Book Openers: Memoiring in the Mountains with the Bestselling Jasmin Darznik

Jasmin Darznik's book "The Good Daughter"By Barbara Falconer Newhall

I first met Jasmin Darznik back in 2006, and right away she presented a problem.

We were in the same nonfiction workshop – it was led by agent Michael Carlisle – at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.

I had dutifully read Jasmin’s manuscript the night before our class – and for the first time in my workshopping career, I thought I had nothing helpful to say to the writer.

Jasmin’s writing was elegant, its content compelling. She had submitted a memoir about her mother and her mother’s marriage in Iran at age 13 to an abusive husband, and Jasmin told this horrific story in simple, restrained – but richly detailed – prose.

What was I to do? I could find nothing “wrong” with this manuscript. What do I say to the author? I finally resorted to analyzing the manuscript and figuring out exactly what made it so successful. That would help me, it would help the others in our group, and it would encourage Jasmin, who I thought might be headed for best-sellerdom.

I was right. Jasmin’s book, The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life, was published in 2011 and it promptly hit the New York Times bestseller list.

The trade paperback is now in bookstores – and Jasmin was back in the San Francisco Bay Area last night talking about her book to the Left Coast Writers at the Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera.

What was true of Jasmin’s manuscript back in 2006 is true of the book I hold in my hands today: It does not gush.  Jasmin tells her mother’s sometimes harrowing story unsparingly, scene by scene, detail by detail, but without resorting to melodrama.

Last night Jasmin told her audience that early on her agent kept prodding her to ask her mother about her feelings: What did it feel like to be beaten on your wedding night? What did it feel like to give up the daughter (the Good Daughter of the title) from that first marriage?

Jasmin asked the questions, but her mother could not answer them. Her feelings about those long ago traumas were lost to her. Each time Jasmin asked, her mother drew a blank.

“The most honest thing I could do,” Jasmin told her audience, “was let the silence rest around those moments.”

The silences in Jasmin’s manuscript worked for me in 2006, and they work for me today in the finished product. Jasmin’s restraint is what gives her prose its elegance.

And too –  it seems I was able to give Jasmin some helpful comments back in 2006 after all. As she signed my copy of her book last night, Jasmin reminded me of something I’d said during our workshop.

At the time, I had been working on an interview with a World War II POW who had survived a deadly forced march across Germany during the frigid winter of 1944-45.

I noticed that the writing on that piece worked best when I simply let my interviewee present his brutal story quietly and factually, without trying to heat the story up with an emotional retelling.

“I remember your saying to me,” Jasmin told me last night, “The hotter the story, the cooler the telling.”

Right! That sounds like me. What do you know? Apparently, in spite of myself, I managed to cough up something useful for this very fine writer.

Coming soon: Some writerly tips from Jasmin that I’d like to pass along.

The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life

By Jasmin Darznik

Grand Central/Hachette, $14.99 paper

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