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Find more The Booklist Printz Interview
The 2021 Michael L. Printz Award winner, Everything Sad Is Untrue (a true story), is a book as intimate as it is epic. In the tradition of 1,001 Nights, 12-year-old Khosrou—aka Daniel Nayeri—knits together a patchwork tale of his youth in Iran, his family’s perilous flight from home, and their oppressive life as refugees in Oklahoma. We spoke to Daniel about the story behind his story and some of the deeper themes running through it.
KHURI: One of the great publishing stories of 2020, for me, was the arrival of Levine Querido, which is producing tremendous work across the board—and for which Everything Sad Is Untrue was the flagship launch title. Can you share your acquisition story? What did earning that spot on their list mean to you?
NAYERI: I’m not sure I earned anything in that regard. It seems like luck from where I’m sitting. But “luck” is a funny word we use to mean everything from the coincidences of the universe to the hand of Fate to anything anyone else ever gives us. I suppose the part I earned was the knowledge that Arthur Levine is a visionary who makes stories better after he edits them. I knew that much, and my agent, the brilliant Joanna Volpe, agreed. So we submitted the early manuscript to him and were overjoyed when he responded so positively. From the beginning, Arthur had a connection to the story that felt deep and true. I know, whenever we’ve disagreed, we each came from the position of defending the heart of the story. I can’t imagine a better dynamic. As for being the flagship title, I’m so happy it wasn’t a disappointment. The team at Levine Querido is talented and passionate, and they deserve their first effort being awarded.
KHURI: Everything Sad has been called an “autobiographical novel,” as it blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. (For the purposes of this interview, I’ll refer to you as Daniel and your 12-year-old narrator-self as Khosrou.) When writing, how did you navigate the space between Khosrou and Daniel? Were you reaching for the factual truth, as Khosrou does, or did you prioritize some other craft element?
NAYERI: I was reaching for an experiential truth so precise that I never actually managed it. Or, to put it another way, the narrator, Khosrou, is telling this story and at the same time apologizing for how he’s unable to tell this story as precisely as he’d like. He is preoccupied with the idea that readers will think he’s lying, and so he’s overcorrecting, even in places that we usually forgive memoirists. For instance, we all know that any dialogue in a historical scene is, on some level, truncated to work on the page. But Khosrou feels that if he removes anything, he won’t be able to object to being called a liar.
This is how it feels to be interviewed by an embassy official when applying for asylum as a refugee, by the way. I wanted readers to get a sense of the paranoia a child feels when a bureaucrat asks them, “Is this your mother, and did you travel here together?” And the child is fear-stricken with the knowledge that any inaccuracy might get everyone denied entry into the country. He’s a child, so he doesn’t know the salient points of the testimony. He just knows that it must be faultless. He might say, “Yes. She’s my mother, and we arrived here together. But also, I came with my sister. We were all together. And I was alone for a part of it, when they went to the bathroom. But I didn’t travel for that part. I waited outside. I walked into this building with them, yes.” I subordinated most of the craft in order to deliver that impressionistic experience of being doubted at all times.
KHURI: Khosrou says that the reason he’s “writing all this” is because “it’s the forgetting that hurts most.” He’s collecting and counting his memories. Why did you decide to write and publish this book?
NAYERI: I’ve always dreamed of telling what I consider to be my mother’s story. But for my part, I decided to get serious about the writing around 13 years ago. I was living in a small apartment with three roommates at the time. My father called from Iran, so I took the call in the bathroom, which was the only place I could be alone. He told me my grandfather, his father, had died. At that moment, I realized I would never have another memory of him. I began to appraise the ones I had. All of them but one was a secondhand memory, a visualization I had created out of someone else’s story of my grandfather. But I had this vague image—the one that opens the book—and I was certain that memory was my own. After that, I felt exactly as the narrator describes it—a keen sense that I had to count every memory and seal it away for preservation. I understood I would likely never make it back to see my grandmother before she passes, either. This is why the narrator finds himself repeating, “a patchwork memory is the shame of a refugee.”
KHURI: It’s my understanding that this manuscript went through a number of incarnations of form and audience over the course of its development. Why did you land on middle grade, and what did that category allow you to do with your story that others didn’t?
NAYERI: After that phone call with my father, I began working on the stories as an essay collection, and then as adult fiction. Both versions felt removed from the emotional heart of the story, however. They had the tone of an autopsy, a recording of a long-passed feeling. Of course, this was my own failure. I’m sure I could have simply tried again. But I asked instead if I should return to the moment when these emotions were swirling at their height. The chaos of the events threatened to overcome a younger narrator, and felt much more immediate, so I began to rewrite the story for the middle-grade audience.
At the same time, I wanted to make sure that the story wasn’t somehow a burden to the young reader. It wasn’t intended to sensationalize trauma. I don’t believe that writers should enact some personal catharsis on the page for their readers to witness. To me, a great work is a useful one. The great use of art is the repetition of the truth for our hearts to recognize in an otherwise dishonest world. Another way to say this is that I think about the utility of beauty all the time. If we agree that a beautiful idea is one that expresses a fundamental truth, then the usefulness of that is to see it and recognize it sometime in the future. When the narrator of a book like this begins to work out for himself the ideas that help him cope with a tragic experience, these are either useful tools or a convenient plot device. I wanted to make something useful for the reader. And I thought I could be most useful to a younger reader.
KHURI: As Khosrou pieces together his identity from bits of memory, history, legend, and myth, there’s an ever-present tension between the truth and other “versions” of the truth. As a refugee with a “patchwork memory,” do you think you’re more dependent on myth to shape your identity? Or is that more of a cultural inheritance?
