What can our readers expect from you current novel Things We Left Unsaid?
The thoughts and feelings of a 30+ year-old woman living in the 1960s in a Southern city in Iran, who wants more from her life than being a perfect wife, mother and housewife; her relationship with her mother, sister, husband, children and friends; and the similarities of all these to the life and feelings of women nowadays, regardless of the part of the world in which they live.
Where did your inspiration come from for the novel?
I always wanted to write a story which took place in Abadan, the city where I was born. This novel is a sort of homage to my beloved birthplace. The inspiration for the story was a childhood memory of a beautiful blond lady (very Marilyn Monroe-ish!) who had come to Abadan from Tehran to visit one of our neighbours. In my 12-year-old eyes, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She takes the role of Violet in the novel, though neither her name, nor what happens to her has anything to do with reality.
How did you go about researching the 1960s in Abadan?
I spent my childhood in Abadan but because I believe one shouldn’t trust her memories I went back to Abadan three times: I visited the house in which I lived, my school, the Armenian Church and all the places I used to go as a child. I talked to people who lived in Abadan to check details about places, events and names of trees and flowers. For the ‘locust’ scene, I corresponded with a locust research centre in Italy. I looked at numerous photos of Abadan from that era; photos confirm whether the details you’re writing about are accurate, which is very important. I also read newspapers and magazines from the 60s and visited the library of National Oil Company in order to read their Bulletins from that period.
How did it make you feel to win the Best Foreign Book in 2009 in France?
Being appreciated in any form is always enjoyable but apart from that, I was delighted to see that my French readers – among them the members of the jury of the magazine, Courrier International – not only liked my stories because they were about a rather unknown (or wrongly perceived!) people of an exotic country, but because they saw similarities between themselves and the characters in the stories. Once, on a flight from Paris to the city of Pau in France to promote one of my books, a 40ish charming flight attendant approached me with a piece of paper in her hand, “Are you Mme Pirzad?” she asked. Thinking that she was checking the passengers’ list, I nodded. Her eyes widened, “Zoya Pirzad, the author?” Now, it was my turn to widen my eyes. It turned out that she had read all the French translations of my books and loved one in particular (a novel about a divorced woman who lives with her mother and teenage daughter in Tehran, Iran). When I asked her why she liked that novel she said, “I am divorced, I live with my mother and teenage daughter in Paris, I share lots of things with your protagonist who lives in Tehran. I understand her.” This was my best prize!
How do you go about injecting humour into a book with a serious undercurrent?
I write about life and life is a combination of all sorts of things: sorrow, anger, dull moments, seemingly not important or important events and humorous situations.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to write about a time before the Islamist Revolution?
It depends on whether the writer has lived in that period or not, and then her or his power of imagination and – of course, research, research, research!
What future projects do you have lined up in terms of your writing?
I am working on a novella and a novel simultaneously. The first takes place in Armenia and the second is the story of a bunch of Iranian immigrants in London… I will say no more!
What do you like to read?
Depending on my mood of the moment, I read all sorts of novels; classics, thrillers, bestsellers.
I like the works of Donna Tart, Penelope Lively, Anne Tyler and of course, the writer for all seasons, my beloved Jane Austen.
You write both collections of short stories as well as novels, do you have a preference?
Each story, somehow, decides and dictates its own length and form. I do not have a special preference.
Interview by Lucy Walton