In his autobiographical middle-grade novel Everything Sad Is Untrue (Levine Querido), Nayeri, who is also publisher of Macmillan’s Odd Dot imprint, writes about being a young refugee from Iran. He spoke with PW from Asheville, N.C., a stop on his socially distanced, two-and-a half-month book tour, which he’s doing as a road trip with his wife and eight-year-old son. Bookstores have been “on top of their game, very conscientious,” he reports. “Sometimes I stay in the parking lot and staff come out and take a selfie with me, or a shop might have me sit in their stock room signing books.” Before he returns to his home in Jersey City, N.J., he’ll have visited stores nationwide, including Texas, New Mexico, California, and Oklahoma, where he settled with his family at the age of eight.
The author’s note to this book says you began writing it when your grandfather died 13 years ago. What was it about his death that propelled you into writing it? And why do you think it took more than a decade for you to tell this story?
I’ve been doing this book ever since I got to this country, thinking about it since I was 10 years old. I became a writer because when you come to Oklahoma from Iran, you’re constantly being asked: “What are you doing here?” You have to explain yourself a lot. I was an impatient little kid, talking as fast as I could because one question always led to another. And the facts always stayed the same but the order in which I told them changed all the time. I learned the power of storytelling early on from having to tell my story over and over.
I studied writing at NYU, and was working on some other books when my grandfather died. I was living in an apartment in Brooklyn with three other guys. I was in the bathroom when my father called with the news because that was the only place to get any privacy in that apartment. I broke down right away, because I had only the one memory of him—the one that opens the book—and I realized I would never have another. I started to do an accounting of which memories of my grandfather were mine and which were told to me and realized I only have that one. The other one I have was told to me by my father. He said, “Your grandfather has a photo of you on his mantel and he prays to it every day that you will come back.” And of course I am filled with guilt that I never did make it back to Iran. I didn’t actually start writing the day that I learned of his death, but that’s when I started counting my memories.
When I started to write the book, I was a 20-something adult. I tried writing it first as an adult novel and then as an essay collection, but neither one really worked. I’m lucky that I had time to process what happened to me in childhood, but when I told it from an adult point of view it was a bit removed. I had spent about eight years, off and on, struggling through adult versions of my story when my good friend Stacey Barney [executive editor at G.P. Putnam’s Sons], finally said: “You know this is a middle-grade novel?” So then I put it in the voice of a 12-year-old. When I wrote in the voice of a raw young narrator trying to be oblique, trying to talk around things—well, his failure produced a more transparent voice with more transparent emotions.
Much of the book is presented in the form of Daniel responding to his teacher’s writing prompts. Did you write any of these stories—or similar ones—at that age, for school assignments? How did you come up with this format?
I built that structure of the writing prompts for the book as a way of portraying me and my willingness to crash and burn so many times in class. I didn’t actually tell the stories in a formal setting as often as the character does. More often it was informally: on the playground with other kids, or waiting for class to start, I would say something about my childhood in Iran and I’d be quickly shut down by the others, who didn’t believe me. I was a kid who was trying to be important.
Daniel is reporting all these stories he has been told to the kids, testing their patience, using a fundamental aspect of the oral tradition. It’s what storytellers might call the “crowd work,” trying to make all the threads weave together with aplomb.
When I was writing it as an adult book, I was thinking of it being like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez or Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. But that didn’t work. So then I tried writing it as individual essays, with each theme—each thread—told in a separate essay. But I finally realized the story was neither a linear epic nor a collection of individual essays.
The book has no chapters; instead it is made up of many short stories. Why did you make this choice?
The concept of chapters never came into play. I wanted to create the feeling for the reader of “When is this kid going to pause for breath?” He never does. He never takes a breath; he’s desperate to tell everything. He’s racing against time—meaning he’s racing against you losing interest in him. He’s got you by the scruff and he has to hold on.
One of the striking aspects of your book is the juxtaposition of Persian history, traditional folk tales and Daniel’s family stories with a 12-year-old’s life in contemporary Oklahoma. Did you grow up hearing the older stories? When you started writing, did you plan that they would be an integral part of the book?
Because my father chose not to leave Iran with us, after I was six years old, he became a voice on the phone. There was precious little I wanted to talk to him about in terms of my life. I never talked about school. He was a great memorizer and he would say something in Old Farsi—Old Farsi and Modern Farsi are two different languages—and I would have no idea what he said. He would laugh at me and scold me for not knowing Old Farsi. Then he would explain what he had said in great detail. If it was something about a fox, for example, he would explain that in Persian literature a fox is a coward. I would tell him that in America a fox is cunning and smart. And he would retort that Persian literature is 10 times older than America.
On these calls he would be reconstituting Persian poetry for me inch by inch—all those old stories came from him by phone. (I checked back with him on some of them while I was writing.) He would talk about why Iran retained Farsi after the Muslim conquest around 750 AD, when other countries like Egypt and Syria all switched to Arabic. “It’s because of the Shahnameh,” he would tell me—he was referring to the Iranian national epic, which tells the history of the Persian people. According to my father, the language of the Shahnameh is so beautiful that it preserved the language. I didn’t actually read it until college, but I learned about the merging of Persian history and mythology from my dad talking about the Shahnameh over and over. I couldn’t write about my father without writing about the Shahnameh.
