It’s a Wednesday afternoon in winter, and Porochista Khakpour is on a Zoom call from the living room of her one-bedroom apartment in Central Harlem, sitting in the oversize bean bag chair where she likes to write—when she’s not writing from bed, sometimes until dawn. The Iranian American author has Lyme disease, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and other health conditions; she uses a cane, and the chair helps her manage chronic pain. The apartment, which she moved into about a month ago, is sparsely furnished, and has a bookshelf lined not with books but with various medications and supplements.

“I’ve never been good at decorating,” Khakpour says. “I can’t afford the art I’d like to have on my walls, or the Persian rugs. So my place is kind of bare bones and characterless.”

The most vibrant thing in the apartment is Khakpour herself—whose friendly face is framed by thick hair and chic glasses, and whose tattoos include a crescent moon (a nod to her Muslim background) and a heart in honor of her recently departed poodle, Cosmo. Whatever decorating skills the author lacks she makes up for with writing talent. Her deeply felt books include her 2007 debut, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, about Iranian refugees in post-9/11 America; the fable The Last Illusion; the essay collection Brown Album; and the memoir Sick, about her struggles with Lyme disease.

Khakpour’s new satirical novel Tehrangeles, out in June from Pantheon with an announced first printing of 50,000 copies, is her most fun and commercial work yet. Set during the pandemic, Tehrangeles centers on the Milanis, a wealthy Iranian American family in Los Angeles whose members want to become reality television stars. There’s Ali, the patriarch and founder of a snack food empire; Homa, a housewife who retreats to her bedroom to take hours-long naps; and their four daughters: Violet, 21, an aspiring model; Roxanna, 19, an influencer; Mina, 15, an overachiever; and Haylee, 14, a health fanatic.

As the family works with a production company to get their reality show off the ground, their lives unravel, secrets are exposed, and insecurities are amplified, forcing them to confront issues of ethnicity, class, and sexual and political identity. Roxanna, for instance, pretends to be Italian around her friends, and Mina pushes against gender norms.

Born in Tehran in 1978, Khakpour came to L.A. with her parents to escape the Iranian Revolution—a journey she calls “riches to rags.” The family settled in South Pasadena—a place very unlike Tehrangeles, the upmarket Persian neighborhood where her characters dwell—in an apartment with black mold on the ceiling, where Khakpour was sick and unhappy. “There was a point in my childhood when I cried every day,” she recalls.

Khakpour ditched L.A. in 1996 to attend Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she dealt with depression; after graduating in 2000, she earned an MA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. She was in New York City on 9/11—an experience that shaped her as an author. “It made me think it was fine to be a spokesperson for my people,” she says, “and lean into Iranian-ness.”

Darkly humorous yet tender, Tehrangeles draws elements from The Kardashians, Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians (Khakpour calls her novel “Crazy West Asians”), and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, an inspiration for the Milani sisters. Khakpour began Tehrangeles in 2011, when she was trying to sell her sophomore book, The Last Illusion—a process that took two years. At the time, editors kept telling her to write about Iranian American women struggling in America, but Khakpour wasn’t interested. “Tehrangeles started as a joke,” she says. “I didn’t want to write the female Iranian trauma porn that editors wanted from me.”

Instead, she worked on a “weird satire” of the editors’ requests with an Iranian American female cast. During the process, she reread Little Women, a novel she’d hated as a kid. “I came to learn that Alcott had a hard time writing Little Women, but that she did it because her dad and male publisher were urging her to write a bestseller,” she says. She felt a connection to Alcott—and even wrote a draft of Tehrangeles that was a chapter-by-chapter retelling of Little Women, which she scrapped.

“I’m not a big rewriter, but I’ve rewritten Tehrangeles many times, and it’s made me nervous,” Khakpour says.

She worked briefly as a ghostwriter in 2021 on a memoir by Reza Farahan, star of the reality show Shahs of Sunset—giving her a close-up look at the world of reality TV. As for how she got into the heads of her Gen-Z characters, she admits, “I spent a shocking amount of time on TikTok.”

Naomi Gibbs, Khakpour’s editor, praises the author for her ability to breathe life into her fiction. “Porochista cares about her characters,” Gibbs says. “She struggled at times with the characters in this novel because they’re people she wouldn’t necessarily be friends with. But they’re all so alive and a bit off-kilter, and that’s really appealing.”

In 2006, after years of chronic pain, Khakpour was diagnosed with Lyme disease and says that since then she’s spent $250,000 on doctors and treatments. In 2018, while promoting Sick, she collapsed and became severely ill, then lost her apartment. “I moved 30 times in one year,” she recalls. Friends set up a crowdfunding campaign for her, and she became the target of trolls. “People stalked and doxxed me and called me a grifter. It was worse than the illness itself.”

Khakpour worries often about her health, and sometimes her thoughts turn dark. “If I ever get very sick again, I don’t know what’ll happen,” she says. Should her health decline again, she might consider moving to Iran. “At least I’d be in my homeland,” she says. “It’s very Iranian to think about your death all the time.”

Despite these challenges, Khakpour has much to be excited about. Her new novel is bold and effervescent—words that describe her, too. “Porochista is completely unique,” says Susan Golomb, Khakpour’s agent. “She talks fast and writes long emails. I don’t know how she does them so quickly. She’s vivacious, a little eccentric, and charming.”

If she wasn’t writing books, Khakpour says she’d be a florist. Flowers and plants bring her peace in hard times, and she likes having them in the apartment—and they’re cheaper than Persian rugs. She feels like an outsider, but that’s good for her fiction.

“Satire is best when you have one foot in, one out,” Khakpour says. She hopes her work reaches those who feel unrepresented. “I want my books to be there for people who don’t see books that reflect them.”

Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.