I was on a writing retreat in a cottage on a pond in upstate New York with Sam Farahmand when he finished Chimero. I start with “I,” or through it, because Sam’s novel about an unnamed narrator returning home for the holidays lives there—swarming California with this vast, lost “I” that invites you in. I was in another room and could hear Sam reading aloud most mornings before we broke in the afternoons to fish the pond or shoot hoops on the gravel driveway or play tennis on a pristine clay court, where somehow neither of us ever seemed to win a game.
I’d read excerpts of what would become Sam’s debut in a workshop during our first semester of an MFA program. I remember thinking his sentences were palindromic. His worldview and his word-view encoded in every line. It was like he wrote like a painter.
In the years that followed, Sam refined the story, a charging, echoing stretch of champagne-and-painkiller days, a near-death experience, and a road trip from Los Angeles to Berkeley in a voice Darcey Steinke called, “The millennial voice we have been waiting for: funny, emotional, smart, and surreal.” And that’s it, that’s Sam in full, though on some level he likely bristles at that categorization. And that’s Chimero.
It’s with awe and an IPA at this loud Nashville brewery that I come to Sam’s work to talk with him about a style wholly his own and a book he started in Brooklyn, refined upstate, and then finished while he roamed Appalachia, Mexico, Tennessee, and in-between, somehow always finding his daily hour or two to write wherever he found himself.
The Rumpus: I know you’ve had opportunities to expand your bio over the years. Editors have even asked you. But I see that you’re still rolling with Sam Farahmand is a writer from Los Angeles, which is true.
Sam Farahmand: Yeah.
Rumpus: You’ve also lived in Brooklyn, West Virginia, and now in Nashville. And you’re of Iranian descent. But still, you’re landing on “a writer from Los Angeles.”
Farahmand: Yeah. I will say that Los Angeles does have one of the largest populations of Iranians outside of Iran, so maybe there is something there, but the joke would be my entire life has been one long descent. I do think that with being of a certain descent, particularly when there is a diaspora involved, the descent goes hand in hand with dissent, in that I’m always writing and thinking a lot about who I’m not as much as I am who I am.
Rumpus: The book starts with an idea that identity is what you’re not, with the first lines: “The lost ones, Adam said. We’re the lost ones, aren’t we.” And from there, a lot of the knowing or sense of identity is by way of a void.
Farahmand: Right. I think starting off with a pronouncement like that, there is, of course, this ridiculousness to it.
Rumpus: It might be the most stable sentence in the whole book.
Farahmand: I mean, it’s absurd to try to start off like, “Oh, I’m the voice of a generation.” I’m going to make this declaration about a generation and within that declaration, all I have to say is, “Oh, we’re lost.” It’s not even really saying something profound. Being lost isn’t profound. Being profound isn’t profound.
Rumpus: Meaning is pretty slippery throughout the book, although there are these real lucid moments, often when the narrator is the most fucked up, where we do get the world as it is, or as he sees it or believes he sees.
Farahmand: I think it’s one of those things where when you try to capture the reality of a moment, that’s when it feels unreal. The moment you try to represent real life, like the narrator sitting on the sofa and staring at a whiskey stain, or the narrator vomiting into the toilet and noticing the flowery wallpaper in the restroom, there’s, of course, all the opportunity for metaphor and something larger than that.
Farahmand: Absolutely, but in that moment, it’s strange. It feels unreal. I think that’s where a lot of novels that have more plot or even exposition, they might feel more realistic because they have those devices, but when you cut all that out, it’s probably a little closer to what consciousness feels like. Just how absurd it all is, both real life and a novel.
Rumpus: Speaking of absurdity and identity, it’s perfect that we’re sitting here in Nashville and downstairs there’s a group of people celebrating a wedding. Upstairs, there’s a group celebrating an engagement. Los Angeles is on a different track, a different timetable, where you chase the thing longer, but here it’s culturally accepted and expected, really, to choose a direction, a way of life, as quickly as possible.
Farahmand: Right. This feels like a perfect moment. There are people cheering around us.
Rumpus: But not for us.
Farahmand: No. And yeah, I mean, what a lot of the characters are facing in the book is the fact that they don’t know what to do with their lives. There’s marriage, having a family, settling into a career. The characters in the book are a bit younger than we are. They’re in their early-to-mid-twenties, but that’s when you’re really coming to terms with not just who you are, but who you aren’t, and what you want to do about that.
Rumpus: Yeah. I know that you finished the book and wrote others during the next iteration of not knowing what was next.
