Saïd Sayrafiezadeh on the Performance of Fiction

“There’s no one the fiction writer can hide behind.”

A sketch of the writer Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
Beowulf Sheehan / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s new short story, “A Substitution.”

A Substitution” is a new story by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Sayrafiezadeh and Oliver Munday, the design director of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Oliver Munday: In your story “A Substitution,” a playwright struggles to figure out his next project. You’ve written other fiction concerned with theater, and you’re a playwright yourself. What about the relationship between playwriting and fiction writing do you find most interesting?

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: Let’s start with the fact that playwriting is ultimately a collaborative process, while fiction writing, sadly, is almost entirely solitary. Often painfully so. Yes, the playwright in this story stares at a blank computer screen late into the night, for weeks on end—just like every writer in the world—but eventually he gets to be in a rehearsal room with 20 actors and a director, socializing over muffins. This, of course, is the behind-the-scenes of the process, the part that the reader—or audience member—isn’t privy to, but which I think must inform the finished product. Moreover, playwrights are dependent on others to bring their artistic vision to life, which includes the audience’s imaginative ability to fill in blanks where blanks exist. And never are there more “blanks” than in the world of low-budget theater, where there’s no sound, no set, no lighting, and you’re lucky if the actors have something in their closet at home that might approximate the necessary costume. On a side note, some of the best performances I’ve seen have been in stripped-down spaces, where it was just the actors onstage saying lines, sometimes even reading straight off the script—so it doesn’t take much to bring a script alive. But generally the theatrical endeavor is always a leap of faith, and there’s always a danger that the actors will not perform the play as originally intended, or that the director’s vision will not coincide with the playwright’s, or that the audience, for whatever reason, will not be able to meet the artists halfway. Things can also change from performance to performance and no one is ever sure why. When I was an actor, I would sometimes get a laugh on a line one night and the next night there would be radio silence. On the other hand, fiction writing, mercifully, supersedes all of these contingent factors inherent in theater. Here the fiction author reigns supreme over everything: sound, sets, lighting, costumes. If the story fails or succeeds, it does so solely on the author’s terms. That’s the good news and the bad news. There’s no one the fiction writer can hide behind.

Munday: We’re given access to the narrator Billy’s rambling inner monologue, which is by turns funny and poignant. There’s an extreme self-awareness on display, which becomes a kind of performance. This struck me as an undeniably modern tic. Does self-awareness, when used in this way, conceal something deeper?

Sayrafiezadeh: On a possibly related note, Oliver, your use of the words monologue and performance is particularly astute, considering that the ultimate aim of the narrator in this story is to see his play on a stage. So perhaps there’s something meta at work—unbeknownst to me—about the narrator already staging a version of himself. But yes, I think Billy’s self-awareness is working to continually conceal what else he doesn’t know. He’s fully cognizant of certain things, while being completely in the dark about others, not the least of which is what’s in his mother’s storage unit. I wanted to show the reader how he makes unexpected discoveries, how he gains insight, and how he wrestles with leaving behind preconceived notions. He’s constantly realizing how much he doesn’t know. Some of his ignorance is willful—he’s actively avoiding the storage unit—but some of it’s because of decisions his mother and, to a larger degree, society have made to conceal things from him. Not to run the risk of overstating what might be already apparent, but there’s a parallel between Billy’s lack of awareness and both his personal history and political history. This unfolds later when he discovers, via a random click of a Wikipedia hyperlink, the New York City draft riots. He wonders how he had never learned about this before. Some of Billy’s so-called blindness is his own doing, but he’s also part of a society that has often avoided examination of inconvenient or complicated truths. No matter how much Billy discovers, there are still deeper places to go, and he’s aware that some of his discoveries are even acts of avoidance. Take his decision to write a play about Malcolm X, which, despite the merits, is a way to kick the can down the road of self-examination. There’s a moment toward the end of the story when Billy declares, rather confidently, that everyone in the play he’s written is a “type,” except, of course, for him and his mother. But then he suddenly considers that no, maybe he and his mother are types too. The ability to reappraise is what he needs to master if he’s going to be a fully formed playwright, as well as a human being.

