A Conversation with Babak Lakghomi

Babak Lakghomi’s first novel, Floating Notes, was published in 2018 (New York Tyrant). His fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, NOON, Fence, The Adroit Journal, Ninth Letter, and New York Tyrant, and has been translated into Italian and Farsi. Babak was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and writes in Toronto. His new novel, South, was released in August from Dundurn Press.


Stephen Mortland: So, to start, I’m curious to hear you talk about South in relation to your first novel (Floating Notes, 2018). Both of these novels read, to me, as cubist reconstructions of paranoid thrillers. Does this seem right to you? They have a pulp foundation (murders, thefts, classified documents, invisible systems of power, violence, torture, affairs), but the foundation is disassembled, troubled. When it is pieced back together in a strange, distended form, we retain bits of the pulp material, but it’s recontextualized. Both novels are claustrophobic, dissociative, and hallucinatory. In both, a shrouded setting becomes the occasion for tension and unease. The style, in both books, is minimal, stripped back, unobtrusive. I’m working toward conveying the impression I had, that South was a continuation—a pushing further—of the methodology employed in Floating Notes. What do you make of the relationship between the two books, and what were you trying to do differently in South?

Babak Lakghomi: I do see a lot of parallels and echoes between the two novels formally and thematically. Both novels have a foot in the noir genre. In both, the narrators are searching for truth, trying to make sense of the events around them, and their access to reality is clouded and fragmented.

The writing of South started a bit differently than Floating Notes. From the start, South was more rooted in its setting, as a site for the role of oil, class struggle, environmental collapse, and occult elements. I had a more general sense of the overall narrative from the beginning. In the process of writing, other obsessions and preoccupations made their way into the text that may reverberate and push some of the concerns in Floating Notes further.

I think in Floating Notes, the sense of paranoia and dissociation (though partially resulting from the narrator’s past) is more inwards, but in South, the narrator’s struggle is more external and more directly against the systems of power and their mechanisms of erasure, manipulation, and misinformation. 

SM: I like the idea that one of the joints between the two books is an obscured “access to reality.” In South, the setting and the landscape are as psychological as they are geographical. The novel moves through layers of disorientation: we are dropped into an apocalyptic space (albeit one that is somewhat, unfortunately, familiar) that is stabilized by the personal life of the narrator (his anxieties, economic situation, familial life, etc.). But as the novel progresses, the expectations we have learned to place on “apocalyptic worlds” are upended by surreality and destabilized perception. The movement between these states of stability and instability felt like a magic trick. I thought I was in one space, only to blink and find myself in a different sort of novel. I’d love to hear you talk about why this disorientation interests you, and maybe unpack what you mean when you say “access to reality.” 

Also, you mentioned “mechanisms of erasure, manipulation, and misinformation.” I’m interested in hearing more on this, as the novel’s interest in failures of communication (both nefarious and incidental)—and its examination of the consequences of such failed communication—is something that, in my reading, separates South from the influx of apocalyptic novels as of late.

BL: My interest in disorientation, though it may be more with defamiliarization than disorientation, may be rooted in my personal experiences, my understanding of the state of the world, as well as literary (and non-literary) influences and interests. I have always been overly conscious of falling into clichéd narratives, whether writing as an immigrant or Iranian, or when writing about ecological issues or inequality. As you mentioned, we are facing an influx of such narratives and I am afraid that such representations may end up only reproducing the existing preconceptions. My hope is that defamiliarization and formal play would generate opportunities to experience things fresh—“Be the axe through the frozen sea inside us,” as Kafka suggests.

I have been drawn to the work of Kafka where any kind of reductive reading and simplification evades us. A novel that I thought a lot about in regard to South was Ice by Anna Kavan. Ice may be simultaneously considered a post-apocalyptic novel about nuclear disaster, a narrative of personal trauma and addiction of its author, even a work of surrealism, but it somehow manages to also be much more while being all of these. Another writer whose work I have admired in recent years is Christina Rivera Garza, who writes about political issues like gender and borders in her fiction while challenging the limits of the form and generating enigmatic and mysterious work. For South, too, I was interested in how the sense of dystopia, the destabilization, the challenge in making sense of the world can be formally and lingually translated into the work.

