NAW Interview with Mahbod Seraji

Mahbod Seraji

Mahbod Seraji came to America in May of 1976. He stayed at the University of Iowa until 1989 and earned his Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate degrees. Throughout his career, Mahbod has worked in more than 25 different countries.  He is an excellent and sought-after speaker, and is often invited to teach executive development programs across the globe.  Mahbod also coaches executives and loves to teach and discuss cultural issues in relation to managing business, and politics. Rooftops of Tehran, his first book went on to become a bestseller. Visit him here.

NAW- Tell us about your book, ROOFTOPS OF TEHRAN. How did you get the idea for it? What is it about? How did you select the title?

Lets start with the story first. Here’s the synopsis:

In a middle class neighborhood of Tehran, 17 year old Pasha spends the summer of 1973 on his rooftop with his best friend Ahmed dreaming about future, and struggling with a crushing secret: his love for his beautiful neighbor, Zari, who has been bethroad since birth to Pasha’s mentor and friend, Doctor, a university student and political activist on the SAVAK hunt list. Despite Pasha’s guilt, the long, hot summer days transform the couple’s tentative relationship into a rich emotional bond. But the bliss of their perfect stolen summer is abruptly shattered in a single night when Pasha unwittingly guides the Shah’s secret police to Doctor’s hiding place. The violent consequences awaken Pasha and his friends to the reality of life under the rule of a powerful despot, and leading Zari to make a shoking choice from which Pasha may never recover.

The title: The book was called ROOFTOPS OF TEHRAN because so much of the story unravels on the rooftop of Pasha’s home. Incidentally, chapter 1 starts with the line: Sleeping on the rooftop in the summer is customary in Tehran. The book also starts and ends with scenes on the rooftop.

At a deeper level, the rooftop of Pasha’s house symbolizes the youths’ desire for openness and freedom. This is where they gather to talk, to socialize, to share the news, to discuss love and romanticize about the future; this is where they can reach out and almost touch the stars they’ve named after those they love. There is also something exotic about sitting or sleeping on the rooftop, which is a narrative tool I needed to give the story its unique texture.

NAW- Tell us about the characters of Pasha Shahed and Ahmed. How did you develop the characters?

The 17-year-old Pasha is an introvert who loves to read, watch old movies, and discuss philosophy, politics, movies, and literature. He’s aloof, polite, and always willing to please those he loves and respects. For example, he decides to major in engineering to satisfy his father despite hating math and sciences. He’s traditional in the way he views friendship and honor, willing to fight for Ahmed against Faheemeh’s brothers; feeling ashamed of loving Zari who is engaged to his mentor, Doctor. He’s a romantic in heart but rational and pragmatic in life.

Ahmed’s personality complements Pasha’s because he’s so unlike him. He’s a charming, rabble rousing, street-smart kid who loves and enjoys every minute of his life. Unlike Pasha who wants to go to America to get a college degree, Ahmed has no plans for his future. He lives in the moment, although somewhat recklessly, which to him is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. When Pasha is blaming himself for what’s happened to Doctor, Ahmed consoles him and points to the moon, to the stars, and to the planets in the sky and asks: “Do you realize the immensity of creation? Do you see the prescribed order of the universe? God has imposed his laws on everything. What makes you think he exempted you from that?”

Ahmed is the glue that keeps the neighbourhood together. When everyone is struggling emotionally to cope with Doctor’ssaga, he creates a false crisis over the width of the alley to distract people in the neighbourhood from the agony brewing in their hearts. Pasha accomplishes the same by doing something a bit more visceral. He secretly plants a red rose where Doctor’s blood was spilled. The red rose (which also appears on the cover of the book) becomes a symbol of love, friendship and struggle. In one of my favorite scenes in the book, the baffled neighbours engage in the following dialogue as they try to figure out who has planted the rose bush and why.

-Wait, why a red rose?

Because red is the color of blood.

-It’s also the color of revolution.

-And the color of love.

