Ariel Djanikian (C '04) discovered an unlikely alchemy in words.
"Reading was an integral part of my life; I couldn't fathom a day without it," she reflects. However, at Penn, Djanikian’s academic pursuits did not start with literature but rather the hard sciences. She has always liked to think big. She embraced the intellectual challenges presented by physics and chemistry, particularly drawn to their broad, philosophical outlook on life, reality, and humanity's place in the universe. Yet as her journey at Penn progressed, Djanikian realized that she was unable to fully express her creativity through science. “Tracking life and changes in life across a wide scope of time is something I could do in fiction,” she says, “and that's where that's where I can really make a contribution.”
Still, Djanikian is thankful for her background in the sciences. “I think an education like that is wonderful because it cultivates within you all these different perspectives you can have on the world which you'll be able to bring to any profession,” she says.
She attributes her rediscovery of her writing in large part to the Kelly Writers House. This historic building became a haven for her. Taking classes there, she honed her craft under the guidance of distinguished Professor Max Apple, her best critic. Djanikian took several of his fiction classes, engaged in independent study under his mentorship, and attended every one of his fiction workshops. Now a professor herself at Georgetown University, she still reminisces about her days as Apple’s student: “And he was such an important person in my life. I still have his voice in my head sometimes. I'm writing because the things he taught me about writing just became a part of me.”
An environment where intellectual energy and creativity thrived, Djanikian found more than just inspiration within the KWH walls; it was there that she crossed paths with her now–husband Phil. With a warm smile plastered across her face, she fondly recalls the serendipitous moment when they first crossed paths during painfully long writing seminars. Coffee breaks in KWH’s cozy kitchen turned into a romance that endures to this day. At their wedding, Apple playfully quipped that that semester, he didn’t only teach writing but romance, too.
At KWH, Djanikian also met her present–day writing group, with whom she meets monthly to discuss all things from new work to favorite books. “Discovering like–minded individuals when you are young and being able to embark on your career alongside them is an invaluable experience. The connections formed through the Kelly Writers House are something I deeply cherish because they have the power to endure for a lifetime,” she says.
Last month, Djanikian returned to Philadelphia for a book event at the Barnes and Noble in Center City to celebrate her latest novel, The Prospectors, the culmination of an 18–year–long creative odyssey that began just after graduation. She visited Penn and even dropped in on one of Apple’s classes. After such a long writing process, she is relieved to have her book in the hands of readers and looks forward to engaging with new generations of students.
The Prospectors finds its roots in Djanikian’s great–great–grandmother’s journey as part of the Klondike Gold Rush expedition to the Yukon. Djanikian first learned about her ancestry through the treasure trove of memoirs and letters her grandmother left behind. She had an intuitive sense that this history held the potential for a rich and captivating story, one that could ultimately flourish into a compelling novel.
The undertaking was initially daunting, with extensive research and historical intricacies serving as both a challenge and a guide. Djanikian often felt overwhelmed by the weight of historical facts, fearing they might overshadow the story's characters. Yet, the passage of time acted as a natural filter, allowing her to distill the narrative to its most essential and compelling elements, preserving the vivid, captivating details that now infuse her novel.
Djanikian aptly highlights that the essence of a novel, setting it apart from essays or other forms of writing, lies in its profound connection to the personal. Within the pages of a novel, readers can immerse themselves in the innermost thoughts and emotions of characters, a visceral experience that often eludes us in our everyday interactions. “One of the most wonderfully satisfying aspects of fiction is simply being inside the mind of someone other than yourself, immersed in their intimate thoughts and feelings,” she says.
When it comes to her readers, Djanikian doesn't write with a specific type of person in mind. Instead, she hopes to connect with individuals who approach life with curiosity. Her stories are meant for those who turn to books as a source of intellectual exploration and embrace the adventures fiction can offer. Her own journey from being a chemistry major to becoming a storyteller serves as testament to the fact that passion and purpose can emerge from the most unexpected of places.
As a final thought to young readers and aspiring writers, Djanikian offers valuable advice: persevere and never give in to frustration. Writing is a challenging process with its share of setbacks, but the vision held for your work can become more refined with time, revision, and dedication. “Continually revisit your work, and the more you invest in it, the closer you can come to aligning what's on the page and the story you tell with that beautiful vision residing in your head, even if it may never be an exact match.”