Salar Abdoh’s first novel, The Poet Game, focuses on a young agent sent by his employer, “The Office,” a top-secret Iranian government agency, to infiltrate a group of Islamic extremists in New York and thwart a terrorist attack. The book appeared in the U.S. in 1999 but gained heightened attention after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center because of Abdoh’s insights into Islamic fundamentalism. Yet the novel is a greater achievement than most of its admirers have allowed.
Like Graham Greene’s “entertainments,” The Poet Game is a thriller but also a morally and politically complex novel. Unsure of his allegiances, manipulated by a part-time stripper, wondering who exactly wants him dead, the protagonist, Sami, is as introspective and depressed as Chandler’s Marlowe.
Abdoh hails from Iran and spent two years of his boyhood at school in England. When Abdoh was fourteen, his father fled Iran to escape execution by Islamic fundamentalists, taking Abdoh and his brothers with him to the U.S. His father died shortly after the family’s arrival in the States, and the boys were left homeless in Los Angeles. After traveling the country, Abdoh eventually earned an undergraduate degree from U.C. Berkeley and received a Master’s from The City College of New York, where he now teaches fiction writing to graduate students.
He agreed to answer my questions about writing.
MN: Do you write every day?
SA: Yes, I write pretty much every day. My output varies according to my other obligations of the moment. It’s the rare day, however, that I don’t write. But I write strictly from project to project. If I’m not working on a book, I don’t feel obligated to write. If I’m researching, then I might not write a word for a year and I’m comfortable with that.
MN: Do you write longhand, on the computer, with a typewriter, or some combination of these?
SA: No, never longhand. Strictly computer.
MN: Do you write in a particular place?
SA: In my room. It is very difficult for me to just write anywhere.
MN: Some writers shy away from reading fiction when they’re immersed in writing a novel because they feel they’re too susceptible to other people’s prose styles. Others say they read books that counteract their own stylistic weaknesses. While in the midst of a project, Walker Percy returned to his favorite books, like Don Quixote and Dostoyevsky’s novels. “The truly great writing steadies me and puts me on track to do the best I can,” he said.
Do you read fiction while you’re writing? If so, which authors do you gravitate toward?
SA: Yes, I do. I read anything I want, particularly poetry, which I probably read more than anything anyway. I can understand writers’ anxiety about influence. But it’s not something I worry about. Reading has become more difficult for me as I’ve tried to establish myself as a writer. This is because of the question of having or not having enough time. So I can’t be too picky about what to read on top of everything else. Generally, however, I read a lot more fiction when I’m not working on a book.
MN: In 1997, Jonathan Lethem wrote a fascinating essay about revisiting John Barth’s The End of the Road and discovering that he’d borrowed far more heavily from the book in writing As She Climbed Across the Table than he’d previously realized. Harry Crews, a novelist and one of my former writing instructors, talked openly about studying The End of the Affair, one of Graham Greene’s novels, and breaking it down in order to substitute “his own characters, scenes, and rooms” for Greene’s.
Have you borrowed, consciously or not, from your favorite writers?
SA: Not that I know of. What you mentioned about writers consciously breaking down and studying other writers’ works is interesting. But if I was going to do that I’d have probably preferred being a mathematician. I’m just not that together to be able to do something like that.
MN: In early 2003, Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, famously said, “Someone who’s submitting themselves directly to the fiction editor probably isn’t all that savvy about publishing and probably not about writing either.” Do you think there’s any connection at all between business savvy and writing talent?
SA: I’m inclined to think business savvy plays a big role in the writing world now. I don’t agree with the people who say it’s all about connections and who you know. But really so much of it is. There are so many writers out there. Editors are inundated. I just got a taste of what they have to go through for a living when I recently had to judge a competition. I finally realized just how ridiculous and perhaps hopeless the situation is and how much depends on sheer luck. I don’t think the publishing world is anywhere near as bound with business savvy as, say, the art world is, where business savvy, and not talent, probably counts for almost everything nowadays.
In the writing world, talent still counts for something. There are standards which, usually, if you don’t meet you will not get published. But there’s a chance also you won’t get published if you don’t get lucky or don’t put yourself in a place where luck can come your way. As a teacher of writing, I see some really fine writing that never sees the light of day, and a lot of not so great writing. I also see great books that do get published, and terrible ones that become famous. I have come to think there’s really such an arbitrary line between the fellow who becomes the toast of town and the other who puts a bullet in his head because of feeling like a failure. Luck, business savvy, being at the right time at the right place, having talent, persistence, all these matter. But I tell you, it’s a bit disturbing to me how much luck matters.
MN: Writer Percival Everett told Robert Birnbaum in an interview, “I have always ignored the business of publishing. A lot of people think I am joking when I say I am process oriented. All I care about is … working on something. I really do. I like being paid like anybody else but … I don’t read reviews.”
How seriously do you take the critics’ reception of your work?
SA: I take everything seriously. I wish I were one of those people who can tune out and do their own thing. Or one of those who say, I’m just writing for the few who understand. But taking things seriously doesn’t mean I lose too much sleep over it, either. Again, from teaching and witnessing such a variety of opinions on any single piece of writing, I particularly came to understand that taste has a lot to do with whether someone likes your work or not. Also, some people just “don’t get it” and some people do. You can’t go around wanting to be loved by all, though that wouldn’t be a bad proposition.
MN: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you’ve occasionally been frustrated with the tendency of the Western media after September 11, 2001, to see you as a spokesperson for the Middle East and Islam simply because your first novel, The Poet Game, was a thriller focused on terrorist attacks-in-the-making in New York City. How often do you think writers are expected to become political mouthpieces because of the subject matter of their novels? And do you have a favorite political novel?
SA: I wouldn’t say frustrated. I just found it typical that it had to be like that. It almost couldn’t be helped, I guess. But these things pass as everything passes. As for the question, a writer like me almost has no choice. Politics seems to be the sea which I have to swim in. It has to do with the times and where I come from and even if I become a monk and go off into the desert that too will appear like a political act. As for the other question, The Quiet American, if it can be called a political novel, has always been one of my favorites. I’m also a fan of the novels of Ward Just; he handles politics really well. Aside from that, there’s always Conrad, there’s always Naipaul, and lately there’s Roth for me. Some would argue with calling their works political. So be it.
MN: What are you reading now?
SA: I’m rereading Reading Lolita In Tehran. Reading it once was not enough. This book has been a number one NY Times paperback bestseller for several months now, yet oddly enough it is simply one of the best memoirs ever written. Everything is in that book, but particularly a pure passion for literature that one tends to lose sight of sometimes in the dog days of the writing/publishing life. I guess it can’t bode too bad for our culture that a book which treats things like the history of the Iranian revolution, among other things, along with some pretty detailed analyses of the works of Nabakov, Henry James, Fitzgerald, Austen and others just happens to be on top of the bestseller list as I write. There are moments in that book where I come upon scenes and insights when I just have to put it down and take a deep breath. Other thing is, although all the names in the book have been changed, I still personally know and can decipher some of the personalities in the there. So that has another level of meaning for me as well. I’m also reading Charles Simic’s prose poem collection titled The World Doesn’t End. I have the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska next to my bed. And I’ve been also rereading some of the old short stories of the Iranian writer Ebrahim Golestan for the uniqueness of their modern Persian prose.
MN: Care to talk about anything you’re working on at the moment?
SA: Believe it or not, a political novel.
MN: Thanks, Salar.