How I Write: Dina Nayeri
Best-selling author Noah Charney interviews great writers about the writing life.
Most recent book: A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Tehran, Iran and lived in the historic city of Isfahan until I was eight. Then, because of the Iran-Iraq war and the terrible Islamic regime, my mother, brother and I fled the country. We lived for two years in refugee communities in Dubai and Rome. Then when I was ten, we landed in Oklahoma, where I managed well enough as a teenager until I left for college. I’m not sure I would say any of those places is “where I grew up.” Actually, I’d say I did most of my growing up in Amsterdam between the ages of twenty-nine and thirty-two, and I’m not finished yet. As my mother says in her beautiful Iranian accent, “Dina is a late bloom.”
Where and what did you study?
I studied Economics and Finance at Princeton, but all my elective classes were in English and American Literature. I was confused then, and my passion for literature had yet to show itself in a compelling way. I had a mind for business and so I continued to Harvard Business School where I got an MBA followed by a Master of Higher Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Then I focused on my writing in Paris and Amsterdam for a couple of years and ended up at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where I earned my MFA. I don’t know why my path has been so winding and strange. I’m a nomad, I guess, always searching for the next thing.
Where do you live and why?
I’m in the process of moving to NYC where, at thirty-three, I’ll have my own apartment for the first time in my life! (I was married for most of the years since college). But, on this particular afternoon, I’m sitting in the kitchen of a very old house in Iowa City, where I live with two other writers (brilliant ones!) and fellow MFAs at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I’m sipping tea and braving a Midwestern April thunderstorm that seems to be killing my roommate’s dog, while trying to search for a decent place to live next month. I don’t know why I chose New York as the place to test out my newfound independence. Already I’ve been exposed to the slimiest deals and the meanest landlords, and shady brokers have begun to circle overhead. But I guess I like the challenge of living in the world’s toughest city. And I really like the possibility of Vietnamese food and bubble tea at 4am.
Describe your morning routine.
I sleep in the mornings. And I pluck my eyebrows. For some reason, if I pluck my eyebrows in the morning it makes me sneeze. And I like sneezing. Is that strange?
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I laugh with my mouth extremely wide open. So I look four-years-old every time something funny happens.
What is your favorite item of clothing?
My leather jacket with fuzzy collar and lots of zippers. It makes me look so much cooler than I really am. Every time I wear it people are surprised that I would be capable of purchasing such a killer garment.
Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers, and tell us why you like them.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, which contains passages so beautiful and so true that they make me re-evaluate my own every emotion.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, because it has an ending so subtle and profound that I cried after four months without tears.
Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee, because it captures the immigrant experience so perfectly that, even as an Iranian, I felt the experience of the Korean-American protagonist as my own.
Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?
I’m so lucky to have a handful of writer friends who help and inspire me. Coming to Iowa was an amazing decision. Of course, I’m indebted to Charlie Baxter, Marilynne Robinson, Sam Chang, and Michelle Huneven, my teachers and constant supporters. Knowing them has been mind-blowing and wonderful. Their reading lists alone will keep me occupied for years. As for peers: my friend Casey Walker is one of those people who, when he opens his mouth you can set a stopwatch to thirty seconds, and before that watch goes off he will have said something profound or brilliant or hilarious.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I used to do that, but ever since coming to the workshop, I’ve stopped. Outlines can be limiting, and they can lead you in the wrong direction. I find it more useful now to begin writing and see where the story goes on its own, for about 100 pages, before trying to set a structure. My natural strength is storytelling, so I often don’t need an outline. My instincts are already plot-driven, so I prefer to spend time working on style, prose, and in-depth research. I also think that it’s better for any writer to find the voice of the story first, since it’s the most important part.
Some author-to-author advice: what has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?
I don’t need to love the protagonist, but I need to be intrigued, and to understand, and to care. And I absolutely need the promise of great drama.
Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.
