A conversation with Marjan Kamali

A conversation with Marjan Kamali

In her second novel, The Stationery Shop, Marjan Kamali weaves a heartbreaking tale of thwarted love with the political upheavals of 1950s Iran. The beautifully immersive story takes us from Boston in 2013 to Iran in 1953 as we follow the lives of two star-crossed lovers, Roya and Bahman.

The result is a sweeping tale of enduring love that explores loss, reconciliation, and the quirks of fate; a tale that spans 60 years, two very different countries and cultures, and moves readers to tears. Reading The Stationery Shop is a therapeutic experience that delivers some much-needed catharsis along with a sense of healing.

After reading The Stationery Shop in our book club, we were intrigued to learn more about the genesis of the book, the research that went into it, the rich side characters, and the writing process that spanned such an immersive novel. So when Marjan Kamali joined us for an Ask Me Anything, naturally, we had plenty of questions for her.

Keep reading this unabridged transcript for her thorough, thought-provoking, and inspiring answers:

"One thing I've found new writers struggle with mostly is doubt. We all experience doubt when we write. But new writers are often turned off by doubt. They think if they're experiencing it, it means their work isn't good enough or that they should stop. But that's not always true. Experienced writers can tell you that doubt never goes away. And it's not necessarily a bad thing."

— Marjan Kamali

Q: Question by a community member

C: Comment by a community member

Q: When did you first know you wanted to write stories—was it an early ambition or a desire that took over you later in life?

Marjan Kamali: It was a very early ambition. We have a stapled tiny book typed out by a Persian typewriter. It was a story I dictated to my mom when I was four (before I could write). The desire to tell stories came young.

Q: I learned from your bio that you did an MBA as well as an MFA. I’m curious about the story behind pursuing a Master’s in two vastly different fields and how you managed it all with family/kids?

Marjan Kamali: Ah, yes! As a child of immigrants in the U.S., it was expected that I would become a doctor, lawyer, engineer. Getting my MBA was a nod to those pressures. I felt I just didn't have the option of being an artist, a writer as a first-generation immigrant. But I got my MFA at the same time because I desperately wanted to be a writer. It was a lot of juggling. Then I got pregnant with my first child while I was in both programs. I took some time off and finished both degrees right before the birth of my second child. I managed it all because I was young, had the privilege of having a supportive husband, and was just simply so determined at that time!

C: Thank you for joining us today! Your book was simply amazing. It was basically my highlight during the first lockdown! It blew me away and reminded me why I love to read!

Marjan Kamali: I am so happy to hear this. I have heard from other readers that the book was a balm during the lockdown and it means so much to me when I hear that. I think we all want to be transported to a different time and place these days. 🙂

Q: I think you covered so many grounds on social and domestic issues and even political, which was brilliant. Did you lay down bullet points when you decided to write this book?

Marjan Kamali: Thank you. I definitely had overall ideas of the theme in my head when I decided to write the book. I had them more as "theme clouds" above me but if they were bullet points they would have been: lost love, the idea of fate/destiny, the coup d'etat of 1953, loss, healing, and the many ways we are shaped by someone when we are young. These were all floating above my head as I wrote the book. I also wanted to cover Iran's political history in the 1950s and to show how characters/people are shaped so much by circumstances beyond their control.

Q: Who was your favorite character to write about?

Marjan Kamali: This might surprise some people but my favorite character to write about was actually Mrs. Aslan. She was by far the most difficult character in the book and in many ways the one whose actions were the most frustrating. She wasn't my favorite because I liked her personality or what she did. But she was my favorite because she basically wrote herself. After she first appeared on the page, Mrs. Aslan just took over (as only she would!). I found her exhausting and heartbreaking but I grew to have great empathy for her as I understood the reasons behind some of her behavior.

Q: The thing that kept me glued to the pages of The Stationery Shop was the depth and richness of the supporting characters. I wanted to ask if you had imagined all of these characters before you began writing or you just imagined Roya and Bahman and the rest (and their details) came to you eventually once you started writing?

Marjan Kamali: Thank you for saying that! I first started off only having imagined Roya and Bahman. That was it. Claire, Zari, Mrs. Aslan, and all the rest of them came about as I wrote that first draft. But each one became real to me. One technique I use to get to know my characters better is that I sometimes (as background work just for myself), write diary entries in the voice of the character. This really helps me to inhabit their hearts. By the time I had gotten through my first draft, I felt I really knew Walter, Jahangir, and the rest. And of course, our dear Mr. Fakhri! Doing all this background diary-writing in the voice of the character was very helpful for me as the writer.

Q: What part of the publishing journey was challenging when you put out Together Tea and did it become significantly easier for you during the publication of The Stationery Shop? Also, did publishing your first book influence your process of writing in any way?

