Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

Interviewed by Alex Gilvarry

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh is the author of the memoir When Skateboards Will Be Free, which has just been released in paperback from Random House. Saïd was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish American mother and an Iranian father, and was raised by his mother in Pittsburgh, where much of the book takes place. It is a revealing portrait of Saïd’s childhood, the pains of growing up in a single-parent household devoted to the Socialist Worker’s Party. But at its core it is the story of an American childhood made complicated by politics and paternal estrangement. The book is a revelation of honest-to-god storytelling, “heartbreaking and hilarious…” said The Guardian, where it was an editor’s pick. And in 2009 it was selected as one of the 10 best books by Dwight Garner of The New York Times.

Saïd’s short stories and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, The New York Times Book Review, and numerous other publications. And his most recent short story, “Appetite,” was published in the March 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

He lives in New York City.


INTERVIEWER

Perhaps you can begin with how your book began. When Skateboards Will Be Free. You published a piece by the same title in Granta in the Fall of 2005, back when Ian Jack was editor. Could you talk about the evolution of that piece?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

I wrote a short piece just a few days after the 2004 election where I talked frankly about my upbringing and how I’ve never really been able to vote in any election because of my allegiance to the Socialist Workers Party. I read it aloud at Happy Ending on the Lower East Side and I was surprised by how well received it was. Especially considering how many New Yorkers were reeling from another George Bush victory. I’ve always been embarrassed by my political past. It was a major source of alienation for me when I was a child and I’ve done a great deal to keep it buried. That was one of the lessons I learned when I was a boy: don’t let anyone know who you are. So to stand in front of a group of people and tell them that about my mom and dad, and The Militant newspaper, and how we all yearned for another Russian Revolution felt like a major risk. The writer, Thomas Beller, posted my essay on his website mrbellersneighborhood.com, and a few days later I received an email from Matt Weiland, who was then the deputy editor of Granta. He had read the piece and he suggested I write something longer about my family for him to consider. Which I did. Two months later I sent him about thirty pages, where I recounted a memorable dinner with my father on my thirtieth birthday, (which had been delayed by six months because of his busy political schedule). In this dinner scene I flashed back to major events in my childhood, many of them concerning the Socialist Workers Party. This essay became the foundation for my memoir.

INTERVIEWER

That essay became a great chapter which now falls in the middle of the book, and seems so central to the book’s structure. It’s such a climactic moment for the reader in your relationship with your father, who had been absent for most of your childhood. One would assume, since it was the first thing you wrote, you would begin the book with that. Yet there’s so much else that surrounds it.

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

I realized very early on that the structure of the Granta essay would not work for an entire book. The dinner scene with my father had been quite useful in interrupting the episodes from my childhood, as well as giving the reader (and myself) some levity, but in a full-length book I needed to reach for something broader, more significant. This is why I chose to use my relationship with Karen (now my wife) to give the book its overall arc. One of the advantages to this was that it gave me an opportunity to break away from the politics and provide a window into my present life in New York City. It also helped to remind the reader that I had survived what I had gone through.

INTERVIEWER

Something memoir doesn’t often get credit for, as well as the authors who write them, is the structural composition of the story—it’s just like writing any other book, or so I assume. You needed to order the events and people in your life to form a compelling story, which involves making all sorts of serious decisions in the writing process. How did you approach structuring the story?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

In structuring the memoir I suppose I was “fortunate” that I was able to easily track my childhood through major political or personal events. The grape boycott when I was four, moving to Pittsburgh when I was six, my father leaving for Iran when I was ten, etc. It was all just a matter of following the trail. And the trail ultimately led to my mother resigning from the Socialist Workers Party when I was sixteen, a dramatic summation of the life that we had spent together. There was no other way to end this book.

INTERVIEWER

I’m assuming that you made several revelations, or what seemed like revelations, as you went into the depths of your memory. Was any of what you discovered particularly surprising?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

The biggest revelation for me was going to the Special Collections Library at the University of Delaware where all of my uncle’s papers are housed. I was shocked to discover forty years worth of correspondence from my mother, beginning when she was about twenty-four years old. Her letters broke my heart. She wrote frequently to my uncle about her ambition to be a writer and to travel the world and to live in Paris. None of which ever happened, of course. But to experience that young woman’s earnest, optimistic voice gave me a lot of insight and sympathy into how she became the person she did. The memoir would have been much different without having read those letters.

INTERVIEWER

I can’t believe you married Karen, your “love interest” in the book. That’s such a happy ending to your story. Yet, you resisted putting your marriage in the book. It’s interesting to me, putting an ending on a memoir, which is your life, essentially. Was it hard?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

I wanted to end on an optimistic note. Which meant that the reader needed to know that my mother was OK, and that I was OK. To jump to my marriage would have been skipping too far into the future. Plus there were fraught moments at the wedding, namely that my father didn’t show up. He did, however, come to my reception the following day, and this was the first time I had ever seen him and my mother in the same room together. Needless to say it was a complicated afternoon. I thought there was something quite perfect about visiting the Norman Rockwell exhibit with my mother and Karen. After all, the book in many ways is about America, and no one is more American than Norman Rockwell.

