Writer and past contributor, Siamak Vossoughi, and I sit across from each other at a café on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. The table between us is small and set in the middle of a room rich with the smell of coffee. Siamak has recently won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and his short story “The Movie Quitters” (from Fourteen Hills 18.2) is one of my favorite reads of the last few years.
Born in Tehran, Siamak talks to me about growing up in London and Seattle. He now lives in San Francisco where he works as a tutor and a teacher. Before I begin the interview, I tell him my preference is to keep things conversational and he smiles. We spend three hours talking about his discipline, influences, and the challenges that face us as writers.
Thanks to Siamak for the interview, and I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did.
Fourteen Hills (14H): I’ll start with the story you wrote for Fourteen Hills, “The Movie Quitters.” You write these quiet moments that have this really big meaning for the characters. What draws you to those moments in a story?
Siamak Vossoughi (SV): Part of it is just a reflection of my personality, I think. I’m an introverted person and I’m used to being able to occupy myself with my own thoughts and feelings. My dad said when I was younger he would come in and I’d be sitting there in a room and I’d say I was just thinking. He’d walk up to me wondering what’s wrong with this guy. It took a while to accept that, fundamentally, things that happen inside are as important to a story as those things that happen outside of them. I always have this feeling about the external aspect of the story and an internal aspect of a story. It was finally coming to terms with a belief that the plot could ride on the internal aspect just as much as the external. I don’t think I’ll ever have a story where there’s a plane crash or an earthquake or something like that. I feel like the things that happen inside of people are just as impactful as those type of things. It took some real time to convince myself, because I think that the external emphasis on plot and impactful exterior things is a tough influence to shed. So I’m working on it. It’s a work in progress.
14H: Do you find it tough to draw the internal out of a story? To make a balance there?
SV: Right, ya. Sometimes you can balance it out by bringing in some characters who are a little larger than life. If you can have larger than lifeness on the outside and quietness on the inside, that is kind of an ideal set up to me. As I’m talking about it I’m realizing that it’s just one other way that I feel influenced by another San Franciscan writer, William Saroyan. He was a real influence in that I wanted to come to SF because of the way he described SF. He woke me up to the idea that the people in your story can be loud and quiet. They can be both because real people do have those kind of ways to them. Sometimes quietness that is happening inside them comes out in a loud moment. With the boy in my story “Seeds,” that is what happens at the end. He lashes out at his mother a little bit and for a kid that is okay. I like that observation though, because that is the real challenge: to find that balance.
14H: What do you find most challenging in your work? Whether it’s writing in general or something that just hits you.
SV: Off the top of my head, I feel like saying that I’ve been a man or a boy all of my life. Therefore, trying to write the internal world of a girl or a woman is challenging. As a man who is trying to approach women’s inner world as a student and somebody who is trying not to assume my experience can be reproduced in a more female way or something like that. That jumps to mind first off.
Actually, you know, the main challenge would be in terms of the overall process, sometimes you might have a story you don’t have to worry about the female angle as much. It’s finding the balance of inner and outer and having something that appeals to people who want big things to happen in a plot and also those that want quiet things to happen inside of characters. There are stories that can do well at one or the other but those that try to do both feel like the biggest challenge.
14H: Do you try to work into those challenges? Do you think it’s essential?
SV: Sometimes, yes. I’ve thought to myself, like a story will come to mind and let’s say that instead of the boy in “Seeds” it had been a girl, something that is a little more removed from my direct experience. There will be a little voice that says, OK this is a nice idea but it is too far removed from your personal experience to write. That is when I do try to gravitate to the challenge because it might turn out bad or misguided, but if I don’t write this then this will go unwritten in the world. Kind of a grandiose way to look at it.
14H: But a good motivator.
