An Interview with Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
A playwright, memoirist, fiction writer, and professor, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh has had work published in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and McSweeney’s. His memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, won a Whiting Award in 2010, and his short story collection, Brief Encounters With the Enemy, was a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. He lives and teaches in New York City.
1. In stories like "Most Livable City" and “Appetite," you capture the reader’s attention from the first few words. How do you know the way a particular story should begin?
I’m trying to create starkness, directness, clarity, and intrigue . . . all in about twenty words or less. The opening sentence should have just enough information that it will create curiosity in the reader and make him or her want to continue on to sentence number two, but not so much information that the reader might begin to feel overwhelmed. In academic terms, this might be considered the topic or focus sentence. (Why not borrow from academic formula when being creative?) Sometimes it takes me a long time (hours) to figure out the opening; first and foremost, it needs to read as effortless, and effortlessness takes an incredible amount of work. And of course, sometimes the opening will have to change as the story itself changes. But generally, I cannot move on to sentence number two until I at least have some placeholder for sentence number one.
2. Do you have control over your characters when you write?
Yes, of course. I’m in complete control at all times. I don’t subscribe to the notion that writers are overtaken by some creative muse that begins to have a life of its own. I wish I did, because the process might be easier. The closest I come to losing control, if that’s what it can be called, is when I have created enough of a story that certain options will begin to present themselves as possibilities I hadn’t yet considered. For example, I might be thinking all along that “x character” would do “y thing” at the very end, but now that the narrative is complex enough, I suddenly see that it makes more sense that “x” do “z.” This wasn’t what I intended at the start, but this is now what “x” is presenting to me as if “x” had a life of his or her own. Still, I wouldn’t say that this is a result of having lost control.
3. What have you learned about writing from teaching it?
Everything. I wouldn’t have been able to answer questions #1 and #2 with any coherence if I weren’t a teacher. Having to articulate what is wrong (or right) with a student’s story has enabled me to see what’s wrong with my own. I’ve also spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to teach students about the discipline of writing, the career of being an author, the pitfalls of waiting for the muse (see above), and a myriad of other practical, writerly things that no one seems to ever want to talk about, but that I wish someone had taught me when I was nineteen years old. So when I tell my students that they need to come up with, for instance, a writing schedule that they will be able to stick to when they have their full-time job, I’m also speaking to myself.
4. You’ve written about your ambivalent attitude toward your Jewish heritage. When you were young, did you feel that your Jewish and Iranian cultural identities were in conflict?
Unconsciously. The real parties that were in conflict, of course, were my mother (Jewish) and my father (Iranian), who separated when I was nine months old. If I couldn’t reconcile the parents, I wasn’t going to be able to reconcile the two disparate identities, and thus these identities have lived inside of me as two distinct parts with absolutely no overlap. I have a memory from around eight years old (c. 1977): being in the throes of a fever, and in the middle of the night I was tormented by a compulsive thought of Israel and Palestine reaching a peace deal. In my delusional state, I kept thinking of this over and over, which can happen when you’re feverish. Years later, when I told my therapist about this memory, he said, “You were trying to find peace between your mother and father.” It was hard to refute this.
5. You’ve said that during your childhood your exposure to American popular culture was limited due to your parent’s affiliation with the Socialist Workers Party. How did this affect your reading materials?
My mother's prohibition on pop culture didn’t include literature. She wanted to be a writer herself, and she loved books and read constantly. I always remember her sitting on her bed reading in the morning before going off to her dead-end job as a secretary. Thanks to her, I was very aware of the great novels and of important contemporary American literature. I read Metamorphosis when I was a child, and The Catcher in the Rye, and Down These Mean Streets, and lots of other books that my mother gave to me. But part of being a writer is being exposed to other genres, and I think it’s a great detriment that I wasn’t privy to a lot of the popular movies or television programs or songs. I always try to impress upon my students that, never mind Dickens, our generation has learned how to write a story by watching sitcoms. With the exception of All in the Family, most of the sitcom watching I did was without my mother’s knowledge.
6. How did performing as an actor inform your work as a playwright and author?
It made me very aware of the audience and that the needs of the audience take precedent. Even the unnatural, three-quarter way an actor stands on stage is for the benefit of the audience. It’s very easy to fall into a solipsistic mindset when writing, in which only our own creative impulses and desires matter. This can be twofold if what you’re writing is a memoir; it’s my life after all, and all I need to do is put it down on the page. But all art is a form of performance, where the artist is trying to convey a story to someone who doesn’t know him or her. (This goes back to the importance of the opening sentence and reaching out to the reader immediately.) Being an actor is also about being in a theatre and dealing with sets and props and costumes and lighting, all the elements that a writer has to convey through prose, and I try to maintain a certain consciousness of how the “stage" is looking at all times. Critics have also sometimes commented on a certain unworldly quality to some of my stories—they’re not quite realistic. Perhaps this has come from my years as an actor, in which even the most natural of plays are still in the bizarre theatre world, on a stage, with people sitting in chairs, staring. There’s nothing natural at all about that.
7. Do you enjoy the physical act of writing—the process of putting words down on a page, revisiting them, cutting them down?
Yes and no. When it’s going well, it’s wonderful. When it’s going poorly, I ask myself why I chose this career. Maybe this is the real answer to the question about having control over my characters: I’m not so sure I actually chose this career, and it didn’t instead choose me.
8. Literary history is filled with stories of great writers burning their work. Have you ever been tempted to destroy something you’ve written?
Yes, and I still might. Recently, I pulled out a folder of things that I wrote when I was in my early twenties, and I wanted to punch myself in the face. My writing pales in comparison to a lot of my students' writing. I wonder how they got so good, so young. I’m probably as good an example as anyone that early lack of talent is not an indicator of how your career will turn out. Somehow, I managed to stick with it long enough until I improved.
9. When you think of the future of the United States, a hundred years from now, do you feel optimistic?
I do. But I feel pessimistic that I will not be around to see it.