Of Art and Magic: An Interview with Novelist Porochista Khakpour

What happens when magical thinking really consumes a person or even a society?

The Last Illusion is a fabulist novel, both haunting and comic, that takes the Persian medieval epic The Shahnameh as its starting point. In the novel, Zal is born fair-skinned and blond in Iran. His mentally unstable mother calls him White Demon and confines him to a bird cage along with her other pet birds, feeding him insects and letting him sleep on straw. He communicates with the birds by squawking.

After ten years, an estranged older sibling intervenes. A white American behavioral analyst adopts Zal and moves him to New York City. As a feral child, Zal has trouble growing into a human adult in pre-9/11 New York City. He eats candied insects and dreams in bird. He is thrilled to meet illusionist Bran Silber, who seems to share his fascination with flying.

However, chaos disrupts Zal's isolated existence when he gets together with eccentric photographer Asiya McDonald and falls in love with her gigantic sister Willa. Meanwhile, Silber is planning his last illusion: making the World Trade Center disappear.

I met novelist, essayist and critic Porochista Khakpour and her mother on a sunny afternoon at Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park, California. Khakpour is on tour for The Last Illusion. She and her mother are both eating shrimp salads and drinking Prosecco. We talk about her novels, art, risk, autobiography, and individualism.

PopMatters: In many ways The Last Illusion reminded me of your first novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects, but weirder. Was choosing to tell a fabulist story a conscious decision on your part or something that just evolved organically?

Porochista Khakpour: The first novel was actually the weird book for me in being a realistic book. I've always been attracted to fabulist or surrealist or magical realist or experimental works. That is what I read and teach.

With the first book I felt more pressure to write what people wanted me to write. The first book was more about language. I focused and kept the plot very simple there. After that first book, I thought, now I can write what I really want to write. With the new book, I was less interested in language and more interested in having the plot be magical. It felt natural to me. It was so hard to do anything else. My third novel is in between the two, but it still errs on the side of the weird.

With this one, you were sinking into a style that was always yours.

Yes. The Last Illusion has the ambiance and tone and style of what I've always really wanted to do. With the first one, I was always uncomfortable with style and substance. I assumed my agent and I would work on the first novel for many years, and that we'd think about publishing it way into the future, but it all happened very fast. I never felt that it was ready. With this one, I do feel the novel was ready.

Was somebody suggesting you write more realistically with Sons and Other Flammable Objects, or was that pressure you put on yourself?

A wave of Iranian memoirs had come out. Usually I would think, who cares. I'm not the kind of person who cares about that kind of stuff. But I think subconsciously the pressure I felt about being a representative of Iranian-American sunk into me.

That was around the time I wrote the New York Times Iranian essays. I don't normally write personal essays about Iranian-American experience on my own. I did one recently that ran with Vice magazine, but I did that incredibly reluctantly. It's like pulling teeth for me now to do that stuff. I had this feeling back then that there were people who wanted me to represent Iranian Americans and Iranian American women. There was a sense of who my audience was. And the hilarious thing is, being deeper into the literary world, I think much less about who my audience is.

All that knowledge about audience with the first book, short-circuited on this one. I just let myself go blank and do what I wanted to do. It's not a success story necessarily. It took way longer to sell this book. Nobody wanted this subject matter and nobody really wanted this risk. I can't recommend it, going this route, but I think it has higher rewards.

One of many things that resonated with me in Zal's story is his preoccupation and quest to be normal. As an immigrant myself, the search for normalcy, was something that definitely preoccupied me until my late 20s. Is this preoccupation autobiographical for you, too?

I remember that as a young immigrant, feeling a deep anxiety about how to fit in. For me it was easy to write about Zal's quest for transition into normalcy because that was how I felt, too. It was important in the book to keep the idea of normalcy kind of fluid. At certain times it was a positive, and at certain times it was a negative.

I wanted to look at normalcy without judgment. I wanted to investigate what it means. Normalcy us a substitute for humanness. So yes, it's definitely autobiographical.

In another interview, you said you developed an interest in feral children at a writing residency. Did you link feral children to The Shahnameh right away?

You know how they always say to writers: pay attention, you never know when a story will come to you. There's real truth to that.

I wasn't doing any work at the writing residency. I had brought some books with me. Comfort stuff. I had brought Robert Penn Warren's Audobon Vision because I always loved that. And I brought this Dick Davis translation of The Shahnameh. I always found the story so comforting and now I could read it in English. I had wanted to write about the Zal story in The Shahnameh since I was a child. I was so mesmerized by it.

I had this conversation with another resident who said, whatever you do, don't Google feral children. In a late night of Googling, I discovered this article about this bird boy who was found chirping like a bird. And it was just so terrifying. I happened to be reading The Shahnameh a lot that week, and that's when the idea for this novel came to me.

Zal is a feral child. He is this bird boy. And Audobon Vision, which is preoccupied with birds, was right by my side, too. All the elements of the book came together there in this weird way. It was shocking to me. It wasn't until that moment that I saw what the friction in the novel was going to be. I didn't want to just tell the Persian story—that was already there. I wanted to do a modern retelling of it.

I was fascinated with Asiya and Willa, particularly the way you linked Willa with Scheherazade. What inspired you to write these opposite sisters?

The book talks a lot about storytelling. I thought of Willa as a survivor. To me, she's the heroine of the book. She's the real love interest. I see the Scheherezade story as the story of a woman's intelligence trumping all else. Scheherezade survives because she's brilliant and she's an artist. I wanted Willa to have that bit to her.

Asiya, Zal's girlfriend, to me is almost the antagonist of the novel. I was terrified by her and really hated her. So many people have told me they really liked her as a character, but I would rush to finish those sections when I would write them. I find her so terrifying. Asiya was, to me, what happens when magical thinking really consumes a person or even a society. Willa's more grounded, I think. Asiya is in her own way, birdlike, but more menacing.

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