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Interview with Mahbod Seraji

Rooftops of Tehran has been extremely successful and well received and is even being translated into multitudes of languages. What’s it like knowing that your audience is growing?
It’s amazing. Like one of my reviewers said, there is something special about publishing your debut novel –like a fledgling bird hoping to the ledge spreading your literary wings and letting go. Will you fly or will you crash? It’s beautiful and gratifying when you feel the wind beneath your wings.

What were you trying to accomplish when you started writing Rooftops of Tehran? What do you feel you’ve accomplished with the finished product?
Our perception of Iran in the West is shaped by what we read, hear or see on TV about the Islamic Republic government. We know very little about the people of Iran, how they live, what’s important to them, their customs, unless of course, we listen to political pundits who give us a drastically distorted view of the reality. So Rooftops of Tehran is my attempt to put a human face on a people who have been so unfairly deprived of it. Rooftops is about humanity, the universality of human condition and experiences, e.g., love, friendship, pain. If we look at some of the best sellers about people in that region we see that the main characters, especially males, embody every negative stereotype you can name about people in that region. They are presented as archetypal characters, a single story that represents all of humanity in that culture. I think that’s so wrong at so many levels! There is good everywhere as there is evil. I’m passionate about this topic, and wrote about it in a short piece called, Thank you, My Friend.

What inspired you to write about the not-so-distant past of Iran?
That was a period I lived in Iran and a time I knew well and remembered with an intense sense of nostalgia. Also I think many people have forgotten that Iran used to be a secular country and America’s greatest ally in the region. People have forgotten why Iran’s revolution happened, and on what historical bases some people didn’t, or still don’t trust the American government. Some schools teach Rooftops in their curriculum as it sheds a light on an important period in the Iran-US history, in addition to edifying the youth on how their counterparts live on the other side of the world.

How much of your own experiences leaked into this story, and how did that affect the book overall?
The story is semi-autobiographical as some of the main characters existed and I didn’t even bother to change their names. But all and all, this is a work of fiction, and I would never want it to be characterized as a memoir.

What sort of research did you have to do while writing this book?
Research on some of the foods, origins of Persian culture, historical facts, and current events, for example, there is a scene in the book when Pasha, his best friend, and his father go to a village, and their host tells them the story of that rural community as they are on their horsebacks looking down at the village square from atop a hill. Most of that content, for example, had to be researched.

What was the most difficult part of writing this book?
Every step of the way was difficult! Starting it, finishing it, worrying whether you can find an agent, whether an editor is going to like it enough to buy it, whether the reviewers will like your book, if the readers will accept it…. Writing a book is like raising a child you never stop worrying about. You have to love it to do it.

What is the most interesting thing you learned while writing Rooftops of Tehran? (This can be about yourself, about writing, or anything at all).
Two things: First, how invested I become in the characters I was writing about. It surprised me how the voices just came to me. I didn’t struggle to give each character his or her unique voice. And in this story every voice is different, every character is special in a certain way, Pasha is a bookish boy who wants to always do the right things, and fails; Ahmed is the loveable street smart best-friend who never tells a joke he doesn’t like; Iraj is a boy in love with Thomas Edison and American ingenuity while suffering from a strong and almost obsessive suspicion on how that technology might be used; Zari is a young woman who struggles with deeply rooted traditions and her own heart’s desires; Grandma is a character caught up in the nostalgia of her inglorious past, and memories of her dead husband, who she thinks is still alive. I can go on and on.

The other thing I learned was how a single scene can define your entire book. In this book Zari makes a harrowing decision that impacts everyone in the story. When I talk to book clubs many readers want to discuss that scene and what it truly signifies in terms of one’s strength of conviction, honor, respect, idealism, selflessness, and even youthful irrationality.

What is the most rewarding part about being a young adult author?
Although the book has a YA touch to it, it’s actually more of an adult novel. But I have so many emails from young adults who claim their lives parallel that of the main characters at many levels. It’s really gratifying especially when they tell you that the story intrigued them to learn more about Iran, its culture, history, etc.

If there was one thing you could change about Rooftops of Tehran, what would it be?
I’m not sure I would change anything. It took me three years to write the book and I have read it more times than I care to remember. The story was analyzed by my amazing agents, Danielle Egan-Miller and Joanna MacKenzie, and carefully edited by my wonderful editor, Ellen Edwards …. So, I really can’t think of anything that I would change.

What are you working on next?
My second story, which currently is called Walking on Minefields, is finished and with my agents to be submitted to the publisher. It’s a different kind of a story than Rooftops of Tehran. In it I try to blur the line between good and evil, each character represents a different generation with different sensibilities, desires, aspirations and choices, I plant love in the most unlikely of places, fault in the most genuine of hearts, I try the limits of pain, the extent people go to in order to control their own destinies, and finally, the eventual indomitability of human spirit. To me people always triumph and that’s the beauty of life.

1 munch(es) :

Helen's Book Blog said...

I just recently bought this book and now, having read this interview, will move it up near the top of my TBR pile! Thank you for a great interview about this book that just sounds SO GOOD!

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