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.
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.
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.