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12/20/05

Interview: Howard Lee, author of bestseller children's novel Jamshid and the lost Mountain of Light

By Darius KADIVAR

 

The success of an artistic work is often a mystery that sometimes escapes all logical explanations. This is particularly true as far as children books are concerned. Children are certainly the most demanding category of readers to satisfy. Yet when this is achieved, the literary world and its critics are often baffled to discover a new and powerful author they would have otherwise ignored. This has been the case of James M.Barrie with Peter Pan, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or this millenniums worldwide hit of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter sequels, all of which have also inspired successful film adaptations. The fact that all three authors have been of British origin may not be entirely a coincidence. The Insular subjects of Her Very Gracious Majesty also belong to a nation of great travelers and explorers who have often inspired authors to push the boundaries of literary imagination. British author Howard Lee certainly belongs to this category of gifted writers. Jamshid and the lost mountain of light is one of the most enchanting children books (chosen as most popular children’s book by cafepress.com amongst 38 current titles) to have caught attention of English readers of English, American or Iranian origin.

 


Howard Lee cosmopolitan author of Jamshid
and the Lost Mountain of Light
©www.jamshid.gb.com

 

If Jamshid has struck a sensitive cord particularly amongst the Iranian Diaspora it is probably because Howard Lee’s inspiration to write this story was Love. Firstly the Love for his Persian wife Mojgan and for their two sons Daniel and Samuel. Secondly the Love for their ancient land Iran which he visited for the first time in 1998. If one digs more deeply into the origins of his novel, Mr. Lee will reveal that it was the sight of his young son Daniel, gazing through the very windows that his historical namesake had gazed through some 2500 years ago, that inspired this book, the plot of which is as follows:

 

Jamshid and the Lost Mountain of Light takes you back 2500 years to the palaces of ancient Persia, where a coup is being plotted. Jamshid is the son of the Grand Vizier to the Emperor, who finds his world turned upside-down as the story unfolds. Suddenly his parents are banished from the Empire, leaving Jamshid alone in the care of his tutor, Parthesus. Suliaman is a court official who will stop at nothing to take over the throne of the global superpower. Jamshid and Parthesus discover the plot - but can they save the Empire? The suspense and thrills of Jamshid's struggle against Suliaman - and himself - are guaranteed to grab the attention of readers young and old.

 

I was happy to interview Howard Lee who lives in New Jersey, USA, on his book and the reasons behind this literary success that has relished young and old readers this year.

 

Darius KADIVAR: You visited Iran with your family for the first time in 1998. What were your impressions of the country, its people and its culture?

 

Howard LEE: I suppose my first impression was the immense warmth of Iranians. I was deeply touched by the way I was accepted into my wife’s extended family, and the great trouble they took to make me feel welcome and entertained. But this warmth didn’t stop there, I was made to feel welcome and treated with respect by total strangers. Of course, I had been exposed to the daunting images of anti-Western demonstrations on TV, so I was expecting at least some indication of this, but it didn’t materialize. Even when I was walking alone and I encountered a lone soldier, what could have turned into a bad situation only resulted in a pleasant chat (it helps to speak some Farsi).

 

I was terrified by the Tehran traffic, the way five cars will compete side by side for the three marked lanes, or those junctions where cars, buses, mopeds and pedestrians all merge and emerge the other side unharmed. It was like some magic was at work, because I was certain people would be killed. My other first impressions were learning to navigate ta’rof, and learning to accept kisses and handholding from men – very un-English!

 


Jamshid befriends griffin Ghoreed  ©www.jamshid.gb.com

I was very fortunate in my first visit to see Takht-e-Jamshid, Shiraz and Esfahan, as well as Tehran and the Caspian shore. I was impressed by so many of the things I saw. The tilework and architecture of the Mosque (Masjed-e-Imam) in Esfahan was dizzyingly beautiful, but the way the patterns joined flawlessly and repeated across those intricate vaulted ceilings would challenge even the most sophisticated computer-aided-design system of today. The echo that repeats seven times in the centre of the main dome, and the earthquake-engineered columns left me in awe of the technical skills. The colours and scents of the old bazaars in Shiraz and Esfahan were the source for my descriptions of the bazaar in my book.

 

But the ancient city of Takht-e-Jamshid made the biggest Impression on me. Its scale and sophistication make it one of the wonders of the world. That it was constructed two and a half thousand years ago make it all the more remarkable.

 

DK: The Story of Jamshid and the Lost Mountain of Light was inspired to you by your son Daniel who happens to have the same name as that of the hero’s father in your book. Did the sudden success of your book take you by surprise?