Farahmand: Yeah. I finished Chimero when I was twenty-three or twenty-four years old, but it never really went anywhere, not that I was expecting to finish it and right away have a lot of success and have everything sorted out, though that would’ve been nice. But then, it might’ve even been good for me not to get those things because, since then, I ended up spending a lot of time in Appalachia, bouncing back and forth from the East Coast to West Coast, ending up in the South a lot and in Mexico. Since then, I’ve written two other novels, which I suppose they do read in order. The one after Chimero is called Treseratropes and the third one is called C.
Rumpus: One of the things that I think is especially relatable is the profound discomfort and problematic nature of returning home. Maybe it’s the true antihero story. The hero returns home and does nothing. What is it that’s so rough about returning to one’s hometown?
Farahmand: I mean, yeah, there’s that Joseph Campbell quote, or maybe it isn’t Joseph Campbell but Carl Jung or someone like that, but the quote that goes, “There’s only two stories: A hero goes out on a journey or a villain comes to town and, really, they’re the same story.” You identify who you are as who you were and when you go back to where you were, you realize that where you were isn’t who you are right now. You’re wrestling with this past that you were also holding onto when you were away from home. When you get back, there’s this fast-forwarding, so you begin to doubt yourself. It was a particular place in time and space that isn’t there anymore and you’re not there anymore.
Rumpus: One of the things I remember clearly about being in the cottage those two weeks was hearing you in the room over reading your manuscript aloud. And the book reads like it was meant to be spoken. Is that the final way you vet your writing?
Farahmand: Yeah. It’s just the sound of the words is what you can trust the most. Sound is sound.
Rumpus: Is it a way of knowing if something’s untrue or too true, in the same way when you say something to someone’s face, you get yourself to say it, and it’s a way of tempering how far you’re willing to take something?
Farahmand: I think that’s true. It keeps you honest because you can tell if something sounds like your writing when you say it aloud. If you’re just typing things out, it can get away from you. I mean, all of art, writing, anything creative, is something that’s outside of you. Trying to keep things close to that feeling of being in service of something that is larger than you is always the way to proceed. All of these lines are coming from somewhere outside of me, but as long as the lines are coming in, I’ll keep taking them down.
Rumpus: One of the ways that I think you’re able to achieve it not feeling written but alive, of its own, is—this is going to sound insulting, but I’ll get to a good place—I think the work is deceptively poetic and one reason for that and for it not feeling written is you have a pretty restrained lexicon.
Farahmand: I mean, it might even go back to trying to represent real life, cutting as much to get to what consciousness feels like, but then there’s also the significance of sounds. I like the sounds of certain words. Those are words that I’m going to use a lot, but also, each time you use a word, you make it your own in the way you’ll use and reuse a certain word. As far as the poetic is concerned, I do think it’s always good to write prose like you’re writing poetry and good to write poetry like you’re writing prose.
Rumpus: Shifting from sound, one of the images that I remember from some years ago, and I’ve thought about a ton since, is this kind of baptism about halfway through the book. The main character meets an older woman at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, and they end up next to a swimming pool with these red cocktails and her red lips, and it’s one of the more colorful scenes in the book—them next to this strange lit-up pool. He seems to be trying to connect with someone, and she ends up shoving him into the pool and then he pulls her in. They go down together—her blond hair and his tie rising up around them. It’s like adulthood in slow motion. It’s something else. Do you recall where you got that image or, even more largely, how image drives your work?
Farahmand: I think that I, of course, draw a lot from my own life. The way I approach semi-autobiographical fiction or autofiction or whatever you want to call it is I’ll just take more liberties with time and with what was said and unsaid. One of the first lines I wrote for this book was “God writes such bad dialogue.” But yeah, if certain moments or images happened across multiple years, I might just condense that all into three days then maybe stretch the moments out to what might feel like a lifetime, as happens in real life. Going back to the idea of a restrained lexicon, I think that’s a good way of putting it even when it comes to images, being strained and restrained, as it were. I tend to think of taking certain images then putting them in a neon-noir light, like a detective novel without the detective novel’s trappings or the detective.
Rumpus: You and I have gone back and forth on a few essays. One that you sent me, and then I wrote about and then one that you just recently published. You initially wrote, “I wonder if some of the nonfiction I’ve been writing has become too true to be good, but I was never as good at having to say something than I was at having something to say.”
Farahmand: It makes one wonder why we’re doing an interview.
Rumpus: That’s right. Still, can you speak to the relationship between fiction and nonfiction and also how that line from your essay is a perfect example of you using language to speed up and slow down a reader? I’ve said before that your writing is palindromic. It goes back and forth and you control the speed of things.
