An edited version of this interview first appeared in Monster Children Issue 50, 2016.
Porochista is one of those writers I Insta-stalked ages before meeting, so already had a crush on her big hair and big glasses by the time we had drinks and curry with a bunch of other misfit authors in early 2015. Her second book The Last Illusion is a freaky-deak story about a boy raised as a bird, and has won more awards than you can shake a stick at. And I do like shaking a stick at awards statuettes. Don’t roll your eyes, it’s a legitimate hobby. In 2017, she has a new book out, Sick, which is about the totally fucked late stage Lyme disease she now endures.
Look, just to let you know I may sound retarded during this, as I’ve been on so many therapies lately.
More retarded than usual?
Hard to believe, I know.
So I heard you have Lyme disease, is that right?
I have late stage Lyme disease so it’s really fucked up. It’s like cancer protocols at this point. It’s really bad. I mean, you met me, man, you know I’m not someone who lives like a saint. I drink a lot, smoke cigarettes. I’m not good at the upkeep I’m supposed to do when I’m in remission. I’ve crossed the International dateline four times in the past six months, which is not good if your immune system is compromised. Long haul flying is like being in a microwave. I forget I’m a sick person but I don’t want to live like some old grandma. I mean, it’s not going to be permanent but my moments of relapse are really fucked up and humbling. I even have a cane now.
Do you at least have a collection of natty, cool canes?
Molly Crabapple was going to paint on a cane my friend has for me, but the one I have is pretty hideous. The problem is wooden canes hurt your hands after a while, so mine has that geriatric grip.
So you’re not going surfing anytime soon?
It’s so weird that you should ask to interview me for Monster Children right now. I’ve been obsessing about surfing lately, partly because I was hanging out with Bill Finnegan in Bali, the guy who wrote Barbarian Days. As a Cali girl, I’ve always been fascinated with it, but the only thing that’s been making me feel better is imaging surfing.
Did you get Lyme disease from a tick bite?
Yeah, that’s what the book I’m working on is about—where did this Lyme disease come from? Most people never see the rash or the tick bite. These are tiny deer ticks, the size of a speck of pepper. 60% of people never even know they’re bitten. The outdoors got me into this indoorsy hell.
If you’re collecting tick anecdotes, I had one on my perineum once. Transported the little fucker all the way between Brisbane and London.
Jesus Christ, they’re fucking horrible things. What a nightmare. It’s like that fear I have of being a woman and swimming in a lake and that something’s going to crawl up inside me. I’ve talked to so many women about this, it’s like a common female fear that men don’t understand.
Let’s go skinny-dipping in this eel-infested lake.
Yeah. Fuck no.
Did you hug one of those koalas with chlamydia when you were in Australia?
I hate koalas so much.
The only thing I don’t like about Australia is all the exotic animals. I hate them all, the kangaroos and koalas. I like horses and dogs. Also, I like marine life. But the dinosaurs in Australia are too scary, even the koalas are kinda creepy. The people are so warm and friendly but the animals are fucking douches. I ruined a whole writer’s trip to a wildlife sanctuary in Adelaide. I had to get out of there, so I caught an Uber back to the hotel and got on with doing what I do well—drinking a lot, and smoking the expensive $25 Australian cigarettes.
Did you surf much in L.A. when you were young?
I’ve never really been good at it. I’m a great ocean swimmer though. Swimming and being a writer are similar for me, in that I never liked equipment. I hate having to learn how to manoeuvre complex things.
Just you and the elements.
Right, I like hiking, for example, just keeping it simple. I don’t even bother decorating rooms, partly because my imagination is a little baroque. My mind is already too psychedelic.
Interesting that you should be obsessing about surfing when you’re invalided. Is it because it represents a physical freedom you can’t have?
It’s gotta be related. I’ve always had surfer friends, both growing up and lately a bunch of friends were heading to Costa Rica on surf camp. I really wanted to go. I love the ocean so much. I feel so comfortable in the ocean.
This probably doesn’t fit in with the idea people have of you before they meet you, of this politically active intellectual east coast author.
Totally. Like Bill Finnegan, I grew up in this shitty place in California, which feels so separate from the rest of the US. That’s why I liked Australia so much. When I landed in Perth, it felt like L.A. in the 80s. I felt so comfortable there! Talking to you now, this is my very Californian real me. I was a beach goth, in the 90s.
