The Penmen Profile: Dina Nayeri, Author of “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea”

by Gabbi Hall

SONY DSCDina Nayeri moved to the United States from Iran at the age of 10 in the midst of the revolution. Her debut novel, “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea,” was released in 2013 by Riverhead Books and has been translated to 14 foreign languages. Dina holds an MBA, MEd and an MFA, in addition to having worked in fashion, university admissions and investment banking. Nayeri talked with The Penmen Review about her experience as a writer and the authors who inspire her.

Have you always written?
In different ways, but not always seriously. When I was a girl, I wanted to be an international corporate lawyer. Between the ages of six and ten, I went through a lot of traumatic life changes: escaping Iran, living as a refugee, adapting to a new culture. All of these added up to a lot of insecurity and the desire to do something stable and rooted. I spent most of my school years focused on business and economics, and only later discovered my passion for writing (though it was evident to my teachers as early as middle school).

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
I choose a character or characters, I deepen and understand them, and I let the story flow organically from their choices. I’ve tried many other ways: making outlines, building complex plots, fashioning twists and surprises and stumbling blocks. But I find that it’s better to let those things come as surprises to me as well, and to focus on the actions and motivations of my characters first and foremost.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
Many writers face the problem of people griping about how they “should” tell their stories. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to explain that fiction is specific and subjective and imagined. And yet, people always take issue when they perceive themselves in a character and decide that that character isn’t “right.”  This happens on a macro level, too, when people decide that a particular family or group in your story doesn’t represent their experience of that culture. This is a ludicrous position, and difficult to argue against because it’s born out of a fundamental misunderstanding of fiction, perspective, and the difference between facts and larger truths (which are themselves subjective). Right now, I’m reading Philip Roth’s excellent essay, “Writing About Jews,” as a balm against the ridiculousness.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
I’ve been very lucky. I sold my novel quickly thanks to my wonderful editor and agent, but I never saw myself on “the road to publication.”  A writing career is so much longer and more grueling than the distance between writing a story and publishing it. Publication is just a signpost on a much longer, darker road that will end when I lose my imagination or words or motivation. Or when I die.

How do you market your work?
I’m terrible at that. I keep a Facebook page and a website, and I recently joined Twitter and Instagram.  Some people say I over-share. Some say I don’t share enough.  So I guess I’m not that good at marketing, despite the HBS degree, but my Facebook page has a lot of cool stuff, and I do it because it’s fun for me.

What do you know now that you wish you knew back then?
That my devotion to writing would have enormous costs, and that professional happiness comes only from doing work that you believe in.  I’m so glad I know that now though, when it’s still so early.

Who are the writers that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
Chang-Rae Lee, Charlie Baxter and Marilynne Robinson, because they write honestly above all else, and they don’t care what the world thinks. Those are the only kinds of writers that can be truly great.

If you keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
Housekeeping,” by Marilynne Robinson.  “The Art of Subtext,” by Charlie Baxter (actually, his entire “Art of” series, which I would glue together). For the third one, it’s a toss-up, but I’d go for sheer volume of brilliant pages here, rather than just a personal favorite:  The Collected Works of Richard Yates or Alice Munro, or some other very prolific short story writer, or (if there is such a thing) a collected volume of stories from the New Yorker or a decade’s worth of “Best American Short Stories.”  The key here is that I would cheat in almost every instance and glue a bunch of books together, except in the case of “Housekeeping.”