Image by Kimberly Farmer

Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

An Interview with Daniel Nayeri, author of Everything Sad is Untrue (a True Story)

Daniel Nayeri is no newcomer to the publishing world. His has been a trusted voice, both as an editor and a writer, for years. But the success of his latest novel (Everything Sad is Untrue) has launched him into the public eye, and we are all the better for his generosity, his kindness, and the beauty of his book. For this book, and for the time and energy he has granted to participate in this interview, I am grateful.


SBW: Before we get into Everything Sad is Untrue, I’m curious about your work at Odd Dot. Can you describe your mission, and your path into publishing?


DN: My path in publishing would require one of those modern hour-long TV drama series that marketing teams would describe as “sizzling!” and “pulls no punches!” I just need Dev Patel to gain some weight, break his nose a few times, and call me. But the short version is that I’ve been lucky enough to edit books in almost every category of publishing. Literary fiction, history, crime drama, pop nonfiction, memoir, coffee table books, fashion, cookbooks, YA novels, Sci-Fi Fantasy, middle grade, picture books, graphic novels, sticker books, novelty projects, and toys. They're all completely different spaces, of course. But the core of making something, of being creative within the confines of a new format, genre, or market, is that each project is always a new delightful puzzle.


A lot of those projects failed if we’re going by sales. But several were quite successful, and that allowed me to become the founding publisher of Odd Dot. The beauty of Odd Dot is that it’s an in-house creative lab where I get to sit with my team every week and imagine new kinds of projects. We don’t limit ourselves by age or category. The only rule is to be interesting. Our stated mission is to create “Joyful Books for Curious Minds,” which expresses itself as a focus on “skill-building” nonfiction and learning through play. I love the paradox of a mandate that focuses on “the utility of frivolity.” I love bookmaking. I love the smell of paper stock. I love looking at Pantone books and headbands and types of foil stamping. I like thinking about how a book might express its idea in every aspect of its physical form. I also love thinking about how to build collaborative systems—what business books would call healthy workflows. In the last several years, the project for me has been creating an imprint, such that it isn’t just a name for “stuff the current publisher likes,” or a curatorial principle. It’s a method of collaborating, and I spend as much time nurturing that as any single title on the list.

SBW: Staying with publishers for a moment, Everything Sad is Untrue was the first book brought by brand-new independent publisher Levine Querido. What was it like to know you were the standard-bearer for this new effort? And how has it been to see the other remarkable LQ works emerge from this first season?


DN: Most books don’t get honors before they’re published, but this one had the honor of being first at Arthur Levine’s new company. The effect was that I was constantly afraid that I’d let them all down. Early on, I said, “Whatever you need, I’m enthusiastic and I won’t get tired.” I didn’t want them to think I was taking the honor for granted. I know how rare it is. I know Arthur’s legacy. And I know imprints of this kind don’t just pop up every year. And their list is already spectacular. They were the best teammates I could have hoped for. They had the same deep commitment that I did, and I can’t possibly be grateful enough.


SBW: Your book is a force, a wonderwork, a delight. Everyone is talking about it. As an autobiographical novel, it looks backward along the line of your life and gives voice to 12-year-old Khosrou who became known as Daniel once he fled Iran with his mother and sister and ultimately landed in Oklahoma.


Is it disorienting to have the world abuzz about the stories of your own life, which is also your book, which is also the stories of your mother and father and sister’s lives? Is it disorienting to be the Daniel who wrote this book, and the Daniel (Khosrou) in that OK classroom, who is not “the cutest boy you have ever seen,” AND the Khosrou in Iran who most certainly is?


DN: This is a great question because it gets at one of the core mechanisms of the book, the violent pairing of opposites in all our lives—and which I’ll admit I love to think about. Of course, it opens with one, “All Persians are liars,” and it continues with a Persian narrator obsessed with telling you the exact truth. So much so that he spends more time explaining and apologizing for his imperfect memory than anything else. Another simultaneous opposite is that he’s a poor refugee and a Persian prince at the same time in the structure of the story. And here’s another: He thinks constantly about the nature of listening and speaking at the same time. In fact, one of his projects is to be such a gracious guest in the parlor of the reader’s mind that he’s capable of being a narrator who listens. The medium of a novel is a monologue by an author, it’s not conducive to dialogue. And yet this kid wants to sit with every reader and make them feel heard. He is struggling with these opposites constantly. Hope and despair, of course, present themselves at the same time. So does the idea that we’re evil (he even says so to the reader…imagine you’re evil), and we’re loved.


