POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

Interviewed by Alex Gilvarry

Porochista Khakpour is the author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects, a remarkable debut novel published to wide critical acclaim in 2007. That year it was a New York Times “Editor’s Choice,” a Chicago Tribune Fall’s Best, and a California Book Award Winner for First Fiction. The New Yorker has called Khakpour’s “comic sense… infectious.”  And her debut novel, full of raw energy and exuberance, has drawn comparisons to Zadie Smith and Philip Roth. Khakpour’s latest story, The Deer-Vehicle Collision Survivor’s Support Group, recently appeared in Guernica.

Porochista has taught fiction as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Bucknell University for the past few years, and this fall will be joining the faculty at the College of Sante Fe as a Professor of Creative Writing.

INTERVIEWER

There’s that old saying by Somerset Maugham that goes: “There are three rules to writing a novel, unfortunately no one knows what they are.” While this is probably true, I still have to ask: do you follow any rules?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

I am currently finishing a draft of my second novel—although one could argue I wrote several in my youth—so I’m not sure I have the rules down for anyone else or even for me, for that matter. But here are some ways of thinking about the whole ordeal that have helped.

“Rule” #1: First of all, when on a draft, I never look back, just forward. Sprint to the finish line. Just get the thing done as fast as possible. I have to be able to see the thing, have it take some sort of rough shape, before I can even evaluate it. For me, this process can take under a year. Then I gear up for years and years of editing. I don’t write a sentence at a time—write, polish, revise, next sentence—I write a draft at a time. My first draft is so unbelievably rough it could never be seen by eyes other than my own—it would literally be unreadable. I suppose it helps that I am not a perfectionist.

“Rule” #2: Don’t be a perfectionist. Get out of short story mode. Not every line of a novel is going to be a gem. Live with this. Learn to love it. I teach the short story more than I write it, so it’s hard to shake off that precision mindset, but once I do, it’s so liberating.

“Rule” #3: Avoid all reading material that in any way resembles your project. Here I mean fiction really, fiction that somehow has a bit of your voice in it, especially. I am always worried about “being influenced.” I have stopped reading some of the novels I was sure I’d most love after a few pages because they were too “me.” Nonfiction and poetry become great novel helpers, whereas other novels seem like shady spies. I generally go on a crazy novel binge once I am done with a draft and then abstain again once I begin redrafting.

INTERVIEWER

It’s interesting that you avoid fiction, because if you were to tell me about what you were writing now, I would instinctively recommend the most similar book that came to mind.

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

Well, I tell my students to start to identify and hold dear those writers who they believe are in “their clan.” It’s very important to have those, I think. But they don’t help me when I’m actually with-project. It’s like inviting a very highly regarded, cherished mentor into your tiny, messy, cramped, writing room, to observe you as you write. It would be impossible to get a word on the page, I’d think. And there’s that whole anxiety of influence thing. You have to be as free as possible to write well, I think, completely unencumbered by any and all authority, even the most benevolent authority.

INTERVIEWER

What were you reading while you were writing Sons and Other Flammable Objects?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

I was reading Herodotus mainly! And for the first time, to complete the second part of the novel, which sums up quite a large chunk of Persian history in order to explain the etymologies of the two main characters’ names. Herodotus. . . and blogs. That’s about it.

INTERVIEWER

Herodotus. That’s incredible. The novel feels haunted by history from the very first sentence, which might be my favorite opening sentence of a book in recent memory. It begins: “Another in the long line of misunderstandings in their shared history, what caused Xerxes and Darius Adam to vow never to speak again, really began with a misplaced anecdote, specifically an incident that happened many years before in the summer of Xerxes’s twelfth year….” and on to the end of a wonderful, winding paragraph.

Was this the first sentence you wrote for the book?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

Yes, it was the first sentence I wrote and it really set the tone for the rest, I think. I was pretty lucky with this first book. I wrote it pretty much as it appears. All my editing was on a microscopic sentence level—that macro survived, for the most part, completely in tact in revisions. The first sentence was the first, and the last, the last. What happened within the sentences is a different story, of course.

INTERVIEWER

Writing a novel often takes a great deal of luck. With first books, we all have to be discovered in a sense.

