Interview with Dina Nayeri, Author of A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea

A Teaspoon of Earth and SeaWhat did it take from you to create A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, and what are a couple things the creative process gave you?  In addition to an engaging book.  The process of writing this book gave me an entirely new perspective on my life and my purpose. I became a writer while creating this novel. I had other published projects before, but this was the first time I threw myself into a work completely, immersing myself in research, in my characters, and in the imagined world I wanted my readers to inhabit.  In some ways I lost myself in the process, spending days just listening to Iranian music, reading books on the region, watching videos.  I certainly let my personal life falter, and there were days when I barely did anything but work and drink espressos.  So this novel took a lot from me.  But it also made me who I am as a writer.  In addition, the process taught me to value rigor and brevity and detachment in my writing. It taught me to dig for the most important details and to present them concretely and imaginatively. These skills will always be valuable to me.

You describe yourself as an exile.  How has your exilic condition impacted your writing?  Mostly in the themes that capture my attention. I often write about home, about displacement, and fear. These are familiar topics for me because of my experiences as an exile. They are like obsessions. I can’t get away from them.

To quote Saba’s reflection, “This story is about fathers and daughters.”  As much as the novel is a large story between sisters and their mother, isn’t it as much about a father and daughter?  I think it’s even more about a father and daughter, because theirs is the only relationship that isn’t already dead. With the other members of her family, Saba has only memories and her imagination. She can turn those over in her mind, but she can’t have anything new.  With her father, she has a flesh and blood person who loves her and wants to be allowed into her world.

Part of my experience reading was in learning Saba’s opinions about the differences between American and Iranian men.  How might American fathers be different from Iranian fathers?  I think fathers are fathers. To love and protect your children are universal instincts. The cultural differences seem minor compared to that.

Talk about how Saba’s life became an echo of her twin sister’s.  Where did that come from in your writing process?  How did you connect with both Saba’s experience and Mahtab’s?  I consider their stories representations of the two ways that my own life might have gone.  I was raised in America and so the Mahtab stories mirror my own. But the Saba stories are the Iranian experiences I might have had, if I had stayed behind.  To parallel them seemed like a natural exercise, and something I took great pleasure in.

Where would Saba call “home”?  Cheshmeh, Iran

Dina NayeriThe novel returned to themes of desire, hunger, memory, and love.  Did you learn particular things about such themes in writing or revising?  Did you develop a love or appreciation, for instance, of your own family history?  Absolutely. The research alone gave me a great appreciation for the richness of my own history and roots.  But, obviously, I also used many of my own emotions and experiences in writing Saba and Mahtab’s stories. In doing so, I deepened my understanding of the themes you mention.

What are you reading these days?  “The Woman Destroyed” by Simone De Beauvoir.

How can readers connect with you and support your work?  You can like my Facebook fan page:  http://www.facebook.com/dinanayeri

And you can visit my website: http://www.dinanayeri.com

Gardner and “…a dream in the reader’s mind.”

John Gardner in the Art of Fiction says a lot that writers should read.  For me his overall thrust is captured in a few helpful passages in his chapter on Basic Skills, Genre, and Fiction as Dream.  If you’re a writer of fiction and haven’t met this book, visit your nearest public library and thumb through it.

In any piece of fiction, the writer’s first job is to convince the reader that the events he recounts really happened, or to persuade the reader that they might have happened (given small changes in the laws of the universe), or else to engage the reader’s interest in the patent absurdity of the lie.  The realistic writer’s way of making events convincing is verisimilitude….

He must present, moment by moment, concrete images drawn from a careful observation of how people behave, and he must render the connections between moments, the exact gestures, facial expressions, or turns of speech that, within any given scene, move human beings from emotion to emotion, from one instant in time to the next….

…whatever the genre may be, fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.  We may observe, first, that if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous–vivid because if we are not quite clear about what it is that we’re dreaming, who and where the characters are, what it is that they’re doing or trying to do and why, our emotions and judgments must be confused, dissipated, or blocked; and continuous because a repeatedly interrupted flow of action must necessarily have less force than an action directly carried through from its beginning to its conclusion.