you get here to this reading life? It sounds like you weren’t really raised in a reading household. So how, what drew you to all these?
JD: I came to America when I was five. My family immigrated from Iran in 1978, when there was a revolution. And I was a very shy and awkward child. Maybe I would have been like that if I’d stayed in Iran, but for sure, immigrating and growing up in an immigrant family in the eighties and nineties definitely exacerbated that or accentuated that in me, and reading was my refuge. It was the place I went for refuge, but also for joy, pleasure, instruction, all of those things. I was also really lucky that I had terrific teachers, who took me aside. I’m still in contact with one of them. When I was in sixth grade, he pulled me aside and said, you know, you’re a writer. It took me many years to make good on that. But when I see him now, I always just feel such warmth and love for that recognition. You know, it was a small thing, but it was the biggest thing for me. So those things, loving books and finding refuge in them, and then having had teachers who encouraged my reading and also who saw something in me, some saw some potential – I mean, I’m so glad. I can’t even imagine my life without that refuge. Even to this day, you can kind of drop me off at any city, and as long as I can find my way either do a bookstore or to a library, I’m going to be okay. And then becoming a writer, also. The world of writers and readers has been such a refuge to me. I think I really have only started to feel happy in my life since I started entering these communities of readers and writers. I started writing when I was in my thirties. I took a workshop at my local beloved bookstore. I think that in so many ways, it was the beginning of my writing life. I hadn’t taken any writing courses before that, or really, even thought of pursuing writing as a profession. But I don’t know if you know, Mary Karr, the author of so many wonderful memoirs? She has this great quip. She says, the prize is the company when you’re writing. For me that is so true. I’ve met my best friends through writing. And also through reading. It’s it’s been my whole life.
JS: Let’s talk about this book that s our subject today, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. Do you remember how you first came across this book?
JD: So same beloved bookshop that I –
JS: By the way, let’s give them a shout out.
JD: Big shout out to Book Passage in Northern California. They’ve got a store in the Ferry
Building. My local one is in Corte Madeira. I went there when I was teenager, and I also worked there as a bookseller, and there, I first encountered Sarah Waters. She would have been on tour for, I think it was Tipping the Velvet. It was either that or Fingersmith. So this is a good number of years ago. Maybe 15 years ago. And I was working in the store. On that particular day, I might not have even gone to the reading because – well, as I talk more about the book, this might make sense. The book has to do with these two girls who fall in love and run away together. It’s in the 19th century England. Sarah Waters is an English novelist. And they run away together and become performers. And then over time, they part ways, but there are more adventures for a main character. So it’s a love story between two women. And I think, I might’ve thought that story is not for me. Right? I mean, I’m interested and you know, I have curiosity about same-sex relationships and partnerships, but I think in a lot of cases, maybe in America, especially, we put these things into boxes. So I might’ve thought of that as, oh, that’s gay literature. Like, that’s not for me. Right. But listening to her, I think that there would have been a speaker piping through, as she was reading from the book, as I was working in the store. And she was reading from the novel and answering questions. It was almost, you know, without even trying to, I wa participating. I was listening to her and I became so entranced with the story. She, as a person, was very captivating. I found her a very powerful; a very powerful presence. And o I read the book. I read a book that I probably wouldn’t have reached for on my own, and I wound up loving it, loving it so much. So much so that to this day, I’m actually looking at it right now. There’s a shelf on my bookshelf that’s devoted to my top five. This is a very select group. And it’s there. It’s one of the books that is on my bookshelf. And I can tell you more about why it’s there, but that’s how I came to know of Sarah Waters and her work.
JS: Can you give my listeners a really brief summary of what Tipping the Velvet is about?
JD: Sure. I described it as a love story. That’s what I think it is mostly. It’s a coming of age story. It’s set in England in the 1880s, 1890s, or so. The young, the protagonist is a woman named, Nan. It’s been a while since I read it, but it is the story then of how she befriends a performer. They run away together and become a kind of vaudeville performance. So they enter this really intoxicating world. Nan’s girlfriend winds up betraying her, but Nan decides that she herself has become a performer. So it’s a story about love, but it’s also a story about becoming yourself.
