Pigeon Pages Interview with Said Sayrafiezadeh
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh is a memoirist, fiction writer and playwright. He is the author of the story collection, Brief Encounters With the Enemy, a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Fiction Prize, and the critically acclaimed memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, selected as one of the ten best books of the year by Dwight Garner of The New York Times. His short stories and personal essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times, Granta, McSweeney’s, The Best American Nonrequired Reading and New American Stories, among other publications. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award for nonfiction, and a fiction fellowship from the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. His play, Autobiography of a Terrorist, was staged last spring by Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco. Saïd serves on the board of directors of the New York Foundation for the Arts, and teaches memoir in the MFA program at Hunter College and creative writing at New York University, where he received an outstanding teaching award.
Do you have a bird story or favorite feathered friend?
When I was about twelve years old I happened to look up at the tree in my backyard and saw a neighbor’s cat very quietly walking along a branch toward a bird. “No, no, no,” the bird was saying, “please don’t hurt me.” I was old enough, obviously, to know that birds don’t speak, yet I was mesmerized. The scene was so dreamlike and so authentic—which is a contradiction. I think I knew that the voice was coming from a neighbor’s nearby window, and that someone was watching me watching the cat watching the bird. It was magical and unnerving and it still seems very real.
What is your most memorable reading experience?
On reading aloud at an event: droning on and on at my first reading in front of a disinterested audience, when it occurred to me, maybe I should try to utilize all those years of my wasted acting experience. So I summoned my dormant ability to modulate my voice and to differentiate the various characters in my story and to build drama—and the audience suddenly came alive. I remember thinking, maybe my attempt at an acting career wasn’t in vain after all.
On reading a book : my mother reading to me as a child. We were together on the couch, and I wanted her to slowly turn every page, including copyright, etc, until we got to the story proper. “I want it to be like a movie,” I said. I must have been thinking of how the credits roll in the opening frames of a film. “Oh,” my mother exclaimed, “how sad!” I didn’t know why exactly this was sad. But since sadness was a staple of my childhood, her comment somehow made sense to me.
What makes you most excited about teaching?
Figuring out how to teach students how to tell stories, which I’m still trying to figure out myself, and which in some ways can never be quantified and taught. Perhaps a better way to put it is trying to teach students how to teach themselves—which is only slightly less impossible. I also like seeing students grow from story to story. First story bad, second story good, third story great. Of course, progress is not always an upward curve; that’s one of the key things that’s important to learn. I like talking to students about how to go about having a literary career. If they were going to dental school, they would understand the steps needed to take to become a dentist or a lawyer. So why not apply the same pragmatic rules to writing?
To tweet or not to tweet?
Tweet, sure. Why not? If nothing else, it’s free advertisement. Although, it’s probably worth noting that I don’t have any social media apps on my iPhone. Tweeting is good. Writing is better. The two are mutually exclusive.
What books do you have in your bag right now? What literary journals do you love?
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. It’s about his life as a surfer and it won the Pulitzer Prize. He’s a New Yorker writer and he’s coming to talk to my MFA memoir class at Hunter College this spring, after which he’ll give a public reading. I also have a fading copy of the New Yorker from a few months back; my wife wants to me read a piece on the opioid crisis. Everything is about the New Yorker.
Can you tell us your favorite rejection story?
Matt Weiland (former editor of Granta Magazine, now of W.W. Norton) asked me to write an essay about my family for possible publication. This was twelve years ago and it was by far the biggest opportunity I’d ever had. So I wrote ten thousand words, which Matt promptly rejected. I remember he offered encouragement even as he told me it wasn’t quite right. I was working for Martha Stewart at the time, and I thought I had squandered my one chance at having a writing career. Despair is too mild a word. But two weeks later, Matt contacted me and said he’d changed his mind, that he was going to run my piece after all. (So I guess this isn’t really a rejection story.) Within six months, I had a book deal with Dial Press and I’d quit my job at Martha Stewart. I’ve never looked back. I’ve also never again had an editor change their mind after rejecting a story of mine. That might be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
What shakes your tail feathers?
Having a decent writing day, where I manage to eke out a page of worthy material. But mostly, being published.
What advice do you have for fledgling writers?
Disabuse yourself of the notion of the muse. The muse doesn’t write stories. Sitting in your chair writes stories, even when, yes, you don’t want to be sitting in your chair. Nor does the muse submit your stories for you, which is essential to being a writer. Rejection is also essential. Discouragement is important, too, as is learning how to write when you’re discouraged. That’s another way of saying perseverance.
What other eggs do you have in your basket right now?
Editing a novel that I finished this fall. Working on a personal essay about being sexual harassed when I was in college. And of course, writing a story that I plan to submit to the New Yorker.