Narrative 10

We caught up with Saïd Sayrafiezadeh as he marks the publication of his new story collection, American Estrangement.

1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?

Fiction: Winston Smith, although I use the term favorite rather loosely here, considering the darkness and the despair that exude from him, and how much I was haunted by his plight when I first read about him in eighth grade, no doubt compounded by my own political indoctrination that I was undergoing at the time. I’ve always thought that it’s possible to read 1984 not just as a social and political allegory—and warning—but also as a story of a human being’s private psychological undoing. Orwell was dying of tuberculosis when he wrote 1984, knowing that he was going to be leaving his young son behind, and how could that not have shaped his worldview? In other words, the personal masquerades as the political.

Life: Michael Jordan, if he can be considered a “character.” He’s the perfect combination of grace, beauty, power, and relentlessness. He’s also a winner—no small matter. He was a good role model for me in my late teens and early twenties when I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a man, having very few male role models, and also because playing street ball was a significant part of my identity. Perhaps identity is too florid a word; it was how I passed the time. (See answer below on obsession.)

2. A line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?

The closing lines of Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape (spoiler alert), although it relates to the term inspire loosely here. “Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire that’s in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.” The final stage direction is as important as what’s spoken aloud: Krapp motionless staring before him. The tape runs on in silence. Curtain. It’s the story of an old man, looking back at himself as a young man, via tape recordings from years earlier, and although I was only twenty-three when I first read it, I was beginning to fathom that youth was fleeting and that I had better start doing something, namely, leave Pittsburgh for New York City, where I could at least have a chance of being an artist. This became the basis for my short story “Audition,” in which the main character is trying to get out of his unnamed midsize city so that he can try to have an acting career in LA. I never reference Beckett in the story, but his presence was felt when I was writing it.

3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss. I don’t think I’ve ever been as captivated by anything as when I first read that (or was read to by my mother). Dr. Seuss taught me something about the way words can be used. He was playful, he was subversive, he was not confined by rules. He has the Shakespearean aspect of being completely beholden to language while also bending language for his own purposes.

4. What’s a writing day like for you?

Every day is a writing day, or at least a potential writing day. I try to wake up as early as possible (without an alarm), which usually means 6ish. I recently woke up at 5:15, but that was an anomaly and I felt the effects of it for the rest of the day. I sit on my couch and read twenty pages of whatever book I’m reading—I’m very precise about the number of pages because I need goals, I need parameters, I can’t have things be open-ended—combined with several cups of coffee. After that it’s a matter of figuring out when I’m going to write, because I have to balance my teaching with my writing, and as the day progresses the alarm in my head begins to ring louder and louder. Basically, I’m hounded by the imperative to write. Speaking of goals and parameters, I write one page a day, which feels productive without feeling overwhelming, and which, believe it or not, can add up fast if you stick with it. Philip Roth once said that he aims to write a page a day, and if he doesn’t achieve that he tries not to slit his throat. Those are words I try to live by.

5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?

I don’t depend on spirit to write (is spirit another word for inspiration?). I approach writing solely as a habitual act. I used to think that the way writing worked was that I would suddenly be filled with the burning passion to tell a story, a story that was already fully formed in my brain, zero gestation, and that it would come flowing out of me, no typos, no rewrites, no stops and starts, no hems and haws. Sure, this happens occasionally, but it’s only occasionally, and it’s not a sustainable approach to a career. I wish someone had told me this sooner.

6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?

Page: and, which, but, though, however, apparently, nevertheless, nonetheless, after all. These are the words that I use to try to effect some sense of informality, casualness, replication of human speech that will feel approachable to the reader. Why aren’t there more variations on those?

Life: I would have made it if I hadn’t been fouled.

7. What’s your current obsession?

Playing basketball, which I wasn’t able to do during the pandemic, and which I’ve been doing consistently since about the age of twelve. I’ve had a recurring dream for the past fourteen months where I’m playing basketball, or trying to play basketball, and the gym is way too crowded and it’s late at night. Sometimes I’m playing well, sometimes I can’t seem to move my arms or legs in that dreamlike way where the body doesn’t respond. Sometimes I’m just observing from the bench, which has its own implications about being a spectator of one’s life. It’s a fraught dream, and it’s filled with longing, and a significant amount of trepidation. It’s probably symbolic of things unrelated to the sport of basketball—but on a purely literal level, it’s simply my desire to play. It’s the only place where a certain aggressive aspect of my personality has been permitted to emerge from more than forty years of playing street ball.

8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?

There was a wonderful artistic director at New York Theatre Workshop who once told me to think about the stories that I liked and to figure out what makes them work. She was speaking specifically about plays, but this applies to all art, and it completely altered the way I approach writing. Up to that point, I had never thought that stories could be examined and analyzed; I thought they were things that just “happened.” To put it another way, I thought stories were part luck and part instinct, and either you were born with luck and instinct or you weren’t. At the time, there was a Hitchcock retrospective being shown at Film Forum, and I remember sitting in the theater watching movie after movie, trying to figure out what Hitchcock was doing, what choices he had made, what choices he hadn’t made. I wasn’t a passive viewer anymore, I was hyperalert. To continue the analogy with a possibly overused phrase: I had become a player in the game.

9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

What I wish I had known at age twelve was everything I’ve learned in therapy, which is far too much to enumerate here, and which could be summed up with the understanding that my mother and father were inadequate parents, at best foolish and at worst sadistic. It would have been very helpful for the twelve-year-old version of myself to know that it’s not him, it’s them.

10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.

I just celebrated my sixteenth wedding anniversary. Twenty-five years of therapy has had something to do with that too.

Finally, is there a passage from American Estrangement that you’d like to share with our readers?

The first line of the opening story, “Audition,” is a good example of the cost of unfulfilled dreams that the narrator in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape has realized when it’s far too late. “The first time I smoked crack cocaine was the spring I worked construction for my father on his new subdivision in Moonlight Heights. My original plan had been to go to college, specifically for the arts, specifically for acting, where I’d envisioned strolling shoeless around campus with a notepad, jotting down details about the people I observed so that I would later be able to replicate the human condition on-screen with nuance and veracity.”