One of the most exciting debut novels of the spring, Nafkote Tamirat's The Parking Lot Attendant follows an unnamed teenage girl in Boston who is drawn to the much older Ayale, a fellow Ethiopian and parking lot attendant. Expertly blending quotidian teenage frustrations with the real danger of the narrator’s unquestioning trust in Ayale’s and his package delivery scheme, Tamirat's novel is a wonderful, auspicious debut. Tamirat talks with her editor at Henry Holt, Caroline Zancan, about the path her novel took to publication, including separating fact and fiction and cutting the opening, which takes place on a shadowy island.
Zancan: One of the things that completely bowled me over about this brilliant novel you’ve written is that it has so many different things I love in a book in one compact, gut punch of a story—an intimate, haunting voice; dazzling writing; terrifyingly real, three-dimensional characters; and an epic story with a huge finish. Usually a combination of any two or three of those things can draw me in, and here we just get it all. I’m curious where it all began. I know Ayale was always the central character, but did you have to work to build a story up around him, or did you always know this story was something you wanted to tell, and he just happened to be the perfect vehicle?
Tamirat: Thank you for such high praise! When this book was still a wee short story, the only characters were Ayale and the narrator. I knew that I wanted to delve into their relationship, which would be set to the background of the parking lot, but as I workshopped the piece and other follow-up stories, I saw that most readers were equally intrigued by the parking lot itself. I began to understand that Ayale and the lot were inextricable (I mean, even the narrator has trouble processing his presence when she sees him elsewhere in Boston!) and that he served as a sort of representative for this world and what it symbolizes in the story. There are so many identities explored in the novel—Ethiopian-American, American, Ethiopian diaspora, Ethiopian parking lot attendant—and I wanted Ayale and the narrator to help introduce this book's particular dialogue and language rhythms as the reader gained familiarity with these personas and the universe in which they exist here.
As you've read the book through its many, many iterations, how would you describe the relationship between Ayale and his precious lot? Symbiotic? Allegorical? Incidental? None/all of the above?
Zancan: That's a really interesting question! I guess I've always thought of Ayale as the King and the Parking Lot the throne from which he ruled. Though I suppose it's also symbiotic? Ayale needed the parking lot to run his empire, and he took an ordinary slab of concrete and elevated it into this incredible kingdom, a rich, lively gathering place.
It's so interesting to me that this began as a character and place driven story, because it ultimately becomes a very plot-driven book, despite the richness of the world and characters. The book went through many drafts over the years, but the story was always here, which is no small element. It's part of what drew me to the project so fiercely (that ending!). A lot of the work we did was stretching the story, which used to live mainly in the last few pages of the book, out across the middle section, and laying the groundwork for some of the big turns in the story so they felt more earned. I was always so impressed by your revisions, because your additions always felt so naturally and intuitive to what was already there. For you, was it a matter of putting things you already knew about the story and what these people went through on to the page so the reader could be privy to it, or were you inventing new layers to the story as you went?
Tamirat: One of the biggest challenges when it came to the plot was how to connect the parts of the story that took place on the island with those that occurred in Boston. I had a pretty solid idea of what would drive the narrator and her father out of their home but had only a vague notion of why they'd be heading to the island and how their discoveries there would shed new light on the rest of the plot. You might remember that in earlier drafts, the island took up far more narrative real estate than it does now—at one point, I was switching between the past in Boston and the present on the island in every other chapter—and that was one of the first plot elements you helped me untangle. So, to answer your question, Boston was a known quantity to me whereas I needed A TON of editorial guidance when it came to the island and what role it had to play here.
If you recall, I told you at some point that while I knew something wasn't quite working with the island/Boston collaboration, I was tearing my hair out, trying to figure out why and how I could fix it. When did you see that the island sections had to be scaled back and how did you come to understand that the bulk of the story had to stay in Boston? I'd also love to know if there are certain general clues given by a text that signal to you that something needs to be removed and isn't doing what it MUST within the story to justify its presence.
Zancan: It's funny, my next question to you was going to be about the island sections!
