The Rumpus Interview with Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
At the New York launch party for his new book, Brief Encounters with the Enemy, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh was asked about other war stories he found useful when he set out to write war fiction of his own. He cast his eyes upward, thought for a moment, and mentioned Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and George Orwell’s 1984, before sputtering, almost as if in protest, “Look—I don’t need to read fiction! It’s in the news. It’s been in the news since I was in my early twenties. So that was on my mind, yes.”
The “it,” of course, is war itself. The antagonists may change, the settings shift, but America has been, in one way or another, at war for the better part of twenty years. Sayrafiezadeh’s interest in his first work of fiction, a book of short stories linked by a common theme—or, perhaps more precisely, by a common threat—centers on what it means to live in a country that is involved in distant, bloody conflict. His characters, with notable exceptions, often do not fight the war themselves. They attend support rallies for departing soldiers, envy the adulation heaped on their veteran colleagues, and struggle to offer encouragement (understanding seems a distant goal) to friends who have already shipped out. But always, the slow-moving specter of war hovers over them, casting a queasy pall over every aspect of their lives.
Sayrafiezadeh has often spoken of his childhood in the Socialist Workers Party, an environment in which the next class conflict—the next revolution, or “war”—was not only expected, but awaited with delight. When Skateboards Will Be Free, a memoir published in 2009 to great acclaim, draws its title from his mother’s vague reassurance, when her pre-teen son asks for a skateboard, that “once the revolution comes, everyone will have a skateboard, because all skateboards will be free.”
As Sayrafiezadeh has noted, Brief Encounters with the Enemy may be viewed as a sequel of sorts to his memoir, even a thematic echo. These stories, all narrated in the first person, chronicle the muted frustrations of men whose unhappiness spurs them only rarely to action and, most frequently, to aimless self-loathing. They wish, above all, to feel the actual desire for change, for the energy to burst out of their familiar patterns—desires and energies that they lack. They wish for the private revolution that may, they admit to themselves in their darkest moments, never come. When questioned whether he views his characters as smart men who have, for various reasons, failed to live up to their own potential, Sayrafiezadeh took a moment to respond. “Is any of us living up to our potential?” he asked the audience. “I don’t know.”
I spoke with Sayrafiezadeh several times by e-mail about his choice to link the stories together using an unnamed war, about writing without a game plan, and about the stasis in his own life that ultimately took shape in the lives of his characters.
The Rumpus: You’ve said that the publication of your memoir was followed by a period of stasis, for you. Was it difficult to begin writing fiction, after having worked on When Skateboards Will be Free?
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do after the publication of When Skateboards Will Be Free. I’d been waiting my whole life to tell that story—now it was told. Where does one go from there? Other than write more versions of When Skateboards Will Be Free, I didn’t have a thought in my head. I’d never considered writing fiction. The closest I’d come was writing plays, but playwriting is very different from fiction—and fiction is very different from nonfiction.
The novelist John Burnham Schwartz sent me an e-mail congratulating me after my Dwight Garner review in The New York Times, but he advised that I keep writing. In other words, don’t get cozy with compliments. But I did get cozy, and kind of lazy, and then a little aimless. Until one day I couldn’t take it anymore and I sat down and started writing a short story, “Appetite,” which ended up being published in the New Yorker. I had to learn how to write fiction as I did it, and, of course, my experience with playwriting and nonfiction helped me in shaping drama, in letting scenes speak for themselves. But I wasn’t thinking collection at all, at first. I was just thinking, Write one story. (Which might be good advice for any aspiring writer—bite off small chunks.)
Rumpus: Did you know that you would be working on short stories that were, in whatever way, thematically linked? Or did that happen as you wrote?
Sayrafiezadeh: The thematic links came a little later, after I noticed I was gravitating towards certain elements—war, city, weather. So it wasn’t all planned out from the start, it came out of the process.
