Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Shahriar Mandanipour

In books, fiction, translation, writing on September 20, 2010 at 10:00 am

Shahriar Mandanipour

Shahriar Mandanipour. Photo courtesy of Mandanipour (2010).

An introduction to Shahriar Mandanipour, author of Censoring an Iranian Love Story (Vintage, 2010). Mandanipour is the author of eleven books; this most recent one is the first to be translated into English. He expressed “deep gratitude to [his] translator, Sara Khalili.”

Quick Facts on Shahriar Mandanipour

  • Home: Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Current reads: Jane Unrue’s Life of a Star

What are you working on at the moment?

A new novel. After Censoring an Iranian Love Story was so well received in America, I felt it was time for another change—to leave what I have in my CV at the last station, wishing and seeking a new way of writing, a farther resting station. Somehow, I’m trying to get rid of my last writing body.

Now, I’m on my third attempt at writing this new novel set in Iran. The main character is a man with amnesia who lost his left hand in the Iran-Iraq war. He is trying to remember his past and all that happened to his country after the revolution—what happened during the war and after the war. Literally, what happened to the literary language of remembrances.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

I think it depends on the time during which a writer writes. When writing, a writer tries at first to tell the story to himself. At that point, he doesn’t think about the reader. But, there are times when after writing a good paragraph or scene that you think about the reader. Every writer has a range of ideal readers in his thoughts. With their mind’s eye, these readers often have the power to travel to the underlying layers of the work, they may even add another layer to it.

I have a beautiful memory of a reader. I was in the city of Isfahan at an event paying tribute to my work. A young university student came up to me and said she liked my short story “Violet Orient.” I thanked her and said, “Gracious hosts often compliment a writer on his work even if they have not read it, but if you can recite one sentence from this story, I will give you a great prize.” She started reciting my story from memory and her tone was exactly the tone that I’d had in mind. It was frightening. She kept going. I told her it was enough. She had not memorized it. She had read it so many times that she had learned it by heart. Afterward, I thought a lot about what prize I should offer such a reader and nothing came to my mind. Perhaps writing another story.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I was in the Iran-Iraq war for eighteen months, at the front. I was doing my military service as a Lieutenant. You may not believe this, but I tried to write in my journal while sitting in my trench. The other side had every arm and ammunition they needed; they could bomb us really well. We often had little choice but to take shelter in our trenches. It was like living underground. There was no light except for a lantern and I would use it to write while mortar shells exploded around us.

In the end, I can tell you that someone like me likes to have a small corner to write. I got used to it. It’s not important where or when I write, I just need a simple shelter that I feel is mine, even if only for a few hours. The timing is not important—you choose it, and it chooses you.

Do you listen to music when you work?

Yes, of course. Your question makes me sad. I miss the collection of CDs and cassettes I had in my office at home in Iran. I collected them over many years. After the revolution, there was a time when music was forbidden in Iran, and finding good music was very hard. You couldn’t find a good symphony or a new song. There was a black market where one could always find cheap music, but not always good music. In my collection, I had all sorts of music. I listened to romantic tunes when writing a romantic scene, or classical music when writing a complicated scene. I would also listen to select movie soundtracks; they often helped me picture things in my head as I wrote.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

Sometimes I think there are thoughts and emotions that you cannot express simply with the spoken word, and so you try to write about them. There are some feelings that you get from the world and the world of words, and certain fictional conceptions—epiphanies—that emerge from sad events or joyous occasions, and these you try to write. There’s always a story behind feelings, so you try to narrate it to yourself or to someone else so as to create some sort of order out of those emotions. You start writing, and when you finish your story, you sense that those feelings haven’t been expressed definitively. So, you start to write another story.

How do you balance content with form?

Form is everything in writing a story. Far more than a thousand times one thousand and one tales and stories have been narrated and written in this world. Now, what are we going to narrate, what story is there left for us to tell? So, you try to narrate in a new form. In other words, there are not so many new stories. Archetypes accompany us as we narrate stories. The most important element is form, the form you choose to tell a story.

You shouldn’t predetermine form. Think about the story, think about what you’re hoping to narrate, and the story will tell you in what form it should be. Almost every story has a unique form; the writer’s job is to find that form and to feel it. He has to be strong enough to handle the form, and this is where some writers are perhaps defeated.

Is there a quote about writing that motivates you?

It is a quote by the Iranian writer Houshang Golshiri. Imagine you have a target and you shoot at its center, at its heart. Essentially, “Although a good writer can shoot at the heart of the target or the story, he won’t do it. He will shoot close to the heart, to its edge.” When you have the edge, the perimeter, strongly and creatively, you have it all plus the heart. Don’t aim directly at the subject of your story;  imagine the outer-limits, the hidden layers, and let the reader imagine the heart of the story. Let the reader write the heart of the story that you are trying to tell.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

If you can stop writing, and can then provide an ordinary and safe life for yourself, you can quit writing. If you feel absurd and empty when you don’t write, welcome to the Wonderland and Neverland.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

There is no “best advice” for a writer. Good writers create their own best advice.

What book do you wish you owned a first edition of?

Perhaps, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.

What question do you find most surprising that people ask you about writing?

“Why do you write? What are you writing for?” It is like being asked, why do you breathe?

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I love writing, but after I finish I feel so free that I want to do everything, to explore again. It becomes background for another story.

About Shahriar Mandanipour

Shahriar Mandanipour has won numerous awards for his novels, short stories, and nonfiction in Iran, although he was unable to publish his fiction from 1992 until 1997 as a result of censorship. He came to the United States in 2006 as the third International Writers Project Fellow at Brown University. He is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His last novel Censoring an Iranian Love story was published in ten languages. His short stories have appeared in PEN America, The Literary Review, The Kenyon Review and the Virginia Quarterly Review.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Shahriar Mandanipour.” Words With Writers (September 20, 2010),

Censoring an Iranian Love Story

Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour (Vintage, 2010).

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