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You Were Here by Gian Sardar
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You Were Here

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You Were Here by Gian Sardar
May 16, 2017 | ISBN 9780399575020

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  • May 16, 2017 | ISBN 9780399575020

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  • May 16, 2017 | ISBN 9781524750824

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“Artfully weaving the past and present together, You Were Here is a stunning tapestry of a novel full of dreams, nightmares, horrific crimes and long-buried secrets. Gian Sardar shows us the ways in which the past can reach out and take hold of the present; that places and objects hold memories and time is not the linear thing we think it to be.” —Jennifer McMahon, New York Times bestselling author of The Night Sister

“Sardar’s characters are well-developed and her prose is dreamlike, at times reading very much like poetry. . . . [T]his deftly executed study of the dark that lies in the human heart is artfully drawn. An impressive . . . debut with a touch of the otherworldly.” Kirkus Reviews

“[B]eautifully written . . . this first novel will appeal to readers of Christina Schwarz and Diane Chamberlain.” —Library Journal

“[An] intricately plotted first novel . . . Sardar keeps the tension high to the very end.” —Publishers Weekly

“Prepare to be dazzled by hauntingly masterful storytelling! Packed with delicious prose and page-turning intrigue, You Were Here is a remarkable and unforgettable debut.” —Susan Meissner, author of Secrets of a Charmed Life

“You Were Here
is a beautiful puzzle box of a booka page-turner that manages to also be strikingly poetic. I was gripped from the very first page, and moved by the time I made it to the last.” —Janelle Brown, bestselling author of All We Ever Wanted Was Everything
“Sardar creates a suspenseful tale sure to keep readers entertained … The characters are intriguing; Sardar does well at developing them and unfolding them at the right time to reveal just enough to hold readers attention. You Were Here is a unique read that does not disappoint.” RT Book Review

“A nail-biting thriller, a tragic love story from the past, a very contemporary romance, a genuinely scary ghost story with a full-out gothic finale that would make Edgar Allen Poe sit up and applaud—Gian Sardar has confidently and seamlessly woven all these genres into a novel that is completely original and relentlessly engaging. You Were Here is a bravura, genre-busting performance.” —Valerie Martin, award-winning author of Mary Reilly and Property

“What if love is so powerful that it gives us access to mysterious unseen worlds? This question is at the heart of Gian Sardar’s dizzying and seductive debut novel. As I was reading You Were Here, I kept wondering about  the nature—and value—of love, marriage, and the complex space between. Modern and timeless, part thrilling detective story, part ghost story, part love story, Sardar’s debut is an evocative literary cocktail. I couldn’t put it down!” —Sari Wilson, author of Girl Through Glass
You Were Here is a terrific debut that beautifully spins the tale of two love stories—one set in the past and the other in the present—coiled together by longing, betrayal, and rage that unravel to a stunning and deeply satisfying conclusion. Gian Sardar is a writer to watch.” —Carla Buckley, author of The Good Goodbye and The Things That Keep Us Here

Author Q&A

You Were Here combines so many different kinds of stories, with elements of family drama, psychological suspense, romantic comedy, and crime fiction. What inspired you to write this book? Did melding the different story elements together come naturally to you?

When you dig into any story, you’re going to find a varied mix of elements. After all, everyone’s got family drama, but hopefully we all experience a little love, a little comedy, etc. Our days, or weeks or months, are never one element or one genre, so for me it just happened naturally that this novel, with its many stories and times, ended up being a composition of so much. In a way, I’m happy I never thought about it—I simply looked at the scene I was doing and wrote it the best I could, with suspense, or romance, or whatever it called for. Not once did I pay attention to anything beyond that, which, looking back, I’m grateful for, because there’s certainly safety in coloring within the lines, but that wasn’t what this particular story called for.
As for what inspired me to write this book, I could write many, many pages on that (obviously!), but the bottom line is, I’ve always been fascinated with invisible layers; all that builds up to create any given moment, or feeling, or dream or fear.  Those layers might have been formed yesterday or they might go way, way back. So at the core of the novel was that draw to what we don’t see, as well as a fascination with past lives, of how a life from long ago could be one of those invisible layers, and how souls might find each other again and again. In fact, I can tell you exactly how this book was born, as I have it saved in my “Ideas for books or stories” folder, just one paragraph written years ago:
“Someone who’s always been interested in her past life, has dreamt of a name over and over. Decides to research the name? Researches the name, researches the lives, uncovers a mystery. Who knows, this needs work.”
Ha! Yes, there was a lot of work to do after that. But that seed was how it all started. 

