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Reynald’s Rap: Lance chats with Porochista Khakpour

by Susan Henderson on November 21, 2007

I have a great affection for debut novels. Having finished my own attempt at one this fall I finally had time to dive back in and see what we have going on out there in the field.

If you were to ask a handful of friends, some of them might say I have good instincts. Now and then I stumble across something that causes a brow to raise and a pause to be taken.

I linger a moment longer than usual, Google a bit. Fire off a note to my nearest and dearest. Something to the effect of,

Watch this one.

That’s how this month’s guest popped onto the radar.

A great debut does something incredible to me.

A sensation I really like. Something I expect if I’m going to pass on the recommendation.

It grabs me by the lapels and shakes me about, challenges me, engages me and then looks me dead in the eye and says, “You got that?”

Oh yeah! Loud and clear.

These are the books that I think serve the rest of us notice.

The books that raise the bar.

They improve our craft and leave us waiting for the next word to come out of their authors.

Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove Atlantic, 2007) is one of those books, and I’m delighted to share the author with all of you this week. Porochista Khakpour is one amazing woman, with a debut that gave me a good shaking by the lapels and left me with a very happy smirk on my face.

You guys better start reading her now, she’s going to lead the pack for a while. Let’s go chat her up.

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LR: Porochista Khakpour, Welcome to Litpark! You’re a very busy woman; I see your name everywhere. How did you find the time to nurture such an amazing debut?

PK: It’s probably a personality thing. I can’t really take a break. Rest, relaxation, vacations, spa days, yogic corpse poses– all that is very anxiety-inducing for me. This ol’ Angeleno has become a true New Yorker, I guess you could say. I have to do things and be a part of the world in some way. Even if that means separating myself from the world for a bit to later rejoin it full-force. I like to work hard and work hard. I was shocked when I found out all the other kids weren’t staying up til 3:30 AM every night their junior year to get their AP homework done. Maybe it’s an immigrant thing.

But, I also work like that to write and not because I have these electric coke-head maniac muses that just won’t quit; I write like that because I feel I have to. On my desk, next to computer and notepad, I always display that endless ever-growing tower of bills, envelopes which generally remain unopened. It’s extremely threatening, like working with a pen in one hand and a loaded gun in the other. My greatest inspiration has always been some degree of serious poverty. It sounds a little crazy and ironic, I guess. uh, perhaps the Alanis Morrisette definition of “ironic” – that I actually write with the intent of making a living.

LR: Your book is infused with a strong sense of New World identity and dichotomy and your characters journey through those things in the aftermath of September 2001. On tour, have you found readers aligned with the experiences of your characters?

PK: The book tour was very confusing. Whereas I imagined a lot of men in their late 30s through 60s as my readers, they mostly ended up to be 20-something girls with artsy glasses and nice tattoos who’d give me these big long hugs after the reading. Lovely, you know? Or, in the case of a few places, homeless-seeming 70+ year-olds–there were a lot of them–but I think they might just go to every reading? Not sure. Once in a while, I’d get some normal bright human who’d thank me profusely for writing this book, because of some personal connection they had whether it was knowing an Iranian-American, being one, being in New York during 9/11, growing up in LA, etc. In one case, an LA editor and blogger called my novel the first great Iranian-American novel, with my being sort of the first of the hyphenates for my people (note to self: The Hyphenates, excellent title for a multi-culti thriller.) I felt very fancy for a day or so.

LR: Your acknowledgments section reads like a who’s who of contemporaries; how have you found your own writing enriched by these friendships?

PK: Hmmm, well some of them were just my teachers. I don’t know if I could call Stephen Dixon my “friend,” as much as I wish I could. But he like many of the others were my teachers at Sarah Lawrence and Johns Hopkins. My writing was certainly enriched by all of them: Alice McDermott who finally got me to understand why they always said “write what you know,” Stephen Dixon who taught me you could do anything you wanted if you did it well. A few of the writers crossed over to becoming good friends of mine though. The only thing the crossovers all have in common that I can tell right now is that they all encouraged my sick humor, which is valuable in a friend or mentor, I’d say.

