The only way to give voice to such a storehouse of family lore, Dayton learned, was to write.
Dayton had been a biochemistry major at Princeton, class of 1972, when he took a course in the 20th century American novel. “That class was kind of an epiphany for me,” he remembers. While enrolled in the M.D./Ph.D. program at Penn a few years later, he decided to take a year off to write.
“In those days, everybody was taking a year off,” Dayton recalls, “even for people in the medical track. Of course, some people thought I was from the moon…”
He did a lot of reading and writing during the sabbatical year, even attempting a novel, but the experience did not divert him from medicine.
“I much later wrote a novel, a work of historical fiction, but it was never published,” he said.
Dr. Elahe Talieh Dayton was an NIH scientist for years but now is a real estate investor. Her family’s rich history provided fodder for the novel she and her husband have written about Iran.
He and Elahe arrived on the NIH campus in December 1988. “She was a postdoc in my lab for the first 6 years,” said Dayton. Elahe held two Ph.D.s, one in pharmacology from the University of Tehran and one in immunology from Penn.
“She and her father and her family regaled us with stories,” Dayton remembers. “It was really great material.”
Awash in the raw material of fiction, Dayton enrolled in some workshops at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, preparing for another assault on novelizing.
“In 1998, I set out to write a trilogy of historical novels about Philadelphia,” he said. “It was going to go from the Native American era to the present.” He had grown up hearing about Gov. Logan, whose ancestral home, Stenton, still stands, and who had built one of the largest private libraries in the colonies. Logan had also been a mentor to Ben Franklin.
Five years into the project, however, Dayton was seduced by the urgency to write, with his wife’s guidance, about Iran.
Work on The House That War Minister Built, published last September, began in 2003. Though Dayton had never been to Iran, he envisioned an epic family saga stretching over many generations. It would draw, in part, on the experiences of Elahe’s family.
“I did most of the writing, the plot and the characterization,” Dayton says. “Ellie told me how things worked in Iranian society. She had been very close to her grandmother who had been one of four wives in the harem.”
Harem life, he learned, was not so much about sex as about intrigue, power struggles and fighting. “Some wives recruited their own competitors, and there were ‘temporary wives’ as well,” Dayton said.
Elahe occasionally found Dayton’s writing “much too Western in sensibility,” he said. “She gave me insight into characters and circumstances.”
The story traces 80 years in the life of Nargess, a protagonist whose name translates as Narcissia. The tale begins at the end of the Qajar dynasty in the 1920s and includes such historically accurate events as the 1953 coup orchestrated by the CIA (and led by Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson), the downfall of the ruling Pahlavi family and subsequent rise by Ayatollah Khomeini and the mullahs.
“Khomeini initially rose to power largely because of policies instituted by JFK,” Dayton said. “That stuff is true and a lot of it is not known…we used historical developments as a backdrop to understand what people were facing at the time. Americans tend to be naïve about our country’s interventions in Iran.”
Dayton says he’d love to visit Iran some day, but concedes he might not be welcome just now. In support of their book, however, he and Elahe have given book talks in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose, D.C., Frederick, New York City and, most recently, Houston. Sales, he said, have been modest, although Kirkus Reviews named The House That War Minister Built a “Best of 2011.”
Dayton has resumed work on the Philly trilogy, devoting an average of one full day per weekend. “That book will be all me,” he said. Elahe left science some years ago and is now a real estate investor.
“We are also toying with the idea of a sequel [to the Iran book],” he said. “There is a naughty character named Saeed [in War Minister], and our working title for a comic novel is Saeed in Philadelphia.”