The reason I say all this is to finally answer your question. It is disorienting to be all those people at once…Daniel and Khosrou and a father and a son. I am a very private person, actually, which is surprising given the book’s extreme openness. But here’s another paradox, every human is like this, juggling their inner and outer selves. So if we’re singling me out, we’re doing it for being exactly like everyone else. That makes me chuckle. I don’t have to put on any airs. We’re the same, you and me.


SBW: At one point early on, Daniel stops attempting to introduce himself and says, “You will know me by my voice.” How important is voice to this story? How difficult was it to inhabit that voice? How would you respond to those who challenge or question Daniel’s voice as condescending or patronizing?


DN: If anyone let us into their thoughts, as this narrator does, with a gormless inability to hide anything, then I think we’d react similarly. We see all his flaws, and certainly, being reflexively condescending is one of Khosrou’s. You can see, whenever he feels humiliated, he puffs himself up. Of course, he also deflates in front of us, and falls into abject self-loathing. He’s repulsive at times. He’s broken. And as he struggles to convey ideas that are simply beyond his vocabulary, he thrashes. He says, “you will know me by my voice,” because linear sentences can only convey melodies and not chords. His voice is multi-tonal. At least, it is to him. But it’s also a failing that he can’t describe himself. I wanted the reader to have the complicated and multidimensional experience with this person (who is also myself).


SBW: There are no chapters in Everything Sad is Untrue. What was your intention or rationale behind such a decision?


DN: The intention was for you to feel like this kid has got you by the collar and is simply not letting go. He never pauses for a breath or a chapter break. For some reason, you are the safest person to talk to, even if you’re a stranger and you have somewhere else to be. He has that tragic (again, almost repulsive) reflex of a traumatized person clinging to others, and telling them too much. He sees himself do it, and pulls back, ashamed. He tries to be a dignified narrator, to be charismatic by employing storytelling tools like, say, a teasing bit of foreshadowing, or a cliffhanger moment. But he finds he can’t keep the distance that a carnival barker, or storyteller, must. He’s not writing a novel. He’s poring over his memories in order to keep them.


SBW: Your mother, and her unstoppable strength, is undeniably the center of this story, but your father (and your parents' fathers) shares a vital part of your narrative, often rising like a hero in young Daniel’s mind. Would you be willing to speak a bit to the notion of fatherhood, the idea of having a father and now being a father have intersected in your life?


DN: A father’s job, it seems to me, is to be the living example of the paradox of power and love in this world. I mean this seriously. It’s only laughable because of how badly we fail at it. Also, all proper caveats should be given for the vastness of experiences in this world. I’m just telling you mine.


A father’s task is to make his children strong. To give them the skills and character traits that help them cope with the crushing task of growing up. Don’t let us get caught up in simple notions of “strength,” as though I’m saying I want brute muscle. I’m talking about discipline, tenacity, and fortitude all at once. And then, it’s his job to exemplify for them how to deploy that strength in the service of others. The self-sacrificing father teaches his children to use power to bring justice and peace.


It might sound as though we’re veering into fantasyland, but if I’m being honest, that was the hope.


SBW: Your mother, and the bedrock force of her faith in Jesus, colors every corner of this novel. Yet it is not a book that would be classified as a “Christian” book or published by the oddly-segregated (though highly profitable) Christian book industry. Given the uptick in support among evangelical churches for anti-refugee, anti-immigration, and anti-democracy policies and positions, how would you feel if the church claimed Everything Sad is Untrue as a “Christian” book?


DN: I would love it if the church claimed the book and read it for the challenges it proposes. I wrestle with a lot of the same challenges. How can I say, “Welcome Everybody,” and want so badly to live in a country that opens itself up to refugees, while also addressing the practical concern that many children in the US already live in poverty? That’s a real problem that the church should claim, and try to solve. So is the Christian paradox of a Law that is unbreakable and yet unachievable by any person, a law that exists at the same time as a Love that is unearnable and unwavering for all. These are the tough questions, and no political party in a nation the age of a baby (by comparison to history) can possibly tackle it without humility. So, I suppose I’m saying everybody is welcome to my house to discuss it, even the ones who don’t think I should have been let into the country in the first place.


SBW: Using the frame of Scheherazade and the 1001 Nights, you open the book with a promise:

If you listen, I’ll tell you a story. We can know and be known to each other, and then we’re not enemies anymore.

Obviously, story can be a means to survival; it can also be a means to understanding and intimacy. Some might argue that one only survives through understanding and intimacy. Others might point out that you already survived the horrific things in your past and ask, “why write this story?” Why did the telling of this story feel so necessary?