Wearing eyeliner and all black at the beach.
It was a thing. Recently I’ve heard people talk about that look a bit more. I grew up on the East side of Los Angeles. When we lived there, it would take 40 minutes to get to the beach. The Santa Monica kids always had bathers under their clothes and jean cut-off shorts. We had to pack our stuff. The aesthetic from my side, especially in the 90s, was very punk rock. There were so many Manson girls and a lot of their aesthetic incorporated a very hippy California element.
Fashion and punk and that anarchic, do your own thing way of living often dovetails very nicely with skate and surf culture though.
The east side of L.A. was all skaters. My whole world was packed with skaters. It was they way in which skating overlapped with surfing that got me fascinated with the beach. I mean, I almost married a pro-skater. He was part of that whole Harmony Korine thing, the Nashville skaters who came to New York.
The simplicity of jumping on a board or a deck and not needing anything else ties back into what you were saying before.
I always identified with that idea of being a loner who was with other people. New York is so hyper social and extroverted. You end up having to create these artificial caves for yourself to hide away from people. But in California you can feel utterly alone, both in a horrible and a slightly romantic way. Everyone’s so isolated because it takes so long to get from place to place. Nobody ever really lives near anyone. There’s a beautiful loneliness to surfing or skating or hiking. When I used to swim out, I never liked it if people tried to swim with me. I hated that feeling. I remember being in Mexico and swimming really far out and the lifeguards were all freaking out because there were really bad riptides and I was like…just leave me the fuck alone. It’s weird, it’s like the only death that doesn’t scare me. With everything else, I’m the most fearful, neurotic person but there’s something really comforting and nourishing about the ocean.
I know what you mean. I almost drowned in Thailand a few years back and towards the end I felt quite relaxed and not scared at all. But then a scuba diver saved me.
I banned myself from taking my scuba licence because my survival instinct with the water is really warped. I don’t even panic sometimes. A part of me always wanted shipwreck. I love danger in the ocean stories. I wanted to work on a ship for a long time. Not a cruise ship, just a labourer on a regular ship.
So you wanted to work on a ship just so it would sink and you could be a castaway?
I just want to have a life where you can’t see the land. I’m the same with cars, though. I’m about to do my 12th drive across America, because I love the journey and kinda hate the destination. I know that’s kind of a cliché but I really feel that way. I’m always disappointed when we stop, even if it is somewhere supposedly awesome.
Just to go back a bit—I love that idea of the community of loners you described. Is that the same for writers?
Totally. What drives you to be a writer is probably the fact you feel unlike other people, that your stories feel like they’re not out there and you very likely have a conflicted relationship towards being around other people. That’s why writer’s festivals have become so important to me. I know where I stand around other writers, in a weird way. Though it’s hard to trust other writers, because they’re in their own heads in the same way I’m in my own head and that sometimes creates a bizarre dissonance. It’s probably why we end up drinking so much around each other.
Those festivals are funny. Writers either end up letting their guard down and making weird and often unwanted confessions, or they put up a complete artifice to defend against all the like-minded people who can suddenly see inside them.
To be a great fiction writer, you have to be a great performer. You have to really inhabit the story. But then sometimes it’s hard to know how to be outside of that.
Maybe that’s why so much fiction gets mistaken for fact these days. If you give a convincing performance, people assume it must be based on something that happened to you.
That’s such a huge problem now. People are always asking how I am able to write about men. Women are often enraged, even, that I’m writing from the perspective of men. So there’s that assumed autobiographical fiction element, which is weird, and also there’s this conflict between the descriptive and the prescriptive, which is one of the central discussions in literature in the US now, and has to do with the likeability of characters, and veracity and verisimilitude.
The prevalence of memoir has seeped into fiction.
I’ve had people tell me at events that they’re buying my novel to help me, like they’re my patron. What was it about the reading I did that made them feel sorry for me, that they needed to help me? I read a painful passage? Especially with The Last Illusion. It has sci-fi and fantasy elements, it’s fabulist—what were they even thinking? I’m writing about an asexual feral child—it’s clearly not me. Although I have said in interviews that there are memoir aspects to that book, because it’s about misfits and outsiders and that’s a central theme in my life. After my first book came out I kept getting commissioned to write essays, but they were always about Iranian American life, which I really didn’t want to write about.