JS: Okay. So tell me what you like so much about it.
JS: [laughing] I feel like I need to settle in here.
JD: I love a lot of things about it. The thing I would say that I love most about it is that the detail is exquisite. Before Sarah Waters became a novelist, she trained as a historian. She has a PhD in history in 19th century English history, and her eye for detail is exquisite. I also have a background as an academic, and part of what I love about it is that here’s somebody who, clearly, she knows how to research. She knows how to steep herself in the period, but she also has a real way being a storyteller. She’s a storyteller. So to me, that’s a beautiful combination. Somebody who’s got a real facility for research, those deep dives, that historical fiction, I think really blossoms with those kinds of details. But she’s also a terrific storyteller, so it doesn’t feel heavy. It doesn’t feel like you’re reading a history book. The level of the detail is so exquisite. It’s in the physical objects that – picking out the costuming, the language itself. So many wonderful – I guess there, there would be words that have fallen out of the language, but she recovers the language in the idiom of those days, of that vaudeville world. So the detail to me is really, really, really captivating.
JS: It’s exactly what you were saying earlier about there’s more to the story. I mean, we haven’t even talked about the, the gender levels in this. They are performing as men, right? On stage. And like you said, there, if you read that in a history book, Or, I don’t know, a Wikipedia page, you know, in Victoria, in England, women would dress in men’s clothes and perform in these vaudevilles and you’d probably think, oh, okay, well, that’s interesting. There is so much more to that. This book just feels like it packed in all the stuffing of that story.
JD: Yeah, yeah I mean, that performance of gender is something that, you know, you hear even that phrase that gender is a kind of performance? But here it’s literally, it’s actually a performance. These two women are dressing in, I mean, you might call it drag, I suppose. But it’s, it’s also subversive. It’s a way that they make their livelihoods, by doing this. They also get the pleasure of performance. There is a kind of rebellion, as well, for Nan. She has never seen anything like this before she meets Kitty? Kitty is her her great love, and the ways that Sarah Waters – I think I started out saying how much I love the kind of novel that recovers history. Well, here’s the story. You’re not going to find it in a history book or if you do, it’s, it’s going to be very brief and, you know, shot through with all kinds of… But she puts these two women front and center actually they’re on the stage of the novel. Right. And they are heroines. They’re both heroines and they are before you. You’re seeing these lives enacted that probably have been invisible. Right? They’ve been invisible to us in, in the history books. And we don’t think much about what it would have meant to love a woman. What would that have looked like? And it’s not a fantasy either. I mean, it’s a love story, but there’s a lot of complexity in how she depicts this relation. Without being didactic about it, she’s teaching you so much about what love would have looked like for these two outsiders at this time in history.
JS: Now, as I was readying to talk to you, I read a very casual line in a review of this book that said there is no evidence of lesbians in a Victorian England. Did we just invent in 1960?
JD: That’s incredible.
JS: It was the funniest thing to me, and I feel like Sarah Waters is masterful at saying, guess what? We’ve always been here. I have also read The Paying Guests and Fingersmith by her, and what I think she is so good at is that you genuinely forget that it’s historical fiction that she is writing. I feel dropped in do her books. They feel very modern to me, not in the sense of technology, but in the sense of you can almost smell the grease paint of the stage.
JD: The word I would use for it is an immersive experience. I want to feel like I’m in that world. Since I now try to do this myself, I think I know exactly what you’re saying. Those kinds of sensory details have so much to do with it. You feel not that you’re a spectator, but that you’re a participant. There’s no veil between you and that world.
JS: Now, tell me what you thought about Kitty, the main character. Because again, as I was reading all these reviews and getting ready for this, there’s some mixed feelings about who she is as a character.
