The Globe book club tackled Prisoner of Tehran for our second selection. Diane Turbide, publishing director at Penguin Canada, joined our book club. Here is a selection of the questions and her responses.
From CharlesM: Were you surprised at the success of PoT? Do you know when you have a winner on your hands?
DT: I was delighted, but I can't remember whether I was surprised. I always knew the book was a winner, but that doesn't always guarantee sales. When the book was selected as a Heather's Pick in Indigo, supported by a full page ad in the G&M, I knew that sales would be big.
From Sandra Martin: How did you decide on the title, Prisoner of Tehran?
DT: Titles are very hard. Either they present themselves right away, or we come up with a dozen. Often the simplest one is the best. I can't be sure, but I think it was David Davidar, our former president, who said, "let's just call it Prisoner of Tehran. And so we did.
From Gabriel: Diane, any practical ideas to get more high schools to adopt PoT in their curriculum?
DT: Well, the best ambassador is Marina herself. she does many, many speaking engagements at high schools and in fact, a number of them came to the Canada Reads event, sponsored by a very generous German fan of Marina's book. But persuading provincial school boards to adopt books is not one of the things we are equipped to do very well.
Is non-fiction harder to edit than fiction?
DT: An editor has to bring the same skills to any manuscript. Is it working on the page? Is material handled well? The story has to be paced properly, have a strong voice, have momentum, have emotional truth to it, no matter the subject.
From Charles: What relevance does Prisoner of Tehran have for today's youth? DT: Marina was 16 when she was caught up in the turmoil of Iran's revolution. She was imprisoned and tortured, yet never does she lose her humanity, her kindness and suffers survivor's guilt. It seems extreme and removed from everyday existence. But the qualities that are in evidence there: faith, endurance, the notion that a damaged person can recover by bearing witness, the necessity to bear witness to injustice and repression-- all those things are relevant in many circumstances. Marina is a remarkable person in that she is not bitter about what happened to her. Angry, yes, but not bitter, and she uses that indignation to help others. But in most other respects, she is -- as she would say herself-- an ordinary person. So it's that notion that ordinary people can survive and do extraordinary things that is so inspiring.
From Mandie: You mentioned that you and Marina went through two or three drafts of the book before it was published. Is it difficult editing a memoir, given that it is someone's recollections of an event?
DT: Mandie's question: With a memoir, you are dealing with the author's recollections, yes. But as with any material, it has to make sense, both practically and emotionally. Is the author telling the story in the best possible way? Are they holding back things that prevent the story from living on the page. Why do they remember this event so well, and downplay others? What is the significance of that exchange or passage? sometimes it's clear to an author why they are focusing on that sequence of events, but not so clear to reader/editor. It's the editor's job to elicit as much meaningful material as possible, and keep the story interesting and alive. It's not a laundry list of what happened to someone. It has to be artfully told.
From Sandra Martin: How unusual is it to publish a memoir by an unknown writer?
DT: Fairly unusual. There's a term in publishing called "platform" which means that a prospective author already has an established public identity--either as a previously published author, a TV star, a musician, a columnist, etc--which the publisher can leverage to publicize the book. Marina had no platform. She was working at a Swiss Chalet as a waitress, and it was her first book