It’s Kind Of An Amorphous Fear
Nafkote Tamirat in conversation with Caroline Zancan
When I read The Parking Lot Attendant, I immediately emailed Nafkote Tamirat’s editor, Caroline Zancan, with effusive words of praise and excitement. I knew I would love the book when I started the first page, but the way Caroline had described it to me before I even started reading it as “her whole heart” really struck me. (And is what convinced me to open it in the first place.) Since Caroline is a writer herself, I was very interested in the editorial development of this incredibly special book. The conversation they had is rare to behold- a writer/editor of enormous talent exploring craft, fear, and publishing with her writer whose accomplished book just demands attention. To read their conversation is to see the warmth and dedication Caroline applies to her editorial work, the sharpness of her writing mind; the sheer force, the unique perspective, and the role of immigration and “charisma” of Nafkote Tamirat’s The Parking Lot Attendant. - Monika Woods
Caroline Zancan: You’re about one month out from the publication of your first novel, which I know from my own experience is a very vulnerable, emotion-stirring time, and I’m curious, how are you doing? Are you sleeping? Are you driving your husband nuts? How many times a day are you checking your Amazon ranking? You seem so calm from where I’m sitting; I don’t think you’ve sent me a single neurotic email. So I’m curious to know how it’s going over there.
Nafkote Tamirat: That’s something that I’ve actually thought about a lot. I think not being in the US, being far from the writers that I know that I went to school with at Columbia, means I feel a strange remove. And now that I’m not working on this book anymore, now that my part of the book is done, and it’s out...
C: You have some distance...
N: It’s like, people are asking me, are you excited about the book? And in that moment I’ll feel this flooding of fear and terror and anxiety and excitement, and then I’m like, “Oh. It’s fine. Okay!” And then it’s like, “Well, moving on, gotta go.” As it gets closer to March and to the publication date, I am so nervous. I’m happy, I’m excited. I’m somewhat surprised and somewhat not surprised that my overriding emotion is more, total anxiety, you know, total fear. It’s kind of an amorphous fear, I don’t know what I’m fearing. For a while it was…not so much Amazon. I actually disconnected my Goodreads account because it became an addiction.
C: Good move.
N: Every few minutes, I would check. But then there was this one review, the person hated the book. But it wasn’t terrible. It’s kind of funny how much she hated the book. The way she said it was really funny too. And then I looked at some reviews that I had written when I was much younger, and some of them are so mean, too. I was just a bratty college student. So I deleted my account. And I thought, “I am never doing this again.”
C: I cannot imagine you being mean in any context! I’m sure your review was not that mean.
N: No, I was so snarky. I’m not going to repeat it, because I was just typing away into the void! In my mind I never thought about what it takes to write a book, how vulnerable you feel, but now that I’m in this position, I look at these reviews like I was a child, a puerile child. And so I deleted it, and I hope no one finds it.
C: Now that we’re nearing the end of the long process of preparing this book to send out into the world, first editorially and then through the production process, I’m curious, since this is your debut, what was the part that you were like, “I had no idea this was part of making a book?”
N: I don’t think I realized how long it takes to create a book. I think my idea was like, the book was written, it got bought, and then mere months later the book would just happen. I hadn’t really thought about, even once the final draft of the text was completed, what it takes to create a cover, what it takes—even things like the acknowledgments, I hadn’t thought about that. I also hadn’t thought about the inner workings in the publishing house, of selling a book. Like I remember the first time you told me something about the sales force. And I just remember thinking, what? I didn’t get what it takes, not only what it takes to make a book, but what it takes to sell a book.
C: Right, how many people are involved.
N: Exactly, from my perspective, it was the writing of the book and then you’re good and then you’re done and then the book just appears. Of course not! It took about two years to make it, and I think all that time was necessary. I just remembered how we were so close to finishing the text, and do you remember how there’s this one brand of Ethiopian cigarette that I mentioned towards the end of the book and you’d read it and Julia, my agent, had read it and we’d all read it so many times, and then one copy editor at the last minute, who was not Ethiopian, caught the fact that it was misspelled! After seven years!
