Essayists / Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Porochista Khakpour: “I always feel like I am just barely hanging on as a writer.”

Porochista Khakpour is a renowned author, essayist, and speaker. Born in Tehran and raised in Greater Los Angeles, she is a recipient of fellowships from esteemed organizations such as the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Yaddo, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

Khakpour’s debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, won numerous awards, including the California Book Award and was a New York Times “Editor’s Choice.” Her memoir, SICK, chronicling her late-stage Lyme Disease was a Best Book of 2018, according to TIME, Real Simple, and others. She has taught at various universities, including Bard College, Johns Hopkins University, and Columbia University.

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Hi Porochista , great to have you here with us today! You were born in Tehran and raised in the Greater Los Angeles area. How has your background shaped your writing and the themes you explore in your work?

Well, I think it’s quite obvious in my plots and themes. I didn’t imagine being a “write what you know” author at all – and I am not sure I am entirely really – but one’s life does find its way into one’s work, I find. I wish I had more Tehran to draw from and less LA (I didn’t get too many years in Iran sadly). But I think more than any place, NYC has shaped a lot of my experiences. I came here at 18 and only left here and there for jobs or for lack of jobs, etc. But in terms of development as an author, it was key. I know not everyone agrees, but I cannot think of a better place to come into one’s own as a creative person. 

You have been awarded numerous fellowships and have received recognition for your writing, including a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Literature Fellowship in Creative Writing (Prose). Can you talk about what receiving these awards and recognition has meant to you and how it has impacted your writing career?

It means money! Funding! And I guess the prestige has always been nice too but as they say the honors don’t really pay the bills. I’ve been very fortunate though. It’s still a process I am deep in – I am completing applications today, in fact! – and I never forget how essential it all is to our survival as artists. I always feel like I am just barely hanging on as a writer, so these awards are really key components to a livelihood for me. 

Sons and Other Flammable Objects was a critical success and received several awards and nominations. Can you walk us through your creative process for writing this novel and what inspired its themes and characters?

This book was in many ways the easiest as I had no real expectations, just dreams. I wrote it in Baltimore, during a fellowship year after grad school with my only reader Alice McDermott, who had been my thesis adviser. She just kept me going but I never assumed it would be published. I was working crazy hours at a French bistro and tending to an ailing senior greyhound and I was just very depressed.

Then I finished a draft and moved to Chicago to work for an alt weekly and once my relationship fell apart there I went to my hometown LA to enter a yoga teacher’s training program and take a screenwriting class – all very LA – and it was there that I returned to the draft and got it to a shape where I could send it to agents.

It took years but I finally got one and I was living in Brooklyn by the time it was sold in 2005. It was very much inspired by my own family and my childhood, though it was very much not like the first book I imagined writing. But it needed to come out somehow, I guess. It took my 20s and it came out just a few months before I hit age 30.

Your memoir SICK is widely read and was named a Best Book of 2018 by various outlets. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to write this memoir and how you approached the process of turning your experiences into a written work?

Nothing inspired me really as I never wanted to write a memoir but people really wanted this book. For years I was posting about my illnesses and their treatments on Facebook (and much later Twitter and Instagram) and people who found me from those routes let me know they’d like a book on it all from me.

It happened that an editor had become a dear friend during a relapse of my illness and so we showed him a proposal and just sold it to him. There was no shopping around or bidding – it just went from one audience I trusted to the hands of a person I trusted. A pretty intimate experience. I was very ill through the writing of it and later during the promotion of it, so it’s quite a painful book for me. I am glad it was so generously received but I feel most haunted by the experience of this book.

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In 2024, the Pantheon imprint of Knopf Doubleday will publish your third novel, Tehrangeles. Can you give us a sneak peek into what readers can expect from this upcoming work?

I’ve been working on it since 2011 – I think it’s mentioned even in two of my NYT Arts & Leisure essays from that era – and I am so glad it is finally done. I was hoping to never think of it again but writers are really wedded to torture: I am now on the sequel. It’s almost all women, almost all Iranians, and very LA. I have been describing it as a Crazy West Asians meets Euphoria kind of thing! 

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

I don’t typically write every day so that kind of day is usually a treat. My “day” would begin in the evening, after dinner, and go on until dawn if possible. More and more, as I age, I revert back to my childhood favorite: a nocturnal existence! It would be bouts of reading and writing, then breaks for taking walks with my dog, and eating delicious food. I like to bake in the middle of the night – it’s just my all-around time to create – so I’d probably be baking something fragrant and visiting it in the kitchen til it was safe to eat. Lots of tea and xylitol gum (I have to chew gum when I write, which I suspect is an ADHD thing!)

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that be and why?

Leonora Carrington because she was just such an all-around creative person. I mean, most would call her a visual artist but she was a great writer too. She went through so much, all kinds of physical and psychic displacements, so I’d just love to know more about how she managed her habits. 

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?

I just finished and am rereading Ling Ma’s wonderful short story collection Bliss Montage. I am also reading a wonderful forthcoming book by poet Sandra Simonds called Assia, about “the other woman” in the Sylvia Plath story who was a brilliant and fascinating person herself.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

It’s my bed! I bought a cheap backrest pillow and a plastic bed tray that I am sure was meant for food and I prop it all up and use it for writing on days where my body just can’t handle a desk and chair. It turns out that’s most days lately. But I do have a small desk and practical desk chair that I can view from my bed. And by the side of my bed of course there is a little side table with tea, water, gum, snacks, candles, chapstick. I also face a TV set that I just use to stream classic music or Nemo’s Dreamscapes channels on YouTube.

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