Donald Antrim and Jonathan Ames got their own line in the acknowledgments because, yes, they were friends. They were both actually very helpful – Ames knew me before I got my book deal and really helped me get through the very scary shopping-the-manuscript months. I remember one day in particular when I saw a young woman die on a subway and then I met Jonathan for coffee in Brooklyn and my agent called three times, with four different rejections to report from major publishing houses. Jonathan offered to buy me a sandwich. We went to the deli next door and bumped into one of the editors who rejected the manuscript. Very awkward. In between bites of the sandwich, my agent called with another rejection. I began crying so hard, the whole baguette was ruined. I wasn’t even deserving of a shitty sandwich as a consolation prize, I kept saying, until Jonathan finally placed me gingerly into a cab. Oh, it was a painful time.

And Antrim was passed the PK-savior baton after my book deal, when I spent an entire summer in the throes of a deadly insomnia that seriously began to threaten my life. His good advice and patient ear just kept me going from week to week, over the phone from NY to LA (I was at my parents’ home). Even just a few months ago, I called Antrim and declared, “I can’t do this reading tonight. I just can’t do it – I don’t even know why, but I can’t.” I was having some strange, stupid “exhaustion”-moment and wanted to pull an Amy Winehouse on a reading for no good reason, really. For two hours, he coached me, scolded me, etc. until I was able to face I was just scared and that we all get scared and such is life, etc., and then I did it. And it was fine.

So yes I have a sort of mild pedigree and my acknowledgments reveal that. But show me one published writer that really and truly doesn’t at all, show me one person that got anywhere with absolutely zero connections in this day and age. . . I’d buy him/her a sandwich!

LR: Xerxes Adam lives a life feeling that his own identity is split between irreconcilable cultures, a man that belongs in no land. Did the human struggle of this narrative help you see a reconciliation between the two that wasn’t apparent to you before?

PK: Absolutely. Initially, I wanted this novel to be far more sadistic, hopeless, and absurd. It took a long stroll down Identity Issues Lane to really see what a very real and serious novel I had on my hands. I didn’t expect it. In fact, I mainly became interested in Iran after I finished the novel. Like the protagonist, I had always thought of myself as more of an Angeleno or New Yorker, never really an Iranian. It was always suffocating me a bit so I latched onto any culture or counterculture that was as far from me as possible and made it my own. The novel retaliated and became like one of those fat mirrors to my face at first – mix of shocking and humbling – and by the end of it I think I fine-tuned the reflection to some fair even balance, but in the beginning it was rough.

LR: Obviously we’re going to see your name around for a while; what do we get to see from you next?

PK: I have pretty much wrapped up the manic planes-and-trains part of my book tour. I have three readings in New York coming up: National Arts Club on Nov 9, The Half King on Nov 19 (a very special Iranian women writers reading that I am moderating as well as reading in), The Happy Ending Series on December 12. I will be on Leonard Lopate’s NPR show on November 12. Then I have some university speaking engagements and conferences and benefits and stuff like that. Somehow through it all, I am also teaching, freelance writing, working on a collection of short stories and a new novel. I think the last one’s gonna wear the pants in the end, but we’ll see.

*

Bios:

Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran, Iran in 1978 and her first language is Farsi. She was raised in the Los Angeles area. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars MA program, where she was awarded the prestigious Elliot Coleman Fellowship. She has also received a fellowship from the Northwestern University Academy for Alternative Journalism. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, The Village Voice, nymag.com, Paper, Nylon, Gear, Alef, Raygun, spin.com, Flaunt, Bikini, Bidoun, and nerve.com, among others. She currently lives in New York City.

