Published: January 6th, 2015
Said Sayrafiezadeh is the author of the story collection, Brief Encounters With the Enemy, a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Fiction Prize, and the critically acclaimed memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, selected as one of the ten best books of the year by Dwight Garner of The New York Times. His short stories and personal essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta, McSweeney's, The New York Times, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and numerous anthologies. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award for nonfiction and a fiction fellowship from the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.
Howl: Your father is Iranian and your mother is an American Jew. Has this impacted how you see the issues in the Middle East over the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and has it affected your writing?
Sayrafiezadeh: Israel was not a paramount issue for me growing up. The Iranian Revolution was, and so were political concerns in the U.S, but not Israel. It was my upbringing in the Socialist Workers Party that shaped my views on Israel, less than my ethnic background. The party considered it a colonial settler's state and so did I. But this hasn't impacted my writing much. At least, not that I can tell. It's not always clear what's impacted a writers' work. My sense of displacement is what's impacted my writing. That I can say for sure.
Howl: Your uncle was author Mark Harris, an accomplished writer of novels, non-fiction, plays, and screenplays. It is easy to see a parallel. Did you uncle influence your pursuit of literary endeavors?
Sayrafiezadeh: He was wealthy. That was very influential. He was the only person I knew who had money. He was also distant, emotionally. His writing life, as everything else with him, seemed very private. But he showed me that it was possible to be successful. My mother's desire to be a writer, which I witnessed firsthand, of course, is much more of an influence. She was a failed writer. I knew I didn't want that for myself. So I worked against that. That was a big motivator.
Howl: As a writer of fiction, memoir, and plays, how do you determine which genre is ideal for the story you want to tell?
Sayrafiezadeh: To some extent the marketplace dictates. I wasn't successful at writing plays, so I stopped. With memoir and fiction there are more options, and I'm able to be published and make a living. These days I mostly write fiction, mainly because I've already written a memoir—I've told that particular story. The next stories I tell will be fictional. But there are always elements of memoir in my fiction. Still, it's nice not to have to adhere to the truth so closely.
Howl: In your short story, Paranoia, your tie-ins of the “west or south somewhere” of the train and the paranoia about the unpredictable weather wrap up the piece nicely. Do you prefer neat beginnings, middles, and ends or do you prefer to let the story unfold more organically?
Sayrafiezadeh: I don't think in terms of beginning, middle, end. It's more helpful for me to consider how a character changes over the course of a story (or doesn't change). With this in mind, the narrative needs to be driving towards something, rather than meander. Each scene should somehow build on the scene before it. I prefer endings that aren't tied up in nice little bows. I always caution my students against that. The messy, open-ended endings are my preference, they leave room for multiple interpretations, multiple responses.
Howl: What is your writing and editing style like?
Sayrafiezadeh: I edit as I go. I labor over each word, each sentence. But I try to make it seem as if the writing is very easy, unlabored. I don't want the reader to sense how much work I've put into it. I want to give the impression of seamless writing.
Howl: As a teacher of writing at Hunter College and New York University, what advice do you have for budding writers?
Sayrafiezadeh: Make a writing schedule and stick to it. That's another way of saying don't wait for inspiration. Writing is about habit. Don't strive for the unattainable perfection. Strive for "good enough." Also, submit your work. Also, don't let rejection ever stop you.
Howl: Where do you typically find your inspiration?
Sayrafiezadeh: See above. I'm dubious about inspiration. Occasionally, it will strike. But more often I simply have to sit down and start making things up. Perhaps this is also inspiration, i.e., any creative output has to come from something inspired. But when one thinks of inspiration, they think of a lightning bolt from above. My work is generally based on grinding it out.
Howl: When it comes to writer’s block, how do you handle any literary obstacles?
Sayrafiezadeh: Writing schedules are big help with writer's block. Setting a quota is a big help, too. If you tell yourself that you're going to write 2,000 words, good or bad, you'll be able to push through the low moments. Really, it's about getting words down on a page for that ever important first draft. That's where the writers' block appears, first draft, time of creation. Finally, the idea that you're not striving for perfection can help. It can be too overwhelming to set high standards. Perfection leads to paralysis.
Howl: You are an accomplished writer with pieces in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta, McSweeney’s, The New York Times, and more. Yet, how do you deal with the inevitable rejection that comes with every published writer’s career?
Sayrafiezadeh: I become angry. I become disappointed. I become sad. I despair. Then I sit down and start writing the next thing.
Howl: When do you feel like the story you’re writing is complete?
Sayrafiezadeh: My stories are never really complete. There's always something more I want to say. Or say it in a better way, or a different way. It's mainly about seeing that the story is finally working as a "story," with a beginning, middle, end, with a, hopefully, mildly satisfying ending. In some ways it's about giving up on the story. Saying "good enough."
Howl: Any required readings for high school students you’d recommend?
Sayrafiezadeh: No required reading except read. Read what you like. And read what you don't like. We learn from things we don't like as much as we do from our favorite books. Also, see movies. But don't see them as a passive audience member. Be an artist in the theatre, think about how the story on screen is being told, what's effective, what's ineffective. What would you have done differently? Where were you bored and why? How did the filmmaker get you to be scared, etc.? Do the same thing with songs, with television shows. Storytelling is all around us. Keep your eyes open to it.