Give us the elevator pitch for your book.
THE IMMORTALS OF TEHRAN is a magic-realistic, multi-generational saga of a family suffering under a mysterious curse, spanning from WWII to a few years after the 1979 revolution in Iran. The novel follows the life of Ahmad from age ten, when he loses his voice, to when he becomes a well-known poet, and later the youngest member of the parliament. A network of character stories, and nefarious interference by the city’s population of cats, converge toward the revolution.
What were your plans for book launch pre-Covid?
My main plan was to launch my novel at Left Bank Books in St. Louis. The event would have featured a reading from the novel plus a conversation with writer Kathryn Davis, followed by a Q&A. A second reading in Skylight Books in LA in May was also canceled. I was looking forward to meeting new people and talking about the book. The questions advance readers have asked me so far have helped me think more deeply about my novel and my writing in general. I will miss having the opportunity to have an engaging, face-to-face conversation with a smart, interested audience, and, in case of Skylight, getting to experience the physical space of a great bookstore.
Where were you when you heard your book tour/ launch was cancelled?
I was in my apartment in St. Louis when I heard my launch was canceled. The cancellation did not actually come as a surprise. Some time before it happened, I emailed the bookstore and suggested we think of livestreaming the event in case some people didn’t feel comfortable attending or, worst case scenario, if it got canceled. Then, just as data from other parts of the world suggested, the situation started escalating in the US. The number of COVID-19 cases went up and waves of cancellations started. In some sense, I was expecting the event to fall through at least in its original form.
Thinking back to how things panned out, I’d want to venture to wish the rest of my life could be as predictable as this cancellation was. I would look at graphs created using data from similar situations and predict what would most likely happen to me. The way China, Iran, and Italy had to deal with the outbreak of COVID-19 mentally prepared me to expect I may not get a book launch the way I had imagined it and even go on to take some steps to save as much of it as I could (hence the livestreaming suggestion).
Three months ago, in January 2020, after the US killed the Iranian General Soleimani, the two countries were on the brink of a war. Those days, I could think of several scenarios in which I would miss the launch of my novel, deportation being one. That escalation of events made me revisit the unpredictability in my life as an Iranian both in Iran and abroad and write an article about it. I certainly wish I still had the opportunity to meet book lovers and readers and talk to them about my novel at Left Bank and Skylight Books where I had events planned, but put in perspective, my launch getting canceled did not come as an unexpected blow.
What went into writing and selling your book?
I started writing the novel around fall 2013 when I was at the University of Notre Dame. I workshopped the first chapter in Steve Tomasula’s workshop. By February 2015, I had the first draft. That was a very different kind of writing in many ways. There were ten chapters, five set in Tehran in 2010, the rest in historically significant periods of contemporary Iran: WWII, the 1953 Coup, the Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, and the 2009 protests following the presidential election. The novel alternated between the two kinds of chapters.
After I received feedback from my early readers, I decided that the novel needed structural changes. I slashed the more recent half of the novel and committed to a more linear chronology. Little by little the voice evolved into what we currently have in the novel, a storyteller-like tone of a narrator that is almost omniscient. The second half of the draft was compressed as I cut long scenes out of it.
It took me another year and a half to finish the draft that became the current novel. I workshoped it in Kathryn Davis’ Novel Workshop at Washington University in St. Louis. She liked it and sent the manuscript out to three agents she knew. At the same time I started querying agents. Finally The Zoë Pagnamenta Agency picked up the novel and I signed with my agent, Alison Lewis.
Alison and I worked on the manuscript in the summer of 2018 and she began submitting in fall. By the end of the year, Melville House Publishing was interested. The next round of revisions was with my editor, Ryan Harrington, in summer 2019. That was about the time we had an almost final text (except for minor final touches in fall).
What is the weirdest job you held on your path to publication?
I have been on a student visa since I came to the US. You are not allowed to work on this visa. This is why I have only had a few jobs and only on university campuses. I wouldn’t call any of them weird per se, but my very first job was in the mailroom at the community center of the on-campus housing at the University of Notre Dame. The room was barely large enough for me and the two large bags of mail. This was during the very first months after I had moved to the US. I didn’t know what was what. A part of my job was to weed out advertisements and other junk mail, but it was not always clear to me what was advertisement. I may have shredded some people’s mail.
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
I want my readers to first and foremost enjoy the novel and feel some connection to the characters. But I’d also love for them to get a sense of the lives of the characters they don’t perhaps like or approve of, or even better, understand why they do what they do. If an exercise in empathy is an outcome of reading my novel, I think I could console myself with the thought that my efforts have not been fruitless. Finally, I would love for my readers to think about historical writing not as an irrefutable representation of reality, but as a construct, a narrative prone to biases and prejudices of its writers, which means we should never read it unquestioningly.
For the past couple of years, I have experienced Iran though the frames of media, and various others on my devices. I have lived in Tehran for three decades and I know that real Iranian life is very different from the impression the sum total of these frames give me. It is certainly unlike the cherry-picked fractions of misery and catastrophe that some media showcase. I distort history in THE IMMORTALS hoping to bring attention to the fact that frames (in a general sense of the word that includes textual narratives) can crop and distort reality sometimes in ideologically-charged ways.
What’s your favorite Indie Book store?
I’m going to have to say, Left Bank Books in St. Louis.
Can you recommend one other debut?
I haven’t read the book myself yet, but it’s on my list: trans(re)lating house 1 is Poupeh Missaghi’s debut novel about a woman who looks for Tehran’s displaced statues in the turbulent time after the 2009 Iranian Presidential Election.