I arrive at a café with my giant backpack (actually, it looks more like a jet-pack because I’m tiny). I order a cappuccino, usually in an Irish mug and stir in three Splendas, half poured out (I know this equals 1.5 Splendas, but I don’t like it that way). I write for a few hours until I get hungry, then I go in search of food and a new café. My weirdest habit is that I choose a TV show on Hulu, and I keep the browser open on my laptop. If I’ve been productive for a few hours, I let myself watch fifteen minutes of it. I also do this with important personal emails. I’ll start an email, write a few lines, and keep it open on my desktop. If I’ve done good work for a while, I’ll allow myself to edit that email for a few minutes as a reward.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?
I work in cafés, so I don’t really have a workspace. I keep my most important items (including my most recent handwritten work and my laptop) in a single backpack, which I repack every night. I like the idea that if my house burned down, I could grab that backpack and all my most important things would be there, and I wouldn’t have to be sad for long.
Describe your evening routine.
I work until I’m exhausted, then I read until I fall asleep. My evenings aren’t very structured or uniform. Sometimes I go out. If I’m coming home from an evening that has been less than satisfying, I wash off all my makeup and put away my clothes, so that when I wake up there’s no sign of the activity. I can pretend I stayed home and worked. If the evening has been a success, I fall right into bed, makeup on, and listen to music until I fall asleep.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
My brother. Especially when it’s obvious he’s getting so much joy from making you laugh.
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
Old emails from people I miss.
Do you have any superstitions?
What is something you always carry with you?
Even if I’m not wearing them, I carry my pearl studs in my pockets.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
Epicurus. Because I’d like to watch him and Marilynne Robinson have a debate about the purpose of life.
Then again, I’d like to watch a conversation between Marilynne and Aristotle, Avicenna, Rumi, Jesus, and a number of others.
If I could bring back someone just for me, maybe my grandpa. The last time I saw him I was eight-years-old. Since then, I always thought, “I’ll go back to Iran before he dies.” And I never did.
What is your favorite snack?
Savory: Half an avocado filled with tuna salad drizzled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt. OR: Greek yogurt and smoked salmon drizzled with olive oil, chive, salt, pepper and a touch of lemon juice.
Sweet: mango with sticky rice and coconut milk. OR: bananas, almonds, walnuts, raisins and strawberries with flax flakes in milk.
Sour: dried sour cherries from Iran!
What phrase do you over-use?
“It happened like this:”
What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
I moved to Paris. I became enraptured by my Iranian past. I researched like it was my full-time job. I wrote the novel and it sold. It was really just a story of hard work and passion. But it did reconnect me to my roots and it turned my life upside down and it gave me a new life and profession. It cost me a lot too. But I have a feeling those losses were inevitable.
Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
I’ll keep you posted.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
Depending on the day and whether I’m in writing or editing mode, it would be either: a scene that makes my heart race, or one beautiful paragraph that has pushed my abilities as a writer, or 10 pages of edits.
Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
Once a man showed up to one of my readings and he seemed to think he was my date. I have a feeling this was my fault, but was it, really? I mean, it’s my book event, so of course I’m going to invite anyone and everyone I meet. Only later did I realize that when you meet a man at a bar, anything you invite him to will be considered a date. To my credit, I had been divorced for only a short time and I didn’t know the rules. I still don’t.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Write every day. Show your work to everyone who will read it and really listen to what they have to say. Don’t self-publish.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
Here lies someone who was well loved.
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
I got my first marriage proposal when I was eight-years-old. It was in the home of an Arab sheikh who invited us to a feast and offered his twelve-year-old son to be my husband. My mother turned him down. I remember thinking, “I guess I have to wait to wear makeup now.”
What is your next project?
I’m writing a novel about a family of Iranian exiles who move to Oklahoma after the first Gulf War. The story centers on their twelve-year-old son, who is coming to terms with his new life as an American and the life he is leaving behind. His father, a respected surgeon in Iran, grapples with the loss of his identity and profession, as he is forced to work in a factory and his family sinks further into poverty.
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