Olivia Katrandjian, pictured, was awarded second prize in the 2019 national literature contest
Photo: Mike Zenari
We all like to think we have a novel in us.Journalist Olivia Katrandjian was so convinced that, in 2016, she quit her job and moved to Luxembourg to work on “The Ghost Soldier”. Three years later, her book won second prize in Luxembourg’s national literature contest.
“It was really wonderful to feel validated and that I’m moving in the right direction,” the American-Armenian national told Delano. Katrandjian’s historic novel follows Sevan, the son of Armenian immigrants who fled genocide in Turkey for the US.
When his gay best friend enlists in the army, Sevan follows and the two join the Ghost Army, a top-secret unit of artists, actors, musicians and architects, tasked with tactical deception.
The road to Luxembourg
Katrandjian’s story follows the unit as it set up shows in France and then Luxembourg. The New Jersey native first heard about the Ghost Army through a podcast while she was living in New York and making documentaries for the New York Times.
She researched it on her daily commute, but soon realised she would have to work on it full-time if she wanted to finish her first novel.
So the journalist moved to Luxembourg with her partner, where not only was she able to access a mass of archives, such as diaries and multimedia material, she could also visit the places where the action occurred. These include the mess hall the unit had used during the war, which until recently served as a library at the University of Luxembourg’s Limpertsberg campus.
“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to write a story in the location where it takes place,” Katrandjian says.
What makes the young American’s novel stand out from others set during this time is that hers examines the LGBTQ experience. In particular, the author wanted to shed light on the struggles of gay men in the army at a time when it was illegal to be homosexual. On the one hand, these men were often for the first time able to find love, thanks to the close intimacy with other men, while on the other, they were heavily discriminated against. In some instances, men who were known to be gay were given a blue discharge, stripping them of the benefits other veterans enjoyed and publicly humiliating them. “I hope to make readers think about what it means to be a ‘real man’, and what our country owes these men in return,” Katrandjian says.
At the same time, there is an autobiographical thread. A descendant of Armenian architects who lived in Turkey, Katrandjian loosely based her main character on her architect grandfather. “When I heard about the Ghost Army, it seemed a really good way to take this character I had and give it a narrative arc,” she says. It also adds an intriguing dimension to the story, by examining the struggle of an immigrant who has fled genocide in Turkey and comes to terms with his identity.
The book is still some way off publication--Katrandjian says she wants to fine-tune it before contacting agents. But the contest came at a good time as it meant that once she had submitted her draft, she was able to focus on her other new challenge--motherhood. Katrandjian gave birth to her first child in Luxembourg in April 2019, forcing her to put the draft away. “It’s such a wonderful opportunity to have a break of four months, to get perspective and come back at it with fresh eyes. So, I’m now really excited to dive in.”
This article was originally published in the Winter 2020 edition of Delano Magazine.