Have you become the go-to expert on Iranian stuff now?
Oh God. Depends on who you ask. On one hand, I’m too Iranian for some people, not Iranian enough for others. I’m in this weird middle zone all the time. My parents are atheistic, though my brother and I tried to get them back in touch with their Muslim side even though we’re not either. But that’s our culture. Right now with all the Islamophobia in the US and all this shit around the world, it’s kinda funny for me to have to speak for this group that I am part of, but with which I have my own reservations and concerns. Everyone in the Middle East hates each other but suddenly we’re in this moment of being clumped together in a Pan Middle Eastern identity, which comes from Western ignorance. I’m in this odd position of being asked to talk about brown people and their problems, many of which I have gone through myself, but that’s an identifier I tried to break out of when I became a writer. I was so traumatised by my early years as an immigrant not speaking English and the stuff my family went through that I’ve constantly just tried to be a person, not a political entity. That’s why subcultures and countercultures were so important to me growing up. I didn’t grow up around other Iranians at all.
On the Internet, you’re never described simple as ‘author Porochista Khakpour’. It’s ‘female author’ or ‘Iranian author’ or ‘female Iranian American author’. There’s always a quantifier.
Part of that is just the shock of my name, you know? It’s unusual among Iranians too, so usually they don’t know what it is either. It comes from the Muslim shame of my family. They chose to pick this very pure old Persian name, which means the daughter of Zarathustra. Americans must assume it’s a very typical name in Farsi, but it’s not. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in situations where I’ve turned up at places and people have said, ‘Oh wow, you speak English. What a relief!’ They’re confronted with a slightly nerdy tattooed valley girl. People are always so shocked that I have tattoos as well. In the US we still have some very basic groundwork to do with this stuff, so I’m always trying to highlight punk Iranian kids or Skatiestan. Their Instagram is amazing. All these cool Afghani teenage girls on skateboards in the rubble of Kabul. The problem in America is that we only have national identity, and we still don’t know how to deal with ethnic identity.
No one ever refers to me as a white male Irish author though. It’s just author.
I suppose that would be frightening too though, if the white aspect was being emphasised.
You might as well say Nazi author.
White supremacist author, right. So in a weird way even your identifiers have a negative connotation too. It’s just a different type of one. Identifiers are so easily problematic from so many angles. That’s why they’re so boring for me. But I’m interested in the consequences of 9/11 on American society. Like, we now accept that water bottles are potentially sinister, or that taking off your shoes before getting on a plane is normal. These things are not rational or logical and we’re probably going to see more of them in this heightened moment of terror, or whatever.
From the outside, it looks like the US is reverting to the Wild West.
It does feel like that. The debate over gun control is so absurd. The rest of the world must be laughing. It’s funny, as a kid I loved westerns and as a young immigrant I always wore cowboy hats and boots, and had gun toys. Later, I would go to shooting ranges all the time. But then when Sandy Hook happened I thought, no way man, I’m not going near this stuff ever again. I don’t want to be part of gun culture, it’s horrific. The NRA used to have this sticker that said, ‘We don’t dial 9-11’.
It’s like the Republicans portraying themselves as fantasy gunslingers who in an emergency situation would draw their gun and save the day by taking down the shooter, and yet it never happens.
This idea of fantasy is very central and important to the American psyche. I’m almost loving, in a sick way, the discourse of the Republicans right now because it is so delusional. Trump has now realised that on Twitter, it doesn’t matter what you say. It’ll get retweeted and everyone will see it, and maybe later down the road he might say he was wrong about something but who cares? It’s amazing how much encouragement there is on the right wing to subscribe to a fantasy. A friend of mine was saying that Trump is all about what he wants the world to be, that prescriptive reality, and he doesn’t care about the actual reality. Maybe the success of those kinds of people does come partially from delusion and fantasy.
We live with the idea of success as being a necessary goal, and that it has to be achieved as quickly and early as possible.
