S.M. Tersian


Reno writer S.M. Terzian’s novel Gathered Words, set in Constantinople/Istanbul before and since World War I, is available from

Is this your first book?


How long did you work on it?

Oh, on and off, for maybe about five years. We had a move in between, and so it was extended out for a period of time.

What made you write it?

Someone told me a story that actually happened in Fresno in the 1920s, and I was very touched by it because it was a new twist on the immigrant story. Immigrants have a difficult time adjusting, but you usually think of it as a positive thing, and people suck up and take the challenge. But in this situation it became a devastating situation and a tragedy. And I felt as though it was a good vehicle for me to utilize the time of my own mother coming to America and adjusting. My mother was born in Istanbul as most of these people in the book were. There’s a lot of autobiography in this thing, but it isn’t our story. … You know, as a child you don’t ask questions. You don’t think to ask questions. And so it’s kind of nice to be, in a sense, making up the story of my mother’s life.

Tell me the storyline.

It starts off in a modern vein. There is a recaptured love between a Turkish fellow and an Armenian photographer, American-born. And she is called back to Constantinople—Istanbul—and there’s this relationship and the development of that for a while. And then the reason she is called back takes over, and the story follows that, completely divorced from the modern part. And that builds, and it pretty much tells the story of a family. [The family’s history] begins in 1895 with the massacre that brings the fellow to Istanbul.

So you heard a Fresno story, and you wove it into your own family’s history.

I didn’t want to just write another memoir or biography. … I’ve traveled in Turkey and I’ve traveled the most in Istanbul, and you run across all kinds of people. We ran across all kinds of people. We spent a lot of time with a university professor who—the first thing he said to me was, “I’m so sorry that [massacre] happened.” He really went out of his way—when I told him the story of my mother—to show me around the areas where she had lived, and my grandmother had lived. But I didn’t want to write that same old victimhood story.

Why do you write?

I don’t know. I’m a designer by profession and have worked on fabulous things. I did Mondavi’s winery when it first opened and Sunset books and Sunset magazines and U.C. chancellor’s home and television stations. But I guess after a while, your artistic bent goes elsewhere, and when I heard this story, I thought, “You know, I’m going to do it.” And you know, I wasn’t brought up to be ethnic. I was brought up to be an American. And then all of a sudden there does come a point in your life when you realize that you’re not Anglo-Saxon and things don’t go the same for you as they do for others. I wanted to know more about my people. I’m Greek and Armenian. … And I wanted to know more but I wasn’t willing to be, I don’t know—there’s something about immigrant stories.

I’m not sure that’s what I was getting at. Why do you write?

I think we all have something to say, and that’s my form.