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How much do you relate to the main character of Like a Love Story?
The book is so close to my heart. I mean, it’s like a big piece of me is on the page. Of course, as with all novels, the story itself is fiction. I didn’t become an activist. I wasn’t walking up to necessarily meet people who could get me out of my shell that young. But on an emotional level, it’s very real. It’s very much about the emotions I was feeling when I was a teenager, and I moved to this country at a young age like the Reza character, who is a character in the book who moves to New York City as a teenage with his mom, who’s getting remarried.
And suddenly he meets queer people and has exposure to a community that his culture really shielded him from and all he really knew of being gay before that was the media’s images of the AIDS epidemic. And that is very much real to what I went through. I mean, when I was young and I realized I was gay and was kind of, y’know, going through the process of realizing of even having a sexuality and having sexual feelings it was at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and I was very much shielded from the gay community.
My family was Iranian, we didn’t have gay friends or mentors, it wasn’t something in my surroundings, and so the book in a lot of ways is about that fear, and I wanted to bring readers there, but what I found as I was writing the book, and the characters of Art and Judy were born, was the book is really my way of showing that despite all of that fear, the power of love is even stronger, and it’s not just a book about romantic love. It’s a book about love for your friends, for your culture, for your community, and so in a lot of ways, the journey of the book is that that realization, that love is ultimately stronger than fear, and y’know, even in times of crisis, we can come together. We can fight back, we can create good, even when everything around the world seems so bad.
So yeah, it’s very, very personal, and Reza is the character who is most similar to me, of course, superficially, but the other characters very much feel like parts of me as well. Art is the character who really has the most rage and anger about injustice, and I certainly felt a lot of that. Judy for me is really the heart of the novel. She’s the character who I think really holds the love and compassion, and I thought it was very important because the early AIDS movement was really lead by the queer community, but there were so many women who were involved, both gay and straight, and so I really felt it was important to show that, to have a female character who was on their side, but also to show in the protests that there were also. ACT UP would often work with women’s rights organizations, so I didn’t want the story to feel exclusively about men.
Even now, women have been involved in the queer community…
Absolutely! They’ve always been an integral part, so I wanted to show that—when I talk about the queer community, it’s that very raw definition. The queer community is really everybody who is there fighting on the front lines. You don’t have to be a certain kind of queer person. It was diverse. It was a very open kind of coalition of people, so I hope the book shows that.
It’s kind of a triple perspective book, with Art and Reza and Judy. I felt like that was an important part of the book, to have those multiple points of view.
They each take turns narrating the book in first person.
It was set in the 90s. Was that super important to set it in the 90s?
It starts over one school year, so it starts in September of 1989 and ends in 1990. I knew that I wanted to write a book that was very, very personal to me, and authentic to me, and when I started to realize the book was going to focus on AIDS activism, there’s only a certain window of time where that would really make sense, and for me, I started to realize the years 1989 and 1990 had great significance.
It was, as I was doing my research, many of the ACT UP protests that had the most impact on me when I read about them were in that year. One of the big elements of the book is Madonna, who is somebody that the characters have a very deep relationship with as an artist, and I started to think about the impact that Madonna had on me, and how I was obsessed with her from when I was seven, but at that age, I didn’t even know that she was a queer icon. I just thought she was a singer. In 1989 and 1990, those were the years that Madonna really began to very, very overtly include queer life in her work. Those were the years of the Blond Ambition tour, the Vogue video, and I felt like that also became very clear that would be part of the story for me, that I wanted to connect art and activism and to show how art can be a form of activism. Madonna was my first exposure to queer culture and a huge part of my self acceptance.
So yeah, I think as I started to do my research, it became very clear, okay, this year is both a year that makes sense in terms of what was happening politically and culturally, but it’s also a personal year. It’s a year where I was a teen myself, I just became a teen that year, I turned 13 that year, and it’s a year I started to open my eyes to the world outside my kinda Iranian bubble. So on a personal level, it felt like that was a transformative year that I wanted to explore.
How was the writing style in comparison to your first YA novel, The Authentics?
It’s pretty different. You know, I think they have some similarities in that they both explore Iranian culture, although this book, because it’s triple perspective, is much more expansive. And I would say both books, I hope, have a lot of heart.
But this book is very different. It’s more expansive, it’s more dramatic, it’s more, for lack of a better word, sweeping. I think it takes on a lot more. The Authentics was really about one very specific girl and one very specific moment in her life, whereas this one really takes on a whole year. It takes on multiple perspectives, multiple journeys. Even though The Authentics dealt with a pretty big issue, this one is dealing quite literally with life and death and what we do when faced with that. So, it’s a little different. But it’s good. I think The Authentics prepared me to write a book like this. This book was harder, it was much harder to create, much more challenging.
When it’s personal, it tends to be more challenging, right?
Yes! I mean, I’m not joking when I say I cried through the writing of lot of this book. When the books are very personal, sometimes you have to take a step back every once in a while because it’s so emotional, and it’s hard to take something that’s so personal and shape it into a narrative because you just want to dump it all onto a page, right? Like, you’re not thinking in terms of structure. When I started writing this book, things poured out. And I’m not somebody who plots my books in advance. Once I started to see how much was pouring out of me, it’s like, how do I shape this? How does this book find a narrative? I knew that my passion for it was there, but how to actually build it into a book was very challenging.
It tends to be more realistic and tends to connect the readers more.