Rumpus: Weather does seem to play a steady, if not pivotal role in these stories—it limits the characters’ freedoms at times, drains their energies at others. In “Paranoia,” the anomalous heat wave (followed by a cold snap) leads to almost nauseating descriptions of Roberto’s hot apartment, of Dean’s sweaty thighs sticking to his seat during what must be the most miserable bus ride in the history of literature. But even manmade “weather” conditions, such as Jake’s overwatering his colleague’s garden in “Enchantment,” seem significant. How did you see these moments as dovetailing with the ever-present drumbeat of the war that seems always to be approaching or ongoing?
Sayrafiezadeh: Since most of the action of the war actually happens off the page (offstage), I wanted to give the characters something they had to contend with on a daily basis, some sort of obstacle. Weather seemed to be the one great equalizer regardless of your station in life—when it snows, everyone is inconvenienced to a certain degree. Plus it’s tactile, weather, it affects the skin. There’s a lot of uncertainty with the weather, uncertainty especially in predicting what’s going to happen next. It mirrors the way we think about war and politics. We like to think we know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but we don’t really know. It’s going to be sunny. No, it’s actually raining. The war’s going to end. No, it’s continuing.
Rumpus: At what point in your writing did you seize on the idea of having the unnamed, unspecified war as the backdrop for each story?
Sayrafiezadeh: An initial impulse of mine was to portray the way in which a city is impacted by war. But this is vague, no? After all, how do you actually have an entire city—or country, for that matter—be a character a reader can follow? One way is by making it smaller and personalizing it, by writing specifically about the citizens and the way they contend with the reality, even minutiae, especially minutiae, of their lives. These themes began to take root after I saw how effective it could be in “Paranoia,” my second story in The New Yorker.
Rumpus: What about that story did you feel made it especially effective? How did writing that particular story change the way you thought about the others, as you continued to write?
Sayrafiezadeh: Big things are happening in the background while small things take place in the foreground—that was the lesson for me in that story. The opening paragraph is a description of how people think the war is about to begin at any moment, but the second paragraph is all about Roberto breaking his nose while lifting weights. I liked the push and pull of that, between the outer political world and the inner personal lives of the characters. It’s also real life… Many of us are keenly aware of world events, but break your nose and I bet that’s the main thing you’d be focused on.
Rumpus: You’ve also alluded to the fact that the character of Roberto in “Paranoia” is loosely based on someone you once knew. How often do characters, or even stories, suggest themselves to you through traits or gestures taken from real people, or from things that have happened in your own life? Having written both nonfiction and fiction, is this ever an ethical dilemma for you?
Sayrafiezadeh: Roberto was based on one of my best friends when I was growing up, who was an illegal immigrant, and who, one day, just seemed to vanish. No one knew where he was or what had happened. Maybe he just packed up and moved back home on his own volition. I’d been waiting a long time to write about him.
But it’s hard for me to pinpoint where all my characters and dialogue come from—imagination or real life. My memoir, of course, was all about my past, and many of the short stories cleave very closely to my life, but the more stories I wrote in the collection, the more that seemed to be invented, but who knows… I think I’m writing about a young woman with acne who shoplifts, but I’m really writing about myself.
I don’t feel any ethical dilemma when I write. In my memoir, I was able to write with candor about the two most difficult people in the world to write with candor about—mom and dad. Everything else is downhill from there.
Rumpus: What do you think is gained, or what pressure is introduced, by having everyone in these stories be affected by—or at the very least, acutely aware of—the distant war?
Sayrafiezadeh: I was trying to hold up a mirror to this country, to reflect the past ten years or so, and the varying degrees in which we’ve been affected by the war(s) that doesn’t seem to end. And we’ve all been affected somehow, even if we have no connection to the military, even if we don’t know anyone who’s killed or been killed. No one escapes something so large.
The benefit of writing a collection—as opposed to a novel—is that I’m able to have some version of the war in each story without having to comment on its all-encompassing nature. Turn the page and here are new characters and new situations, but the war remains… Isn’t that how life has been for us for over a decade?
Rumpus: You’ve said, in the past, that the essence of your fiction is concerned with “the place where society and the individual intersect.” You’ve chosen to set these stories in a society that is recognizably American but also, to an extent, anonymous. Did you feel, when you were writing, that these stories could take place anywhere? Or did they feel tied to a certain sector of society, or to a certain part of the country?