C: You know what’s so funny about that is I almost didn’t even send that query on because I was like there’s no way this is wrong! Nafkote knows what she’s talking about on this, I’m sure it would have caught her eye by now. Then I was like, fine let’s just double check, and you were like, "oh, yep she’s right!"
N: And let’s be honest I’m sure there’s things we didn’t catch. We’re human. There’s so many components of making a book and I’ve come away from this process so amazed that books exist, to be honest.
C: That’s a good takeaway. What’s funny is we catch typos in some of our favorite classic books. I caught a typo in an edition of The Great Gatsby I was reading over break, and I was like, “How?” Close to a hundred years of this book being out in the world, how have we not perfected it yet? Imagine all the people who have read this book! People make books, and humans are imperfect. I always say, every book has its own story and its own journey.
N: Did knowing the inner workings of publishing make writing your book easier, or did it change your perspective on the book itself? Did it make it easier when your book was out in the world for you, because you’re like, “Okay I know what’s going to happen now, like there was a process?”
C: It’s funny, even knowing how the sausage gets made the way that I do, there were still surprises when I was on the other side of it as an author. Every house does things slightly differently, every imprint works a certain amount of time out when it comes to various marketing and publicity processes. I think my book had to be copy edited electronically which I wasn’t used to--I’m a paper and pencil girl all the way. There are still surprises. Because I know as much as I do, I was surprised still how vulnerable-making the whole thing was, and how overwhelming it could be. I loved working with Riverhead and my editor and I’m having a great time the second time around too, but that’s what I mean, even when everything goes as smoothly and well as it possibly can, it’s a lot. I remember thinking the first time around, I can’t believe my authors do this without knowing the processes. How does anyone do this without more information? So I had a new appreciation for my authors, I have to say, after becoming one myself. I became also a little bit more protective of my authors, like a little bit more momma bear-ish, just because it can be so overwhelming. I just want to be like, everyone, it’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna make this happen despite anything that will come our way.
I’m curious, what is your dream review, or publicity hit, or honor once the book lands? Anything from a famous person you’d love to have read it to a certain reviewer or publication covering it.
N: That’s a good question. I did an MFA program, and we had a lot of professors who would really, not discourage us, but make it clear that if you’re going to do this, make sure you know you’re not going to make money. They really hammered that home. When I first started writing this book, I was 21, 22, maybe 24 at most, and I remember how cocky I was at that time, and I remember thinking, “I’m going to write this book, it’s going to win every single award, and I’ll probably become famous at 27, so I better prepare for that life.” And that was what made the first rejection so hard actually. I was so sure that my professors were wrong, and that I was going to prove to be the exception. And of course that was not the case at all.
Now I think the opposite is happening, where I’m almost preparing myself for all of it, being like, “it’s okay, you did what you could, it’s out there, be proud,” sort of steeling myself against any bad review. And so far, knock on wood, the reviews have been favorable, and that’s amazing. I didn’t expect that, I really didn’t, it’s wonderful and I’m very grateful. I think I’m really excited, actually, to hear from other Ethiopians and other Ethiopian Americans, meaning writers, meaning critics, and there’s a lot more Ethiopian and Eritrean-American writers who are writing for blogs now, for websites like Buzzfeed, and there’s even the podcast Another Round which has an Ethiopian-American host, so I’m so curious to hear their perspective. Not because I want them to say that’s exactly how I live too, but just to know from our shared experience: do you see yourself in this book, does it ring true to you, in any way shape or form. What’s really interesting, too, from reviews I’ve read, is people reading your book and giving a perspective that perhaps you didn’t think of, and oftentimes I go wow, that’s amazing, that’s not what I thought at all, but yes, I love your interpretation!
So a lot of the perspective so far has been about immigrant culture, reading about Ethiopians for the first time, which is wonderful, and that was one of the things that I was hoping for, I was hoping to be able to introduce a small slice of what it means to be, what it could mean to be Ethiopian American in an East Coast city in the US. Which has nothing at all to do with Ethiopia the country. So I’m really excited to hear from writers and people who are giving or have a familiarity with that culture, just because I think it’s such a fascinating perspective.
