I’m so excited about this week’s interview with Leila Rafei because I simply loved the real, flawed, and beautiful characters and storylines in her debut, SPRING that came out in August 2020. Below, Leila talks about the research she did for the book, how she’s dealing with writer’s block, and her next big project. Enjoy!
Leila Rafei is an Iranian American author who was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area and now lives in New York, where she works for the ACLU. Spring is her first novel.
How long did it take you to write this book and what kind of research did you do for it?
It took me about two years in total to write SPRING. I finished the first draft manuscript in about 6 months, but revisions took much longer. The most difficult and important part of the process for me was getting the first draft done — I just needed to see that I could actually fill pages and tell a complete story. But it was really, really bad. And it changed significantly in subsequent versions. I just needed to get it done, if anything because I had told everybody I know about it to hold myself accountable. Nobody wants to be the smug “I’m writing a novel” girl without eventually backing it up. That said, the first draft was terrible and in hindsight, I should have paid early readers to slog through it.
While researching for SPRING, I read everything I could find about Egyptian politics and history, and of course the Arab Spring. I watched every documentary and news clip I could find. I would look up videos of random street scenes to get back into that world as much as possible from my parents’ house in suburban Virginia. I also loved using Google Earth, especially when I was writing about places I’d never been, like Mahalla, where the character Suad lives. Luckily there was also a lot of primary source material, too. There are parts of the book where the army sends out mass texts, and those are real translations. I also used transcripts of the president’s speeches during the 18-day uprising. That kind of information was super useful in writing the story, since I wanted the setting and context of the story to be as accurate as possible, especially because it’s such recent history. But in the end, I used more of my own experiences and imagination when it came to the characters and their story arcs. The protest scenes in particular would have been impossible to write without my own experiences, limited as they were. Those were also some of the most difficult scenes to write, and try to evoke the feeling. I think I approached the first draft like a research paper, and then gradually trimmed off the unnecessary info-dumps as the characters were fleshed out more in each subsequent draft. There were so, so many drafts and so many pages thrown out. It’s all part of the process, but I’m glad I only learned that later. It’s already so daunting to think of starting a book, and I am extremely impatient.
Have you ever gotten writer’s block? If yes, how do you overcome it?
I’m actually currently experiencing a bout of writer’s block. It’s been difficult to get into writing mode since the pandemic started, especially since I started teleworking. Now I use the same desk for work-work and writing, and I barely even use my personal laptop anymore. And of course there’s the stress of everything that’s going on — worrying about people you love, the endless tragedies when you turn on the news, trying to adjust to the new normal. I used to get so much inspiration from watching people on the Subway, listening in on conversations in bars and cafes. People seem quieter now, standing farther apart. And it isn’t easy to get inspired by faces covered with masks. But I think it might be that I just need a new project right now — life changed so drastically in 2020 that it almost requires something new.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What kinds of things did you read?
Yes, I read everything as a child. My first and probably most high-brow love was Roald Dahl. I had a third-grade teacher who would read us his stories in class, and I loved them so much that I went and read all the others. The BFG, The Witches, Matilda, etc. He was just so good at creating whole worlds that I wanted to be a part of, as a kid. I was also really into series like Nancy Drew, Goosebumps, Saddle Club, etc. I still vividly remember the Young Adult shelf at the Barnes & Noble by my house, which I scoured.
Which talent do you wish you had?
Musical talent. I’ve wanted to sing or play an instrument ever since I was a kid, and some of my earliest memories are of hearing certain songs on the radio and going through my dad’s old records from the 70s, trying to make sense of psychedelic covers and imagining the sound. Unfortunately I can’t sing at all, and I tried to play instruments like the violin and guitar but none of it came easy to me. As much as I’ve always loved books and writing, I still don’t think there is any art form as powerful as a song.
Tell us about your next big project.
I’m working on two novels right now. One is a modern-day retelling of the ancient Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, a pretty dark and offbeat story about resurrection and rebirth. There have been Greek and Roman retellings that vary significantly, but nothing much since, as far as I know — which I found surprising. It’s dark, it’s weird, it’s gross at times, but such a good story.
My other novel in the works is about an Iranian American family that’s part of the post-1979 diaspora, and the conflicting identities between generations reflected in different family members. I was inspired by my own community as an Iranian American. I grew up in the DC area, where there are a lot of people from the diaspora, and have always been fascinated by the wildly different views and identities — racial, political, religious — held by a group of people who have a largely shared history about when and why they came to the U.S. It’s largely generational, but it’s also at the core of the culture given its history. So the story explores these conflicts through immigrant parents, first-generation kids, and aunts and uncles and cousins scattered throughout the world.
WHAT THE REVIEWERS ARE SAYING
”Leila Rafei is a wondrous storyteller and a master of world-building. Her novel Spring tells the captivating tale of a family caught in the midst of a revolution that will profoundly change their relationship both to their country and to each other. I was immediately drawn to the novel much in the same way each character is enchanted by the Nile River, which winds through their lives and offers a hopeful glance into their losses, heartaches, and dreams. From the traveling American who demonstrates on Cairo’s streets to the doting mother whose lemon grove thrives even as she is pained to witness her government fall, Rafei’s gorgeous book is at once transporting and recognizable, both shocking and meditative, and replete with insight into how our dreams for our own lives are often mirrored in our dreams for the places we love.” —Stephanie Jimenez, author of They Could Have Named Her Anything
— The Debutante Ball (@DebutanteBall) March 24, 2021
”Leila Rafei’s Spring is the all too timely tale of a world come rapidly and irreversibly undone. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Arab Spring, Rafei’s elegant and unsparing debut novel of family and revolution is as essential as it is breathtaking.” —Hannah Lillith Assadi, author of Sonora
”Rafei dramatizes the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 in her vivid debut … Throughout, Rafei provides authentic details of local cuisine, vintage pop music, clothing, and the roar of the crowd … Readers will hope to see more from this talented author.” —Publishers Weekly
”Closely observed, Spring follows the overlapping lives of people living in Cairo in very different ways during the January 25 Revolution. It captures the uncertainty of that singular period in which the world seemed to change completely while life simultaneously went on in much the same mundane ways. The drama and melodrama of everyday life in Cairo in the midst of the disruption is captured in the lives of Jamila, Ali, Rose, and Suad, who see and negotiate the meaning of the social upheaval in radically different ways. Above all, Spring captures the way in which everyone living in Cairo, regardless of their nationality, suddenly found themselves in a new world (that nonetheless looked a lot like the old one).” —Amy Motlagh, author of Burying the Beloved
”Each of these three characters grapple with ghosts from their pasts and their uncertain futures in this engrossing debut.” —Buzzfeed
”Spring by Leila Rafei adeptly casts the Arab Spring uprising as a backdrop for upheaval in the lives of three ordinary people in her extraordinary debut novel … By allowing the arc of ordinary lives importance over an act of revolution, Rafei elevates her characters and gives their intentions a sense of gravity. Spring is an impressive debut novel that combines the urgency of literary fiction with the timelessness of historical fiction.” —Shelf Awareness