Tag Archives: Dalia Sofer

Q&A With Dalia Sofer, Author of THE SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ

Exciting news! EDIWTB has been nominated for two awards for Book Blogger Appreciation Week! Thanks to your support, this blog is a top-5 finalist both for Best Literary Fiction Blog and Best Book Club Blog. I am very excited! If you don't mind – please go vote for me in both categories. You can only vote once. Go here for the full list of nominees in all categories.

And now to today's post. In July, EDWITB readers participated in an online book club for The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer. Dalia graciously agreed to answer reader questions about the book and her writing process. Here are the questions and answers, below.

Hello, thank you for reading the book and for your comments and questions. I hope you’ll find the following answers helpful.

Warm Regards,

Q: Authors often write their first novels based on their own experiences. You had a wealth of material to draw from because you lived a lot of your book. But, for your second book, will you have to start from scratch? This seems like it will be far more difficult, so I am wondering what you will write about next.

A: I wouldn’t call it “starting from scratch,” because the initiation of any given novel is, in my opinion, driven by emotion, which is by definition very personal. So while the story, setting, or time period may be completely different from the writer’s, the emotional impulses behind them are very much autobiographical.   I have already begun my second novel, and though I can’t divulge much about it at this point, I’ll only point out that it’s the story of an octogenarian butcher in a remote village in Southwest France.  While this is a region that I am familiar with, I still need to do a lot of research. In this respect, you could say that the writing is more difficult than the first novel. But in other respects it’s actually far easier, because the story isn’t born from as a raw a place as my first book was. While much of The Septembers of Shiraz is fictional, I still had to unearth a lot of pain in order to write it. The prison sections were particularly challenging.

Q: What was your family's reaction to the book?

A: The reaction was very positive, though the feelings it evoked were bittersweet. Again, while much of the book is fictional, I think it brought to life feelings that we have all been carrying since that time. Someone described this book as a “family love story,” and that’s a very accurate description. That’s how I think of it also.

Q: Obviously I was relieved when Isaac secured his release from prison. However, the way in which he did this was deeply unsettling. Was it realistic that Isaac was disturbed, but not tormented, by the reality that his ability to buy his way of prison probably resulted in the torture and death of others?

A: The alternative would have been death. Isaac is a man who loves life and he ultimately decides to allow his wealth to rescue him. His money may further fund the revolution, but it’s an indirect consequence, which he decides he can live with. (This may not be a perfect decision, but at the same time, throughout his imprisonment, he did not once implicate anyone else—something his interrogator tried to get him to do. In my mind, that would have been something that he could not have lived with…) It’s very hard to know how one may react when faced with imminent death. Isaac wants to live, for his family—and for himself.

Q. Shirin's narration was especially compelling and I couldn't help wondering how much of what we saw through her eyes was very closely based on your experiences. I'm dying to know if you actually stole and hid files.

A:  Alas, Shirin’s sections are largely imagined—I did not steal any files! But that state of bewilderment and confusion is one that I remember very well. And the passage about absence being very close to death came from a sensation I developed at that time.

Q. Sofer means writer in Hebrew – is this a pen name or a family name you grew into?
A: Sofer is my actual surname. My father is originally from Iraq (and the story goes that my ancestors were biblical scribes!)

Q: I'd also like to know about your writing process or if you have any special writing rituals.

A: I don’t think I have a special process or “rituals.” I am not a planner. I like to surprise myself, so I usually sit down to write with just an image in mind—or a feeling. What comes out usually isn’t at all what I had anticipated—and that’s exactly what thrills me. It’s a constant discovery—of the world, of myself, and of what we make of each other. That said, I do keep track of certain narrative threads. The process is a continuous balancing act between spontaneity and form.

Q: What were the biggest challenges for you when you were adjusting to your new life in Israel and then America after fleeing Iran?
A: Making sense of the loss, which expressed itself as a constant void. (I think this was particularly challenging because I was still very young.) Also difficult was being forced to be positive and cheerful and being told to always look on the bright side… This created a real schism between how I really felt and how I pretended to feel.

Q: Who are your favorite authors?

A: Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, Romain Gary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov, Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Andre Aciman, Ann Tyler, Marilynne Robinson  (among others).

Online Book Club: THE SEPTEMBERS OF SIHRAZ by Dalia Sofer

Sofer This month’s online book club selection was The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer. The Septembers of Shiraz tells the story of the Amins, a Jewish-Iranian family living in Tehran in the early 80s, shortly after the fall of the shah. Isaac, the father, built a successful jewelry business under the former regime, and the family enjoyed a very comfortable life in Tehran, complete with fancy cars, summer homes, travel abroad, a house with a pool and hired help. When the book begins, Isaac is living with his wife, Farnaz, and their 10 year-old daughter Shirin. Their son, Parviz, has moved to New York to attend college.

The book opens in a state of uncertainty and tension, which doesn’t break throughout the whole novel. Shortly into the book, Isaac is arrested by revolutionaries and thrown into prison, with the vague charge of being a Zionist. The story rotates through all four family members’ points of view, each chapter offering a different perspective than the one before.