C: I love that, I love that answer. I think that’s the exact right attitude to take: whatever happens I’m okay with it because this is the very best book I could have written. On the flip side of the coin, of what’s the biggest dream, honor, criticism—what’s your biggest fear? Is there anything that keeps you up at night?
N: Yes. I think my biggest fear or my biggest anxiety is twofold: one is that a writer that I admire reads the book and potentially writes about it expressing disappointment in the writing and the plot. I think that would be so heartbreaking. Someone I admire or whose work I’ve read and wanted to emulate in the past, I think that would be really hard.
And then alongside wanting and desiring to hear from other Ethiopians and Ethiopian-Americans, I think also I have a fear of being called out on inauthenticity. Taking on the privilege of writing about a culture that isn't well-known in the market you’re giving the book to, there’s always a little bit of fear that your own people will be like, “No. Fake. I call bullshit. What are you doing? That’s not it at all.” But the feelings, a lot of what it feels like to be Ethiopian-American, that comes all from my own perspective, from my own life. And even though I know that, and that is a thing that anyone who writes from any minority perspective, be it a female writer, be it a writer of color, be it a queer writer, it’s always, I think, at some point you feel the responsibility: I want to make sure I do this right. What if I’m the only person who gets to tell that story? What if there are no other people who get that chance. And that’s … in some ways it feels kind of self-laudatory, like, “Who made you the messiah?” I still feel that sense of, I hope it’s right. I hope even if it’s not exactly what everyone else lived, I really hope it’s okay. I hope I didn’t screw it up. If someone did write that, if someone did say that, it would be devastating.
That is something that really, I fear, that I worry about. Know first off that it could happen, but I did the best I could.
C: I have a suspicion that you’re going to get a lot more love than anything else, but I will say this, if you do get a real takedown it means you’ve really made it, because nobody is going to take down a book that no one else is covering. A takedown means that the backlash has begun and you really need to make it before there’s a backlash to anything!
N: Fear removed!
C: I want to turn on to the book itself and the process of writing it.You may be the very hardest worker I know when it comes to revision. Writing and revising are two really different skill sets and not all writers are equally blessed or gifted at both. And you really are gifted at both. You’re a brilliant writer, and you’re also a really talented reviser and I’m curious if revision has always been a big part of your process, or if it was something that happened with this book in particular
N: First of all, thank you so much, that means a lot to me, thank you. In terms of revision, when I first started writing seriously, which was working on short stories while I was doing my MFA, I was pretty much the opposite. I’d write and feel super pleased with what I’d written and basically do little to no editing, I’d do proofreading that was about it. And then by the last semester at Columbia I decided to do the opposite. I realized that part of what screwed me up is that I’d get so excited about putting in different words and all these sentences and I love words and I love how they sound that the story was getting muddled in the middle of all that.
And so I made myself a limit that I would write no more than six pages double spaced for any short story no matter what the subject was. And that was actually how the character Ayale developed, the character Ayale who’s in this novel. I just started writing about the parking lot, with this limit of six pages, and so of course I had to cut a lot of words, because obviously the first drafts were significantly longer than that. And it was actually really useful, it helped me see what I needed and didn’t need. Because there’s a lot of little moments that I thought were funny, and you know that’s a problem of mine, there’s lots of little jokes and asides and those things give me a lot of joy, but I also recognize that that can slow down the story and drag things down. And that’s something I still have to fight against.
C: It’s hard to edit you because the detours are often really funny and really brilliantly written and you’re often like, “Oh I love this so much, but we gotta keep moving!”