I hope! As a reader, I always look for authentic, emotional stories that feel like they came straight from someone’s heart.
You’re also a producer. How has that helped in your writing process?
One of the best things I get to do as a producer of films is to work with writers. It’s so helpful to be on the other side of that conversation. To get to give a writer notes on their work. You get to learn a lot about the process from working in that capacity. It’s almost like you were an editor and a novelist. You would learn a lot about how to shape your own novels from editing others. Because your perspective on other people’s work is often much stronger.
I think I’m a pretty good notes-giver and I do it for a living, but I feel like if you gave me someone else’s writing, I could figure out a shape for it so much easier than I would with my own. I mean, I really believe in the necessity of editors and readers and friends. I rely so much on that because as a writer, I’m too close to it to have that perspective. Getting to put on that other hat as a producer has helped me a lot with that. And also I think on an emotional level of getting through life, being a writer is exceptionally hard.
I’ve been pretty lucky and I’ve had stuff made and published, but despite that, you’re still dealing with constant rejection and it’s a lot of waiting for other people to read your work or say yes to your work and getting to be a producer, it takes that pressure off. Like, if I’m writing something and I’m waiting for someone to read it, I get to work on my producing projects. I don’t feel like my whole life is about waiting for others to approve of my writing. I encourage other writers to fill their life with other projects because otherwise- writing can be really hard.
At the beginning of my career, I was only a writer, and I was always frustrated because you’re in this endless cycle of either waiting, or being rejected. It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t matter how successful you are, you’ll still get rejected. You have to have very thick skin.
So, all those potential writers have to understand that it’s a constant process?
It’s a constant process, and now I’m going through it trying to find out what my next book is, and it will be a process again. My primary job is film and television, I write books that matter to me. I’m not somebody who’s ever going to write a book a year or crank them out in that way because I’m not writing books because I have to. I’m writing books because I feel like I have stories to tell that nobody else is telling. I don’t think you’re going to find anyone else out there who has told the stories I’m telling, they’re so specific to my life experience, to my cultural identity, to my queer identity, and that’s why I write. It can’t just be anything, I have to really dig deep and ask myself what do I have to say, what do I have to offer that’s different and personal and will matter to me.
What books and authors have been your writing inspiration?
When I was young in high school and college, I was exposed, over time, to a series of queer writers who probably shaped me the most. I think the writer who really changed my life would be James Baldwin, who is probably my favorite writer, but also that was my first experience reading about queer people of color, because when I was growing up, so much of queer representation was white, and beyond the fact that James Baldwin is just the greatest writer on a technical level.
There was also a writer named Armistead Maupin who wrote a series called Tales of the City that had a giant impact on me. It was about a community of people who were largely queer in San Francisco, and it really kind of like—it was always what I had imagined moving to the city and having a life. That’s what I imagined.
In young adult literature, the book that most inspired me to write probably was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. When I read that, I felt like, oh my God, is this what is happening in young adult literature?! Beyond the fact that it was queer experience and also it was again about queer people of color, which is so important to me to show that in queer representation. It was also just so beautifully told, so tender, and I just loved it.
I just read one of Adam Silvera’s books, and it was beautiful. Sometimes the things that inspire me most are the things that are very different than me. I’m obsessed with Mackenzie Lee and I feel like what she’s doing—her brain doesn’t work the way my brain works, but I love to write historical fiction like that that’s so fun but that puts so many underrepresented people into the history. I think that’s really brilliant and I find that kind of thinking so inspiring. I love Brandy Colbert’s writing, I love Robin Benway’s writing, I love Lilliam Rivera. It’s also cool, because there are so many people in Los Angeles
What kind of advice would you give to teens who are struggling with their identity?
It’s so hard. I struggled so hard, and the only thing I can offer that helped me when I was young, I mean, the first thing I would say is, as much as you can, find supportive people in your community, because for me that was very hard. I didn’t come from a culture that supported my sexuality. The first person I really formally came out to was my English teacher in high school, who was very much a mentor to me. I think he saw something in me that I never saw in myself, and he allowed me to express myself in that way, and eventually I found friends who understood me.
If you find someone who you trust, who you feel could be an ally, ask for their support. Ask for their help, lean on them. Because those relationships are so important at a young age. Seek out stories. For me, it was getting to see movies, read books that—back then it was so hard because there were so few. And like I said, most of the ones that were queer, they were white. But still they had a huge impact on me, they helped me see myself.
I know people always laugh when I talk about Madonna, but it’s like, when Madonna’s Vogue video came out, it was her and a group of queer men of color. I was thirteen years old and a huge Madonna fan and the impact of that on young kids in that era, to get to see those people on their TV screens on MTV on a loop, it was massive. I don’t think I would be who I am today without her. If she didn’t break down those barriers and show me that there were people like me, who were living celebratory, positive lives, I don’t know if I would’ve accepted myself this early.
So I would say find those stories, whatever that means, whether it’s a musician or a book or a movie, but let those pieces of art impact you, because they will make you see that your life can be something else. And also I would say, self-express, whatever that means to you. Because for me, writing was how I really saved myself when I started to piece together my identity. Not everybody’s a writer, but whatever self-expression means to you, it could be making another kind of art, it could be podcasting, it could just be talking to a friend, but whatever you’re feeling, get it out. What I realized is that I held on to so much shame when I was at a young age and it’s very toxic. If you’re holding on to it, it just grows inside you. You have to find some way of releasing it.