SV: It’s not like somebody more qualified is going to automatically write this thing. I think it’s a good way to look at it. Acknowledge that it might be something where somebody who resembles the character maybe sees an issue with it or finds a problem with it, that might happen. But that’s part of the process, I guess. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re limited by your perspective and you want to try to listen to the voices that correct you a little bit, but still try.
14H: Where do you find your characters?
SV: I think largely from real life. I tend to be OK with mixing autobiography with fiction. I’ve always known that the writers I gravitated towards have done that. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. It can be done in an egotistical way, but by itself it isn’t necessarily like that. I try to draw from real life and pay attention to influences around me. I’ve had the good fortune, I think, in working with kids. Since I’ve been in San Francisco, I’ve worked with the same school in different capacities. They’re almost too much to write about, honestly. I’ve finally decided I need to not work there for a year in order to really be able to step out of it and get at how incredible I think they are. So, children, family members a lot, and a little help from other writers too.
14H: Thinking about your father, was he a big part of “The Movie Quitters”?
SV: In some ways. He was an interesting guy because his background in Iran was a political one. At that time, he worked against the Shah and the United States supported the Shah so he was coming from a critical perspective, which definitely affected me growing up and still affects my writing a lot. But at the same time he loved cowboy Westerns and he loved going to the theater to watch Westerns. It was years later that he felt some cognitive dissonance from the political and entertainment perspectives. He was the kind of guy who would think . . . he would be reflective like the character in that story. Like, why do I feel this way and why isn’t film a two-way street? I built around that a little bit, but overall the character is a little more loud and boisterous, which is nice.
14H: You talked at one point about the duty of the writer and mentioned in another interview that you felt you were an advocate for humanity. What would you say you’re advocating for in humanity?
SV: I think I know what you’re talking about—something I wrote once for Glimmer Train about the political perspective of characters. That is just something I can’t get away from because of my upbringing. I tried real hard in my early twenties. I rebelled and said stories that try to have a political message and all that stuff are ridiculous. You need to look at people as more than that. I still struggle with it a little bit. My dad would say you need to read Charles Dickens and know what they are saying about the poor in England, stuff that had a social message. And he would say that’s advocating for humanity. When I try to write like that and have a miserly scrooge-like character that is the source of the problem, I couldn’t do it. I’d start thinking about this old guy and asking why is he this way and veer off into that area. I guess I want to write in a way which shows that, yes, people’s actions will be just as problematic towards each other. I want to write about US foreign policy and its effect on Middle Eastern Americans and Iranian Americans and what it has been like post-9/11. I want to write about all that stuff and I want to make everyone in those stories a human being that is responsible for their actions and is influenced by others and the world they are in. I’ll probably come back to William Saroyan a couple more times. One of his stories that stuck with me is a book called Rock Wagram. The character’s name is Rock and he said he was a good man in a bad world. Well everyone is a good man in a bad world. That is something my dad would disagree with. He would say there are bad men and that’s been an interesting back and forth we’ve had. I have to agree with that. That’s what I’m trying to say. One might say calling it a bad world sounds like I don’t have any answers, and I don’t think I do. I would like to deepen the questions I guess. I’d like to deepen the conversations and keep the conversations going. If I write something that allows for people of different and opposing viewpoints to have a conversation then I’d be satisfied.
14H: Do you think focusing on questions rather than answers translates into your process? Do you find yourself looking for a question rather than answers?
SV: Ya, absolutely. I’m currently in the process of writing a novel and when it’s going well I feel like it has more questions today than it did yesterday. If I start looking for answers it’s so hard to avoid being prescriptive. I think that is how we come to literature through how it’s taught. We read a piece of classical literature in school and a lot of what we are supposed to come up with is what the author was trying to say. And they are trying to say some things, but I think what the author is trying to ask is just as valid of a question. It’s not like these answers come from on high. The best conversations feel like they are amongst and not from above I think.
14H: What kind of questions do you think you’re asking with your recent work?