JD: She’s self-loathing. She runs off and betrays Nan. That hurt my feelings, but also I felt very sympathetic toward her. Of course she did. It would have been a terrible life for her, if she is not completely confident. Right? You have to have a backbone of steel. So, the betrayal, I guess to spoil it a little, if you haven’t read the novel, but is that she winds up – she breaks up with Nan and she marries a man. so she chooses convention over love, which is devastating. But I think, you know what? I feel sympathetic. I could absolutely understand how that would have been, not just necessary, but it might’ve felt like life or death to her. It might’ve been have felt like that. It’s the disappointment for sure, but so much else happens in the novel, and I think we also all know it. You think about your first love and the way it just sears you. Right. But then the next day must come and the next love must come. And you know, and so she has lots of adventures. She falls in with this sort of upper-class lady who gives her entree to a very different world, and those episodes are just so delightful and pretty racy, also. It’s her evolution that you’re watching. And I love that too, because I think, without getting maybe too academic about this, but in the 19th century, the love plot is the dominant plot for novels, right? It’s the plot of our lives, supposedly, as women, is that we fall in love, happily ever after, you know. And that’s the end. And it’s not in this book. It’s part of the story, but it’s not the whole story. And that’s the thing I really, really appreciate about the story itself. And Sarah Waters’ vision. I think it feels like it’s higher stakes than just this one story. I think she’s really thinking about the complexity of women’s lives and the ways that romance and love and all of that is important, but these are not the only things that happen to women.
JS: And the clothes. I was so fascinated by them putting on the men’s clothes. Sometimes it made her safer, and sometimes it really did not. Sometimes it was extremely dangerous for her to be a woman assuming that role. There are several moments in this book where you close it and realize she’s saying so much just by having this character put on a pair of pants.
JD: Yes. That’s really interesting. When I was writing Bohemians and thinking about Dorothea Lange and San Francisco in 1918, which is full of all kinds of rebellious characters. You didn’t walk around as a woman. I mean, you didn’t walk around at night for sure. Alone. That would have been not just transgressive, but perilous. It would have been pretty dangerous. So when I was writing there’s actually a scene where she goes and buys herself a fedora. Dorothea Lange buys herself a fedora and she wears it with a trench coat. And that’s how she’s able to walk through the city when she wants to. Without company, if she wants no company. Because this is just a practical matter. It would have been very difficult for a woman to have the space that she wanted, at that time. I think as women, I don’t know that there’s ever a time when you’re not aware of your body. How it’s either desirable or not, or it endangers you in many instances, in your life moments in your life. In Bohemians, Dorothea Lange’s friend is Chinese. So the assistant I’m talking about, and there’s another level of complexity, right. Or complication is to be a woman of color making your way through the city. I couldn’t ever write a scene without some awareness of. What would people be seeing as they saw her? She would have been hyper aware of the gaze of others, even just walking across the street. It would not have been simple for this woman to walk across the street. These kinds of the attention to bodies and clothing and gesture and performative performance, is really fascinating in Waters’ book as well.
JS: Is there a historical area that you want to explore next, either as a reader or as a writer?
JD: Sure. I’m pretty happy in the art deco period. 1920s, 30s, and that world pretty much for me. I don’t think there are really interesting things to explore in the fifties. Part of why I’m so interested in the twenties is that women are at such a crossroads. There are all these opportunities, but there are a lot of prohibitions still on women’s lives in the 1920s. It’s the Jazz Age. It’s glitz and it’s glamour, but for a lot of reasons, it’s the beginning, for women. And then in the thirties, a lot of that gets yanked back when we experienced the Depression. A lot of the freedom that women felt in the twenties is endangered by the realities of life under the Depression. It’s just a really interesting mix of possibility and prohibition. I’m really interested in that. I love the clothes, too. I’m a seamstress’ granddaughter. And I’ve always loved these ways into a time and a character. Clothing is so telling. It’s so rich. There’s a lot you can show through the character’s clothing. In Bohemians, Dorothea Lange’s assistant is a seamstress also. I love the material culture of that period of time.
JS: Were there museums that you visited when you were researching for the Bohemians?