Munday: At the heart of “A Substitution” is the story of a son reckoning with his deceased mother. Art (in this case, theater) is often used to transfigure pain, but the narrator is clearly using his art as a way to allay suffering. How closely linked do you think pain and writing are?

Sayrafiezadeh: I’m not sure that it’s specifically pain in writing, per se, but I certainly choose to work on stories or plays that involve, at least on a fundamental level, something that’s troubling me. I suppose every work of art is inspired by drama or conflict. The process of writing allows me to explore the problem and perhaps work through it. Notice I didn’t say “solve.” I’m not interested in solving anything. Maybe because I don’t know how. Or maybe because the short-story form is too brief to be able to introduce a worthy dilemma and then resolve it within 6,000 words or fewer. As for the pain that fueled this story, some of that came from my mother, who died not too long ago, after seven long years in an assisted-living facility, the last of them in a wheelchair in the late stages of dementia. Basically, our time together consisted of me feeding her and holding her hand. I knew that I wanted to write about the experience—that I had to write about it—but I didn’t know what form it would take, whether fiction or nonfiction. Interestingly, the mother in this story, who is such a central figure and, as you say, the focus of the son’s reckoning, didn’t appear until subsequent drafts. She was first mentioned briefly, almost as an aside, in an opening scene that took place in the narrator’s place of work. I noticed that the idea of her death was too compelling to let go of so quickly, and so I began to enlarge it and make her more of a character, and then I introduced the Manhattan Mini Storage, which mirrored my own experience cleaning out my mother’s storage unit in her apartment building in Pittsburgh. I was also incorporating my mother’s Jewishness, something that had mostly never been acknowledged, in any meaningful sense, during my childhood, one of many things that went unspoken in our household. I’d also once been mean to her on her birthday when I was about 12 years old—I used that in the story too—and it’s still a fraught memory for me. I was able to consolidate all of those elements into a story about the New York City draft riots, which is all about the conundrum of forgotten history. So maybe you’re right, pain and writing are closely linked, but it’s equally possible that it’s not always conducive to be completely aware of that when trying to create a story. What I mean is that an author needs to be in control of the emotion and not the other way around. In any case, the opening scene in the workplace did not make the final draft of this story, but the mother ended up becoming the star.

Munday: How does “A Substitution” fit into your work more broadly? What else are you working on?

Sayrafiezadeh: Lately, most of my work has focused on three things: the intersection between the individual and society, the personal impact of history, and the way art can be used to make sense of the first two. I’ve written stories about acting, playwriting, and abstract art. We can probably also include a subheading in this about the real-world demands of being a working artist and about the way dreams can motivate or demoralize. I’m working on a short story right now where one of the characters will be either a visual artist or a former athlete—aspiration in its many forms is interchangeable. But I didn’t set out to choose any of this as a literary mission statement for myself; it arose organically out of my own personal history and also where we are these days as a society. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention to you that some of the inspiration for this short story came from a full-length play that I wrote about the New York City draft riots. I worked on it for many years and it got workshopped at the Sundance Theatre Lab, but it never got produced. That’s the life of a playwright for you. In early drafts of the short story, I actually copied and pasted scenes from the script, which was incredibly satisfying because I was at least able to salvage some of that hard work I’d already done. But the sad truth was that the prose reader would be unable to move seamlessly between the story and the play. I resisted as long as I could, and yet there was no getting around the fact that it was, frankly, boring. I suppose this makes sense when you consider that scripts are not intended to be read as entertainment and that so much is needed to make them come alive, not the least of which is an actual actor speaking the lines aloud. One very good example of the technique of a character existing in dual worlds—both as a character and as a performer in a play—is Bill Hader’s dark comedy, Barry, on HBO. If you haven’t seen it, you should. He’s doing what I was trying to do. Anyway, I ended up trimming and summarizing my play and using only a few lines of dialogue. Ninety-nine percent of it remains unproduced.

Munday: In the story, the narrator compares his work to Hamilton, the Broadway musical. Though he’s envious of Hamilton’s success, he himself is not a fan. Should we be suspicious of art that is so universally celebrated?

