A Chat with Afsheen Farhadi

1.) What inspired you to write this piece?

“Green” began with a funny idea of juxtaposition. On one hand, a reality show with a group of people who are exactly what you’d expect. They’re young and rambunctious, their values are trivial, they’re sheltered, inexperienced, selfish; you know, the worst qualities of youth. Enter someone who, for legitimate reasons, sees life in only its bleakest terms. Mark has not only experienced great loss, but he’s well aware of his multi-faceted culpability for that loss. He’s sensitive, introspective, and broken. So to answer your question, the inspiration for this piece was essentially the idea that I could work with such a contrast of characters.

And that contrast was appealing because of its inherent tension. The reality show is an overarching, exaggerated measure of popular culture. For many of us, the values promulgated on these shows, and in popular culture, are so far from what we personally believe and experience that they give rise to a sense of alienation from them. For all the “drama” on the shows, there’s an inner core of levity. For Mark, for many, I think darkness is the overriding tone of real life. Though all of the participants in the story veer into the extreme (perhaps with the exception of Lauren), I think they represent real segments of the population, segments that don’t often meet in popular culture.


2.) Why, specifically, reality television?

I wanted to write a story about the popular and the marginalized meeting in a very tight and concentrated space. I wanted to write about a social outcast, seen in the exact last place we would expect to see such a person. The reality show seemed both a perfect metaphor and setting for these things.

I should also mention that I haven’t seen much reality television. When I do watch, I’m always aware of how unlike me the participants are. This must be one of the draws of the medium. Rather than attempt empathy, the viewer is invited and encouraged to feel superior to the people on the show, and much of the pleasure in watching them derives from this separation.

The show in the story is different, in many ways, from the ones I’ve seen. This was by design. I knew it would be important to establish some of the basics of the genre to ground the reader. But it was also very important to me to break out of the typical, in order to give myself some creative freedom and to sort of subvert expectations. For that reason, my limited exposure to these shows, I think, worked to the story’s benefit.


3.) How does it compare to the rest of your work?

A lot of my work deals with both mediated and authentic experience.  On the mediated side, the challenge is to present it in a way that is not merely parody, but that highlights its strong control over human interactions and values. On the side of authentic experience, the challenge is to subvert the mediation, to find the rawness of real life, which is as hard to do as it is to put into words here.


4.) You’ve taken on a refreshing format here with “Green.” Does your work often try to blend forms in some capacity? Or is this something more experimental?

I’ve never before or since written a story that so closely mirrors an easily identifiable format from beginning to end.  It might go without saying, but I think this story breaks the rules of the form it enacts at various places throughout, and undeniably in that final section.

I’ve played with form-blending in the past, but what structurally connects “Green” to the rest of my work is the presence of multiple voices.  I like stories that can bundle together many different perspectives and lenses. This might be something more prevalent in novels, but I think it can be very fruitful, maybe even more so to some degree, within the short story’s demand for compression.


5.) This piece starts out as humorous and carefree, but it gets wonderfully dark as the narrative progresses — especially during Mark’s surprise party. How do you balance the humor and darkness in your writing?

I don’t think much about the balance in and of itself. Some of my stories tend to lean a little more one way or the other. But in all of my fiction, I think both humor and darkness should be present, since they often are in real life. Also in real life, the two blend in interesting, heartbreaking, and discomforting ways.  So while I don’t think too much about balancing darkness and humor, I do work very hard to compress them, so that, I hope, the humor is coming from some inherent darkness, and the darkness, perhaps under only a slightly different lens, would actually be quite funny.

Obviously, though, you’re right about “Green.” By the end, the story is not going to be remembered as a pleasant lark. This might be too one-sided a view of reality television, but I imagine the stuff the camera doesn’t capture about these people, who are so desperate for the spotlight and who undergo such bizarre feats of shamelessness, is actually quite dark. Though the format of the show reduces these people to caricatures, they’re still real people.


6.) Have you tried visualizing this as an actual television show? Or perhaps even a movie? Who would you cast?

I think this would make for an unwatchable, short lived reality show. The producer sections would have to be cut, because they’re too upfront with their machinations. So what it would actually be are four people, who essentially torture this poor guy in a severely misguided attempt at conversion.

I could see this as a movie, maybe because it’s fiction. As for casting, Paul Giamatti comes to mind to play Mark.  Maybe Elisabeth Moss for Lauren?  And the rest of the cast should probably be unknowns.


7.) How satisfied are you with “Green” after its publishing? Are there things you wish you could back and change?

As of right now, I’m still pretty satisfied. It’s only been a few months since it was published, so I can still read it and see things I’m proud of.  But if you ask me that question in, say, another year, it’s possible that some of those things I’m proud of might make me cringe. I guess I have that to look forward to.


8.) What is your current project? Previous projects that you’d like to promote?

I’ve spent the last couple of years working on a novel, currently titled “Voices of Oblivion,” which I’ve recently completed. I think it deals with a lot of the themes I’m working with in “Green.” It has four primary characters, who all experience their lives through disembodied media landscapes. One way or another, they come to realize their loneliness and desire for community.

The novel begins with an inciting incident of sorts. A writer, who was once a bestseller and now feels culturally marginalized, attempts to reclaim the spotlight by hijacking a hot air balloon and using it to draw a crowd. His plan is to shower the city with pages of his unpublished novel. Of course in doing so he really only focuses on the symbolic details, so the practical details, the things he didn’t take into account, like wind speed and his fear of heights, dooms the plan. This scene and its implications, both the literal and thematic—excessive ambition, disillusionment, the search for identity and connection—reverberate through and thread together the narratives of the four main characters.

In response to one of your earlier questions, I also deal with form blending here. Though the novel is primarily told through personal narrative, I also wanted to show these characters through various lenses. So there’s a lot going on in it. One of the primary challenges was to work with all the things I wanted to work with, while also telling a cohesive, singular, engrossing story.


9.) What’s the last great thing you read?

Someone suggested I read 03: a novel by Jean-Christophe Valtat. It’s marketed as a novel but was suggested to me as an example of a structurally unique novella (about one hundred pages and written as a single paragraph). It’s mind-blowingly good—engrossing, smart, funny, sad.  Reading it for the first time is an experience I’ll never forget.

Also, as part of a reading group, I read “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” my first story by Edward P. Jones. After I finished it, I was shocked he had never been on my radar before. When that happens, it’s always a slightly uncomfortable feeling, to imagine that I could have lived my life without having read him. It also goes to show you, there’s so much amazing work out there, you’ll never be want for great reading.  In a year or so, I imagine I’ll have read everything Edward P. Jones has ever written.


10.) Any final words of wisdom for people hoping to be published — whether in literary journals or with greater projects?

Mostly, all I have are clichés that recognize the difficulty of publishing and encourage persistence and hard work. These clichés, I should mention, are actually quite helpful.

But the most encouraging cliché, the one that keeps us going, is the hope that someone out there will read our work and it will strike a chord with them. That’s what I’ve found at Sou’wester. It’s been a truly wonderful experience working with everyone at the magazine. It’s the type of experience all writers hope to experience as often as possible.