SV: I actually had to think of some of these myself. The collection is called Better Than War and how that title comes about is this short story where an older Iranian man is talking to a younger Iranian man and he’s saying whatever happens, you as an individual have to be better than war. As I was writing it I was thinking that is something that I’ve always had, this sneaking suspicion about every individual. I was brought up to think about social movements and communities, but I always gravitated toward thinking about individuals or the individual mind and these stories that had one single individual thinking things through like Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye. So that was the question: how is it when you dig into the individual human being that this person, with their story and experiences and sorrows and triumphs, by themself is bigger than war? These things we do to each other, and yet when we come together we have a tendency towards doing these things. That’s the big question. What is an individual by themself compared to who they are in a community? Not to say one is always better than the other. I have too much respect for cultural groups and what they can provide to individuals. I’m not trying to cast that importance to the side. I’m just interested in the individual in the group. To get a bit more specific, what does it mean to be Middle Eastern American at this time, what does it mean to be Iranian American at this time and to want to be all of both of those, to be all Iranian and all American. I think that the only way to survive is to not cut yourself off from everything that is around you. Try to keep all of your pasts and all your present and future as well.
14H: How many projects do you work on at one time?
SV: Short stories I can work on more than more than one. I can work on two. This is the second time I’ve tried to work on a novel. The first time was about 100 pages, so kind of short. My experience has been that for the first quarter of it I can work on a short story at the same time, but as it gets rolling I don’t have enough mind to pass around between two things.
14H: Do you find multiple stories makes it easier?
SV: Sometimes. Sometimes they can feed each other or help you know who you are as a writer and that is helpful. If you have a good day with one story that can lead me to be productive with the other. In that case the first one was right, it was heading in the right direction. It works vice versa. If I feel it is going bad in the second one it can show me how I’m taking a wrong path in the first one. I can get a little crazy with it sometimes. Like if I write for four or five hours then I can like walk down the street and feel this sort of false sense of power that I can draw out the story in anyone I see just by looking at them. Then I’ll come up with this great beginning and I’ll write that sentence and that is all it was. It was just that one sentence. I’m like, take it easy [laughs].
Sorry, going back to the earlier question, another one of the big questions is what changes from going from a boy to being a man? I realized at some point that I don’t fully agree with the notion of a rite of passage story as they’re commonly told, in the sense that there is boyhood then a difficult and challenging experience that propels the boy into manhood. I know that I’m oversimplifying and it’s usually more complex than that, but I really value that complexity that says not just what am I going to leave behind, but what am I going to bring with me into manhood. Because I think it’s both. An example that comes to mind for me, getting back to war, you read about soldiers calling for their mothers in a foxhole. That boy that is calling for his mother, that’s inside you. If it’s inside you during wartime it is inside you all the time, we just don’t recognize it all the time. He’s there just as much. I do want to challenge that oversimplified rite of passage type of story. I want to complicate it a little bit. It isn’t just an obstacle on a straight line. It’s squiggly. I think old men act like children sometimes and children act like old men sometimes with their wisdom. That’s where it gets most interesting for me.
14H: When do you find yourself acting like a child?
SV: To be honest, watching sports [laughs]. I know this is right after the Giants.
14H: So you were lighting M-80s last night too?
SV: [Laughs] Ya. I was coming back from the gym and I watched the game in about five different bars on the way home. Not having a drink, just looking in from the window. I feel like a child playing sports a little bit too. Sometimes it happens being around children, although I’ve been around children so long in a professional capacity that I’m used to being mature, reluctantly. It’s got to be done. Not so much with my parents though, which might be other people’s experience. I feel like with my parents there was such a long period of difficulty in terms of my want to be a writer and so many conversations about that, in the long run it elevated our relationship. One thing though, when I was a kid and we left Iran, we lived in England for four years. Sometimes British things make me feel like I’m five years old. Because I lived there then and something like the taste of a Cadbury chocolate bar can take me back. I have fond memories of pigeons in London. Those kind of things take me back.