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

My tale indeed involves a lot of luck. An old friend of mine—an old crush, actually, let’s admit it—was quitting his job as an assistant at the publishing house that bought my book. On his final day there, he tossed my manuscript on the desk of a prominent editor and suddenly I got an email out of nowhere—while I was at work (I was working as a Rodeo Drive shopgirl back then)—from this prominent editor a week later saying she had been crying and laughing all week, reading it on the subway ride home. She wanted to know how to proceed. I thought it was a joke. I had no final draft and no agent so I exercised amazing restraint and said I’d have to wait, which she understood. Which was kind of crazy, in retrospect! But it all worked out—the book went to that publishing house in the end. So I was “discovered” in a sort of fairy tale way. I mean, I’d never published a single short story, ever. I’d never even sent a single one out. They really took a risk on me.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk about your relationship with your sentences?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

It’s hard to talk about my relationship with sentences when they are both my starting and end point. The sentences are everything. What else is there in my novel? You have a father-son clash. That’s all. It’s quite a blank-slate plot. But I hope what makes it worth the journey for the reader is the language.

I love lots of “language writers,” I guess you’d call them. Nabokov and Faulkner especially, but also minimalists like James Salter. Salter is an example of a writer I could read and read and read forever but is not of “my clan,” so I don’t feel influenced or burdened by having him nearby as I write. I actually feel cleansed by Salter, since I think I’m a bit of a raw, sprawling, maximalist. And the only writer I can blame that on is perhaps Faulkner. I read all of Faulkner in one year, when I was 15. He was my introduction to great literature and I think he forever shaped my language. I can never get over Faulkner—I don’t know what I’d write like if I hadn’t bumped into him when I did. I don’t even know what I’d be like.

INTERVIEWER

What were the first Salter books you discovered?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

I discovered Salter a bit late, in grad school. He was among the namedropped by the other fiction students. So I picked up Light Years and it was the most exquisite novel I had ever read. I was just blown away by the prose—the strangeness of it, the unrelenting emphasis on style, how that alone could carry and really tell a story. I just love that book and I taught it, and my students hated it. They did like his really stunning New Yorker story from a few years back, “Last Night.” That story can teach you a lot about how to write a story. It’s just earth-shattering.

INTERVIEWER

It’s interesting that you read poetry during your novel periods. You’re obviously a writer who understands the music of the sentence. Is this something you take from poetry?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

I always try to tell poets that they will like my novel, but what I think I mean is that I would love for my novel to be regarded as a poet’s novel. There is of course that obsessive attention to language which for me is paramount in writing—plot does not come naturally at all. I don’t think I got it from the poetry I read though, because for much of my formative years I hated poetry or rather the very idea of it. I hadn’t read much. By the time I did get into poetry it was too late. And my favorite poets were and are James Wright and Robert Penn Warren, poets who have nothing to do, not even remotely, with what I write about or how I write it. I also love Whitman, of course. And the late Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad.

INTERVIEWER

There was something so compelling that got me to turn the page, in addition to the language. I found that you really knew how to end a passage, or a chapter. I happen to think you know what you’re doing in the area of endings.

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

It’s funny, I find endings so difficult. Endings and titles. I have created lots of exercises for my students on how to write good endings—in one, we start with a story ending and just work our way backwards to the beginning. I think our problem with endings in general comes with never experiencing our own endings. We’d end, realistically, mid-thought or mid-sentence. So it’s always a battle and perhaps the most artificial part of the writing process.

INTERVIEWER

What I learned from your book is that endings sometimes have little to do with resolutions, and more to do with withholding.

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

I think poets taught me a lot about resolutions. Maybe they do that withholding-thing you’re referring to. But then again, I’m partial to the grand Whitman-esque conclusions—James Wright again: “I have wasted my life.” I’m not sure that would work well in fiction.

INTERVIEWER

You said you have a problem with titles. Sons and other Flammable Objects is a great title, period. Was this what it was called when it got dropped on your editor’s desk?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

Sons had a few different titles. Its original title, the one it got “discovered’ with, was—and I shudder to type this—SYMPOSIUM OF THE STARCROSSED. It’s a line in the novel. Whatever. I’ve never been much of a title-giver. Then there was CLOUDCUCKOOLAND, which is my Wordsmith “word of the day” today, so there—to all the people who thought it was too obscure. That word also appears in the novel.

The title it has now was really not my title. My editor, and in fact the editor of the entire publishing house, pieced it together from a crazy email I sent a little over a year before my book came out. I was to have an entire summer to edit and title it. But suddenly they needed a title for the catalogue or something and I had, like, 12 hours to title my novel. It just so happened that I was going crazy at that moment, insomnia-stricken, anxiety-disordered, depressed, the works, from the pressures of actually having to edit a novel that was actually going to get published, while actually living in the home of the folks—my folks!—who the novel was loosely based on. I lost it and ended up living at home for a year instead of the two months I was supposed to be in LA to edit. Anyway, in the middle of the chaos, my editor tells me they need a title, pronto. To be fair, she had no idea what was going on with me. I was telling everyone I had chronic fatigue syndrome, which was a vague possibility I guess, but certainly better than “I’m having a nervous breakdown.” So I sent her this crazy long list of words that could potentially be a part of a title and told her they could pick. And they did it. They came up with a combo of a couple of my lines: “Sons and Other Flammable Objects.” For a long time I really didn’t like it. It finally took lots of other people to tell me they love it, for me to actually like it. But I still worry it’s too sensational-sounding. I always feel like adding the disclaimer, “the sons are not the flammable objects,” by the way.

INTERVIEWER

Where were you born?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

Tehran, Iran.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have memories of Tehran?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

A few… bomb sirens, mostly false alerts, at advent of the Iran-Iraq War. Men praying and their prayer calls on rooftops.

INTERVIEWER

Where did you grow up mainly?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

South Pasadena, 10 minutes from Downtown LA on the 110.

INTERVIEWER

Is that where you lived when you first came to the United States?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

First we lived at the Hotel Wellington in Downtown LA, which is still there. Then Alhambra, California. And then soon after South Pasadena since my parents heard they had good public schools.

INTERVIEWER

Somehow I always thought of you as a New York writer, probably because you write the city so well. When did you move to the New York?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

When I was 18, for Sarah Lawrence College. Then I kind of never left—though that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I moved to Chicago and Baltimore for little stints. Also, now I’ve lived in Central Pennsylvania, 3 hours away, for two years. But I, too, always think of myself as a New York writer. A Los Angeles native, but a New York writer. I’ve never been away from New York City for more than a few weeks, since I moved there. It’s the city I know best and love the most.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a favorite New York novel?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

I tend to like novels that don’t take place in New York City, like Faulkner’s South or McCarthy’s Southwest or Cheever’s suburbia and all the California writers and their books.

INTERVIEWER

Which California writers?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

Raymond Carver is a big love. I love Nathaniel West. I love Philip K Dick! And I consider Bret Easton Ellis a California writer and I really love him—I think he’s sometimes underrated as a serious writer. I strangely can’t really get into Joan Didion, though I’d count her in there—she’s someone I’d teach (and have taught), but don’t want to sit with one-on-one on a Sunday afternoon, you know? I also don’t love Steinbeck. So actually there’s quite a few “California writers” I don’t like, it seems.

INTERVIEWER

When did you begin writing about Iranian characters?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

My novel was the first time.

INTERVIEWER

Was this a breakthrough for you?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

In way, I suppose. I guess you get to this point where you think what will I have the steam to write about for, say, 100,000 words? It often comes down to yourself. And so there were those autobiographical elements. And that meant Iranians.

INTERVIEWER

Where do you write?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

I work in a tiny office space. For the last several years I have chosen very tight, almost closet-sized spaces for my writing rooms. I like it that way. There are less distractions and somehow grazing walls feels like you’re protected. I can’t handle the freedom of space when I write. I used to dislike windows, even.

But then it’s probably important to mention that I have not lived in a single space for more than a year since I was a kid living at home. I’ve been subletting mostly. The best apartment I rented was probably the one in Baltimore where I wrote Sons. It was big and cheap and I had a lovely greyhound who slept at my feet as I wrote.

I should also mention that I do not and did not write every day—I have never written every day. I actually think this is bad writing advice. I don’t think my friends who slave away writing daily are writing better stuff or producing even more stuff for that matter. They are just, well, writing daily. If that is going to make you feel better about yourself then fine, but let’s not kid. I don’t think writing works like that exactly.

INTERVIEWER

So it doesn’t sound like you have a problem with discipline. I’ve read Orhan Pamuk likes to work 10 hour days. I couldn’t believe it. Do you have those sacred hours of uninterrupted writing time? How long are your stretches of writing, usually?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

Oh dear. The worst side of me somehow comes out when I hear writers tell people they work 10 hours a day. I mean, it’s like, wow, I thought you were this amazingly brilliant writer, but if you’re putting a 50-70 hour week into it, then shit, I’m disappointed! Your stuff should be even better, my dear sir! You should be like the number one-iest writer in all the land! And how they go on about those “sacred hours” of writing—groan. You never hear a janitor talk this way about his job. What is so sacred about what we do? Our writing time? A part of me is tempted to say we are getting away with something here. And our punishment: little pay. The janitors should get paid more than us. I mean, sometimes I feel like writers try so hard to add even more glitter and mystique to this fairly simple and sometimes dull career choice. Sometimes the way writers talk reminds me of rappers on “Cribs” who open the doors to their bedrooms and say “this is where the magic happens,” when really it’s probably just occasional bad sex in an ugly over-decorated room.