Lance Reynald is the author of the novel Pop Salvation, the sexy, heartbreaking tale of outcasts in search of love and acceptance. Currently available for submission to interested editors, publishers and agents. He can be reached via his website, Lancereynald.com. He is currently at work on his next novel, Your Next Heartbreak Was the Hardest. In addition to Litpark, Lance is a regular contributor at thenervousbreakdown.com. As of December 1st, he is one of Portland,Oregon’s newest literary residents. You can friend him at myspace.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

SusanHenderson November 21, 2007 at 7:55 am

Wow, me, too, Porochista. Relaxation, yoga, standing still – all hugely anxiety producing. Knowing that about you, and that you rescue greyhounds kind of endeared me to you forever. But hearing your story of the reading and the rejection phone calls while you were at the restaurant, that seals the deal.

Thanks so much for being here, and to Lance for the gorgeous interview.

I’m out the door in an hour or so. As soon as the house/pet sitter gets here, we’re driving to Virginia for Thanksgiving break. If your comments don’t go through right away, please be patient.

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billie November 21, 2007 at 7:58 am

Wonderful interview, Lance and Porochista – I am heading to Amazon right now! I too was very moved by the story of the reading and the rejection phone calls. Been through some rejections of that nature myself – it’s tough. And your book prevailed! Can’t wait to read.

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porochista November 21, 2007 at 8:21 am

Thanks so much, Susan. And Lance, of course. That was fun! Have a lovely thanksgiving. . .

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Kimberly November 21, 2007 at 9:12 am

Thank you so much for sharing your soppy sandwich story! And for the beautiful and inspiring interview!

I’ll be so excited to hear you read at Happy Ending! You can color me one of those 30-something girls with a lovely (albeit well-hidden) tattoo who gives deep meaningful hugs, but I’m also kinda normal too. :-) I can’t wait to see what your feat of courage is!

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lance_reynald November 21, 2007 at 9:43 am

thanks to the dynamic Porochista Khakpour, for an amazing debut and an awesome interview at the Park.

Have a wonderful thanksgiving everyone!! You’re all amongst my many thanks.

xoxo. L.

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Heather_Fowler November 21, 2007 at 11:32 am

I love this whole electric coke-head maniac muses concept–and to find other authors who have them, too! Mine are the same way–but they also say: Hey, author, go jump off a bridge, real quick, okay? We need that fresh pain for the novel–need to feel some real bruise and scrape for that next scene. It has to hurt and hurt like &*ll. Pay for your art. Pay more. No, wait, don’t. Go get a pedicure and then find the urge to record lyrical love poetry into your cell phone. No, wait, go back to the serial murderer (female) screenplay and kick it into shape. And what about those 100 stories sitting there on your harddrive? 250 poems? 3 novels in progress!? Get to work, you bum. Edit, write, repeat. They (these dominatrix, beautiful, ruthless, sleepless muses of mine) accuse me of laziness, too, when I don’t lose sleep for them… LOL! I love to hear of authors similarly driven. TC Boyle comes to mind. J.C. Oates.

Porochista your honesty and bravery is so laudable! I think the best writers will stand there, bleeding, and let the audience (in this case, for an interview) watch them bleed–because in that bleeding they have shown that they do know what makes others gasp and take notice (and feel kindred). Also, every writer trying to publish their first novel likes a story about multiple rejection at a high level before a lovely success. It’s like watching labor footage when you are 8 months pregnant—the more ghastly the better. Makes the real experience seem calm and mild by comparison since the possible nightmare and overcoming the nightmare has already been revealed as possible, nay probable, with perseverence. *grins*

Nice interview, Lance. Looking forward to reading Porochista’s book! :) Glad I found out about it here. But you know what they say about LitPark, right? The best literary rumbles and gossip can be found here first, courtesy of our divine hostess SH, otherwise known as Goddess of all things Fun and Literary. LOL!

Best wishes and regards to all,
H

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Alexander Chee November 21, 2007 at 1:12 pm

I love the image of you with a pistol on the desk.

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ErikaRae November 21, 2007 at 3:34 pm

Like having a pen in one hand and a loaded gun in the other….

I think I’ll take those words with me to the grave – haha! Thank you, Porochista, for this inspiring interview. Can’t wait to read your book.