Marjan Kamali: The truth is that when I was trying to first get published, every part of the publishing journey was just so hard! But I'll tell you the truth: the hardest part in getting my first book, Together Tea, published was that I was telling a story about Iran and Iranians that did not fit the "public" narrative in the U.S. at that time. I had an Iranian father in my book who was extremely kind and supportive. People in publishing pushed up against that. They said things like, "this father is too nice to be Muslim." I had to constantly push back against stereotypes and stay true to the story I wanted to tell. It meant it took a whole lot longer to get that first book published. But I am extremely grateful that I didn't bend to the pressures of the time and change any of my characters or their truths.

As for the second part of your question, publishing my first book did change my process in a way, because the second time around I knew there were people actually waiting for the book. A very different experience from the first time when it felt like I could take ten years to finish (and I kind of did as I stopped in the middle when my kids were young!). I faced pressures of time the second time around but again, I knew I had to let the story take the time it needed and not bow down to the pressures. 🙂

Q: Did the MBA help you in some unexpected way with your writing career?

Marjan Kamali: For the longest time, I wanted to justify having spent all that time and money on getting my MBA by finding a way that it helped with my writing career. The truth is that it didn't really help me in the ways people sometimes expect such as in giving me an edge in marketing knowledge or anything like that. But if I had to look at how it really did help me it was that the MBA program toughened me up. I was at Columbia Business School in New York surrounded by tough, smart students many of whom wanted to go to Wall Street. From my fellow MBA'ers I learned a thing or two about having a tough skin, shaking things off, not letting things get to you so much. Those skills invariably became important as I went about the querying and submitting process for my first book!

Q: The framing and pacing of your novel were executed so perfectly. When it began at the assisted care center, I had so many questions, but we then go back to 1953, and then we get closure and answers in bits and pieces, alternating between the two timelines. Was it always the idea or did you come up with this plotting after the initial draft?

Marjan Kamali: Thank you for your question and observations about the pacing! If there is one thing I knew when I started the first draft of The Stationery Shop it was this: it had to begin when Roya and Bahman were 77. I wanted the reader to know right off the bat that these two characters had been apart for sixty years. It was very important to me to frame the story in this way because for me I was writing primarily about lost love, not just first love. I wrote the first draft and then, when I revised, I constantly kept thinking: what order of events would have the most emotional impact on the reader? The answer to that is not always to present the events chronologically. In fact, by not presenting the events chronologically, I feel we had more of a story.

Q: The part that made me feel emotionally shaken was the epilogue. I would love to know how you felt while writing it. Was this a very emotional part for you to write?

Marjan Kamali: I have to say that writing the book created lots of tears in me and provided an emotional catharsis for me too. If anyone felt emotional reading the book, believe me, you are not alone. I get emails and messages from readers all the time telling me how much they cried. And my own desk was covered in tissues, truth be told, after I wrote certain scenes. When I was writing the epilogue, I was almost in a fugue state. I had that complete high that happens very rarely - when we feel outside of ourselves and completely in the throes of what we're creating. I was lost in Mr. Fakhri's decision, his fate, his loss, his desire. After I wrote the last sentence I remember I was shaking. That ended up being the last sentence of the book. But I was actually physically shaking. I wanted to run outside, to scream, to just shout. It was snowing outside, I remember, and I didn't have the option to run. But I did take to Facebook (which I don't often do) and posted that I was shaking after writing that scene and that I thought I finally had finished the book.

Q: What does your first draft look like and what’s your unusual writing quirk?

Marjan Kamali: Ah, that first draft! It is honestly all over the place in some respects. Some of my first draft is on my laptop. Other sections and scenes are written by hand in a spiral notebook. There might be some snatches captured on a writing pad that I keep by my nightstand. I learned a long time ago to give myself complete freedom when writing the first draft. To not judge myself too harshly and to simply capture what comes, when it comes, and on whatever I have (computer, paper, napkin). The first draft stage is messy. But it should be! One is filled with doubt. But that's okay - that's all part of the process. As for my writing quirk: well, I don't admit this often but one thing I do when I really need to move through a scene is I chew bubble gum. Loads of it. I blow bubbles. I find the movement keeps me going!

Q: How has the pandemic affected your writing and life in general?

Marjan Kamali: Like so many people, I found myself slightly bewildered and shocked and a bit paralyzed when the pandemic first happened. There was that initial sense of grief at all the lives lost, constant worry about the safety of my parents and my family, and lower-level fever of mourning all that my kids had lost in their daily routines/social lives, etc. But after a few weeks of allowing all of this to engulf me, I realized I had better get to work. I read a lot. I wrote a lot - especially in the summer. I realized that I couldn't control the pandemic but I could tell a story. Some days have been better than others, I won't lie. But I think it's a privilege to have an art form or a craft into which you can escape. So I've taken refuge in the writing of a new book.

Q: You spent your childhood in many places, Germany, Turkey and Iran included — of all these places which one do you remember most fondly?