This is your first novel. What was different about writing this story than the work you’d done before?

For me, the biggest difference is the element of trust that’s needed. I knew it would be years of work, and I knew that one paragraph would need to grow into three hundred pages—which, when you’ve got a blank screen and a flashing cursor in front of you, can be hugely daunting. When you’re just starting or even partway through, or, hell, even at the end of a rough draft that you hate, you can easily be crushed by all that still needs to happen. I had to just trust that I would get there, that it would go where it needed to go, and I had to remind myself to not think of anything beyond the day I was in. Right now I am working on ____, and that’s all that exists, there is nothing else.  Don’t think about it, just write. Just trust.

What was it like to write Abby’s character? In what ways are you similar to her and in what ways are you different?

I certainly have a lot of Abby in me. With her, I took elements of my personality and blew them up and explored them, and of course from there they spun off to become her, with her own unique traits and actions and reactions. But similar to her, I feel like a mess most of the time, even if I look put-together. I’m definitely too loud. Irrational fears and a preoccupation with death—yep, check, got that too, though to a much smaller degree. And I tend to wake at 3 AM—the time when much of this book was written!—which is something I also gave to Claire. But most important, I love to think of the histories of objects, those unseen fingerprints from the past, which is a big part of Abby’s personality. I have a penny from 1897 and have held it for hours, just imagining its life, the stories it’s been a part of, the pockets or palms it’s been in.  So the stories Abby writes to go with the jewelry, I would do that in a heartbeat if ever given the opportunity. One of our big differences, though, is that Abby’s never believed in ghosts and doesn’t look beyond, so to speak, when trying to figure out her issues. I, on the other hand, do believe such things are possible, and so where Abby’s wild imagination stops with our world, mine tends to go a bit further. 

You inhabit so many different characters with such ease—Abby, Aidan, Eva, Claire, and William. Which voices were easiest to write? Was there one voice that you struggled with more than the others?

I think at first I had more issues with William, just because he’s the opposite of everything I’ve ever known, but that was only initially. With Aidan, I had to try to get into his world each time, a world very different than anything I’d written about before, but I enjoyed that. The women were definitely easier, and Abby the easiest just because she’s in the present, and fun, and just goes and goes, without limit. Claire I had to sit up straight to write, and Eva had a buoyancy to her personality that I felt as I wrote. She constantly surprised me, and I loved her for that. 

Much of the novel takes place in Minnesota. Why did you choose this setting?

My mother and her whole family are from Minnesota, so I grew up visiting family in Marshall, and then taking trips around the state. We even lived outside Minneapolis for a little while, but it was really my Marshall visits that affected me—the landscape, the farming life, the small towns we’d pass through, the impact of religion. And Minnesota really has it all, from prairies to forests, so, creatively, I could do a lot with the landscape and had a ton of opportunities for my made-up towns. To me, there’s something so haunting about the Plains, the endless horizon, so it seemed so fitting. Another aspect was that I’ve been impressed with how many Belgians are in Marshall and how similar the landscape is to their ancestral home—and as I figured out the story, it seemed even more apropos to have a place that was almost an extension or a reflection of another.   

Did you always intend to have both the past and present story lines? Was it easier to write one than the other?  

Yes, from the get-go there were to be two different times. It was one way to show the touch of the past, in objects and places, by revealing even just one layer that you’d not see otherwise. I’m definitely intrigued by the 1940s, so that was fun—it gave me an excuse to order magazines from 1948 and listen to music from the era.  Of course I’d stall sometimes, needing to research something, which could be a lengthy (and expensive; I’m not kidding when I said I bought things) rabbit hole. But it was fun to see how elements of the time ended up fitting so well with the story—like the “A Diamond Is Forever” ad, which coincidentally came out in 1947 and worked in the novel perfectly. The present went a bit faster, but I think I had more fun writing the past. My only rule was that both had to be entire, complete worlds that could exist on their own; I didn’t want one world to exist only to service the other. So, if anything, I ended up with too much material, but showing the past was key from the start.