I learned from those stories that you can’t map where history turns into mythology: that border is usually very foggy. In writing this book, I wanted to go back that far into my family—where history morphs into mythology. I wanted the narrator to present readers with that level of honesty. Daniel is so obsessed with giving the truth that he goes all the way back to when history becomes myth. He holds himself to a higher account. The first sentence of the book is always hanging over his head: “All Persians are liars….”
Why haven’t you been back to Iran?
When I was 18 I had to declare my faith and I did not choose Islam. Muslim law, as interpreted in Iran, says if you convert to Judaism or Christianity, this is a capital crime. I wish this were not a hindrance to my traveling to Iran.
How did you make your way from Oklahoma to a career in publishing in New York City?
I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I got a scholarship to the NYU Writing Program. While I was in school, I got an internship at Carol Mann’s literary agency. Carol Mann is one of the greats—a wonderful agent from whom I learned that I would make a terrible agent. I got to watch her work and negotiate and came to understand how bad I would be at it. While I was interning with Carol, her foreign rights agent abruptly left to get married and move to China and Carol asked me to step into his job. So I was lucky enough to spend my junior and senior years of college also working fulltime.
When I graduated, I already had three years of publishing experience, which got me a job with Regan Books. That’s where I was working when my grandfather died. It was a rough place to work, but Judith Regan was incredible at acquiring books. I worked with celebrity books, books by pundits—a lot of books that made me sad, and I decided I was way too young to be this sad all the time. So I made a list of the four best jobs I could think of: international spy (my mom said no, too dangerous), Royal Mountie (but I wasn’t Canadian), a skydiving instructor (that’s how stressful working for Regan Books was—I spent my weekends jumping out of planes), and pastry chef. Somehow, in spite of having no experience, I managed to get a job as a pastry chef and did that for five years, while copyediting and proofreading for Simon & Schuster, which kept my hand in publishing.
Eventually I landed a job at Clarion Books working for the great Dinah Stevenson. I learned to acquire books from Judith and to edit books from Dinah. At Clarion I worked with amazing authors like Katherine Paterson and Linda Sue Park. Eventually I became editorial director of the digital division at HMH. Then I worked at Workman for four years until I created the Odd Dot imprint for Macmillan three years ago.
You also wrote The Marlowe School books [Candlewick, 2009–2012] with your sister, Dina Nayeri. How did you and your sister come to write together?
My sister was in business school and transitioning into writing, so she and I were batting around ideas. We came up with the idea of a series of YA retellings set in a posh New York City private school, where every student and teacher is a proxy for a character from a classic novel.
Next you wrote several books on your own: Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow [Candlewick, 2011] and the Elixir Fixers series [Albert Whitman, 2019–2020]. Do you see a connection between your other works and Everything Sad Is Untrue?
The Elixir Fixers is a fantasy chapter book series about a girl who lives with her father, a well-meaning but mediocre alchemist. He keeps selling potions to their neighbors, but she only believes in science. So it’s up to her to manufacture the magic in order to keep the family business alive.
I’m most proud of Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow: it’s a collection of four novellas, each one in a different genre—western, hardboiled detective story, swashbuckling romance, and sci-fi. I really enjoy the short form of the novella. I think that the connective tissue between all my work is a constant filtering of and responding to stories being told and retold. I have an obsession with the conventions of how stories function in the East vs. the West.
In a 2012 interview you talked about novels “getting fatter,” and that as an editor you always ask for major cuts. Everything Sad is Untrue is a pretty long book! How did you reconcile your position about long books with the heft of this one?
(Laughs.) I’m an inveterate hypocrite! I do believe in the novella size. Everything I write now is aggressively shorter. I will take my punishment for that statement.
Can you talk about the process of getting this book published? When did you meet Arthur Levine, and how involved was he in the creation of your book?
I met Arthur at a conference. I tend to be very shy at conferences and retire to my room as soon as the events are over. But this time, a friend insisted I come along to a dinner and Arthur was across the table from me. We spent the evening telling family stories and he said, “You should write these stories down.” This exchange happened about two years before my book was ready, so when it was ready, my agent, Joanna Volpe, sent it exclusively to Arthur. I thought he would really understand it since he had also experienced a childhood as an outsider.
He was a very strong editor, giving me play-by-play reactions to the various stories. He wanted to make sure that the Iran/Oklahoma balance was equal. I initially had more material on Iran, so I added more scenes about Oklahoma for a better balance.
Have any members of your family read this book?
My mom read it early enough that I could make changes to details. There wasn’t much we disagreed on, but she was my fact-checker. Sometimes when she corrected me, we agreed to keep my version and chalk it up to a 12-year-old’s perspective. She was surprised by a lot of what she read because I had been a pretty private child. My father and sister haven’t read it yet.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a middle-grade comic adventure set on the 11th-century Silk Road, in the Taklamakan Desert. The book hasn’t been announced yet, so that’s all I can say right now.
Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story) by Daniel Nayeri. Levine Querido, $17.99 Aug. 25 ISBN 978-1-64614-000-8