Marjan Kamali: Each country I've lived in has become a part of me. There are small things about the culture and the traditions that are huge things to me. But perhaps the country I remember the most fondly is Kenya. I lived there between the ages of six and nine. I was young enough to be sheltered from some of the inequities and difficulties of the country's post-colonial reality. But I was old enough to enjoy its beauty, to appreciate its people, to simply revel in its nature. Any time I even hear the word, "Kenya", I am flooded with memories of my childhood years there.

Q: I couldn’t stop myself from getting swept up in the love, passion, and adoration that Roya and Bahman share. I wanted to know how you captured the tenderness of first love?

Marjan Kamali: It was strange to write about that intense first love. I tried to capture its emotional texture by doing some traveling and putting myself in the shoes of a very young person experiencing the pull and headiness of first love. I tried to capture that sense of feeling like you've been consumed by an absolute tidal wave. It helped too that as I wrote The Stationery Shop, I had a seventeen-year-old in my house! My daughter was seventeen then and I was very much in touch with the sensitivities and emotional roller coaster and acute observations of that age.

Q: At what point did you begin to teach writing and how has that experience been for you — what’s something that you found new writers struggle with most commonly?

Marjan Kamali: I didn't start teaching creative writing until a few years after my first book was out. Before that, I had taught business writing (but that's a whole other story!). I love teaching creative writing. I love seeing my students develop their characters, come to certain "a-ha" moments, and just explore and refine their craft. I want to help them every step of the way and then to get out of their way. One thing I've found new writers struggle with mostly is doubt. We all experience doubt when we write. At least I do! But new writers are often turned off by doubt. They think if they're experiencing it, it means their work isn't good enough or that they should stop. But that's not always true. Experienced writers can tell you that doubt never goes away. And it's not necessarily a bad thing.

Q: How do you come up with names for your characters?

Marjan Kamali: I think a lot about the names! Probably more than readers may realize. I think of the meaning of the name (for example "Roya" means "dream" in Persian and I wanted my main character to have that name for that reason), whether it is historically accurate ("Zari" is a name that was popular in Iran in the 1940s and 1950s but less so now.) I try and think of the name encapsulating the character. Walter could only be Walter in my mind!

Q: Your story contained no typical patriarchal characters. One of the things I loved about this book. Was it a conscious, deliberate decision on your part?

Marjan Kamali: Very good question and yes, it was a conscious, deliberate decision. I grew up seeing every single version of an "Iranian man" or "Muslim man" portrayed in mainstream U.S. media as a very negative version. I got so tired of seeing that abusive, chauvinistic stereotype when it came to men from this religion and/or ethnicity. I vowed I would show the kind of Iranian man I knew my own father to be and my own relatives: kind, supportive, not at all abusive, etc.  I wanted to push back against that stereotype. I admit that one of these days I will have to write a patriarchal Iranian man but let's see!

Q: What does a normal day in your life look like and what can you tell us about your writing space and schedule? Do you have a set writing goal for each day?

Marjan Kamali: A normal day in my life will involve my waking up and forcing myself to stay off the news until later. I find those early morning hours to be magical, almost sacred. The minute I go down the scrolling rabbit hole looking at my phone or watching the news, something magical is broken. So I try to read a book first thing and then write before turning on the noise of the internet. There will be all the time in the world to follow the news after those two things are done. But I will be honest, I don't always succeed in this endeavor. It's my goal for every day and I achieve it most days, but not all. I am lucky because finally, after all these years, I do have a room of my own. When I was younger I would write in the corner of the living room or at the kitchen table. Now I have a home office. It is filled with many of the books I've read basically since I was a child. I love looking at these books as I write because their authors helped shape me. As for a writing goal for each day, I like to say as long as I am engaged in my manuscript - that's a good day whether that engagement happens for half an hour or three hours.

Q: Have you kept in touch with your MFA friends and have many of them went on to become published writers like yourself?

Marjan Kamali: I have kept in touch with some of them and yes, it is a joy to walk into a bookstore and see the books of my MFA classmates! Several of them are published writers now.

Q: How did you do your research into the political climate of 1953 and how it affected Iranian people and their lives?

Marjan Kamali: I read as much as I could about that time period. I read non-fiction books with accounts of what happened that day and leading up to that day. I read articles online. I read anecdotes from people who had lived through the coup. I also interviewed any elderly relative who was willing to talk to me! In the end, my father was the most helpful in giving me a sense of that period: what people wore, read, listened to, dreamed of, wanted. It was very helpful to talk at length to him and to a few other relatives.

Q: Did your relationship with your own father inspire the relationship Roya and Zari had with their father in the book? 

Marjan Kamali: Yes, it's true. I do have a supportive and kind father. Perhaps I am constantly writing about him. Also, in both my books so far the father has been supportive and kind. Not just because of my own relationship with my father but because of all the negative stereotypes about Muslim men that I constantly have to push against. 🙂

You can buy The Stationery Shop here

Join the What Should I Read Next Community to be part of future events with authors here

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