NAYERI: When you arrive in a country to start from scratch, there are no physical manifestations of a family history. You don’t have a family farm, say, or a grandmother’s photo album. There is no jewelry to pass down, or power tools. Nobody pulls you aside and puts a pocket watch in your hands when you graduate. I’m clearly making these examples up, by the way. The point is that the lack of all those things makes it incumbent on you to pass on an oral tradition. In that sense, yes, a refugee would be more dependent on those stories. But I think fractured histories and piecing together an identity is a need buried deep in all of us.
KHURI: When Khosrou’s teacher, Mrs. Miller, accuses him of having “lost the plot” of his story, which he’s sharing with the class, he answers that she is “beholden to a Western mode of storytelling,” comparing himself to Scheherazade, as he often does. How, in your writing process, did the segmented, nonlinear structure take shape? Was it always a conscious goal to employ a non-Western form? Did you have any other specific inspirations?
NAYERI: I knew it wasn’t going to be a story that followed any conventional form. And I should say, I adore forms and formal play. Strict formal poetry is my favorite kind. I love studying structuralists. The three-act film, The Hero’s Journey, that hill-shaped narrative mountain thing that usually introduces kids to the term dénouement, all of it. Most of my work is highly structured. This one, however, was going to be a kid who sidled up next to you at a school fair or in a library and started talking . . . and never stopped. I wanted to convey the feeling that he’s breathless, trying to deliver everything from his mind to yours. He’s untrained and uncoordinated. He has the loose organizational principle of a list of memories, but even those are almost at random. The truth is that he doesn’t know how to be a narrator. He is trying to connect with you in the way that some children do when they meet someone safe, by telling you all about themselves. The closest structure is The Shahnameh (or Book of Kings) by Ferdowsi, which is a history of Persia but feels at times like Ferdowsi’s meandering collection of poems, myths, and legends. One of the defining characteristics of The Shahnameh is that it was written to remember the Persian world before its conquest in the seventh century. Khosrou is writing his own Book of Kings to remember the history of his family up until their separation. The two books share a mission, in that way, of collecting memories.
KHURI: Khosrou reveals that reading narrative poetry in the library helped him learn English, citing some Robert Browning, even. Was that the origin of your journey to becoming a writer? Who are some of your biggest literary influences?
NAYERI: This is always difficult because I feel the influence of so many writers at once. But Italo Calvino, Terry Pratchett, and Raymond Chandler are probably three of the most influential—for the language play. If I could have any skill within the craft of storytelling, it would their playfulness—Calvino’s play with structure, Pratchett’s absurdist dialogue. I know Chandler isn’t thought of as playful, but he was playing hard to get. Of the poets, Coleridge and Browning captured me early on—any narrative poem, really. Ferdowsi, of course, and Attar. I love David Rakoff’s effortless wit. I adore Karen Russell for every description she’s ever written, Jane Smiley for her scene setting.
When I was a kid, I loved Jack Prelutsky’s poetry books. Back then, I was still learning English, so people who made up a lot of nonsense words (cough cough Dr. Seuss cough cough) were a complete mystery to me. I would come across a word and run to the dictionary and run back and never quite manage to enjoy any of it. Of course, as a father, I’ve corrected that sacrilege, and I’m a Sneetches man now.
KHURI: “There is an infinite labyrinth of stories, even in just one family.” At the heart of Everything Sad is, of course, your unstoppable mom. How involved was she in the book’s development? Did your version of the story surprise her at all?
NAYERI: She was one of my primary sources in the research stage. I interviewed her for much of the family history. I also interviewed my aunt and uncle, my father, and my grandmother for background details. Beyond that, there was the moment of truth when she read the galley. She approved overall, with the exception that she felt I had been ungenerous to her father. I told her my only memories of him and tried to make room for everyone else’s. Good men can make bad impressions on their grandsons. And I’m afraid we had so few interactions that we never quite reached an equilibrium. I don’t want my impression to be true any more than they do. But that’s the state we left it in the five or so times I met him. Otherwise, the biggest surprise for her was all the scenes in school. I was a particularly private child, so she never knew about those experiences. I had to assure her that I’m fine, 30 years later, and no one is being mean to her little boy.
KHURI: Poop (along with food) also plays a prominent role in the book, literally and figuratively. While you do use it as a means of relieving tension, it also seems to hold a lot of thematic significance. Tell me, what does poop mean to you?
NAYERI: I am glad you asked this. Mostly because I love talking about it. My mother is a doctor, so any time I was sick as a kid, she would insist that I finish my business and then allow her to see it in order to assess my stool. You can imagine, I insisted back that I would not be subject to this humiliation, and she’d just have to take my word for it. She did. But as result, I became fascinated by the fact that you could assess the health of a body by observing this sort of thing. This doesn’t happen in the book, but that’s how our young narrator comes to the realization that there is no lying when it comes to your stool. It is a witness to the state of your body. For a character obsessed with telling the truth, this becomes an important detail.
The other theme is that of production. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in “Orations on the Dignity of Man,” discussed the idea that humanity can act like the beasts and become boorish, or it can cultivate its virtues and be like the angels. Young Khosrou doesn’t know this, of course, but intuits it in his own way. He looks at the brutal characters in his life, and he imagines that they are like beasts. All they take in is food, and all they produce is poop. They were hurt as children, and now, in turn, they hurt others. But Khosrou is clearly trying to find more to humanity than creatures that go around metabolizing food and nothing else. He looks at his mother and sees that she is able to take in a great deal of pain but somehow produces love and kindness. This is a central theme of the story. There are characters who are capable of metabolizing tragedy without inflicting it on others. And this brings Khosrou to the next question: If a beast produces nothing but poop, what do the angels produce? Well, I will tell you what I think. In this world, we take in a lot of ugliness and pain, and it is a divine behavior to produce beauty with such raw material. That’s a higher calling.
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