INTERVIEWER

This is a book about America! And I think its contribution is that it expands our idea of America, because, our idea of “America” is always lagging behind where America really is. I think your book makes one realize this somehow.

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

One of the most satisfying aspects of writing my memoir was being able to portray the consequences of having my name. “Where are you from?” is a question that I’ve been asked most of life. On the surface it’s a harmless question, but the implication is that I couldn’t possibly be from America. The answer most people are looking for, of course, is that I’m Iranian. And over the years I’ve even said as much. The truth is that I was born in New York and raised in Pittsburgh. I grew up playing baseball, basketball and football. My best friends were black kids and white kids with names like John and Eric. I don’t speak Persian. I’ve never been to Iran. I’m not a Muslim. So what’s Iranian about any of that? What’s even Iranian-American about any of that? No, the person who’s Iranian-American is my father. As for me, I’m an American. Plain and simple.

INTERVIEWER

Where were you born?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

Brooklyn.

INTERVIEWER

Did you end up revisiting the places where you grew up for the book?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

I’ve revisited those places from my childhood many times over the years, but not specifically as research for this book. I had no real need or desire to see those apartments or neighborhoods in order to inform my memories of them.

INTERVIEWER

Did you write stories when you were growing up? There are those beautiful images that remain with me from the book, of your mother writing stories in whatever spare time she had. Plus, you had your uncle, the author Mark Harris. Did any of it rub off, or did you pick it up much later?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

It must have rubbed off on me. I can recall claiming that I wanted to be a writer around the age of eight years old. Although, I’m not sure if this was motivated more by the hope that it would make me wealthy—like my uncle. By the time I was in my early twenties I knew that this was definitely what I wanted to be. But writing about my life was still a number of years away. I had no idea that there was anything interesting to say about my childhood.

INTERVIEWER

So when you started writing, what were your first stories about?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

The first story I can remember writing was when I was in third grade. It wasn’t for school it was for me. The story was about a son who lives alone with his mother. His father has gone off to war. Every morning the boy goes to the front door to see if his father has returned. I don’t really remember what happened beyond that. Maybe nothing happened. I suppose in many ways that story is what my memoir would be if you boiled it down to its essence. But it took me thirty years before I could write it.

INTERVIEWER

You worked as an actor for many years, is that correct?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

I “tried” to work as an actor for many years.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us about some of the parts you had? There are some extremely funny moments in the book, when you’re going on auditions during your lunch hour while you were working for Martha Stewart. How long did you keep on acting before you became a writer?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

I played a doctor on “Another World” for six episodes. Dr. Saïd. I kept hoping that it would turn into a lead character, but unfortunately it never did. The last time I worked I tripped over a light and they had to reshoot the scene. After that they never called me in again, and so I’ve always blamed myself. I also played a deli owner on “Cosby.” That was a memorable audition. I was up for the role of “homeowner,” but the casting director said to me, “You’re not quite the “homeowner type,” we do, however, have “deli owner.” I was humiliated, but I took it. I made more from five seconds on “Cosby” than I had in my entire career. It was the typecasting, though, that made me want to give up acting. Which I finally did about ten years ago. I don’t miss it at all.

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to ask about your process. Russell Banks once said that he can’t see his own characters’ faces. Their faces are like blank canvases. Everything else about them he usually knows. It’s an interesting point about the creative process and maybe how we read. We’re not painters, or filmmakers. While reading, something is always left to the brain to fill in. What do you see when you’re creating? Can you see your parents’ faces, or the others in the book?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

I see it all. Faces, bodies, rooms, streets. But I’m also writing nonfiction. The things I draw from are things that are vivid for me. I suppose that’s why I’m drawing from them in the first place. I actually think about myself as a filmmaker when I write. Or a director of a play. This might come from all the years I spent in theatre. I look at the scene from the audience’s perspective. The real work for me comes in trying to create drama for the audience. And also in trying to convey ideas without seeming like I’m trying to convey ideas. I like my scenes to speak for themselves. As a rule I avoid explanations. I’m OK if different readers get different things from what I write.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that could be a failing of the writer? When a writer is not considering the audience, or the reader’s perspective. (And this has to do with several elements in a scene, not just drama and tension, but page length and timing). The question may be besides the point, because writers write to be read, of course. But we open books all the time that seem to boggle us and test our patience as readers.