Sayrafiezadeh: He’s certainly critical of Hamilton, but part of what’s absurd about his criticism is that he’s never seen the play for himself. As you point out, he’s dismissive because he’s jealous. I think it might be too intellectually lazy to dismiss art solely because it’s celebrated. The flip side of this would be equally illogical: celebrating art solely because it exists on the margins. In some ways, this quandary of the meaning of success is what he encounters with the director, who encourages him to tone down certain things in his script lest they make the audience uncomfortable. The director is thinking about marketability, which Billy desires as well. In fact, he’s desperate for it. But at what cost? His conversation with the director is followed by an imagined conversation with Malcolm X—speaking of someone who was not universally celebrated—about cleaving to the ugly truth of the New York City draft riots and not forcing so-called likability onto the main character. Compromise with an audience is always a component of making art, and it’s up to every author to decide what they’re willing to forgo in the exchange. Theater is a perfect incubator for this dilemma, even with the way that actors “face out” onstage so that the audience can hear them. This is obviously an unrealistic and unnatural way of standing, but it’s done because it’s taking into account the needs of the audience; it’s meeting the audience halfway. In the theater, there’s certainly a more pressing need, even if it’s unconscious, to please and affirm an audience in a way that a fiction writer doesn’t have to be concerned with, at least not in such an immediate way. After all, if a play challenges an audience too much, there’s a chance that they will simply get up and walk out en masse. I’ve seen it happen. So it’s possible that a work of art has been sufficiently watered down as to be rendered as widely appealing and inoffensive as possible. Maybe it’s up to the audience or reader to constantly ask themselves if they’re being challenged or pandered to? Maybe if the consumer demanded more, more would be provided. By the way, Michael Jordan was universally celebrated and I challenge anyone to dispute whether he was deserving of that.

Munday: Writing students are often told to read their work aloud as a way to better understand and improve the language. This act becomes a form of theater, adding an additional dimension to the prose. Do you read your own work aloud while writing? If so, what changes for you?

Sayrafiezadeh: I’ve been told by strangers in a library that I mutter when I write, which I know is not what teachers mean when they suggest reading one’s work aloud. I would be cautious about this kind of pedagogical advice, because I think it can be misleading. What’s much more important is actually the opposite: for the writer to read the work as the reader would be reading it, which is to say, silently. I’ve seen firsthand what a talented actor can do with a seemingly bland line of dialogue, but the reader does not have access to this talented actor. The fiction writer is trying to create a fully realized story, not the blueprint of a script that others will bring to life. So I would encourage writing students to read and reread their work as closely as they can to how a naive reader would. This is a reader who does not know the author, who does not know what the author intended, who cannot interpret inflections or accents, unless they’ve been indicated on the page. Take a simple line of dialogue, like “Sure.” How many ways can this be spoken? Lovingly. Sarcastically. Exasperatedly. If I was reading that aloud, I could show you exactly which one I meant for it to be. But the reader won’t have me in the room to do that. A playwright friend once told me how he’d been admonished by an actor—in the middle of rehearsal, no less—for not fleshing out his characters’ psychological intentions. “If it’s not on the page,” she told him, “I can’t do it.” This is the mantra that fiction writers should follow in matters large and small.

Munday: Describe your least-favorite theater experience.

Sayrafiezadeh: I fear we might not have enough space for this. First of all, I would have to break up the experiences between being an actor and a playwright. As an actor, I’ve forgotten lines in the middle of a scene—what actor hasn’t?—and have been cast in parts so small that my ego was irreparably wounded. I’ve also had the added difficulty of trying to forge an acting career in an industry with limited roles for minority actors. (I was once told by a casting agent that if I didn’t change my name to something American, she would reach out to me only when she was looking to cast the role of a terrorist.) As a playwright, I’ve had the unfortunate experience of watching plays of mine diverge so sharply from my intention that what I was seeing seemed wholly unrecognizable. But I don’t want to end on a negative note. Theater was my first love, beginning around the age of 7. Theater made me want to be an artist. “A Substitution” concludes before we can see whether or not Billy’s play will be a success. It’s a long shot, but he has high hopes. I have high hopes for him, too. Either way, there’s only going to be one performance to get it right.