N: But it’s actually really hard for me, that’s something I’m working on, right, is the detours. When are they good, basically, and when do they help the reader, and when are they, “Oooohkay, let’s keep going.” And then when I was working on the novel, for so long, because I had an editor, I had an agent, she was giving me feedback, but she wasn’t going line by line by line, and so I had to really force myself to do that. And then so by the time you read the book I’d gotten to the point where I understood what the weaknesses of the book were. I just didn’t know how to fix it. So it was frustrating, I saw the weakness, I saw the flaws, but I couldn’t figure out how, narratively, linguistically, how to fix it. And so your memo was so instrumental, because with those few lines, I realized, oh, okay. It was a little bit of light and then I felt the rest of the way it had to go. And so I think that with editing, as long as I have a little bit of a push in a direction, then I can excavate the rest of the way out. But I have a lot of trouble finding the in-road, the solution, to whatever that problem is.
C: I would say your revisions were inspired, and it makes sense what you’re saying now, because I would always say: “Here’s the problem as I see it, here’s five possible solutions.” And you would always find the sixth solution that was a combination of all of them that was more brilliant. It’s fun as an editor to watch that.
N: I need that initial nudge. I had trouble finding those five potential solutions on my own, because there’s an overwhelming number of possible solutions, and the minute someone is like, “Wait that’s it,” I think, “Oh of course! The solution was there the whole time, right in front of me.” That first step is really hard for me to take by myself.
C: I think it’s hard for a lot of writers, and I think not all of them are as good as you, after that initial push.
N: Thanks, thank you. What a fun interview!
C: This is the most fun thing I’m doing this work week, for sure. Maybe all month. Was there any turn that the story or that the revision took that surprised you? Or did you kind of feel a natural next step in the process?
N: I had written a first draft of the novel, it didn’t really make sense, it wasn’t working, but I had the characters in place, and I had the idea of the island and the city of Boston. I was talking to this guy that I met, okay I kind of had a crush on him, and I was like, “Oh actually I’m a novelist.” And he was like, “Oh okay tell me the story.” So I explained the story to him, I’m really proud, he listens quietly, and then at the end, he’s like, “But I don’t understand. Why did they go to the island?” And that question was mind blowing. Why did they? Because I’d told him the entire story of the novel, and the crucial question of why the island and Boston were in any shape or form connected, had never crossed my mind at that point. So it was like a lightbulb. I never saw him again. But he deserves to be thanked!
C: Do we know his name? We can thank him now! Here and now in this interview.
N: I think…his name was Bobby.
N: He was from Liverpool.
C: Bobby thank you for your input, it was very helpful.
N: Thank you. Thank you Bobby, thank you very much. It was so important!
C: That’s so funny. And it is so funny as a writer, how much sometimes we assume the most central parts of the story we’re telling don’t need to be stated, because they’re so obvious to us. Sometimes you think it’s so clear, and it’s not actually on the page.
N: I remember my first reaction to that question was total indignation. Like, “What! I’m an artist, okay.” And then we talked about it for a few more seconds and I thought, “Wow, I don’t know.”
C: So turning to the characters and themes in the book for a second, I have to tell you, Ayale is still one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever encountered in real life or on the page. I fell for this man every single time I read the novel, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it, but I fell for him every time even knowing what I do about him, even knowing the full story. I’m curious if he had, or has, that same magnetic hold over you as you were writing him, or if you had to keep an authorial distance from him.
N: No, I really love Ayale even knowing the full extent of the story. I think part of the reason why he was such a fun character to write is that I was impacted by the people who are charismatic and just love so easily, and how people like that can pervert that love for their own ends and their own manipulation. I’m naturally fascinated by charismatic people, it’s one of the qualities that I find so interesting to write about because it’s so unwritable.
C: It’s an elusive quality and it’s different in every person who’s charismatic, every person who’s charismatic is charismatic in a different, unique way.
N: Exactly. Which is why usually when we describe charismatic people, we end up telling a few stories about things that happened, that revolved around them, an example of how that plays out, it’s much easier for us to give a concrete example of the result of that charisma. All of that really fascinated me. As someone who is so easily drawn in, I have this fear of being manipulated, and so I wanted to play with that as well: what does this mean, when you’re still so young, when you’re in high school, when you’re a teenager, the desire to be loved, the desire to be completely known by another person? It can feel black and white, wanting to be completely known and obviously to want to completely know, and to be shown in such dramatic and heartbreaking ways that you just can’t, you can’t know the depths of each person, be it good be it bad.