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

There has to be some middle ground between completely ignoring the reader and pandering to them. This is sometimes a difficult balance to strike, but I think it has to be something that a writer attempts to do. This goes for theatre, as well. I’ve sat through many plays where I don’t think the director ever thought about the audience. In fact, I’ve been an actor in some of those plays. Then again I’ve seen many plays, and read many books where everything was made plain, and things resolved themselves in the way I expected them to. This is never terribly satisfying. What I want is complicated characters, and complicated emotions.

INTERVIEWER

A lot of writers discover storytelling through film and television. There’s a wonderful scene in your book where you discover your uncle’s film adaptation of his novel Bang the Drum Slowly, because the movie starring Robert DeNiro is on television one night when your mother isn’t home. Were there any plays or films that made an impression on you?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

As a child it was the theatre itself that influenced me. My mother began taking me to plays when I was very young. I remember, for instance, seeing Jack and the Beanstalk when I was about four years old. Pied Piper of Hamelin was another one that made a big impression. I believe I saw that staged in Prospect Park around 1973. The theatricality, the drama, the fact that people were allowed to pretend. All of it was significant. My mother also took me to see Hitchcock when I was a child. (Another example of being exposed to things at too young an age.) But in this case I think I got lucky and it had a positive impact. I saw Psycho when I was about eleven. Hitchcock’s a perfect example of someone who took the audience into account. Dog Day Afternoon was another one. I was probably nine when I saw it. My mother also took me to see Charlie Chaplin. His ability to laugh at misery was profound for me.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any playwrights, maybe from your days as an actor, who you find indispensable?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

None of this will be terribly surprising. Shakespeare, of course. Arthur Miller. Chekhov. Beckett. I don’t see too much theatre these days. I’m burned out, I suppose. Or frustrated. But I have fond memories of certain plays, or even moments from plays. Sometimes it happens when and where you least expect it. Twenty years ago I watched a friend perform Krapp’s Last Tape in front of no more than a dozen people in a little theatre in Pittsburgh. That play changed my life. It certainly got me to move to New York City. When I write I try to mimic the way Beckett combined tragedy and comedy. Despite the overtop bleakness there’s still something emotionally understated about his characters.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find reading certain authors helpful while you’re working? What did you read while writing Skateboards?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

I generally avoid reading anything for assistance. By the time I was ready to write my memoir I didn’t feel like I needed anything to help me anymore. At least, not directly. My voice was shaped. Or shaped enough. When I was younger I was strongly influenced by James Baldwin’s personal essays; Richard Wright’s Black Boy; Kafka. When I was writing the memoir I recall reading Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. But there was nothing premeditated about that.

INTERVIEWER

You had a short story in The New Yorker recently called “Appetite.” A lot of non-fiction writers won’t do fiction and vice versa because of a multitude of reasons (sometimes bad reasons). But judging from your work, I think there’s something refreshing in doing this. Are there differences for you when writing fiction?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

I’ve also written plays. Plays, in fact, preceded my nonfiction. So I think I was already primed to work in different genres. There are huge differences between nonfiction and fiction. Nonfiction is fully formed for me. The story is there already. But when I write fiction I have to invent almost everything. It’s liberating and it’s daunting. There were many times when I was working on the memoir that I wished that it was a novel. Partly because it was burdensome and exhausting having to figure out how to write certain things, or having to track down some obscure fact in some obscure publication. And sometimes when I work on fiction I find myself wishing it were nonfiction because then I would know what had to happen next. In other words, I long for the parameters. But in the end it’s all the same, fiction, playwriting, nonfiction: I’m trying to tell a story.

INTERVIEWER

What’s up next for you? Can you see yourself writing another memoir someday?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

I can see myself writing another memoir. Or at least more personal narratives. I wrote a nonfiction piece not too long ago about the girlfriend I had when I first moved to New York City. I don’t ever mention my Jewish mom, or my Iranian dad, or the Socialist Workers Party. In other words, I’ve had more than just one life. But I’m writing fiction next. Perhaps a collection of interconnected stories based on “Appetite” in The New Yorker. I’m ready to move on and talk about other people for a while.

INTERVIEWER

I can’t tell you how many moments in your memoir made me recall my own childhood. This book beckons us to think about our own lives, which is what good literature should do. What has the reception been like from your family—those in the book?

SAÏD SAYRAFIEZADEH

Well, everyone has loved the book, including my mother. The only exception has been my father. He stopped talking to me when I had the excerpt published in Granta. That was almost five years ago now. I can’t say that I was surprised much by his reaction. He’s still in the Socialist Workers Party, after all. He’s still a leading member. I’ve received a few emails from “comrades” who basically said that my father’s a great man and I should be ashamed. This is the worship that attends my father. I doubt he’s read the memoir. I doubt he ever will. I’m sure he’d see it as an “attack on the working class,” which is his way of getting out of having to feel anything. I’m not terribly affected by his silence. In fact, I’m used to it. Not having a father has defined my life.

Advertisements

2 comments

  1. Please teach the rest of these internet holgoains how to write and research!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: