“Our World on Steroids”: An Interview with Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

Contemporary America is simultaneously always at war and never at war, and evoking the feeling this produces has stymied some of our finest writers. Neither straight realism nor outright fabulism seem up to the task. With his excellent new story collection, Brief Encounters with the Enemy, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh has devised an ingenious solution. As they wander through an unnamed American city, his characters suffer through romantic frustrations and lousy jobs at Walmart and restaurants; they feel jealous of office-mates who have gone to war; sometimes they even go to war themselves. The war itself is where the collection departs from the familiar facts of the headlines we sort of read. The reader doesn’t know where this war is, whether it’s starting or ending, or why it’s being fought. Of course, like many departures from realism, this feels extremely realistic, and the result is a moving and often bleakly funny portrait of the way we live now.

The son of an Iranian Muslim father and an American Jewish mother, Sayrafiezadeh grew up immersed in the Socialist Workers Party, of which his parents were fervid members. He is the author of a fine memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, that details his disillusionment with the party, and he has also written several plays. The stories in Brief Encounters With The Enemy—several of which first appeared in The New Yorker—constitute his first foray into fiction. I recently interviewed him over email.

—David Burr Gerrard

Brief Encounters with the Enemy

 

INTERVIEWER

An eternal controversy erupted again recently over the question of whether characters need to be likable. Could you talk about that in relation to your own characters?

SAYRAFIEZADEH

Yes: I need my characters to be likable—to me. I wouldn’t be able to spend much time with my characters if I didn’t like them. So much quiet, intimate time—why bother? I wouldn’t want to do that in real life, why would I do it in make-believe life? Plus I’d hate to have to put my reader through that. But the dilemma is that “likable” is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. What do we mean exactly by likable? Do we mean funny, smart, pretty with the right worldview? Do we mean good? Those aren’t necessarily ingredients for likable. I prefer characters flawed, messy, contradictory, a little angry, maybe a little stupid, with a touch of immorality. I’m searching for something akin to interesting. Interesting might be akin to human. There are a number of characters in this collection who say and do things I don’t particularly agree with even though I’m writing in the first person. If I had made friends growing up in Pittsburgh with only people who mirrored myself I would have been alone most of the time. I just saw an old friend of mine who’s now a member of the Tea Party. I was shocked and dismayed. I don’t agree with him but I still like him. I think you might like him too. He’s the kind of character I want in my books.

INTERVIEWER

Many writers believe that short stories must have tighter structures than novels. How did you approach structure when writing these stories? Does your experience as a playwright influence your approach to structure?

SAYRAFIEZADEH

Most of these stories came to me fully formed, i.e., I knew where it was going to begin and I knew where it was going to end. All that was left for me to do was fill in the blank, i.e., eight thousand words. So that was the readymade structure. It was a loose structure, yes, but it was a structure nonetheless with word count fairly well established. Given such limits, I could not stray too far from the through line. It was as if the moment I put the first word on the page a clock began counting down. I had to establish the characters and the world as quickly as possible, and I had to get moving in the general direction of the ending. I couldn’t linger, I couldn’t indulge. The real challenge was trying to achieve enough of a transformation—or lack of transformation—in either the character or the world so that the reader would feel some sense of readerly satisfaction when they came to the end. Otherwise all would be lost. I learned some of this the hard way when writing plays, by mainly straying from the through line, meandering around, pussyfooting, writing scenes solely because I liked them but for no structural reason. Plays are like short stories in that you have a fixed amount of time in which to tell your story. A director once told me that a little bell in the audience’s head goes off at around two hours into a play. If you want to go longer, you proceed at your own risk. So I had to learn to work within the parameter of the theatre or risk enraging my captive onlookers. I needed characters whom the audience wanted to follow, and I needed them fast. Each scene had to build on top of the previous scene in some linear direction. Digression was death. I still operate with this mindset when writing.

INTERVIEWER

How did the collection evolve as a collection, linked by the war?

