The Pot Boileth Over: An Interview with Daniel Nayeri
This . . .
. . . is a slab of brisket. Don’t drool too much. As you read this it has already been consumed by author Daniel Nayeri as he travels around the country doing his best to promote his new middle grade novel/memoir Everything Sad Is Untrue. That brisket is just the latest in a long line of delicious foodstuffs Daniel keeps track of on his Instagram account.
Now if Daniel’s name, or the title of his book, sound familiar, you may recall that I premiered the book cover alongside an excerpt way way back in January. Back then, we didn’t know anything about the incipient pandemic or how hard it would be to promote debut novels. As such, it is with extreme pleasure that I’m interviewing Daniel here today. We talk Sheherezade, stews, bulls, his mom, and why he should be writing the next Mandy Moore-worthy classic.
Betsy Bird: Daniel, first and foremost, your book is a joy to read. I probably shouldn’t confess to this, but when I’m reading an Advanced Reading Copy of a book (not a final edition) and I come to a sentence I like, I’ll dog-ear the page. Not a problem usually, until I’m reading Everything Sad Is Untrue. In that particular case I found myself dog-earing EVERY page. This is an inefficient way to read the book, but thoroughly enjoyable. Now you’re no stranger to the publishing industry, having worked on the back end (so to speak) for years at places like Workman. That’s where I first met you. Why the sudden desire to write a book for kids?
Daniel Nayeri: Let those who have not dog-eared cast the first tweet, I always say. Thank you for the kind words. It means the world to have that coming from you. As for its origin, it wasn’t so sudden. But I’ve been working on this book for so long that maybe I gave the wrong impression?
There’s a phrase in Persian about making stews. You sear the meats and greens, then you add water and boil it down. This is a basic structure. There’s more to it, but you get the idea. At the outset, when you look into the pot, it’s just a watery broth with chunks floating in it. You have to reduce it until—and the phrase describes this moment—the stew “falls into place.” It thickens and all the disparate ingredients coalesce into the complex flavors that mark the dish. Anyway, you can translate the idea as the stew “settling,” or “falling into place,” (which is the exact translation). But I like to translate it as the moment the stew, “sits down.” It makes me think of the boiling water as a form of discomfort, and the late-stage simmer as the dish coming into its own. It becomes comfortable.
I have always been a pot boiling over in the publishing industry, and would love nothing more than to sit, someday, in a writer’s seat. Until then, I have the best gig in the world as the publisher of Odd Dot.
BB: Of course, the book does have the obvious flaw of stymying library catalogers nation-wide. Is this book fiction or memoir? Nonfiction or fable? I guess my question is, where would YOU put this book in a library? MARC records be damned, I want to know where you want to see it pop up.
DN: I often work on un-categorizable books and my glib answer, when I’m asked where in the store or library the book should go is: In the front. And if I haven’t properly conveyed that I’m being silly, the person asking might follow-up with, “but what about after the promotion period?” And I have to double-down and say, “No I mean it should be in the front forever.” By then they realize it’s a joke (or they think I’m intolerably arrogant, for which I spend the rest of the engagement apologizing).
In any case, the real answer is the fiction section. I think of a book I have loved, IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELER by the great Italo Calvino. It is categorized as fiction, but it begins, “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.” It is fiction that is exclusively concerned with the nature of truth.
BB: I read a fair number of children’s books in a given year. I’d say that about 0.001% of them involve an opening image of a grandfather reaching a bloodied hand from the slit neck of a bull towards his young grandson. I know that so much of this book is based on the truth. I gotta assume that scene is real, but I need to hear it for you. Did it happen? Was it always going to be at the opening of your book?
DN: It happened. It’s the only firsthand memory I have of my grandfather.
For a long time, this was an adult novel, and I imagined it would begin with that—my first visit to Ardestan, my grandfather’s home, the killing of the bull. But I always held out hope that it would end with a return visit, as an adult, to the same courtyard. I imagined the parts that would be the same (the inlay stone, the orchards), and the parts that would change, (his demeanor, age), but he would hold my face again in his hands.
I’d dreamed of that ever since the day we left. And I didn’t realize I had been waiting to write the story until I could return and find that closing scene.
But then one day about a decade and a half ago, I got a call from my dad telling me my grandfather had passed. I knew then I’d never have that second memory. Shortly after that, I started writing the book, not knowing how I’d end it. Now, in the end of the book, the narrator asks his mother if she remembered it too. He wants to verify it with her. He wants, desperately, for her to confirm that this thing he has held on to all his life was true.