 

Howard LEE: I originally intended the book to be a bedtime story for my son, Daniel. As I started writing it, I realized I had a good story going, and it grew into a novel. The book took a long time to write when I was working, so it was a relief when I finally self-published it. The most nervous time I had was when I asked some children, including my own son, to read the book and tell me what they thought. I worried that they would not like it. When they all came back with very positive comments, I felt it had all been worthwhile. One, a 10-year-old girl, said it was “almost as good as Harry Potter!” From a 10-year-old that’s high praise. Since then, I have been delighted in the interest that has been shown worldwide. What has also surprised me is the number of adult readers who also have enjoyed the book.

DK: the story of Jamshid is also the story of growing up, accepting responsibilities and not giving up easily to discouragement. Is it not also about transmitting the flame of love and knowledge to the younger generation? Not to forget who you are and where you come from?

 

Howard LEE: Yes, I wanted to convey how fragile so much of what we have is. In the book Daniel, Jamshid’s father, is haunted by how easily civilization itself can crumble away. It must not be taken for granted, and it takes active participation to hold it together. Jamshid rejects this message at first, but as events take over, he begins to see what his father meant. As parents we strive to pass on our values and knowledge to our children, but this communication is never perfect, especially between fathers and sons. Jamshid’s father is too earnest in passing on his values. He forgets that Jamshid is his own person and must make his own choices in life. Once they are separated, both father and son begin to appreciate the other’s point of view.




The sight that inspired the author to write his novel: son Daniel gazing out
of a window in Takhteh Jamshid better known as Persepolis in the West
©www.jamshid.gb.com

 

I also wanted to convey the capacity of people to create and do great things, and to believe in the future despite the past, to believe that you can create something worthwhile for generations to come. ‘We are all better than we know’ is the Outward Bound motto, and I believe it.

 

DK: What is amazing in your book is the way you give life to the limestone statues we can see today in Persepolis : the protocol at the royal court of King Darius, the people, their customs, what they celebrated, their beliefs or what they ate. Did that require a lot of research ?

 

Howard LEE: It was very important for me to convey a sense of normality in these ancient settings. I did do a lot of research (there is a bibliography at the end of my book) but quickly realized that there was frustratingly little contemporary Persian documentation of everyday life at that time. It also became clear that much of what we have received as knowledge through the Greek texts is very biased and distorted against the Persians. I have blended my research based on published texts and the Bible with what I was told when I visited Takht-e-Jamshid, and with my knowledge of current Iranian customs (like Now Ruz). I also wanted to convey that even 2500 years ago, this was already an ancient land that had seen the passing of empires since the dawn of civilization.




Alborz Mountains: Howard Lee in the Land of Jamshid during his first trip in 1998

©www.jamshid.gb.com

 

I think it must have been an age of great enlightenment as improved security allowed communication across the empire and beyond. Pythagoras, for example, was brought to Babylon by Cambyses, where he gladly associated with the magi and learned the mathematics taught by the Babylonians. This is why one of my central characters, Jamshid’s tutor, is a Scientist. Besides the building of palaces and armies, there was the building of roads and the canal in Egypt.

 

I recommend the catalogue for the current British Museum exhibition to anyone who is interested in this era. It has excellent synopses of our knowledge of those times, and beautiful photographs of artifacts that are normally scattered in museums across the world. I wish I had that available to me when I was researching the book!

 

DK: Does the name Takht Jamshid  refer to your invented legend or was Jamshid a legendary character in Persian Mythology ?

 

Howard LEE: The names in my book are just names, but of course I make an association between my fictional hero - Jamshid - and Takht-e-Jamshid, as revealed at the end of my book. I appreciate that many readers who are familiar with Persian culture will immediately think of Ferdousi's Jamshid from the Shahname. My Jamshid is different, the name being coincidental. I like the idea that names are long-lived and re-used. Daniel, for instance, is a common enough name, and most would trace the name back to the Biblical Daniel. But who was that Daniel named after?

 

One of the ideas that interests me is how tales move from factual to legendary to mythical with age. The Gilgamesh stories probably originated in reference to a great ancient king. The same is said of the English King Arthur legends, although in that case we are talking hundreds of years, not thousands. Ferdousi completed the Shahname in 1010, and based his work on the pre-Islamic traditions and records including the late Sasanian Khvadaynamak, which was written in about AD 600. So the Shahname was written some 1500 years after the time of Darius (the setting for my book) and based in part on texts that were written a thousand years after Darius. In the Shahname the name Takht-e-Jamshid is coined, and the association between Jamshid and Now-Ruz is described, but the Jamshid of the Shahname has not so far been identified with a real historical figure. And so, even though I make no association between 'my' fictional Jamshid and the King Jamshid of Ferdousi's Shahname, I also think that the two Jamshid's are compatible once simmered slowly in the great khoresh of time.

