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. Follow her on Instagram.
In this post, Ariel talks about how she had to become an equal to the story she wanted to tell in her latest novel, her family’s past with the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, and more.
Name: Ariel Djanikian
Literary agent: Jenni Ferrari-Adler
Book title: The Prospectors
Publisher: William Morrow
Release date: October 3, 2023
Genre/category: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Previous titles: The Office of Mercy
Elevator pitch for the book: The rags-to-riches story of the Bush-Berry family, poor fruit farmers from California who strike it rich during the Klondike Gold Rush. Their journey has an echo in the present day, when the family’s descendants return to the Yukon in 2015, attempting to atone for the wrongs of the past.
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What prompted you to write this book?
The novel takes inspiration from the lives of my great-great-grandmother and her family, who traveled north during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 and struck gold. I was fascinated by their story, and in my early adulthood, I became the trusted family archivist—devoted protector of photos and letters and self-published writings of this era.
Every detail hooked me, though what I had in my possession never fully satisfied my curiosity. I wanted the gold rush and the family’s twist of fate to come fully to life, and so I kept researching and writing into what was unknown. From early on, I could also feel the largeness of their story. It was a brutal quest for wealth that was still reverberating in the lives of people born a century later.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
It took 18 years between my first efforts to write this book and its publication. I knew this had to be a big-canvas novel, and I was frustrated when my early drafts didn’t have the scope and energy of what I was imagining. I took a break and wrote it again and shared with a circle of readers and worked until I felt myself an equal to the story I wanted to tell. There are some scenes in the novel that hardly changed through the years, but most have transformed through revisions.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
My first book was a dystopian novel set several hundred years in the future. The Prospectors jumps a hundred years into the past, and my stories are mostly realist fiction set in the present day.
I used to worry a lot about my projects looking too different from one another, but I’m at peace with it now. You have to let your curiosity dart around to unexpected places and go where it leads.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
Not every wonderful fact needs to be in the novel. It seems obvious, but it’s hard to let go of scenes and events from the past that felt truly fascinating in their own right.
For instance, I spent many pages deep in the wilds of the Berrys’ early prospecting trips and among the miners who were early arrivals into the country—all scenes I ended up whittling down to their essentials. If the material doesn’t matter for the heart and soul of the characters, then the story can survive without it. I had to take a deep breath, put my pen at a new angle, and alter my approach.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
I want readers to taste the cold air of the Yukon and feel the weight of gold in their palms. I want them to love Alice and Ethel and Jane and feel as if they are speaking lowly with them in a shadowy room. I hope that readers will feel in their guts the movement of a century, and leave this book reacquainted with their own restless and yearning spirits.
If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?
As soon as you have a new idea, get down as much material as you can. Fill notebook after notebook, and allow the writing to be messy and chaotic.
Later, go back and find your story within that raw material and begin to chisel it into form. But keep the fictional world busy and alive and a little unwieldy as you give your novel shape.