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'We are so tough': Porochista Khakpour on Writing the Body

Marion Ettlinger

The Prairie Schooner Book Prize is now open! In honor of the 2016 Book Prize season, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson will interview authors about the process of constructing a manuscript and bringing it to publication. This week, Katie interviews highly acclaimed NEA-winning writer Porochista Khakpour about her two critically lauded novels, Sons & Other Flammable Objects, and The Last Illusion, as well as her forthcoming memoir about Lyme disease.

How many books have you published, and where?

Two. Grove/Atlantic and Bloomsbury (and I have a third that was bought on proposal to HarperPerennial on the way.)

Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. Did you plot organically? Did you outline? How did the story come together? 

I had no idea what I was doing. It was in my fellowship year after a one-year MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars (they did not have an MFA then). On my most depressed day--many things were going wrong in my life--I tried a chapter of a novel based on a short story I wrote there the year before. I showed it to my old wonderful adviser, the great Alice McDermott, and she said to keep going. Then I did another. Same comment. And another. (It was so liberating to just waste time, because I didn't think it could get published). I hit a problem in the middle and Alice said it was "Middle of the Book Syndrome." Who knew what that was? (Or if she made it up to console me, I wondered then.) So I wrote a "stalling chapter" imagining I would cut it later, and it helped me get to the next part. I just kept problem-solving a chunk at a time and got so lost in the performance of it and figuring out how to complete the arc, that it suddenly got done. Of course, that was a draft in those seven or eight months but I spent many years later editing it. Interesting—structurally it did not change much and that middle stalling chapter ended up being many people's (as well as reviewers’!) favorite.

Did you notice any writing tics or themes once you’d gotten through a first draft? (For instance, I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the story in a meaningful way) and which were not?

I did not notice much after the first draft but some things were brought to my attention later! I was 28 when we sold it (most of it was written between 25-27) and I was so green in those fundamentals of MFA 101, that I did not realize tags were best left to "said." A reviewer noted I tagged dialogue with "snapped" hundreds of times. Oops. I would change that now. Also, I used (and still use) quite a lot of em-dashes but I enjoy them and find them useful and interesting. I am at peace with most irregularities in my syntax and diction and I don't really regret them, but now after a decade-plus of teaching and so much reviewing, "snapped" and its repetition feels both lazy (let the dialogue handle it) and insecure (not trusting the reader to hear it).

What was the editing process like? How did you get from draft to draft? Did you find yourself excising large portions? Adding?

My greatest concern is always on a sentence level. I write out loud and I read and reread out loud. So I would go over a sentence many, many times. I had to because in Sons and Other Flammable Objects, I have this very maximalist acrobatic prose and it's easy even for me stumble through it. So while I did not do too much throwing away of huge parts I did constant rewriting of sentences and tweaked them to no end. One thing that did change a lot was the ending--my agent thought it should have a different end and I was going crazy trying to think of a new one, for many months. Eventually a call to an ex on a depressing Christmas Eve night got me to a new solution, much by accident. And I had this new ending that required some addition and subtraction of sections of the final chapters. But that was it.

How did you decide where to submit the finished manuscript? 

My whole origin story with the agent and publishers and all that is pretty complicated. Back in 2005, an old friend from college had reached out--he was someone I didn't know that well from my freshman year creative writing workshop (my first one!)--through Friendster of all things. He was working at Grove but about to leave, and he left a very early version it in their break room slush pile on his last day of work there. By some miracle, a wonderful iconic editor there, Elisabeth Schmitz, happened to read it and read it and read it. I got a call from her one early morning, as I was sweeping the floors of a Rodeo Drive boutique where I rather miserably worked. She said she'd been laughing and crying about it all week and wanted to go forward and wondered if I had an agent. What a thrill it was--it feels very Cinderella and dreamlike still to me now. Well, I decided, after talking to friends, to get an agent and ended up sending to some listed in one of those "Guide to Literary Agents" books. I went through a huge struggle to get the manuscripts printed and mailed (there was not much email submission then) and in the end, three agents wanted to meet with me. I had to pretend I was already coming to New York and so I did that, cobbled the money together, and got over there. I ended up with a very big deal agent and that felt like a great triumph, but he ended up being very unresponsive and MIA--and when a big editor saw my first personal essay in print, and wanted to see the manuscript and Mr Agent had no response, well, I knew he was not the right agent. And he got it too--we parted ways. Many months later, I ended up with the agent who sold my first novel (to Grove--Schmitz was no longer taking manuscripts then, but it hit a chord with Amy Hundley, who became my wonderful editor.) That second agent was fantastic, though now I'm on my third agent, as she finally retired. I have another fantastic agent, but agents aren't fix-alls--it took over two years to sell my second novel. 