14H: I get the impression you feel like it’s important sometimes for a man to be a boy. Do you think it’s important for a writer to not be a writer sometimes?
SV: Oh ya, that’s imperative. Coming back to that idea of a false sense of power. It’s actually the wrong way to walk down the street on a basic level. The way to walk down the street is to engage with the world in the present as a person walking down the street to wherever you’re going. Being in the moment that you’re actually in. When I first moved to San Francisco I lived in the Tenderloin for a little bit. There was a bar on the corner that was one of those places that opens at 6am, kind of divvy I guess you could say. I thought it was interesting to go there and talk to people. First or second time, I would go and take my notebook because I was so hungry for ideas and stuff. After a while, a short while, I realized that is a terrible way to walk into a bar. No one wants to talk to the guy with the notebook. You’re not engaging with them as a fellow bar attendee. If you’re worried about remembering well, you just have to learn to trust that, if it’s worth remembering, you’ll remember it rather than trying to be meticulous about the details. Maybe there is a time when that is helpful and you want to record things like sitting on a bench and recording what’s around you, I understand that kind of thing. But it’s really important to remember to engage people, 100 percent with them, and then think about the story later on. There is actually a story in the collection called “The Narrator” and it’s about a man and a woman who are on a first date and she has the habit of talking to him in the third person. He buys her a drink and she says look at how charming he is, buy me a drink. It’s kind of a charming thing, but he’s trying to say let’s be together in the first person without any narrators. It’s definitely a struggle when starting out as a writer because you don’t want to forget anything.
14H: What’s the best advice somebody gave you? Writing or non-writing.
SV: There is one time, this was actually, where was this, I think Haight Street in a bar and there was this old Ukrainian or Russian guy and he was, at that time, very taken by the beauty of a couple of young women next to him. He kept running out of the place and buying things like little candies and trinket things and giving them to the women over a short period time. It’s funny given the context of other things, but he turned to me once and said, “A man is a man, woman is a woman.” And at the time I was like, OK I think I knew that. But it always stuck with me. As a way to simplify something that can be more complicated and I don’t know what he meant and I’m not sure what I mean by holding onto it, accept that I like simplicity.
In that same bar where I used to take my notebooks, I met this guy who had been a soldier, a UN Peacekeeper, and he’d been in some difficult situations. As people wanted to do in this place, he told me some real hard and tough things. He said to me, “If anyone is ever pointing a gun at you, look them in the eye and nobody can physically squeeze the trigger when they’re being looked in the eye.” I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a nice idea. In terms of your own safety and what people mean to each other. My dad had been in prison a few times in Iran and he knew a guy who was executed because of political work. He was taken to a firing squad. He refused the blindfold and I thought about that afterwards. The blindfold might be about that idea. I had never thought of it like that. Also, why a row of shooters. No one will know who killed him.
14H: What do you think needs to be written about more?
SV: This is where the political side of me comes out a little bit. I think more American writers of all kinds should step into political subjects. We talk about the Vietnam War and WWII, there was a lot of literature coming out of that by people who were actually in those wars. I could be wrong, but I feel like they have an influence on writers beyond just those writers that were participants. I think there are some that could perfectively ignore what was going on, maybe not WWII that seems like a hard one to ignore, but I feel with the Iraq War and the ongoing Middle Eastern wars there are definitely soldiers coming back and writing stories of their experience, though I feel like there could be more from the daily experience or the indirect experience.
I wonder a lot about the abundance of apocalyptic writing and apocalyptic fiction, the visions of apocalyptic times. If that’s a way that present realities are being directed through a writer and that is what they are really trying to address, that’s great and that’s important. 1984 was apocalyptic and Orwell was writing about what he saw at the times and that makes sense. I think it’s also important to get at the heart of those stories and to find if there is a way to get at those stories in a more direct route as well. That is my own personal bias coming through.