Anyway, no one ever asks are you able to write every day? I am not—I am one of those writers who has always had to hold a job while I wrote and I probably always will. The nice thing is I actually like letting ideas swirl around in my head for days, weeks, months even. I guess maybe you could say I do work every day. I am always thinking about writing, just not always writing. When I do get uninterrupted chunks of time, like last summer when I went from VCCA to UCross to Yaddo, for an entire summer, I wrote constantly, feverishly, 3,000 words a day, even while I had Lyme and Parvovirus. I guess I make up for it. I’m pretty hot and cold with everything in life, so it’s maybe just a personality thing.

INTERVIEWER

And do you enjoy it—the act of writing?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

I love it. Maybe because I don’t always get to do it. I lust after it and when I’m on, it’s on. There is nothing else I would rather do. I feel so lucky that I can do this in a world where people have to clean bathrooms and wait tables day in and day out for minimum wage.

INTERVIEWER

Where is your new novel set?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

Almost entirely in New York, 1999-2001.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us about it?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

I’m gonna botch it up if I attempt to really explain it in a nutshell. But let’s just say it involves a magician, a feral child, Persian mythology, New York, Y2K, 9/11, and magical thinking. And more birds, a lot of birds again, actually. I guess I have a “bird thing.”

INTERVIEWER

“The Deer-Vehicle Collision Survivors Support Group” is a new story that appears in Guernica, guest-edited by Claire Messud. The story surrounds a couple from a big city, presumably New York, that moves to a small university “village” in the country. The narrator, Ed, is a jobless eccentric who has followed his girlfriend, Azita, a professor to this new town. And through a series of events, Ed winds up in a support group for deer-vehicle collision survivors. It’s a hilarious story, and quite a departure from your first novel, and sounds like it’s very different from your new novel.

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

I wrote that story while in between novels. I really don’t like to work on anything but my novel when I’m with-novel. (And I am working on a short story now actually in spite of it. It’s procrastination! That’s the nice thing about novels: suddenly all other fairly important writing becomes procrastination, so you’re running away from writing by doing other writing, which is pretty great). My short stories don’t seem to sound anything like my novels. I don’t know how to explain it. I am not a natural short story writer. They are very hard for me and in some ways harder than novels. I feel very insecure working on a short story, even though I’ve been teaching them for over seven years. And my short stories are almost novella-sized, always. In grad school, I’d turn in these 30+ -page stories with tiny font type and fudged margins and everyone would just hate me. Stephen Dixon finally insisted I had to be a novelist, he was so frustrated with those long-long-long stories.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote a piece for Canteen magazine that touched on the unglamorous aspects of the writing life… being broke and on your first book tour just as your book came out. Which was crazy to me! You’re a critically acclaimed author who had a strong debut novel. What the hell else does a writer need to do to stay in the window display of the B&N?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

I’ve been in the window display at the B&N. It doesn’t do much—adds a few more folks to your readers. Writing simply does not pay—it is not a myth. But it did help me get my current teaching gig, which definitely pays.

INTERVIEWER

Now that you have some distance from your first novel “experience,” how do you feel about the industry? What else can be done to sell a book, and does anyone really know how to do it?

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

I am not bitter about the industry. I knew it was going to be this way going in. Of course, I wish there was less catering to this idea of the “book-buying public” because I think there are some grave misunderstandings and underestimations there, but all in all, is it any worse than any other industry? And can I somehow make people want to read what I love? I guess part of why I love what I love is because it’s not for everyone. I’m okay with that. And I’m okay with my work not being for everyone. I just want to do well enough to get another contract. That’s my only goal: to keep this up. Then I can probably freelance and teach and do all those other things that pay better. But in the meantime, I’m just grateful that such a life exists. You’d think we’d be obsolete by now, but amazingly here we are. Here we still are.

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3 comments

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Profanity, Herodotus & poverty. The immensely talented Porochista Khakpour interview on the new Tottenville Review. -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: John McPhee on structure and structured writing time « John Gilmore

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