And Ayale is such a great example of that because I think, I hope, he has so many layers, that it’s really hard to judge: is he, at heart, a good or a bad person? Because of the bad things he does in the book, you could definitely argue the motivation behind them or the intent behind them could have been noble. And it made me think of that quote by Ursula, I always mess up her name, the science fiction writer who just passed away.
C: Oh Ursula Le Guin, yes.
N: She has this quote where she said something like, “If the ends justify the means, but there’s no end, then you’re just left with the means.” And so what is that? How do you take that into account in that equation? If the equation goes away, how do you rethink?
C: I still don’t believe the was just manipulating her. Despite everything…and while I think he definitely was using her love for him to get things that he wanted, I think there was love back, or some sort of affection.
N: I agree, that’s what I was hoping would be expressed, so I’m glad that’s come through.
C: My husband is reading the book for the first time now, I made him wait until it was in its finished form in all it’s glory, and I’m always like, “Where are you now? Where are you now?” because he’s the world’s slowest reader. And I’m so jealous that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen and still gets to just love Ayale and be fascinated by him. He doesn’t know how complicated my relationship is with Ayale, he gets to just enjoy the show.
N: I’m not trying to make this about me but I need you to know this is really a big deal to me.
C: I’m excited just getting to talk about Ayale!
A lot of the themes in this book, about immigration and people who are here from other countries, some of the topics you’re taking up feel so much more relevant in 2018 and even 2017, last year, than they did when you were writing it and when we were editing it. I always thought it was an important book with a lot of things to say, but now it feels even more important. What do you make of that? Do you look at this book as something that’s speaking directly to this moment in history?
N: I hesitate to say yes. That’s such a lofty goal, I’d love that to be the case. I don’t know, but I do agree with you, these are the questions that have preoccupied me since I was much younger. Questions of immigration and questions of what it means to be an American and say you were born in the US but your parents weren’t…
What’s become really clear to me, and I hope it’s becoming clear to other people, is that we tend to look at other people and ourselves in kind of monolithic ways. We tend to be like, Americans are like this. I live in France, French people are like this. And we have these really kind of big building block ideas of what it means to be American and what it means to be not, and on top of that, we also want to believe that we’re a melting pot and that we love the idea of the cultural fabric of the American identity. But we only bring that out a lot of the times when it’s convenient. And then when it’s not convenient, we go right back to “Well we’re Americans, and we do this and we do that and…” and the two don’t come together.
So what I was really trying to show is this so-called American Dream, which is a lovely idea, just disappointing people time and time again. And part of the disappointment is we really are taught about the American Dream. Within the American dream there are so many other little dreams that are neglected, that are shoved aside as being not as important. And what I do like about Ayale is that he takes the American Dream and says, “This is not working for me, I need one corner that I’m to tear away from that and I’m going to make it my own. I don’t want this melting pot, I want my own dream.” We have all these big concepts and all these big words, and in so many ways we’re not living up to them and we may not even know what they really mean.
C: It’s fascinating to think about your book that way. What is next for you? We’re coming to the really fun part where you drink champagne and you toast your publication date and you get to hear the nice things that people say about your book. So it’s not that we’re at the end of the road, but we’re at the end of the part where we’re actively creating something, because it’s in its finished form. So what’s next? Are you ready to start writing again? Are your wheels turning? Do you kind of need a break before you start something totally new?
N: I am … I have an idea already for the next book.
N: It’s really different from anything I’ve ever written before, and so I’m still kind of muddling my way through the very beginning. Sometimes I’m disappointed and other times I’m like, “Okay the first book hasn’t even come out yet, it’s not like it’s been twenty five years and I haven’t written another book.” Which would be fine, by the way! Just saying, giving myself that little cushion. But I do have an idea, I’m excited about it, it will still involve Ethiopians because I really like writing about Ethiopians. That’s all. I’m just going to leave it there.
C: There’s no better feeling for a writer than having an idea you’re excited about. Whenever there are pages to read, I can’t wait.
