“Bring a Bigger Suitcase” published in Issue 13
“Bring a Bigger Suitcase” is such a gem, I erroneously made the assumption that you are primarily a creative nonfiction writer. I believe fiction is your main focus, though, yes? For you as a writer, how does the creation of nonfiction differ from that of fiction? Will we be seeing more nonfiction from you in the future?
Thank you, Sally! It’s an honor to have it published in Silk Road Review, and it means so much that it resonated with you. I have played around with creative nonfiction pieces but in general the form is very new to me. There was actually an earlier draft of “Bring a Bigger Suitcase” that included a scene that never happened—and it didn’t occur to me for months that it wasn’t okay for it to be in there. I totally remember writing it: I was looking at the piece critically like I would a piece of fiction and felt like the pacing wasn’t right, and that a few beats before the next bit of action would increase the tension. And then I thought, What else would happen at a party like this? What would she do next? But of course, she was actually me, and I wasn’t writing about a “party like this” – I was writing about an actual event. When I write fiction, I often start with a real conversation or situation or feeling and then look at if from a different perspective – what would happen if …? – and the people very quickly become characters for me, fully realized and separate from anyone who inspired them. So it was a jump I was used to making. But of course, since this piece was nonfiction, even though the scene I had written probably did happen at some Norooz party in some year of my life, it certainly didn’t happen at this one and it needed to come out. So, I think I have a lot to learn when it comes to the craft of nonfiction! And, then of course, there’s the whole issue of writing comfortably about yourself and your family and friends – I don’t think I’m really there yet, either. But some members of my writing group have been bringing in nonfiction lately so I’ve been pretty inspired to try it again!
In “Bring a Bigger Suitcase” you deftly use the device of a suitcase as a means to introduce your readers into the world of your Persian grandparents. Your grandmother’s desire to load you up with familiar and much-loved Persian foodstuffs accomplishes so much from the perspective of writing craft. Food and gifts simultaneously fill your suitcase and introduce us to the traditions of Norooz, the Persian New Year, as well as showing us your deep love for your grandparents. From a writing perspective, how did this essay come to you?
Well, I started the essay in my notebook that afternoon, just after I got to the gate with my overstuffed bags. This wasn’t the first or the last time I left my grandparents’ house with way more than I could carry—even now when I do remember to bring a bigger (or half-empty) suitcase, I always end up leaving with more than I expected. But that time was pretty extreme and I was struck by the discord between my frustration toward all of this stuff and the total love with which my family gave these things to me—and of course my own desire to have these foods and things when I was back at home. So I guess I recognized that that tension was worth exploring and somewhat symbolic of a larger tension I felt being at a distance from this family and culture for most of the year. But really the initial impulse was to feel a little more love toward the way too heavy bag I was carrying! And once I started writing, the other stuff came out naturally.
Your story “It Was So Long Ago” won the Editor’s Choice Award for the 2010 Raymond Carver Contest, which must have been a terrific thrill. I would like to ask you to expand on a comment you made during an interview with Carve. You wrote about the importance of learning how to set your “internal bar” in regards to knowing when a piece is done, and how – even in the midst of editorial rejection – a writer needs to learn “to trust your instincts about your work and not keep retooling something based on every little reaction from your writing group or your mood that day.” I believe all writers struggle with knowing when a piece is truly finished. Will you please delve more deeply into this idea of an “internal bar?”
Hmm, I said that? No, I’m kidding. I think what I meant by that is that I felt really good about that story right from the beginning. I don’t know how I knew, but I really did know it was done. But of course, I’ve felt that way about plenty of stories that were so not done. So for that story, I sent it to dozens of places, and mostly I got those standard rejection slips. But every once in a while one would come back with a few nice words written on it. The percentage of those was really small compared to the form ones, but even getting one was enough to show me that the piece resonated with someone—and that helped me remember how personal the whole process is. Those other rejections could mean so many things—yes, that someone did not like the story, but also that maybe it wasn’t a good fit for the magazine, or it was too similar to something else, or they had too many first person present stories, or whatever. But the nice words on that one slip—that wasn’t just some reader who felt sorry for me. That person felt something when they read my story! So, let’s see, how did that help me set my internal bar? I guess after going through this process with a few stories, I started to see a correlation between how I felt at a gut level about the story and whether I’d see any of those lovely little hope notes. The ones that got those more personal rejections have mostly found homes, and were also the ones that felt really done to me, like out the door never looking back done. And the ones that haven’t—well those ones, if I’m being honest with myself, are the ones that I have some lingering doubts about but have been sending out anyway because I can’t figure out what the problem is or how to fix it.
As a writer of creative nonfiction, I am very interested in the often heated debates concerning the subjective truth of memory. A movement is abroad to publish writing without the determination of “fiction” or “nonfiction,” believing the distinction is irrelevant; all that matters is a good story. What are your thoughts on this?
Well, given that I clearly have trouble in this area, as a writer I’m all for stories that don’t define themselves as one thing or another! I definitely think that fiction and fictional techniques can help bring out the emotional truth of a story. I don’t just mean things like narrative and scene – those are essential for a good read no matter what the genre – but being able to play around with time, create dialogue, etc. I know that experienced nonfiction writers have techniques for doing this in a way that is still authentic, but as a fiction writer, not having to worry if every little thing happened in that order that day is very freeing. And as a reader, I’ve always been intrigued by pieces that are clearly hybrid and play with your expectations. Pieces that use the author’s name for the protagonist, for example, but self-identify as fiction. But I do think that something different happens when you read something you know to be true. When someone comes out and says, this is what happened to me and I survived it. I think it opens your eyes to the human experience and human potential in a different way. Maybe it’s this: when I read fiction, it’s a very emotional experience. I am so sucked into the characters and story that I rarely even see a bigger picture until much later. Whatever “truths” I learn seem to come through osmosis, not from the hand of the author. But when I read nonfiction, I am keenly aware that the author is a separate person, that this is their specific experience—so it’s more like I’m sitting at a table with them, in conversation, learning about them, maybe getting my eyes opened to something I didn’t know existed before. So, okay, maybe it’s that with fiction, I feel like I’m getting a universal truth, whereas with nonfiction, I feel like I discover a personal truth that makes me look at the universe in a more complex way. So, I guess I think there’s room for writing that identifies as nonfiction, writing that is called fiction, and writing that blurs the line. Bring it on!
You are the Host and Coordinator for “Late Night Debut,” weekly podcasts of author interviews and discussions of debut books. How did you become involved with Late Night Library, the producer of “Late Night Debut,” and how does this work with debut novelists inform your own writing?
Well, I got the job in the traditional way – by answering an ad. I have always loved that feeling of discovering a new author, and have always secretly wished I had gone into radio journalism, so I was really excited to have the opportunity to do both with Late Night Debut. In terms of my own work, it has been amazing to see how much great writing is coming out and how much of it is coming out from small presses. I think it’s a pretty exciting time for the written word. So that’s inspiring. And I always love to hear other writers talk about their process. On the other hand, it’s disheartening to know that I probably wouldn’t encounter many of these titles if I weren’t doing extensive research on debut books. There are a lot of great media outlets talking about books these days, but if you look closely, they still tend to promote the same handful of titles, many of which are coming from established authors or publishers. So, debut authors in particular still really struggle to find readers and sell books. I love being part of something that shines a spotlight on these authors!