The narrator has a huge gap in his past—the erasure of his father, a political dissident, from his life by the state. I think this hole at the center of his life is destabilizing. His effort to excavate the past is not very successful; the state has generated rumors about the father, and the narrator’s writing about his father is manipulated by the Publisher (possibly as a result of the Publisher’s fear of the state). Not only has the father disappeared, but trying to tell his story is shown to be impossible. The father’s disappearance and erasure are echoed by other disappearances: a writer friend (and all his books) and the Assistant Cook. In parallel, the narrator is researching the labor strikes in the oil rig where his access to reality and information is limited by the hostile reception and the workers’ fear of talking to him. In both searches, the narrator experiences things through fragments (letters, notebooks, even logs of dreams of his father) and scattered information from somewhat unreliable sources. Additionally, his mental state becomes more unstable through his journey on the rig and his eventual captivity. I wanted the reader to experience this difficulty of narrativization, this blocked access, and the descent into an unstable mind along with the narrator.

SM: The influences you mention make a lot of sense. I thought of all three (Kavan, Garza, and Kafka) as I was reading. The novel also brought to mind various cinematic depictions of paranoia like The Parallax View, The Conversation, and Polanski’s films (Chinatown, The Ninth Gate, The Ghost Writer). I don’t know if you’re influenced by films at all. Did you have any in mind while you were writing?

BL: I think movies have been as formative as books for my writing. Alphaville by Godard probably is one that comes to my mind in relation to South, and David Lynch movies for the underlying sense of menace, their surreal qualities as well as the genre elements. Red Desert by Antonioni is a movie that I often think about, with its bleak but very specific depiction of modernity, and the female character’s mental breakdown that feels very visceral. I am intrigued by how the movie achieves its effect through atmosphere and mood more than relying on plot.

SM: Red Desert! An absolute all-time favorite of mine. I hadn’t thought of it in connection with your novel, but it makes a lot of sense (dissociative spells, ecological anxiety as a thrumming background unease, even the huge oil rigs).

Earlier, you brought up the inclusion of letters, notebooks, and dreamlogs. These fragments create structural and formal variation in the work, but more than this they are part of a string of significant books/texts that runs through the novel. If the novel is, in a large part, about the manipulation of information, it makes sense that books/texts would take on an increased importance. Four texts in particular become central to the narrative: The Book of the Winds (an esoteric religious text), the previously mentioned father’s notebook, the narrator’s first published book (a book about his father), and the narrator’s private notebooks. Each of these texts are, in various ways, troubled (either distorted or difficult to interpret), and each of the texts possess potential power (either mystical, political, or psychological). Did you go into the writing of the book knowing it would revolve around key texts, or is that something that happened along the way? And are you interested, more generally, in the motif of books within books? 

BL: I did have the idea of the narrator’s published book and the father’s notebook as key elements from the start, though his book’s subject changed somewhat in the process of writing. The other texts made their way into the book along the way. With The Book of the Winds, I wanted a way for the narrator to remain in touch with the local occult elements (and the ceremony he observes earlier in his trip through the desert) after he is on the rig, and the idea to include another text was mainly born out of that.

I do find myself returning to the idea of books within books or texts within another text. I guess I am interested in the friction between multiple texts, their mirroring of each other, and their accumulative effect.  

SM: Let’s rewind a little and talk about the process of writing this novel. When did you start the novel, and what was it like working on it these past few years when the world around us often felt like it was imploding? 

I’m curious, too, to hear about the life cycle of the novel before publication. There’s a dedication to Gian (Giancarlo DiTrapano, Babak’s previous publisher at Tyrant Books), and I know you were, in some capacity, working with him before he died. If you’re willing to discuss it, I’d love to hear what Gian brought to the novel while you were collaborating and what it was like finishing the book without him. 

BL: I started the novel in 2018 and had finished a first draft by early 2020 when the pandemic started. I think the rise of Trump, in parallel with some of the events in Iran prior to the pandemic, partially fuelled some of the anxieties in the novel. But it became very difficult for me to write (or edit) for the early part of 2020. I did get back to work on the manuscript in late summer and had a version that I sent to Gian before the end of 2020.

Gian read this version, and we had several talks, and I made more edits following our discussions. The book (that version of it) was completed by March 2021. The plan was to publish it in 2022, with our last discussions before his death being about publishing it under Tyrant or the new publishing house Gian was starting.  