Her answer is the closure he’s been looking for, though it isn’t what he expected. I had that exact conversation with my mother as well.
BB: Okay, enough about you. I want to hear more about your mom. Specifically, I want the readers of this interview to hear more about your mom. Can you give us the rundown on the awesomeness that is the mother of Daniel Nayeri? Tell me who she is, what she’s done, and why she purchased a train caboose.
DN: My mom is pretty spectacular. She was already a medical doctor when she had me. Then, she converted to Christianity, which is a capital crime for a Muslim in our home country of Iran. Even so, she became a part of the underground church, until she was caught by the secret police (ominously called “The Committee”). So we had to escape. We became refugees. First, we spent time in U.A.E, and then in Italy, until we finally found asylum in Edmond, OK. Those are the basics.
As I’ve grown, I’ve gained even more respect for what she endured. Her religious convictions led her from a well-to-do family across the planet into a life of precarity. As kids, there was a constant attempt to understand the “why” of it all. And to watch her, as she struggled to learn English, and worked multiple jobs, as she took care of us—first as a single mother, then as the wife of an abusive new husband—as we saw that nothing was going to stop her, that was an incredible testimony of her belief.
In the States, after years of poverty and difficulty, she gained another degree and became a hospital administrator, then worked in hospice. After that she became one of the older enlistees in the Peace Corps and lived in Thailand for a couple years volunteering with medical relief efforts. And when she got back, she bought the caboose of an old train, in order to renovate it, and turn it into a café. She may yet go a different direction with that—cafés aren’t exactly hopping these days. But you get a sense of her endless energy. She bakes multiple breads a day, pickles things, works in a garden to grow way more produce than one would imagine, and I used to joke that she could probably knit you a spare tire.
BB: You get a sense of a myriad of influences when you read this book. One that sticks out, and is directly related in the text, is 1001 Nights. What’s your relationship to that book? What’s its influence on you?
DN: My relationship to that book is that it isn’t really a book. I’ve read the old Burton translation, and the better Norton Critical Edition translated by Husain Haddawy. I’m very interested in getting Geraldine McCaughrean’s version; she must have brought something wonderful to it.
But my main experience of these stories is as an oral tradition. They’re the snippets of reference that my father would make as we spoke on the phone. I would make him stop whatever point he was making to tell me the rest of the story. This argumentative structure, where I would be teasing the story out of him, and he would be scolding me as he told it—this is the call-and-response pattern I think of when I think of the 1001 Nights. It’s how I imagine the insufferable king in the stories themselves, constantly interrupting Sheherezade. And it’s how the narrator of EVERYTHING SAD functions, being constantly interrupted in his class.
I love storytelling as a cooperative game, or a form of argument. I love the scenes in The Princess Bride when the boy is making demands of his grandfather to skip some parts and expand others, as if he could change the story to fit the boy’s needs. I love that. The reader becomes a finicky customer. The writer becomes the intractable chef. They are working together to make a dish that will please them both.
BB: Is a sequel in the works, perhaps?
DN: I don’t have a sequel going right now. I’m working on other ideas, but perhaps in another 13 years? It would be lovely to have demand for such a thing. Now that I’m noodling on it, I imagine a second autobiographical novel would probably need to move forward chronologically. I said most of what I would want to say about middle school, but boy are there some good high school stories—Oklahoma football, megachurch drama, first dances. You’re starting to convince me, Betsy. It would be the Mandy Moore classic SAVED crossed with FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS with a hint of TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. Somebody call Dev Patel. Call my agent! It’s gonna be yuge!
No but really, have we had a MG novel get a sequel as a YA? I suppose several fantasy series have “grown up,” but I’m not sure I know of an example in contemporary fiction.
BB: Well now you’ve thrown the gauntlet down, and my readers must answer. Under normal circumstances, it goes the other way around. You start with the YA character and go back in time (example: Andrew Smith’s The Size of the Truth took minor character Sam Abernathy and gave him his own prequel). I shall ponder this.
And I shall also ponder how grateful I am that Daniel was able to join us today. But truly, I know what you’re all wondering. You’re wondering, “How can I see more of Daniel’s amazing mom?”
Ask and you shall receive:
Thanks to Daniel and Caroline Sun of Sun Literary Arts for the interview!
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