I would also like to see, I’m not exactly sure how this would work, but I’d like to also like to see more writers writing about what it’s like being white. I think it’s a rich territory. I remember going to writer’s conferences and everybody and every teacher would say that people should go to their dark places and their places of pain to find their material. So in the same way, as a man, it behooves me to write in a way of wrestling with sexism and the advantages of living in a patriarchy. I want to do that. What we see in terms of literature is the people on the receiving end of whatever form of oppression. That is where the literature seems to come out of. I think what would get interesting for me is the people on the non-receiving end when they can write from that particular place of pain as well. That could get interesting. I’ve seen a little bit of it in non-fiction, but not much of it in fiction. Just as an example, you know that TV show Girls? There was controversy in not having people of color or people from Brooklyn, which has a lot of people of color, being represented accurately in the show. I was thinking about that. It’s a valid criticism. What if she had just called the show White Girls? She would’ve been more accurate to the show and she would have been just as true to the idea of writing what she knows.
14H: What’s a guilty pleasure read for you?
SV: To be honest, I try to be disciplined with this. I’ve had to be disciplined really. This afternoon, I could read half an hour from a writer I like, a writer I don’t like, or a writer in between and whoever it is, they will be the person in my head tomorrow when I sit down to write. So I’ve had to force myself to be disciplined about it. In terms of a guilty pleasure, I think some TV and movie reviews because I see them as a quick way to know what is going on without having to watch whatever they’re reviewing. Just to be up on pop culture. That sounds kind of snobbish, but it’s more a question of time and energy I guess. If there is a pop culture thing that a lot of people are talking about, I’ll read enough to have a basic talking knowledge of it. But I admire the people who just don’t care. There’s something to be said for that.
14H: On this note of discipline, can you speak to how influence works towards your writing?
SV: I think about this a lot because I feel like I came to writing and grew up loving writers from a limited pool. What I mean by that is I was mostly exposed to white, male, American writers. Many of whom I loved and I still consider my role models for writing. And at the same time I’ve known for a while my experience is such that I cannot be them and I cannot write like them in some ways. I can take what I can, but there are certain ways I have more to learn from an African writer, an Asian writer, a Latin American writer than from certain American writers even though I’ve grown up here and this is my place of experience. So that is one way in terms of trying to shape discipline, but also it’s really important for me to read female writers too, both American and non-American. Listening to other voices and recognizing that when you grow up in this country as a boy and a young man, people don’t expect that of you, let alone expect you to say that those writers could be influences. That’s really to your detriment. If you’re not exposed to great American female writers, that is your detriment as a man for sure. It’s up to you to seek them out on your own.
14H: Do you think influence is a double-edged sword?
SV: Yes. When I say I have to be disciplined it’s because I used to be extremely influenced. I used to write a sentence and I would look through books by Steinbeck or Hemmingway and ask myself, Would they write this sentence that way? Does this sound like them? And you do that and you realize after two days you’ve only written one sentence because you keep going back and working on it. There is a point, and I think people have to decide for themselves where that point is, where you have to take those books that are most influential to you and somehow set them aside. Set them aside physically in order to set them aside mentally. And know that what you want to be influenced by from them is there, it’s in your head and it will stay there. You got to dig and find your own thing, which is really hard.
14H: At what point do you let go of those books? At what point in the writing process?
SV: If you find yourself asking would this author do this? I think that is a big sign. That’s no way to be fluid and letting the work come. It takes some time because we’re all afraid to be wrong. We have this idea of right and wrong and stuff. It takes some time to be able to say, I’m willing to have this be not as good as this Pulitzer Prize winning thing, but that I’ll learn from it. And what I’ll learn will be from me. What I’ll learn will be just as much from me as Of Mice and Men is of Steinbeck’s. What I learn may not earn any prizes yet, but it’s still just got to really come from you. That’s more important than sounding like somebody. At the same time though, it’s good to have high standards. I would add, in terms of influences, I personally think it is really important to let your influences be who they naturally are rather than who it seems like it should be today. If you’re somebody who thinks their biggest influence is Shakespeare, let it be Shakespeare instead of who is on Broadway right now.