SAYRAFIEZADEH

We’re already linked by war—the collection reflects that. Depending on how you do the math, America has been at war for the last twelve years. If you want to go back to the first Gulf War, you could make a sound argument that we’ve been at war for the last twenty-two years. Then there’s El Salvador, Nicaragua, Grenada, Vietnam. America has a long and varied military résumé. And let’s not forget that my collection is not just about war, it’s also about the threat of war. Something’s either about to arrive, or already here, or about to end. It was about 1/10th of my way into writing the collection that I realized this was the way I was going to connect every story. I liked the idea of this nameless, nonspecific, never-ending war in the same spirit of the nameless, nonspecific, never ending war in Orwell’s 1984. The citizens of Oceania wake to find that their ally is now their enemy, and vice versa. (Cf. The occasional news’ reports about negotiating with the Taliban.) I’ve been exploring war in my writing since America went to war in the Middle East (this most recent time)—but I did it with personal essays: a shouting match with a customer in Duane Reade over my antiwar button; a trip to Washington D.C. for a demonstration in which hardly anyone showed up. I was raised in the Socialist Workers Party where protesting war was a matter of course, so it was just a natural extension for me to protest war as an adult. Even so, I was still trying to be as nuanced as I could in my essays, I was trying to avoid the polemics that I’d grown up with and which would make my mother and father proud. In this collection I’ve done the unthinkable for my family, which is to take the point of view of people who are pro-war. And it’s such a liberating point of view to have. It’s glorious to be mainstream, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I remember how embarrassed I was marching in that minuscule demonstration in D.C. in the spring of 2003, post-invasion, being stared at by the tourists on the sidewalk. I wanted to be them gawking at us oddballs carrying signs, shouting at the top of our lungs. I wanted to be a part of the power. So that’s what I did with this collection: I got to fulfill a lifelong dream.

INTERVIEWER

There are no place-names in this collection, but you’ve mentioned that growing up in Pittsburgh influenced this book. How so?

SAYRAFIEZADEH

Pittsburgh is the paradigm for this collection. I moved from New York to Pittsburgh in 1975, which was not the time to be moving to Pittsburgh. The steel industry was collapsing and there was a mass exodus of people out of the city. I was six years old and I have a memory of being driven along one of the three rivers at night and seeing the steel mills all lit up with flames. It was a terrifying initial impression and it’s one that I describe several times in the collection—along with those ubiquitous rivers. The steel years were the glory years for the city (c.1870-1970), and there was always a desire when I was growing up to return to the past. Living somewhere whose best years are behind it affects its citizens, especially children. I didn’t get it together to move to New York City until I was twenty-four—way too late—and this collection is in some ways about what would have happened to me had I stayed in Pittsburgh. It’s a sequel of sorts to my memoir, a fictitious rendering of myself in my twenties working thankless jobs, hoping to have a girlfriend… Two decades in a postindustrial economy with the second oldest population in the country has done something to my psyche.

INTERVIEWER

The book is not exactly set in contemporary America—the war is not one of the many we’ve recently fought or are currently fighting—but there are a lot of clearly identifiable details, such as Walmart. Could you talk about the world you’ve created and its relationship to our own world?

SAYRAFIEZADEH

It’s supposed to be our world today with some slightly skewed details like the war and the weather. I was careful not to give readers an opportunity to confuse this collection with fantasy or dystopia. There are recognizable details like Walmart and Kmart and Arby’s that clearly ground the collection in our contemporary world, but perhaps we could see this book as being our world on steroids. It has a certain outsized quality.

INTERVIEWER

Your memoir discusses your vexed relationship with the Left, but Brief Encounters With The Enemy clearly suggests a discomfort with American militarism. How do politics, life, and writing relate to each other for you?

SAYRAFIEZADEH

I can’t get away from the political upbringing that I endured. Countless meetings, conventions, conferences, protests, book sales, militant newspaper sales. It’s in my blood. The task before me is to not ignore the human dimension in my writing: character must never give ground to an idea. The Socialist Workers Party was very accomplished at turning people into props because they had no idea what to do with them, what to make of them. They needed groups and labels and Marxist demarcations, which are more convenient and comforting. This person is a reactionary. That person is a nationalist. Party members couldn’t handle contradictions in themselves and they couldn’t handle it in others. My mother, on the other hand, had aspirations to be a writer. She was able to see moments, she had an understanding of the soul, of emotion. She read fiction. She always felt guilty, of course, because time spent reading fiction was time away from reading the political tracts that would lead to the working-class revolution and thus save mankind. I grew up observing this push and pull in her: obsessive politics, tempered by literature. It’s a combination that has found some sort of balance in my own writing.

INTERVIEWER

Your memoir contains a number of provocative reflections on theft. “Victory,” the last story in this collection, hinges on shoplifting. What draws you back to this subject?

SAYRAFIEZADEH

It’s a good dramatic device that’s no doubt inspired from my days of shoplifting. I never felt like I had enough and I never felt like I could afford anything. I stole comic books, baseball cards and bubblegum. I’ve stolen from nearly every job I’ve ever worked—restaurant, grocery store, office—mainly as a spiteful way to get back at the capitalist owners who my mother taught me were evildoers stealing from me, but also because I wanted things. I’ve known quite a few thieves who stole big, like my friend’s sister who cleaned out a beer distributor one night when I was sixteen years old. There was something heroic about that. There was something sexy. She also ended up going to prison for a while for some other unrelated incident. So I envision my thieving characters in this collection as being more emboldened than I could ever be. Here’s an instance where likable doesn’t necessarily mean good.

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  1. Pingback: Our World on Steroids: An Interview with Saïd Sayrafiezadeh | David Burr Gerrard

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