I am so honored to have Mr. Mahbod Seraji participating in our Facebook Book Club – The Book Club for the Busy and International – as we discuss his wonderful novel Rooftops of Tehran.

As part of that discussion, Mr. Seraji was kind enough to answer some questions about his book for me. Here is my interview with him.
1. What was your inspiration for writing Rooftops of Tehran? My own childhood, the memories of the alley, great friendships I had as I was growing up – As I mention in the interview at the end of the book, Rooftops of Tehran is loosely based on my own personal experiences. I have to also admit that reading Angela’s Ashes deeply affected me and made me start typing. One of my greatest regrets in life is that I never got to know or talk to Frank McCourt before he passed away.

2. Do you have a favorite character? Why is that person your favorite? Three: Ahmed, Grandma and Zari. Ahmed because writing about him was fun; he made me laugh, and he was always in my mind. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night to jot down something witty he could do in the story. For me he personified the spirit of Iran – funny, hopeful, resilient, persistent, unbreakable, creative and socially savvy. So, I love Ahmed. I also love Grandma because she (like Pasha’s grandpa) is stuck in her past and only remembers the good things – she puts a positive spin to her past. She can almost be singing the mantra from the beginning of the book, “If I had a book I would read it; If I had a song I would sing it,” and make it sound hopeful despite her own sad situation – – suffering from dementia, which by the way, I wanted to treat as respectfully and carefully as I could. And then of course I love Zari because in the beginning we see her as an unexposed and sheltered young woman who goes through a dramatic experience and decides to protest with an act of courage – she wants to make a strong statement. I love the fact that her decision is not whimsical because she talks about it to Pasha at the ice-cream parlor asking whether Socrates decision to take the poison instead of escaping was the right decision? Was it the honorable thing to do? She also asks whether Golesorkhi, who stood defiant to the judge at the staged trial, was brave. Golesorkhi knew well that his defiance would result in his execution by the Shah. Those two questions should have given Pasha a clue into Zari’s state of mind because Socrates nickname was Gadfly, and Doctor gives a book to Pasha called The Gadfly in which a revolutionary sacrifices himself for his noble beliefs, as Socrates did. As an author, I loved playing with those narrative elements and subtly connecting Doctor, Socrates, Golesorkhi, The Gadfly, the Red Rose, dying for noble causes, Zari’s attempt!

3. What’s the most important scene or moment in the novel, in your opinion? Again there are three. One is the scene in which Zari protests the death of Doctor and throws a red rose at the Shah’s motorcade. In my mind this scene is significant because all of this is happening right after the real-life trial and execution of Golesorkhi in 1973. ‘Gole sorkh’ means ‘red rose,’ which is why Pasha plants a red rose in the alley. Again, as an author, playing with those narrative elements was a lot of fun. My second favorite scene is when Pasha finds his way to Doctor’s grave and tells him that in his mind the most valuable human commodity is ‘That’ and not ‘time.’ The next morning he tells his father not to repair the grandfather clock that has been broken for years. Why bother, right? The third is when Iraj is disillusioned with Thomas Edison and declares that he has fallen in love with the Masked Angel, a person he can’t see. As with the character of the religion teacher becoming school principal, there is some suggestive resemblance here in what happens to Iraj and what happens in Iran in 1979 with the country turning away from the US and becoming enthralled with cloaked revolutionary leaders!

4. When you wrote the book, who did you imagine as readers? Well, at first I really didn’t have an audience in mind but I think eventually I began to think that this would be a good read for people who want an accurate account of what things were like in the 70’s or were curious about the Middle East but didn’t want to read a history or sociology book. I also thought Rooftops could be a fun way to remind people that Iran was a secular country before the Islamic Revolution in 1979 – – not too long ago!

5. What is your writing practice? Do you write every day? Squeeze it in where you can? Both. I try to write every day, but if I can’t, I try to squeeze it in whenever possible. Usually I read for an hour or so before I start to write. Reading stimulates my creativity.

6. What do you think of the situation in Iran today? What is life like for the people there? We in the U.S. hear only about the nuclear race – unless we really dig deeper, but I’d be curious to know about the more intimate view of Iran in the 21st century. I’ve gone back to Iran six times in the last couple of years so I’m fairly familiar with what is happening there socially, politically and economically. In my opinion, Iran is probably the most misunderstood country in the world. Of course, I’m not talking about politics or the ruling regime. Here’s some interesting statistics: 70% of Iran’s population is under the age of thirty? Of that 70% almost 98% are literate by world standards. Of the 77,000,000 people living in Iran, over 30,000,000 use the internet. This is a highly educated, very young, energetic, engaged nation, but that’s not the profile most people have stored of Iranians in their minds. I always say that people in Iran are the same as people elsewhere: they want peace, security, freedom, fun, economic prosperity, access to education, happy and healthy family lives…. Unfortunately that’s not what some people want us to believe. If there was one upside to the 2009’s rigged presidential election in Iran, it was that we finally saw the true face of that nation in the pictures and TV images of those young demonstrators who filled the streets in green demanding freedom, asked where their votes were, and faced beatings, arrest and even death against a regime that’s been repressing them for the last 30 years! I think the lesson here is that we should never mistake an oppressive government for its people!

7. Are you working on any new projects that you’d care to talk about? Yes, I’m working on a second book, which I hope to finish in the early part of 2010. The setting is a village in Iran and it’s the story of two men whose lives come on a collision course because of a woman and some other things in their pasts that neither one knows about.

8. How have you felt about the reception of the book? I’m THRILLED! So far we have had about 50 reviews and almost all of them are positive. The book is selling. It was reprinted just four months after it was released. It’s been an Indie Next Notable for June, a Bookreporter Bets On book for May, and one of six novels that was picked by the American Booksellers Association in the Outstanding Debut category. Rooftops is also the University of Villanova’s selection for their One Book Program and Broward College’s pick for their wRites of Spring 2010 conference.

9. If you had to name five book recommendations, what would they be and why? This is the most difficult question you’ve asked. J The Gadfly by Ethel Lillian Voynich; Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt; Germinal by Emil Zola; Martin Eden by Jack London; The Idiot by Theodore Dostoyevsky. Many of the similar reasons for all of them – great characters, masterful storytelling, strong messages – I love books that you have to study, not just casually and superficially read and run to the next one on your to-be-read list.

10. Other things you’d like to share with the group? Thank you for reading my book. Thank you for discussing it on this site. Please feel free to write to me or join me as a friend on Facebook or on Goodreads. And tell your friends about the book! J And I’m certainly open to more questions.

Please join the discussion on Facebook if you’d like, and if you’ve read this wonderful novel, please share your thoughts. If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. Stay tuned for my full review of the book later in the week.