It’s no way to live. At least when I entered the arts at a young age, I felt it was nothing to do with competition. I could drop out, be a loner, do my own thing. I was never going to be pitted against other people. I’m so allergic to it. I hate it. I just drop out if I have to compete against anyone for anything. I don’t want the thing that people are fighting over. Being part of a subculture or counterculture when I was young really helped me not be interested in competition or success.
Most kids skate or surf or write because they like it, it’s an end in itself. They’re not in it to be famous. It’s a bit like what you were saying about the journey being more important than the destination.
Maybe we were the last generation to feel like that. The Boomers weren’t like that, and the Millenials are definitely not like that. I’ve always loved descriptions of Gen X in that sense, even though we’re bad at a lot of things. Like with relationships I suck, at making money I suck. I’ve never been interested in money or a conventional nuclear family.
I never had money and never really cared, and I feel fortunate that it’s not been a driving force for me. What would I do with Trump’s $2.9 billion?
I hate discussions about money. I wonder if it stems from that Gen X thing of money not being cool? Coolness is a more toxic mainstream term now, but back then it was more of a descriptor for counterculture things. It kind of saved me, knowing that if something seemed cool to me, I was on the right track. I never wanted to have the things that other people had. I saw money as corny and cheesy. Living in a mansion? What the fuck? I like the aesthetic of living really simply as well as the reality of it. I hate owning stuff. Right now I’m miserable because my apartment in New York is starting to get cluttered, yet most people who come to my space are shocked by how little I have.
I like moving house because I get to do a merciless cull of all my shit and turf it in the bin.
I love the idea of always keeping your bags packed, ready to go. I lived in Chicago briefly, where I was a staff writer for the Chicago Reader and I was also a hair model. I was living in a really shitty area and making no money. All my friends were drug addicts and prostitutes. I didn’t have one friend who was a normal. Then I had one of those days, where my greyhound was dying and my life was a mess and all my friends were super fucked up. I was supposed to make some arrangements to go back to California but I just couldn’t get it together and I literally packed a suitcase and left. I called one of my prostitute friends from the airport and said she could take whatever she wanted from my place. She called back and said, ‘it’s full of stuff!’ I said, ‘I know.’ I couldn’t do it. It was a great feeling. I love teaching, but it’s preventing me from being who I really am, which is a person who gets in the car and drives to a small town where nobody knows me and gets a job as a waitress. Just doing what it takes to survive, living. I’m doing what is probably the most respectable thing I could be doing with my life right now, but it feels like a charade.
I did the same thing after I got in a little bit of trouble in France when I was 21. Just packed a bag and walked away. It was such a relief. Left everything that I was behind and started again.
I want to do that right now. I think writers are fascinated with the idea of living different lives.
I always feel depressed when kids ask me for advice on how to be a writer because they don’t want to hear the truth, which is, go and live, do a bunch of jobs for ten years, have a bunch of sex, try not to die and then you’ll have all the stories you need.
If I have the choice between staying indoors and writing or going outside, I’ll always choose the outdoors. I hate the part of writing where you have to sit down and type because it almost feels like transcription to me. In some ways I’m not introverted enough to be the best and most ambitious writer. I’d rather be living. Even though it’s got me in a lot of trouble, it’s gotten me sick, I don’t do anything right, all my friends keep telling me off because I’m precipitating a relapse. But that’s me. You have to be a certain type of handicapped person to be a writer.
What were you doing when your first book came out?
I had this horrific job in NYU medical centre writing grant applications. Cubicle desk jobs are the worst for me. So I realised the only way to get through it was to be really mediocre. I had to do just enough so they wouldn’t fire me, but never be so good that they might ask me to do more work. So I’d take a task that a normal person might complete in an hour or two, and spread it out over two days. Everybody thought I was an idiot. And I was fine with that. Let them think I was an idiot. I would chat to the guys in the mailroom, take lots of smoke breaks, but would talk to none of my co-workers. And then a Sunday New York Times book review of my first novel came out and I didn’t think any of these people read the Times or would even care and when my boss called me in, I thought it was because I’d done something wrong because I was such an idiot there and that was my role. Then she was like, ‘what is this? Is this you? You’re an author?’ There was a photo in there and everything. She said, ‘I didn’t even think you were mildly intelligent.’