Gian had a light touch in editing. He gave a lot of space to the writer, and his focus in editing was more on voice and language, at least in my experience working with him. He was drawn to distilled and poetic language, strong imagery, and the presence of emotions underneath the surface of the work. But more so, Gian was a great presence in my life and in the writing community. He cared very little for the commercial aspect of writing, and he gave me permission to do what I was interested in by publishing my first book. I think Tyrant Books (and New York Tyrant Magazine) along with NOON magazine were also places that I got to read writers with more interest and focus on language, and spaces that shaped a genuine sense of community around them.

I did some more edits on the book following my discussions with my editor at Dundurn Press, Russell Smith, which mainly focused on the final chapter of the book.

SM: There’s something very sad about this book—a pervasive melancholy, the sense of a tragedy, even when nothing tragic has yet been named. On one level, the book is all about connection—the desire for connection and the ways connection is being subverted and obstructed. The narrator reflects, more than once, on something that’s missing, something that he cannot quite name. And his relationships (with his wife, the woman he meets on the boat, the woman he meets in the bookstore, his father), for various reasons, crumble. And there is also the way that sexuality is portrayed throughout the novel as a startling, intrusive thing, rarely an occasion for true or meaningful connection.

BL: I see failure in human connection and distance as one of the recurring motifs in my fiction. In South, this may be more in direct relation to society and state. I was interested in exploring how the more personal relationships are impacted in a society where there is an effort in erasing part of the past, the agency is taken away due to financial pressures, and people are pushed to become part of the means of manipulation.

SM: Perhaps this question is too broad, but I’m interested in the visual language of this novel. Beyond a concern for syntax and a style on the level of the sentence (something that obviously concerns you), the primary way this novel spoke to me, and wormed its way into my mind, was through its images. The various planes of reality and perception allow for some truly provocative and strange imagery: the storks in the reeds, the mysterious fishermen, the dreams of dirty pools of water, the man on fire, and (maybe most pervasive) the labyrinthine oil rig itself. Do you think about the novel in terms of its visual language when you’re writing? I find that, as a reader, it is often one or two images from a novel that remain when much else has been forgotten. Do you experience novels similarly?

BL: I do experience novels similarly. Along with the voice, it is imagery and sensory details that stick with me. As regards South, other than the oil rigs (I think I have always been drawn to industrial, gritty landscapes) that were present from the start, most of the imagery came during the process from a subconscious place (mostly from associations and dreams).

SM: In between Floating Notes and South, you’ve published a lot of short fiction (with stories in Noon Annual, American Short Fiction, Adroit, and other places). You’re consistently one of the short fiction writers I’m most excited to read. I see lots of echoes between your short work and your novels, but I’m curious to hear how the two forms (the novel and the short story) exist for you. What can you do in one form that you can’t do in the other? What is made available in a short piece? In a novel?

BL: I do like working in both forms, and I am interested in similar methods and concerns in short form: driving the story by mood and atmosphere versus narrative, and walking at the borders of ambiguity and familiarity. For short stories, I think there is more opportunity to pay attention to the sentence and sound, though I constantly think about how this can be brought to longer narratives. I also think there are a good number of my short stories that are quieter in nature, and possibly closer to realism. The novel form, on the other hand, has provided me with the room to think about form and narrative in a bigger picture, and bring in elements of other genres at the same time.  

SM: A last question: What are you working on now? Any new projects, new influences coloring your work? And any new stories I should be looking out for? 

BL: I am at the very early stages of working on a new manuscript, one that probably engages with some of the same concerns as South in a different way. I think the new work is less stripped down and is moving a little more toward interiority with some magical and mythical elements. Rereading Cormack McCarthy, and reading Antoine Volodine, Iranian writer Mohammad Reza Safdari (whose work has not been translated into English), and Jon Fosse have most informed my work recently. In addition to that manuscript, there are some short stories that I have completed in recent years that I am hoping to find a home for in the near future. 


Stephen Mortland

Stephen Mortland is a fiction writer whose stories have been published in NOON, Fence Magazine, Chicago Review, and elsewhere. He lives in St. Louis, MO where he is currently a Senior Fellow in the Washington University Creative Writing Program.

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