Isaac’s chapters are the hardest to read, as they detail his brutal treatment at the hands of the prison guards and his decreasing hopefulness of leaving the awful place alive. Parviz’s chapters are geographically the most remote, but in many ways they parallel those of his father, as they describe the isolation he feels living in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn, impoverished and without news of his father other than that he has been taken away. Farnaz’s chapters show her trying to go on usual while not knowing whether her husband will return, living in constant fear of the revolutionaries coming to their house and seizing Isaac’s papers, his property, or worse, her and Shirin. Finally, Shirin’s chapters depict a lonely girl who doesn’t really understand what’s happening, but who steals files of accused traitors (including that of her own uncle) from the basement of a friend whose father is one of the revolutionaries, which ultimately costs her her only friendship.

The Septembers of Shiraz is a well-written and powerful book, albeit a difficult one to read. I could almost feel my heart rate rising whenever I picked it up, and, as my friend Sarah noted, it’s not an easy book to read before bed. There are some very painful scenes (though not gratuitous) about Isaac’s experience in prison, including some episodes of torture. Yet I think that this is an important book, especially in today’s world where we regularly learn of torture and cruel imprisonment at the hands of both our enemies and our own military. It’s a world that easy not to think about until you’ve read about it, and then it’s hard not to think about.

Another theme in The Septembers of Shiraz is that of our relationship with tangible, creature comforts. Isaac ends up abandoning most of his fortune – his cash, his homes, even his prized jewels. As these are gradually stripped from him, we watch him ultimately decide that life and relationships are what matters, a realization that comes to the other characters in the book at different times and with varying degrees of success. Sofer’s exploration of how we define ourselves and our worth – whether through what we have, or what we do, or simply who we love – is a theme that I found thought-provoking.

My one disappointment with the book is its dispassionate, even tone, which Sofer adopted throughout the story. There was little passion, especially between the characters. Parviz, for example, accepts the news of his father’s fate with barely any emotion, while Farnaz’s sadness over Isaac’s disappearance is almost businesslike. The most passionate characters – the Amin’s housekeeper and Parviz’s Hasidic landlord – serve as heightened contrasts to the Amin’s cold, matter-of-fact exteriors. Perhaps because the story is autobiographical, Sofer needed to maintain some distance from her characters to keep her sanity. I’d be curious to hear how she addresses this comment.

All in all, this was a very worthwhile read and I am happy to have read it. Now let’s hear from the rest of you.

Reminder: Upcoming Online Book Club on July 28th

Reminder: The July online book club for Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer, will take place here on Monday, July 28.  I will post a review of the book, and then anyone who would like to join the discussion can do so in the comments. Also, Dalia Sofer has graciously agreed to answer reader questions, so if you have questions for her, please include them in your comment or email them to me at gweiswasser@gmail.com.

I’m looking forward to the discussion!

Next Online Book Club: THE SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ by Dalia Sofer

I am excited to announce the next EDIWTB book club! This time, the book is Dalia Sofer's The Septembers of Shiraz, recently out in paperback from Harper Perennial. Here's a description from Amazon:

Sofer Sofer's family escaped from Iran in 1982 when she was 10, an experience that may explain the intense detail of this unnerving debut. On a September day in 1981, gem trader Isaac Amin is accosted by Revolutionary Guards at his Tehran office and imprisoned for no other crime than being Jewish in a country where Muslim fanaticism is growing daily. Being rich and having had slender ties to the Shah's regime magnify his peril. In anguish over what might be happening to his family, Isaac watches the brutal mutilation and executions of prisoners around him. His wife, Farnaz, struggles to keep from slipping into despair, while his young daughter, Shirin, steals files from the home of a playmate whose father is in charge of the prison that holds her father. Far away in Brooklyn, Isaac's nonreligious son, Parviz, struggles without his family's money and falls for the pious daughter of his Hasidic landlord. Nicely layered, the story shimmers with past secrets and hidden motivations. The dialogue, while stiff, allows the various characters to come through. Sofer's dramatization of just-post-revolutionary Iran captures its small tensions and larger brutalities, which play vividly upon a family that cannot, even if it wishes to, conform.

And here is a review from the Sunday NYT Book Review from last August.

If you'd like to participate in the online book club for Septembers of Shiraz, send me your name and mailing address (even if you've sent it to me before) at gweiswasser@gmail.com. (Please put your full name and address together, like you're addressing a letter, with your email address on the last line, so that I can just cut and paste it.)  Harper Perennial has generously agreed to send copies of the book to EDIWTB readers who would like to particpate. Depending on when the books go out, the book club will be held here on this blog sometime around the end of July.

UPDATE: Unfortunately, I am no longer accepting names for the online book club. We have used up our allotment of books from Harper Perennial. Thanks for your interest! Feel free to buy the book or borrow it from the library if you'd like to participate.