DN: A theme that gets overlooked in this book, because it’s so childish, is the “poop stories.” That’s the answer here. Excrement is what the human animal produces at its basic function. We are hurt by others, and then go out and reproduce that pain on someone else. But there is a higher dignity to achieve and to help others achieve. That higher state is one of producing more than just excrement. It is the task of looking at a difficult and tragic world, full of pain and injustice, and setting just one thing right. For a writer, like me, it is the task of making a beautiful and hopeful story out of senseless suffering. The character of my mother does this too. She is the one who breaks the cycle of receiving pain from others and produces, instead, love.


SBW: One of my favorite jokes lately is, “There are two types of people in this world: those who think there are two types of people and those who don’t.” Your book employs this “two types” trope a few times, and though I usually fall into that second camp, I thought it was wonderfully effective. The two villains have kept me thinking for weeks, and the two gods (a god who listens is love; a god who speaks is law) was totally new to me and is a most perfect explanation of God (“in case it wasn’t obvious, the answer is both. God should be both. If a god isn’t, that is no God”). Why do you think humans want to put things into an either/or category? Do you see your book as a rebuttal of that notion?


DN: I like that joke. It’s another of those paradoxes we’ve been talking about so much. I think the world is often binary. That’s a true natural occurrence. There are antipodes like the north and south poles, and binaries like zero and one, force and counterforce. There’s day & night, and us & them. If you wanted, you could look around and see a Manichean world of Light & Darkness. At its most abstract, this is what the philosophers call Nothingness and Somethingness. How can there be anything else besides something and nothing? The third, to a human mind, is the supernatural. The thing in the middle is usually the invisible ether holding the two poles together. That’s why we need paradoxes, to point us to that inexpressible place where we’re listening and speaking at the same time. The place where two opposite things are sitting on top of each other. I think humans use dichotomies to run away from the reality of the world. And I hope the book at least points to that reality off in the distance. Daniel tries, in his childlike way, by saying, “All the good stuff is in between and around the things that happen.”


SBW: Your story covers terribly difficult, horrifying events: a fatwa on your mother’s head, the betrayal of a beloved toy, physical abuse, emotional turmoil. Despite all those things, this book is absolutely glittering with hope. How did you manage such a feat?


DN: That’s the last paradox, isn’t it? How can anyone be hopeful and sane at the same time, in a world overcome with suffering? This book has 3 epigraphs. They address your question. The first is the state of tragedy (which is life in most cases), the second is the state of hatred (which is a rational response to tragedy), and the third is the state of hope (which, I should say as someone whose life has gotten better since living in a refugee camp, is also a rational response). I’ll let you read them if you like, but the gist from my perspective is that hope in a better future directly affects how we experience our present suffering. There is no other choice that affects the present as positively.


And now the requisite SBW Top Ten:


Who are your heroes?

Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday, Bruce Lee, and The Dread Pirate Roberts were my heroes growing up. These days it’s normal folks.


Do you consider yourself a reader or a writer first?

This is like breathing in and breathing out. They’re the same. But if I had to pick, I’d breathe in.


Who/what are you reading these days?

I’m constantly reading about life along the Silk Road. Right now it’s The Silk Road: A New History with Documents by Valerie Hansen. For Christmas I got the collected works of Dorothy Parker, which I’m reading in snippets, and I just started All Thirteen by Christina Soontornvat. It’s already a thrill. Next on the list is Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour.


What’s a book that stood out to you in the last year or so?

The Golden Age by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa is the first part of a multivolume work, and I hope the story finishes with all the promise of the first book. It’s gorgeous so far.


What else is included in your media diet (tv, movies, podcasts, albums…)?

All sorts. I listen to a lot of fun 80s music. Modern stuff I love is Young The Giant or Jason Isbell. I found Anderson Paak and John Prine both from their NPR Tiny Desk Concerts which were great. On TV, I’ve recently watched The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, the original Twilight Zone, and Watchmen. In the board game world, I’ve been playing a lot of Root with my family. On podcasts I listen to a lot of game design conversations or martial arts talk.


What is one important lesson you got from your parents (or upbringing, more generally)?

If you don’t stop you’re unstoppable.


When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

It was always to be a writer.


What constitutes a really good day for you?

Early wake up. A great cup of coffee with heavy cream. Writing for several hours. Lunch with my wife and son. Playing a big complicated board game with them in the early afternoon followed by a hike as deep into nature as possible. Back home to cook a meal and specifically bake a dessert. Then host a group of 4-5 people for dinner. Some video games or TV to close the night. A bowl of cereal at midnight if we’re up that late.


What is one thing you are afraid of?

Being a terrible father.


What is one thing you hope for?

A wiser mentor than the internet.

The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to send me a message. I promise a reply. 

 

Every Wednesday, I send out something of a hodgepodge of ideas, a gathering of thoughts on books, culture, and unexpected moments of joy. Sign up here to stay in the loop!

More Reviews and Interviews