Writing a memoir is so different than writing a novel as you are exposing who you are. What made you decide to “bare your soul”?
When I first began to put in words what is now the content of my book, Solacers— my account of growing up in Iran— I did not give much thought as to why, what for, and why now, after all these years, am I writing them? I wasn’t thinking about any great purpose my story was going to serve, who its audience was going to be and how it was going to improve or impact their lives, if any. It wasn’t my intention to avenge or to vilify places and people with my pen, or to help myself find closure, either. And definitely, I did not write this book to save the world.
I am not into mental regurgitation of unpleasant events. Therefore writing a book about my difficult childhood was the last thing I wanted to do. In 2003, after a complex brain surgery, I lost a good portion of my eyesight and became grounded. That provided me with an ample opportunity to sit around and think. After a few years of this, one day I began to slowly tap away at my old computer’s keyboard and painstakingly, one word at a time, write. I thought I put my story in a book and throw it out into the ocean of life, so to speak, for anyone who wishes to pick it up and read it.
How long did it take you to write the first draft?
It took about two years for me to complete the first draft and I wasn’t too happy with the end result. So I decided to rewrite almost the entire manuscript. Not having had to meet any deadlines, together with my snail like typing speed— due to defective eyesight, were to blame for the lengthy writing period. Once the manuscript was done, for the second time, I had a couple of literate friends proofread it, before I hired two professional editors; a general editor and then a copy editor, to polish it up.
Your book was honored with being a finalist in the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. How did you hear about that contest? Tell me about the process? I came across the announcement for the William Saroyan Prize on a writers’ related website. The submission process was listed on Stanford University Libraries’ website. In May of 2012, approximately six months after I had submitted Solacers, Stanford News announced the shortlist. Solacers was one of twelve books in the nonfiction category. In August of that year the names of the top three books in each category— fiction and nonfiction; one winner and two finalists, were announced. Solacers was selected as a nonfiction finalist. Offering critique or feedback was not a part of this award program.
As it had to already be a published book, has this helped increase your sales?
As it is the nature of any awards, there was an immediate and short spike in sales. But more importantly, the award gave Solacers a stamp of approval, so to speak.
Red Corn Poppy Books is your personal imprint. How did you put it together?
Red Corn Poppy Books is your personal imprint. How did you put it together?
RedCornPoppy Books was formed with the help of a relative of my wife for the sole purpose of publishing Solacers and two other books that I am still working on.
After Solacers’ manuscript was complete, I began planning the publishing process. Plan A was to find and work with an agent. Plan B, go directly to the publishers and plan C; do it myself.
What was your next step?
I compiled a list of literary agents that handled memoirs and began sending them query letters, following their specific submission instructions. After six months of fruitless letter writing, revising my query letter a number of times along the way, I gave up on the agent idea.
Contrary to the popular belief, the majority of the agents replied back. Of course the answer was always “No.” Two kind ladies even took the time and wrote nice letters, praising my work and saying how they would have represented it had it not been for the fact that the world’s economy was on the verge of collapse. This was a year into the financial crisis that began in 2008. They explained publishers, like most other business at the time, were hesitant to invest in any new project, especially one that involved an unknown author.
So you moved on to finding a publisher?
For plan B, again I put together a list of publishers who were in the business of publishing memoirs and still willing to deal directly with an author. I wrote and submitted some sample chapters to a dozen or so publishers and waited. About six months later I received a couple of offers that I didn’t find all that attractive and declined.
It was now time for plan C. I did my homework thoroughly and researched all aspects of printing- a- book business. The book’s physical size, offset printing verses digital, UV coating of the cover verses film, paper’s weight and color, font size and type, binding and so on. I have to mention here that I wasn’t interested in taking the POD—print on demand, route. I wanted to publish my book as if it was published by one of the largest and best publishing companies in the world. And that is exactly what I did.
I had managed businesses with over thirty some million dollars in annual sales, so publishing and managing the affairs of one little book wasn’t all that difficult. Once I decided on what it was that I exactly wanted my book to look and feel like, I found several reputable printing companies that specialized in offset-printing and asked them for price quotes. Solacers first run of over two thousand copies, was printed by the same folks who printed Harry Potter books for the US market. The result was a beautiful book.
How do you write? Did you do an outline first?
In the case of Solacers it was easy. The story was my childhood. I just needed to decide where to start and how to tell it. Naturally, the opening chapter was very important to me. A book’s first chapter is a lot like the first five minutes of a movie shown on television; if it doesn’t grab people; they’ll change the channel. I decided to open the book with a poignant scene from the middle of the story and then go back and start from the beginning in the ensuing chapters.
For my new book “Welcome to Circuit City,” a romantic comedy novel, I outlined the entire book before I began.
What type of publicity do you do to promote your book?
Solacers has participated in most major book fairs and festivals in Europe and here at home. We have also run ad campaigns on Google, Facebook, Goodreads and Book Daily, to name a few. Personally I have attended a dozen or so book-singing and speaking events, mostly sponsored by book clubs in and around my hometown.
What do you know now about writing/publishing now that you wished you had known sooner?
Naturally, I know a lot more now about the business side of writing a book than I did when I first started. It was a learning path that I had to take in order to produce a professional product. Thankfully, because I invested so much time researching and understanding the process, I made fewer expensive mistakes along the way and at the same time, paved the way for my forthcoming books.
What is the best advice you’ve been given about writing or that you’ve learned that you would like to pass along?
When it comes to writing, like doing anything else that is not mandatory, self-discipline is very important. You must set a daily goal for yourself; how many pages or words you need to write before you can check your emails, visit your Facebook, text or tweet.
Writing and publishing a book, self-publishing more specifically, is a lot like opening and running a restaurant. Just knowing how to cook is not enough. Similarly, the ability to write by itself does not translate into success. Understanding book production and manufacturing, marketing, sales, inventory management, distribution and accounting is vital. Of course, there are some POD publishers who would do some of what I just listed for you, should you choose to go that route. But remember that nothing is free. Naturally, publishing an eBook requires a different set of steps, but you still have to market your book and sell it.
Writing a good book and publishing it is only twenty percent of the work, the other eighty percent is selling it.
If your purpose of writing a book is to get rich, you are going to be disappointed. Whether you are publishing your book yourself or going with a traditional publishing house, chances of “getting rich,” while not improbable, is very unlikely, unless of course you are already rich and famous. If you are planning on going the traditional way, selling your manuscript to a publisher, your best bet is to catch yourself a good agent. And good agents are not all that easy to catch.
Thank you, Arion, for this insightful interview. I especially liked your statement about being able to cook won't make you a successful restauranteur. This equates to putting words on paper will not make you a successful writer. Too many think "If I write it, they will read it." Of course, we all know that to be true only for people who are already famous and want to keep themselves in the spotlight with a new book - many times written by a ghost writer not themselves.
To either buy his book or link to more about Arion's writing, click here.