What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

I wish I had not been so stressed out and more in touch with the fact that i was so incredibly young and that life was long, if I'd only let it be. I wish I'd waited a bit before I hurled myself into publishing, though a part of me thinks so much was easier in the industry then, so maybe it was for the best. Plus, I'd wanted to be an author since I was four so it felt like ages, those two decades or so later. I just wish I'd known how painful aspects of publishing would be and prepared myself even better.

What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

Oh, I remember I was in Brooklyn, on the way to subway in Park Slope, and I had just had this awful fight with a partner at the time and I was feeling so hopeless. It had been a couple months of rejections that were very close to acceptances. Anyway, I remember that it was a hot late spring day and I got this call suddenly from my agent and it was just like my whole DNA had become transformed in an instant and I was the person I’d always wanted to be! I was beyond happy. I was thrilled in a way that nearly killed me in the months to come, to be honest. A big change that really rattled me.

What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

How crazy you will go during it, even when things are seemingly ideal. 

What is your favorite part of your first book? 

The Stalling Chapter! (It's called "Hells")

You're fairly open about dealing with chronic illness on Twitter, and are writing a memoir about your experience with late-stage Lyme disease. What led you to want to write about chronic illness? How has your experience with the disease changed through the process of writing about it? 

I never thought I'd write about it but after years of sharing health issues of mine on social media, people became very interested and started requesting that I write about it.  I was corresponding with so many people around the world that it made sense. I imagined I'd create a little chapbook with just information to pass around to people in hospitals but that wasn't right either--i never felt I was an expert and qualified to tell anyone what to do or how to live, even with my same illness. So an editor who became my friend and saw me go through some of the worst parts, Cal Morgan, was the one editor my agent and I sold it to. He's now left publishing but put me in some other good hands at HarperPerennial, and I think it's been a good decision to tell my story, simply and humbly and honestly, as my third book. As for what's changed, well, it is the disease that challenged my writing; I did not expect to go through a major relapse this year, while I was writing it. But writing about it has given me some ways of dealing with it that I did not expect--narrativizing can offer a sort of way of seeing the thing outside of yourself. For me, being my own "character" has allowed me to imagine a way out, while the sick-me who is going through it feels like a mouse on a  glue-trap. Obviously I can only do so much--I can't cure this--but I can imagine the happiest ending and work towards it. I don't know how I'd be surviving the pain I'm currently in without the ability to write, and thus this book, which has sheltered me the way old childhood journals used to.

The effects of Lyme disease on sufferers is still, I think, fairly shrouded in mystery in terms of public knowledge. My own (limited) understanding of it came from watching the documentary about Kathleen Hanna, "The Punk Singer," and I was struck by the gendered ways that Hanna's illness is (mis)treated and misdiagnosed throughout. Chronic sufferers, I think, tend to be overwhelmingly women. Can you speak to the ways that gender informs your understanding of Lyme disease's place in public imagination?

I love that documentary and I have been interent-friends with Sini Anderson, the filmmaker, for a while--I think she did an amazing job. What Kathleen goes through is very much what most my fellow "Lymie" women have gone through too. It is very hard to be taken seriously as a woman, period, and imagine winning that battle in the hospitals of America where they are supposed to make quick judgments on your very person. There needs to be a world of training for doctors and nurses in this area, but so much of the sexism is so built in. I'm always too thin or not thin enough, too young or not young enough, why am I single, where are my partners, why did I not have kids, and it goes on and on. It takes women ages to get treated because they get labeled psychiatric cases and that's it. I've said over and over and over, "...but I know my body, I know how I am when I am anxious and depressed," and yet. I thought this would be over years ago, during my first Lyme crisis, but it happened again this year when I ended up in so many ERs. Women end up being sick a lot longer than men because people don't believe them or hear them and it ends up getting worse and worse and they second-guess themselves in their journey--this all happened to me, and my friends. And we are what you'd call "Strong Women," like Kathleen and Sini and so many others. It takes mammoth courage and a really tough spirit to survive it. Luckily, I believe women are made of that--we are so tough--and so we handle it. I laugh imagining what it would be like in a world where men were consistently actually underdogged.


Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran, raised in Los Angeles and lives in New York City. She the author of the forthcoming memoir SICK (HarperPerennial, 2017), and the novels THE LAST ILLUSION (Bloomsbury, 2014)—a 2014 "Best Book of the Year" according to NPR, Kirkus, Buzzfeed, Popmatters, Electric Literature, and more— and SONS AND OTHER FLAMMABLE OBJECTS (Grove, 2007)—the 2007 California Book Award winner in “First Fiction,” one of the Chicago Tribune’s “Fall’s Best,” and a New York Times “Editor’s Choice.” Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in Harper’s, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera America, BookforumSlate, Salon, Spin, The Daily Beast, Elle,and many other publications around the world.  She is currently writer-in-residence at Bard College.