Lance – you have the coolest gig in the world. ( :

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jodyreale November 21, 2007 at 4:23 pm

This is one of the reasons I come to the Park: To feel like a real smarty reading newish talent. Because let’s face it, I’ve got a better chance of staying up until 3:30 AM to get my AP homework done than I have of discovering someone of P.K.s caliber on my own.
Great interview.
Jody

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass November 21, 2007 at 6:01 pm

After reading this I see the reason for this week’s question. What a strange synchronicity to bump into one of the editors who’d passed on the ms. I got this image of Porochista’s tragically beautiful face dripping tears into a soggy baguette. Here’s to the Hyphenates.

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porochista November 22, 2007 at 6:21 am

Thanks for all the comments, everyone! I have a lot more sad stories where that came from. . .but i suppose the tragic moments are the most anecdotally sound and so at the very least you come out of it with some brutal stuff to laugh at.
Anyway, what a wonderful community you all have here! Love it

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Juliet November 22, 2007 at 9:56 am

Porochista, thank you so much for joining us in the Park. Your gun in the hand pen in the other statement sums it all up. I’ve appreciated your humour, your willingness to share the vulnerabilities of spilling open on paper and waiting for someone’s response and your incredible ability to balance that with the strength you clearly possess is beautiful.
Lance emailed me (numerous times) a while back telling me that if I didn’t read Sons, I would be forever lacking.
He was right. Very right.
I’ve not only read it, but regularly gift it as well.
Thank you.

Lance,
You know I’m in love with you, and only for you would I drop my everything and head to the Park at two in the morning because I promised I’d write.
(Sadly, an ice storm knocked out my connection for a while, so I’m back this morning.)
xoxj

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Juliet November 22, 2007 at 10:01 am

PS Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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aimeepalooza November 22, 2007 at 10:52 am

I loved this interview. All the images were perfect. I’ve got some coked up muses too! I have a friend from college who was born in Iraq, came to the US before she could remember to escape the government and then felt somewhat like she did not belong anywhere. It sounds like the book is something she would relate to. I am so in love with the images from the interview that I cannot wait to read the book. The writing, I am sure, is amazing.

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seb November 22, 2007 at 2:00 pm

charming interview. gorgeous book jacket.

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Joe November 23, 2007 at 1:08 am

What a great interview Lance! I really enjoyed it and I’ll be certain to check out Porochista’s book.

Totally off topic but I have to say that every single person associated with LitPark – from the talented & beloved leader SH, to the interviewees like Porochista, to the guest Interviewers like Lance, right down to every person commenting – you guys all LOOK like authors.

Man, I’m depressed. If I ever write a book I’m going to have to hire a head shot double for the dust jacket.

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aimeepalooza November 23, 2007 at 12:39 pm

Ummm, my picture is of me at 8 or 9 dressing up like Madonna. Actually I wasn’t even playing dress up. I just tried to dress like that. Anyway, I’ll need to hire someone too…someone that looks deep and thoughtful. That’s why I chose the Madonna picture. It’s my best look.

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Cheryl Snell November 23, 2007 at 4:09 pm

Thanks for this.
I’m recommending Sons to my multi-culti book group.

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Aurelio November 24, 2007 at 1:06 pm

I’m late to comment here. Thanksgiving cut into my LitPark time, but better late than never.

Thank you for introducing Porochista to us, Lance.

And Porochista, I enjoyed your interview. I find the whole concept of cultural bias an odd one and hard to relate to. It probably comes from living in SoCA, where there are people from everywhere who are all from here too. I’m glad you’re adding some perspective from your particular vantage point and exploring how we define ourselves in an increasingly multicultural world.

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kyla elise November 26, 2007 at 2:56 pm

Sounds like a fantastic read! I can’t wait to read it and any author with ferocious red lipstick is an author after my own heart. 😉

Great interview Lance, as always. Hope you [and Susan and everyone else at Lit Park] had a great holiday!

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