Farahmand: Well, going back to that “having something to say” versus “having to say something” it might also be the passage of time, of being in service of something larger than yourself, this sensation of being a prophet, in the sense that you have to trust that the text will teach you how to write the text, because it’s then easier for a reader to trust a writer who trusts the text.
Rumpus: That goes back to listening, like you were saying.
Farahmand: Yeah. Whether it’s the fiction or nonfiction, I’m just formatting these lines as they come then folding them over in time.
Rumpus: Speaking of listening to the words, where language takes hold of the story, the narrator, though he does have some incredibly funny and really incisive lines, he’s listening a lot. There’s this thread throughout, I think, where you could say he is saying, “God, are you listening?”
Farahmand: I think I’ve always been most interested in that first-person perspective or lack of perspective, that unreliable narrator, in the sense that the narrator doesn’t even know if he can rely on himself.
Rumpus: As opposed to the unrelatable narrator?
Farahmand: I mean, it might be that, too. I feel like you have this space between the writer as a person, then there is the author, the name on the cover of the book, then there’s the narrator and then there’s the reader and then there’s the reader as a person. There’s just this—
Farahmand: Yeah, there’s this continuum with two human beings on either end. There’s all this space you have in which to connect with someone, to share this experience or help someone feel a little less alone. Most of the complaints about my writing are something along the lines of “nothing really happens.” I don’t know, most of my complaints about my life are that nothing really happens. Having this narrator who is unsure of himself and unsure of his surroundings, that’s also a way for the reader find their way into the text itself.
Rumpus: I think that invitation is there.
Farahmand: Yeah. It’s that invitation. I want to leave space for you as the reader. I mean, my favorite novels are always going to be the ones that give me a little space. The Stranger is a perennial favorite. That’s a book I’ll reread a lot. Most of Camus, even. I can just reread because I’m being let in. That’s what I want.
Rumpus: Yeah, and that’s a great example of maybe what some would say is a really despicable character who’s really just creating space.
Rumpus: One of the things that I thought about was that you’ve got these young twenty-year-olds in Los Angeles and they’re brazen, they’re brash, they’re wasted, but you come to realize that really, the main character is not just afraid of what will happen, what won’t happen, but he’s afraid of himself, afraid of his humanity, in a way. I’m wondering if you can speak to that in relation or not in relation to having grown up with a Christian background, where you’re really born and bred into this thing where you are afraid of yourself—you’re sinful, you’re evil.
Farahmand: Right, yeah. I think it’s that fear of doing something, of something being actualized. I think a lot of that fear does connect to a fear of God and being judged, but then it’s also just a fear of heading in one direction preventing you from heading in other directions. The narrator is filled with doubt and self-doubt, but I think doubt is something that can turn into a vehicle for good in the sense that he is questioning his surroundings and the status quo.
Rumpus: So much of the book is about paralysis.
Farahmand: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if the narrator is good or bad, but there are good things happening around the narrator and there are bad things happening around him. So, his inaction in either instance, what’s the good and bad in that? Not acting, is that worse than committing to something? Most of your life is determined by what you don’t do rather than what you do.
Rumpus: At one point, the narrator’s partied all night and they’ve traveled some, and he’s totally hollow and fucked up, and he says, “Yeah, I think I need to feel bad to figure out why we’re all trying so hard to feel good,” which is a great line.
Rumpus: There’s this momentum with the characters. The main character’s dealing with the grief of his life, but also his past girlfriend who died in a tragic car accident. You have grief, I don’t know, painted over the top of existential pain. There’s only a few ways to deal with that, or at least that’s how it’s presented here.
Farahmand: Yeah. I mean, first, I’ll say it looks like I probably haven’t developed much as a writer or a person since writing this book five years ago, because today I finished writing an essay where I have a line that goes something like, “Maybe the only way for me to feel better later is for me to feel worse for the time being.” I mean, if anything, at least I’ve moved from these vague notions of good and bad to better and worse, right? I know, I mean, it’s absurd to say that there are good or bad people, but I suppose I’m just fascinated with this person who is almost like a blank slate, a stand-in for some of the worse things in life, not the worst things, but still not the best. Indecisiveness and insecurities and an inability to act. How does a person like that come to terms with grief? Because ultimately, it’s something that the narrator had nothing to do with that generates most of the momentum of the book, so is he going to make some sort of decision? Is he going to act? I think that’s probably what it is. Just do something. Whether it’s good or bad, just do something.
Photograph of Sam Farahmand by Chris Parsons.