Do you believe in past lives? Have you had any personal experiences that have influenced your belief?

When I was little, my mother told me that some people believed our souls returned to learn and to work things out, and the second I heard that, I remember this feeling I can best describe as “Of course!” Because it made sense to me, and it seemed to answer questions and shed light on so much: our inexplicable likes or dislikes of objects or foods or locations, our instant connection with some people, our longings to visit certain places. Not too long after that, I had a strange dream, one of those dreams “where I was me but I wasn’t me” (as Robert, Abby’s boyfriend, describes his dream at the end of the book). In the dream, my brother was still my brother, but looked different. We were running through a forest, from someone or something. It was either late fall or winter and there were leaves on the ground; the sky was a grayish white.  Suddenly we stopped at a barbed-wire fence. There, before us, was a soldier. He was wearing all beige and had a scarf and a hat on, was so piled up against the cold I couldn’t see his face. Still, I knew that he was there to help us. It was a good feeling. When I woke up, I opened my eyes and the soldier was still in my room. I blinked. Tried to make him go away. But he just kind of hovered there and then disappeared. I had no idea what I’d just seen and figured it was some strange carryover from my dream, but it clearly made an impression on me.
Later, for my thirteenth birthday, my mom decided it would be fun to take me and my friends to a psychic. At one point, the psychic held my hand and told me that my brother and I had been brother and sister in a past life. She continued by saying she saw us in a war, running through a forest, and that we came upon a soldier who helped us. Immediately, I told her I had just had that dream and that when I woke up, the soldier was still in my room. She just nodded, not at all surprised, and said, “He’s coming back into your life.”
Who is he? A friend? My husband? My son? I have no idea, but that moment intensified my fascination with past lives and the idea that we might have known some people before. That same psychic also told me that my mother and I were mother and daughter in a past life as well, but that I was her mother, which is why I have a hard time taking orders from her. What can I say but that that made sense. J
When I was in college, I wanted to explore the idea of past lives a bit more. I’d read that if you repeated “I want to know who I was” before you went to sleep that you might dream of who you were. So I did this. And nothing happened. For a while. But then one night I dreamed about a name over and over. Nothing else, just the name. Though the name I heard wasn’t Claire Ballantine, it became the seed of this book, with Abby dreaming the name.
Probably a few years later I did a past-life regression with a friend who’s a psychic. I had no idea what to believe when I went into it, if it was even possible to be regressed. All the lives I got snippets of were very normal. I was never a queen or a starlet, which I was grateful for, because if I was suddenly Marilyn Monroe, I would’ve discounted the whole thing. But what I remember was pure emotion, an entirety of that person’s past history all felt in a heartbeat, with barely any explanation.  In one dream, I was a young woman in the 1940s, who’d been having an affair with a music producer somewhere in the South, and at the end of it I stood in front of his house—this mansion with a long sloping lawn—and I remember wrapping my hand around the wrought-iron fence and just staring up at the windows, knowing he was in there with his wife, and that that was the life I should have. I somehow knew all that in a second, in a flood of understanding. The memory of holding onto that wrought-iron fence and staring up at the windows stuck with me, and later found its way to Eva, standing before William’s house. 

Do you have a favorite love story in the novel?

I think William and Eva will always be my favorite, in part because of their ending. But in a way I also love Eva and Eddie Parks: the path not chosen, the love story that may have existed before—and does later with Robert and Abby—but is unexplored. That story, the one not told, fascinates me as well.  And of course I also love Abby and Aidan, the two people who come together again at just the right time. The intensity she’d always felt looking at him, feeling that inexplicable connection, I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to. In this case, I wanted to show the basis of that feeling, a feeling that rarely, if ever, gets explained in real life, which is why Abby herself never knows the cause.  

What kind of research did you do in order to write this novel?

There was a lot of research, most of it just for atmosphere and most of it random, like what plant is blooming in Minnesota in the spring or what something might smell like.  I love researching, but as I mentioned earlier, it can be a bit of a rabbit hole for me. I’d go to find dates from the war, looking for just one thing, and end up spending the day reading firsthand accounts from soldiers. A lot of what I researched never made it into the book but became interesting distractions.   

What’s next for you?

Right now, I’m working on another novel, in the very early stages, and should be rereading my words about trusting that it will go where it needs to go. Don’t think about it, just write. Just trust.

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