Sayrafiezadeh: It’s specifically America. It can’t be anywhere else. But the city is unnamed and I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide where they want that city to be. It was counterproductive to place it somewhere identifiable, because I’d run the risk of the reader thinking, Oh, this is what life must be like there. No, it’s everywhere. Of course, I had a paradigm of a certain city in my head when I wrote these stories, a city that inspired my imagination, but it was only inspiration.
This is one of the ways fiction is more liberating than nonfiction—I don’t have to be so concerned with fact. As we talked about before, I had the paradigm of certain people in my head who became my characters, but I never considered these people to be from a “certain sector of society,” unless we agree that we’re all from certain sectors of society. I was at a Halloween party in Brooklyn a number of years ago, and at some point in the night, a young man who worked at a gas station showed up after his shift. I remember suddenly realizing how little contact I had with anyone who did manual labor, and how unusual it was to see this man at a party full of college graduates. It turned out, of course, that the man was merely dressed up as a gas station attendant, but the point had been made: once I left Pittsburgh, I lost any sort of intimacy with people who did manual labor or had blue-collar jobs. But I like to think of my characters as being drawn from American society—that’s the one that includes all of us.
Rumpus: Your stories often build to unexpected, even abrupt, conclusions—I’m thinking of “Enchantment” in particular, but also “Appetite,” “Associates,” and others. Do you write with any sort of outline for the story in mind? Do you know how a story will end when you begin writing, or do you instead write until the point at which it feels like the story must end?
Sayrafiezadeh: I love unexpected, abrupt conclusions in storytelling. One of the greatest abrupt conclusions of all-time is Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I was breathless when I saw it. I was devastated. I thought, No, it can’t end like that! There’s also the final moment of Chaplin’s City Lights. Of course, those are two extremely dramatic, abrupt endings, but both those films had a profound impact on me. They were authentic, true to life, true to what our experiences are with endings—which are by definition open-ended, multilayered. With endings like those, the audience has to take something away when they leave the theater, something that stays with them forever—because it’s not really an ending.
I don’t work with an outline, except a vague one in my head, a general idea of character, place, arc… I’m like a composer with a symphony in their head: I can hear the music, I just have to figure out how to put it down on paper. But I don’t always know where my stories are going when I begin. I sometimes have to write for a while before I figure it out, pretend that I know what I’m doing, sort of like ad-libbing on stage until you remember your line—you hope you sound convincing to the audience. The key is to have enough material, enough threads, so that there’s something that can be satisfyingly drawn to a conclusion. When the ending finally comes to me, I often have to backtrack and make the beginning point towards that ending. Other times, I know exactly what the ending will be before I begin, like with the story “A Brief Encounter With the Enemy.” It was all about the ending—that’s what motivated me.
Rumpus: Where did that ending come from?
Sayrafiezadeh: Partly drawn from a desire to shock the audience, to brutally de-romanticize what many Americans think is happening overseas. And partly drawn from my own childhood: violence and a loss of innocence. But keep in mind that, as a writer, I’m both the criminal and the victim. I’m not trying to get out of anything easy.
Rumpus: The men in these stories seem often to fixate on particular women whom they believe will break them free from circling the drain, from the apathy and stasis they seem to feel about their own lives. The anorexic waitress in “Appetite,” Zlottie in “Associates,” Becky in “A Brief Encounter with the Enemy,” Molly in “Enchantment,” and especially Amanda in “Victory”—these women are often deeply troubled, and yet the men of your stories, despite their sense of distance from their own lives, seem determined that some key to happiness lies with these women. Was this a trait you intentionally bestowed upon each of these men? What interests you, if anything, about this dynamic?
Sayrafiezadeh: Isn’t that how it is for all of us? Love and happiness inextricably combined? I wanted love stories to coincide with war stories, I wanted hope for my characters, I wanted a sense of a future. So do they. So does the reader. But perhaps I shouldn’t speak for everyone when I say that love and happiness are interdependent. In my own experience, happiness came with love. Specifically, my wife. That’s when my own apathy and stasis ended for good.
Featured image of Saïd Sayrafiezadeh © by Basso Cannarsa.