 

 


Some of the Howard Lee’s beautiful illustrations in the novel
©www.jamshid.gb.com

 

DK: Are there similarities between your own childhood growing up in Kenya and that of Jamshid in ancient Persia?

 

Howard LEE: I did draw upon some of my childhood memories from Kenya: the sights, sounds and smells of striking camp; being woken before dawn and drinking hot tea before going on safari; and the electricity you feel when you are on foot in the presence of a large wild animal. I also used my experiences attending a remote boarding school, to inform my description of the moment of Jamshid’s separation from his parents. There is nothing like the feeling you get when as a child you watch your parents leave you, knowing it will be a long time before you see them again.

 

DK: I particularly liked the battle scenes in your book between the mythological animals the Karibu and the flying Griffin Ghoreed or the secret landing on the Persian Gulf shores of the Egyptian Army led by the villainous Vizier Suliaman. It reminded me of some of Ray HarryHausen’s classic films that personally delighted me as a kid such as Jason and the Argonauts or The Golden Voyage of Sinbad or more recently like in the Swords and Sandals film Troy with Brad Pitt. You also illustrated your book with your beautiful drawings. What were your visual references or influences for these scenes? 

 

Howard LEE: That’s a very perceptive question! I love the Sinbad films, and they were definitely in my mind when I wrote the book. I wanted to have some of the archetypal feeling from the “Arabian Nights,” the ancient Greek legends, and the Gilgamesh stories in my book. One of the ideas that interests me is how tales move from factual to legendary to mythical over time, which is why I have blended historical fiction with fantasy.

 

The visual influences for my illustrations were the reliefs at Takht-e-Jamshid, and the tile pictures at Susa. The sculptures are exquisitely stylized to the point where every curve is in harmony, an elegance of form echoed by modern sculptors such as Hepworth, Moore, and Arp. I wanted to keep that style in my illustrations. I also wanted to use the side-view representation of people, in keeping with the style at Takht-e-Jamshid.

 

DK: Your book was showcased at the British Museum with the very successful exhibition “Forgotten Empire” on ancient Persia. Jamshid’s quest for the stolen Royal Kuh-Nur diamond for which his father Daniel (a faithful and competent Vizier of the Persian King) and family are unjustly banished could be a good metaphor for many Iranian expatriates forced into exile since the revolution. Without revealing the end of your story, but isn’t Jamshid’s searching for the diamond revealing an Iranian characteristic in general throughout their history which is: an eternal desire to see the return of harmony, peace and justice in their ancient land? 

 

Howard LEE: I think it is an eternal wish of good people everywhere, to see harmony, peace and justice in their land. The question is: what is the driving force? If it is revenge, hatred, or greed then it is unlikely to bring about those goals. In my book I refer to the privileged nature of the royal court, but that at every opportunity the poor were given charity. Of course I don’t know how historically accurate that is, but I do know that the strength of the empire of Cyrus and Darius was built on a sense of fair dealing and, for its day, a revolutionary view of human rights. I was impressed with the book “Daughter of Persia” by Sattareh Farman Farmaian, who by her own account sought to bring harmony between the two Irans that have been in discord since at least the 1960s. I learned early on in my contact with Iranians that nobody can trick an Iranian like another Iranian, and I see that as a symptom of a deeper ill. Some seek a return to the old days, but the seeds of discord were there then. Some embrace a hatred-fuelled rejection of the old days, but as we know, this also doesn’t heal the rift. Others blame ‘The West’. Whilst it is true the West, including my own country, has a long history of interference in Iran (from the ‘Great Game’ of keeping France then Russia out of India, to the oil and cold war politics of the 20th century), I think the social divisions within Iran also had a role to play in the way things turned out, and how they are now. I believe only the ways of compassion and mercy, at a practical and individual level, such as practiced by Sattareh Farman Farmaian, can bring harmony and peace and justice.

 

DK: Will there be a sequel to Jamshid and the Lost Mountain of Light or will you be writing another children story set in another historical period in Persian History or even another land?

 

Howard LEE: I have been incubating a darker sequel, set in the reign of Xerxes, in which the righteous power of Darius is replaced by a decadent and corrupt power, bent on revenge against the Greeks. Jamshid must find a way to once again prevent mankind from using the terrible weapons that are uncovered in my current book.

 

DK: Thank you Howard, It was a pleasure to talk to you and looking forward to your upcoming projects.

 

Howard LEE: Thank you, Darius, for the opportunity to talk about the book, and for your tireless championing of Persian culture in the Diaspora.

 

Author’s note: Jamshid and the Lost mountain of Light can be purchased at: http://www.jamshid.gb.com

 

 

 



About the Author:
Darius KADIVAR is a freelance journalist and film reviewer born to an Iranian father and French mother. He works and lives in France.

 

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