N: I’ll give you the first eyes, no doubt.
C: So I have two final random questions that I always love to know about writers. What is the best piece of advice you have for writers working on their first book?
N: One, keep writing. And keep writing regularly. I don’t think that everyone has to have a certain word count they need to make every day or a certain amount of hours every day, but I do think it’s really important, like you know, if you want to exercise you should exercise every day instead of once every five years. I really think that writing, doing it every single day, is so important, like it has to be a habit. You just have to write one word a day and that counts.
At the beginning, what other people thought about anything I was writing was very important to me. So I’ve kind of made it a policy now that I’m only writing for my taste and what I like because that is the only reader I know. I had to say this is the kind of book I like, and if I like it then it works and that’s the kind of reader I’m looking for. Once I decided that I was only writing for myself, writing became a pleasure again because I could say I like this, this is really great. I’m working out my own thing. So I think it’s really important to separate yourself.
C: From anything else out there.
N: Because if you don’t it’ll end up being something you don’t like anyway. It’ll be weird, it’ll be watered down. You’re the only person whose taste you know, what kind of books they like, what kind of writing they like. And so yeah, I think those two things were really important for me.
C: There’s no book in the world that every single person loves. A Visit From the Goon Squad is one of my favorite books of all time. I was at the Bennington MFA program and I was talking to someone about what they had read recently, and they were like, “Ugh, I read Goon Squad, and I just didn’t get it, it was totally overrated.” It blew up my mind because I was like if we can’t even all agree on that, then what can we all agree on?
C: There’s no one book that is going to please every reader, and because it is so hard to know what makes anyone else love or hate a book or what it is in themselves that they’re bringing to any book they read, you gotta do you. I think that’s really true.
N: To go back to what you said previously, I really think that when it comes to any art form, be it books, be it movies, be it plays, the books and movies and media that I want to consume are the ones that garner all kinds of reactions. Some books you read, you’re like, “It’s fine,” and then you totally forget about them and move on. And I have so much respect for even books that are quote unquote failures that really went for it, that reached for new heights, I love those books. Those books mean so much more to me and I have so much more respect for those books than books that are fine.
C: Better to fail nobly than just kind of write by number. And you know, sometimes it takes a lot of really noble failures before you have a noble success.
N: Of course I totally agree.
C: Last question. What book could you not have written your book without having read?
N: Anything that Junot Diaz wrote.
C: Interesting, do you have a favorite?
N: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, just because I think when you’re writing about class structure, not society class, like education class, you are always told to show not tell, which of course I get it, I understand. One of the things I really got from his books that I always love is the oral nature of his storytelling. I love writers who are able to make me feel like the story is being told to me verbally while reading the page. And you know, of course Junot Diaz does show, he does a great job of giving you a sense of place, of the city, wherever you are set, but what I always remember are the dialogues and the way that people speak and the way that people tell stories to each other within the story he’s telling to you. So reading his books kind of made me feel like I could really lead heavily with dialogue and the way people express themselves verbally. Of course, I’m not very good at showing.
C: You are good at showing!
N: It’s really hard for me to sit down and say what a city looks like, what a place looks like, but it’s nice to know that while “show not tell” is a great place to start with, it can be better to tell not show depending on the group you’re talking about, the people that are in the story. So Junot Diaz was a crucial touch stone for me in how I learned how to write and how I wanted to write.
C: I truly believe there is no rule for writing that can’t be transcended by a brilliant writer doing something differently. I think it’s good to keep these rules in mind, because anytime you break a rule you’re making your life harder as a writer, but none of them are absolute. I didn’t know Junot Diaz was such a favorite! We should have begged him for a blurb. I mean I don’t even know if he gives blurbs, but Junot Diaz, we hope you read this interview, we love you, please, please read The Parking Lot Attendant and tell everyone how brilliant Nafkote’s book is.
N: Yes please! And just invite us over for dinner. It’s not a big deal, I don’t want to be weird about it, but I think we’d be friends!
C: We’ll cook for you, Junot!