Meeting Mahbod

Interview with author of "Rooftops of Tehran"


Meeting Mahbod
by Nasim Bagheri

Last Friday, June 26, 2009, I visited the “Book Soup” on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles to attend a book reading by Mahbod Seraji, the author of Rooftops of Tehran. Given the recent events in Iran, the atmosphere at this gathering started off somber. However, the heaviness melted just as soon as Mahbod took to the podium to tell us about his journey from a young reader on the rooftops of Tehran, poring over Jack London, to a writer of his first novel which promises to become a bestseller. Mahbod’s positive energy and impeccable delivery put me at ease immediately. Together with Sepi Seraji, his better half, the couple managed to inject just enough genuine camaraderie to the atmosphere in order make it an enjoyable evening for all.

The next day I had a rendezvous with Mahbod at a Chelo-Kababi in Westwood. It was a typical hot and sticky day in Los Angeles. Parking was an issue, the restaurant had not opened and as a last straw my voice recorder decided to give up the ghost. Nevertheless Mahbod managed to maintain his calm and jovial manner. I was grateful for his patience as I fumbled through my first interview with a literary figure. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have made a new friend; one who writes, one who gets published and one who was gracious enough to grant me this interview.

Here is what Mahbod and I talked about.

When did you write Rooftops of Tehran and how long did it take you to write it?

I started writing the story in the late part of 2000 or maybe early 2001 and finished it in 2004. So, it took approximately three years to write the book.

Who chose the title of this book?

The book was originally called That. But the title didn’t seem to appeal to many, who wondered what the heck was “That?” J Eventually, we brainstormed a bunch of titles and it was my wonderful agents, Danielle Egan Miller and Joanna MacKenzie, who came up with Rooftops of Tehran. Interestingly enough there is another book out there with the same title, a beautiful collection of poems written by Sholeh Wolpe, a fantastic Iranian American poet.

When did you think of writing this book?

The idea came to me when I was a college student in the early 1980’s. Life was challenging for many Iranians back then, as we watched in horror what was happening in Iran, the revolution, the hostage crisis, and the war. My heart ached for my country. Practically all of my family members were in Iran at the time and I felt extremely guilty being here. And then of course I had my own challenges to deal with, including the Americans’ perception of Iranians, the financial issues, inability to work outside the campus, etc. It was then that I thought of writing a book and calling it The Stars in My Life or something like that. In it, I wished to share the stories of people who had a profound impact on my life. Eventually Rooftops became that story.

When did you come to the US? Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I came to the US in 1976. I received all my degrees from the University of Iowa and went on to work for companies like Motorola, Arthur Andersen, Forum, PeopleSoft, Chiron and Juniper Networks. Currently, I’m an independent management consultant. I’m married and live in the San Francisco Bay area with my wife Sepi. I love my son, Mauni, who is in law school in San Diego and is extremely bright, well mannered and good hearted, obviously taking after his mom.

How many languages do you speak?

Two: Persian and English. I knew a bit of Azari since my father was from Azerbaijan but I have forgotten it.

What is your favorite literary genre?

I’m not sure. I love reading – There was a time that I would have said the Realists, and mentioned the likes of Jack London, Mark Twain, Emil Zola, and Maxim Gorky. But I’m not sure right now. I appreciate good literature!

Do you think primarily in English or in Persian?

Primarily in English especially when I’m writing.

Are there certain subjects for which you strictly think in Persian or in English?

No, not really. If I do I’m not conscious of it.

Would you elaborate on the characters in the book? Which ones are real? Their appearance, their emotions, etc?

The characters are real for the most part. They will certainly recognize themselves if they ever read the story. Now, I intentionally tried to make Pasha as dry as I possible to get the maximum comic effect out of Ahmed. And in real life, the real Iraj (a wonderful kid) became a successful businessman, so obviously, he wasn’t as big a nerd as I made him out to be, but close! A lot of my Iranian readers have said that the story makes them nostalgic, as if, many of us from that generation lived in parallel lives with common interests, experiences, feelings and memories. I’m told that the story of these kids captures what many of us experienced back in the 70’s in Iran. And I think that’s partly due to the fact that I never tried to make them super special – they were just regular kids living their lives as most others did back then.

Where did you learn English? Tell us a little bit about how you managed to get the ‘voice’ of a 17 year old – Pasha to narrate.

I learned English here in the States. Of course we studied English as a subject in high school but that hardly qualifies one as knowing English. I learned early on that the more time you spent with people, and the more you read, the faster you became fluent in English. So as a result I ended up with many good American friends and acquaintances and read many books in English.