14H: Or vice versa.
SV: Exactly. There was this time I was struggling to find anything that I really loved and felt alone in the world with writing and I started reading Aesop’s fables. That guy just says there’s a fox and a rabbit in the woods and that’s it. They’re there. He doesn’t describe the woods, the fox, or anything. I thought that was a great way to go. It was so sure and so meaningful. In a casual conversation if you say you’re really influenced by Aesop, it might sound kind of weird, but oh well.
14H: “The Movie Quitters” has that same sparse use of details.
SV: Thanks, I think it’s in A Moveable Feast that Hemmingway says, Don’t trust adjectives. I feel like I kind of get that unless you go crazy with adjectives, like Kerouac and you write like a drunk person with adjectives, I guess I gravitate towards the extremes . . . if you want to look out the window and say the gray moody sky, that’s interesting, but the moodiness of the sky is not like the redness of this notebook. Not to say one is better than the other, but you want to be clear how much are you letting in from the mood of the moment. At the moment the sky looks moody, so you write it like that. The notebook will always be red. That’s what I think about when using adjectives. Know what is temporary and permanent.
14H: It’s as though moody is an adjective describing the viewer of the sky and it should be placed where it belongs on the viewer.
SV: Right, right. And a guy like Kerouac would do that and say, the lonely trees in the distance, and that would be a nice sentence or phrase, but it’s he who is lonely. The trees are just doing their thing. He knew he was writing like that and he was aiming for it. If that’s what you want, it’s a good way to go.
14H: What would you like other people to find in your work?
SV: Off the top of my head I would say an emotional factor. When I think of what the writers I love did for me I think that after reading their work I would feel more of everything than I did before. Maybe I could sum that up as being more alive; a greater spectrum of all of life before reading. Greater happiness, sadness, more possibilities.
14H: What would you like people to get from you as a human being?
SV: I would like them to get a sense that I value their stories. Coming back to being a writer a little bit, part of feeling more alive after reading something is feeling like you have a lot of stories inside of you, as a reader or as a writer. I think if that happens a writer has genuinely done their job. It wakes you up to yourself. I guess as a human being I would like people to feel like I know that they have an inner world and life, all those quiet things going on inside them. I want people to feel seen by me. Like walking down the street. Human acknowledgement. It’s hard to do sometimes and when I was younger it would be frustrating when you get on the bus or train and see what feels like a lot of human alienation. Sometimes you’re assuming that and sometimes you’re right. In the meantime you can give a little hello or acknowledgement.
14H: What’s the next project now that Better Than War is done?
SV: I’m working on a novel. At least I hope it will be an actual novel length. I just can’t do this 300-400 page stuff. It wears me out. Some short stories too, maybe back and forth between the two. It all sounds pie in the sky right now because of the demands of life with the money making world. Maybe plays too. I do get sequences sometimes of dialogue and I see how much you can do with people talking that it makes me really interested in plays. I don’t know anything about theater and acting, but I like the idea. I have this friend who’s an actress, and she said, Theatre is where someone says something if they were never afraid and really said what they feel all the time. It’s a nice description in itself. William Saroyan said he didn’t want to write what people said, but what they mean, and when I read that it explained a lot. Actual human dialogue is a mess most of the time, but trying to be as accurate as possible with all the pauses and interuptions and I want to do that thing of writing what people mean. Fiction like theater, isn’t supposed to be a carbon copy. It explains us in a different way.
14H: Is that how you approach fiction too?
SV: Ya, to cut out all that unnecessary writing. My bad writing and my unnecessary writing are the same thing. Saying what is exactly necessary for the story is the same as the people saying exactly what they mean all the time. Not worrying about similarity to life.