JD: There are several different kinds of museums. One was the Oakland Museum of California, which holds Lange’s archive. That was a terrific resource for me. All of her work is housed at that museum in the Bay Area. Then there was also, this is not a museum per se, but the San Francisco Public Library has a floor dedicated to San Francisco history. And there are a lot of photographs, extraordinary collection, archival materials, photography, so, so much. It was a truly marvelous source for me. I’ve written three books; I’m working on a fourth right now, but every time I start to write a new book, I read Tipping the Velvet because to me, still, it’s the book that I tell my students, I teach creative writing and I tell them: Imagine for yourselves, what is the company that your book keeps? What are the three, four or five books which you dream that your book will be beside those books in the bookstore? For me, Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet is one of those books. I read it and I am reminded of why I write. Really, the level at which I aspire to write, the kind of conversations I want to be having with readers and writers. All of that comes through. That this ritual now: rereading her work at the beginning of every new project.
JS: Can I ask you what you’re working on right now? Do you share that as an author, or is that something you keep close?
JD: No. I mean, I don’t have any problem sharing it. It’s just that I haven’t figured it all out yet, but the novel I’m writing right now is set in Hollywood in thirties and forties. So, for a lot of the same reasons. It’s so interesting to think about women’s lives at this period of time. Hollywood itself, when I started Bohemians, I really didn’t know anything about photography. I learned a lot and that’s one of the great things about writing is you get to live these other lives. By no means am I a photographer or an expert in photography, but Bohemians gave me this whole other portal. I lived for a time as a photographer through Dorothea Lange. I don’t have some kind of crazy fascination about Hollywood, but the more I think about it, the more I think that it is a really interesting portal to a lot of these same conversations. Gender performance, of course. It’s a very male dominated industry where women did have some degree of power. There was some possibility for self invention. It’s such an interesting way of looking at America, through our films, through the film culture. So that’s what I’m working on right now. I’ve got a lot still to go, but, it’s becoming. I liken writing a novel to – it’s almost like moving to another planet for a couple of years, you know? You’re more in that world than you are in your own. And it’s begun to have that kind of hold on me. Again, it’s something where it really ignites my imagination and then I started to wonder, well, wey, what was that about really? That’s a lot of how I work. I look backward, I became really interested in a historical period or a place geographically. And I just kind of let my curiosity work as a kind of compass. So when I was writing about Lange, that she had this Chinese American assistant, I thought, wait, hang on a second. That’s really interesting. That would have been a really fascinating meeting of worlds right there, these two women coming together. I’m looking for these moments where I’m thinking, Hey, hold on a second. I think there’s more here. And I want to tell it in my particular way.
JS: Can you tell us what you’re reading these days?
JD: I read and loved The Plot by Jean Hanff Korleitz. It is a book about a writer who steals a plot from somebody else. I think it’s especially interesting for writers. It’s just a hilarious and also brutal send up of the writing life and the writing profession. So I took a lot of pleasure in it, but also it’s a terrific page turner. It’s a bit of a spoof on The Talented Mr. Ripley.
JS: Which I LOVE.
JD: Yeah. So she, she does a little bit of a Patricia Highsmith thing there. It was a book that I could not put down, but I also didn’t want it to end. And then I also read recently, Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead.
JS: How was it?
JD: It is phenomenal. It’s a very meaty book. It’s about 6- or 700 pages, which I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel of that length, but it gives you that pleasure of just sinking in. You know? It’s with you for weeks and you’re thinking about it and it feels almost like you’re accompanying her through a journey, the character. I think it’s also beautifully written. So I recommend it highly.
JS: Jasmin, will you tell my listeners where they can find you and your work?
JD: So you can find me at JasmineDarznik.com I have got a lot on my website, on the Bohemians page. I truly love research and I love sharing my research. So, I put a lot of historical photographs up, and their backstories. I have an art museum on my website of Dorothy Lange’s photographs. I’m probably most active on Instagram, but I’m also on Facebook.
JS: This has been so wonderful talking to you. I want to thank you for joining me today and you have a standing invitation to come back anytime you have a book you want to tell me about.
JD: Thank you so much. Book people are the best people.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms! You can follow the podcast on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me on Instagram where you can see some of my favorite quotes from the podcast and occasional photos of my reading cave and get bookish news from friends of the show. You might even catch a glimpse of our official mascot, Benny, the meanest bunny on the planet. I really love most social media, but I love the Instagram book community. So come on over and let’s chat books.
Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.