Now, getting Pasha’s voice right was quite tricky. I had to make sure he sounded smart but not a day older than seventeen. I had to preserve his innocence and yet make him commit the ultimate sins of loving his friend’s fiancé or even unconsciously acting as a conduit for Doctor’s arrest. I had to make sure he committed those sins without the readers hating him. He had to be bookish but not a nerd; well read but still a child fighting to discover his true identity given his parents’ pressure to be something other than what he wanted to be. So it was important to tell the story in the present tense to make the narrative sound simple and unpretentious.

Can you comment about the rooftops of today’s Tehran versus the one you occupied where romance flourished.

Iran has become a much more closed society since the revolution. On one of my visits back, I went to the old neighborhood to see my best friend Ahmed. When I told him I wanted to go on the rooftop, he chuckled and said that he couldn’t remember the last time he was up there. Anyway while on the rooftop, I noticed that the people who had moved into our old house had covered the yard with some sort of vinyl type material. You couldn’t see inside the yard because it was totally covered. It was the strangest thing. I doubt sunlight could creep through, and my old house looked dark and depressing. I guess they do it so that the female members of the family can be in the yard without head-covers! I think this speaks volumes of how the Islamic Republic has impacted and changed our country.

Would you return to Iran to live?

I love Iran and I’d certainly love to return for visits. But I think the logistics of uprooting my entire life at this stage can be very challenging.

Has your book been translated to other languages? If so, which ones? Will there be a Persian version?

Yes, it’s in the process of being translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Korean and Icelandic, and there are others who are seriously considering it. I’m not going to name any of them because I don’t want to jinx it! The Persian translation experience, however, has been quite interesting and stressful. Much of the story was translated at one time before certain dynamics stopped it from being completed. I’m hoping for those hurdles to go away at some point.

Are you writing another book? If so, will you tell us a little bit about it?

I am. The book is called Squawk of the Crows, at least for now. I’m about 250 pages into the story and it’s about two men who are as different as you can possibly imagine, but somehow their lives lead them on a collision course, and they learn that they have a lot more in common than they realize.

I am interested to hear about your ‘immersion’ experience in the United States. Can you tell me a little bit about it? The places you have lived, studied, visited. How ‘assimilated’ would you consider yourself in the American Society and in the Expatriate Iranian community.

I lived in the Midwest for a long time: Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. I graduated from the University of Iowa and to this day remain an avid Hawkeye fan – I watch all their football and basketball games on TV. I lived in Atlanta for a very short period, and live in the San Francisco Bay area right now. As for my immersion process, due to school and the fact that I always had to work to support myself here in the States, I was always amongst Americans, always willing to learn about their way of life, their culture, their language, and their arts and literature. It’s important to be respectful of that when you come here. Imagine an American moving to Iran and remaining indifferent to or oblivious of our warm culture, rich traditions, glorious history, and wonderful literature and so on. It would almost be offensive. So I have tried to understand life as Americans do. Now on the other hand, none of this can come at the expense of forgetting your own roots, your own heritage. So I guess you live a pretty busy life as a person with a dual citizenship!

Do you speak Persian at home?

Most of the time. My son understands and speaks Persian (with a very cute accent) – but my wife and I speak Persian for the most part.

Have you ever fallen in love with an American the way Pasha fell in love with Zari? Have you noticed differences in romance in the United States versus what you experienced in the Iran of your teen years?

Wow! What a loaded question! Are you trying to get me in trouble with my wife? Of course not, I have only been in love with my wife, all my life, even before I met her! J) Seriously now, I think my book aims to show that we are not that different in our ways and that qualities like love, friendship, trust, conviction, loyalty, etc. are universal and respected and valued by people everywhere. Now, I do think the way we demonstrate or express them is different and impacted by our cultures, upbringing, education, etc. Obviously the relationship between males and females in Iran has always been a lot more guarded than it is here in the States. For example, the notion of premarital sex or living together was and still is (even more) tabooed in Iran. Relationships are more about romance than about sex or at least that’s what I think!

How could your readers contact you or stay up-to-date on your work?

The best way to reach me is through my website or I update the site regularly with information about the book and personal blogs.

Thank you Mahbod for your time and a very enlightening interview.


Recently by Nasim BagheriCommentsDate
Rooftops of Tehran
Apr 06, 2009
more from Nasim Bagheri

Meeting Mahbod

by Jojo on

Very interesting comments by Mahbod: 'living in the Midwest' 'language for writing' 'relationships.' Please continue interviewing Iranian literary figures. You might consider interviewing Persis M. Karim about her anthology of Iranian poetry and her next anthology. I believe that she lives in San Francisco. Thanks again for the interview. I too will be looking for this book.


Thanks so much for a great interview!

by Assal (not verified) on

Am finally ordering my copy on today!