You managed to condense so much of the spirit and energy of that place into the short sections you ended up keeping from what was originally almost half the book. To answer your question as far as why I suggested letting parts of the thread go, it felt like what was happening in those island sections was static—not much was changing or moving forward, it was all descriptive (lovely though that description was because it was coming from you!). All the interesting developments were happening in Boston, and I hated having to cut away from them as often and for as long as we did! The island was always such an effectively creepy place, and the creepiest things in books and movies often live off the page or off the screen. It almost felt like the less we saw of this place where something was clearly amiss, and the less we were allowed behind the curtain, the more eerie and upsetting what was there would be. Some of the early island material also pushed the island sections into what felt like straight sci-fi rather than extreme realist fiction. While this is a big, larger-than-life story, it all could happen, and some of the more extreme details made the island feel less real to me as someone who was completely taken by it.
My question to you about the island material is if you feel like all the sections that ended up on the cutting room floor were essential to your process of understanding this place and its inner workings, so that you knew it fully enough to sum it up or capture it in so little space, or did it simply feel like a part of the story that became less important as the Boston story grew? Sometimes we have to write through our idea of something to fully understand it even if that thing ultimately has to live partly off the page.
Tamirat: I couldn't have put it better myself! Every single word I wrote about the island was essential to helping me understand what it actually was, from its geographical layout and indigenous population to how the Ethiopians use its resources to survive. As you can attest, I went DEEP into the island, even at some point writing its leaders' propaganda, and without those pages and pages and pages, it would have been impossible to write it here in its (relatively) brief form. Put in another way, that initial grunt work allowed me to provide shorter but still vivid and lived-in snippets of a (to me!) real place instead of just whipping out a summary of ideas that wouldn't correspond to anything real in my fictional playground. It's the difference between writing a paragraph about penguins after actually spending time with one versus a paragraph about penguins that draws heavily on your passing knowledge of tuxedos.
Zancan: It's clear from what was kept that you are the penguin whisperer! In general, I was so impressed by how assured your revisions were in each draft—I felt you took any suggestion floated in front of you and came up with a better version of it, making your own, and that became more true with each new draft. I felt like I really had the honor of watching a writer come into her own. Has going all the way through an editorial and production process on a book from first draft to finished copy changed your writing process at all? Do you think your next book will evolve the same way, or do you think you’ve learned some “shortcuts,” for lack of a better term?
Tamirat: I don't think I have any shortcuts. I'm the sort of person who learns through writing, deleting, vowing to NEVER write again, then writing some more. It doesn't matter how many outlines I come up with, how many lofty plot schemes I dream up in the shower or during my commute to work: it's only as I write that I truly start to see where the work needs to go. I have to draft every possible scenario, character and line of dialogue, see how it all comes together (or doesn't) and then destroy some parts and start over while building out other sections, all in service of creating and then filling in and then expanding the limits of the story. Writing is my way of creating a path out of the unknown into the slightly more known. It's an incredibly messy and profoundly satisfying process.
Zancan: Well, the process is working! I can't wait to see it in action again. My last question for you is about Ayale, because, as you've heard me say a million times, I think he's a big part of the magic of the book.One of the biggest surprises on my end of this whole process was the fact that Ayale was based on a real person, which I didn't even learn until after the book was in production! He feels like such a larger than life, magical, almost mythical person, I almost couldn’t believe he was walking around in flesh-and-blood form. He's been one of the most steady, unwavering elements of the book across drafts, but I'm wondering what the initial process of putting a fictional version of a person you know well on the page was like. Did you have to work backwards from the real man, to change a lot of central things about him, or was it a hybrid of invention and isolated character traits from the beginning? Were you as taken by the real life inspiration as the narrator is by Ayale?
Tamirat: I remember once hearing Donald Antrim speak about his first attempts at writing a book. He began, as so many of us do, by trying the thing where you take real people and events and then ever-so-slightly skew them in the name of "fiction." This didn't really work for him: he felt so tied down by what had really happened and what those people had really done that there was no room for him to invent, to WRITE. So, while I was inspired by a real person, I very quickly abandoned his reality in order to construct that of Ayale's.
There's no question that trying to capture the essence of a person whom you know within a fictional context can be limiting: what if your story requires the character to act in a way that goes against what their real-life counterpart would do? You're screwed, you're stuck, go home. During the first drafts, when I felt very uncertain as to how to write Ayale (or a novel, for that matter, but that's a different story), his real-life inspiration served as an initial model of who Ayale could be. But as I gained my footing, I let him go completely because Ayale had transformed into a real person, distinct, unique, and inhabiting a world that felt very distant from the one where I knew his inspiration.
Zancan: Well, Ayale couldn't feel more real if he was taken directly from your inspiration, and I can't wait for the rest of the world to meet him and your incredible narrator!