Rooftops cover

NAW- The narrative technique used in ROOFTOPS OF TEHRAN works quite well. How did you get the idea for it?

Thank you. Writing Pasha’s voice was perhaps the most challenging aspect of this experience for me. His voice had to be that of a 17 year old: simple, unwordly, and juvenile, but simultaneously, sophisticated on certaintopics, i.e., the movies, Erfan, psychoanalysis, literature. Capturing that duality without making the effort obvious to the readers was challenging. It was also important to make his voice believable and authentic, which is why he tells the story in a simple and unpretentious language. He had to be wholesome without being dull and uninspiring. His character accomplishes that by making clever observations on contradictions that exist in the Iranian culture and way of life. Also, his voice gradually matures as the story advances, and as he begins to speak authoritatively about Iranian politics, books, religion, destiny, God, social norms, relationships, etc.

NAW- Did you carry out any research for the book?

Well, I lived in Iran until 1976, so my personal experiences were more instrumental than the research I did in writing the story.

NAW- What can readers expect to take away from the book?

Once you release the book you almost can’t control what people take away from it. I know readers who think ROOFTOPS OF TEHRAN is a book about love, others who see it as a realistic portray of Iran’s culture and way of life in the 1970’s, and others who see it as a historical novel depicting the Shah’s brutality against intellectuals and dissidents, and its impact on Iranian families and the youth. One reviewer claimed that the book was an attempt to remind readers that the Shah was not a benevolent democratic ruler, which was quite accurate. Personally, I was adamant to challenge the distorted image westerners have of Iranians. Tremendous effort has gone into dehumanizing Iran since the Islamic revolution, especially in the west, and my goal was to show that traits such as love, friendship, and family are universal, transcending borders, nationality, creed and culture.

Of course, any time you publish a book, you subject yourself to misinterpretation. I’ve had my fair share of those as well.

NAW- How difficult (or easy) was it getting published? Tell us about your publishing journey.

Getting published is incredibly difficult, but it is a journey well worth taking. It requries patience, perseverance, flexibility, and thick skin. Every rejection letter – – and even the best of writers get those – – cuts fiercely through you no matter how resilient you are. Rejection of your work feels almost as hurtful of someone calling your baby ugly! I was extremely lucky to sign with a great agency and a great publisher.

NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?

When I’m not writing, which is rare, I’m reading or watching classic movies. I maybe thinking about my next book, or the next chapter I plan to write. If you’re a serious writer you can’t limit your writing to a few hours a day. Even when you’re not actually writing, you’re somehow engaged in activities that help shape your story, plot, characters, etc.

NAW- Who are your favourite writers?

I have many favorite writers: Jack London, John Steinbeck, Maxim Gorky, Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekove, Frank McCourt, Emil Zola, Sadegh Hedayat, Iraj Pezehkzad, Simin Daneshvar…. The list is endless.

NAW- How do you write, planning the complete plot beforehand or do you let the book take its course? Take us through your writing process.

I do very little planning. I often end up writing a different story than I intended to write. I start well, struggle in the middle, and finish fast if I know the ending. It’s the middle part that always slows me down. As for the process, I write at nights, and I read for an hour or two before I start typing. One important lesson I’ve learned is not to share my early drafts with anyone. My plot, story and characters evolve with each revision, and I can’t get everything right in my early drafts, even though the whole picture may be in my head from the start. The complete load down of what’s in my head to paper often takes a few tries. Therefore, suggestions, reactions or comments to those early drafts can be hurtful and even derailing to me. This was a lesson learned the hard way, even costing me certain relationships. So, no one but my wife gets to read my early drafts anymore.

By the way, writing is a lonely endeavor. It’s hard on the writer and those around him or her. Writers need to be alone and quietly focused for long stretches of time, and that’s not always easy on people around them. I’m extremely lucky that my wife is quite independent. Besides, she’s almost as anxious as I am to see how my story turns out, and as a result, she is always encouraging me to write. It’s a blessing to have her in my life.

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