You are unlikely to read another book this year like The Hubris of an Empty Hand by Mahyar A. Amouzegar. Often dreamlike but rooted in sharp observations of human behavior, Amouzegar has a gift for fully inhabiting his characters and bringing the reader along with him. These stories linger in the mind long after you’ve read them.
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Amouzegar recently shared his thoughts with Cease, Cows.
Chuck Augello: The Hubris of An Empty Hand is an evocative title. How did you come up with it and what do you hope it implies to a potential reader?
Mahyar A. Amouzegar: The book’s working title was “Tell Me More,” but in the end, “The Hubris of an Empty Hand,” the title of the second story, made more sense for the entire book. That chapter wasn’t just about Stock’s pride or ego but about the hubris of gods’ power hidden within humans’ “empty” hands. Similar to a Greek tragedy that addresses the defiance of the gods (or mortals). Thus, the title hints at the core of the stories where the key characters think (know) they can save others. Moreover, and in general, hubris of humanity that thinks it can overcome everything even though we have very little at our disposal (hand) to effect change for good.
CA: This is an ambitious book featuring linked stories and recurring characters. Was that always your intention when you began writing these stories? Also, it’s important that they be read sequentially. Did you write them sequentially?
MA: Every time I write a new story, I give myself a challenge [Perhaps it’s a mathematician in me]: write in a different voice (“Dinner at 10:32”), imagine a world utterly foreign to my experience (“A Dark Sunny Afternoon”). And with this last book, when I had finished the first story (Tell me More), I challenged myself to have a finished product where each story could be read independently, but if they were read together, it imagined a different arc. I feel it worked but I am biased judge.
Now that it’s finished, I think the reader will get more out of it if it’s read sequentially but I don’t believe it is essential. Apart from the first two chapters, the rest were not written as they appear now.
CA: The book opens with an epigraph featuring quotes from Macbeth, Deuteronomy, and The Gathas of Zarathustra. Why did you choose to include them and how do they set the tone for the reader?
MA: I thought this part of Act 1 of Macbeth is a good hint for “Tell Me More.” In fact, I took the title from the first line. The idea of a quote from Deuteronomy came to me when I was writing “A Long, Ornate Dinner Table” since they brought of the God. I thought of adding something from Gathas after the whole project was done. Although I was specifically thinking of any religion, especially Zoroastrian, I thought these quotes might set the tone for most people who may view the gods from the point of view of a religious context.
CA: “Tell Me More” is an intriguing story that’s difficult to discuss without committing spoilers. It begins with the narrator, Jackie, learning that her ex-lover Amani has started reciting lists of unconnected words and has seemingly had a breakdown. How did you come to write this story?
MA: I started on “Tell Me More” about 15 years ago, along with another dystopian story. This was right after the Abu Ghraib’s prisoner abuse in Iraq, and I was thinking about closed societies and open societies, meaning the ones that allow free access to information, leading to the power of knowledge and the good and the bad we can do with it. I wrote several pages of each but felt it was like writing a political science or sociology paper rather than a novel.
I feel constrained when I plan a story as I am more character-driven, and until those characters come to life, there is no story to write. None of my stories are designed with an outline and an overall objective for the story arc. So, I abandoned both until about two years ago, when the character of Jackie took shape. I generally spend about a year living with the characters before they even get real faces or bodies—they are like the generics in Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series, shapeless, faceless, and nameless. Yet, they behave and speak and think like real human beings. And as they develop, they gain more of an identity and physicality. And that’s when the fun begins, as the characters come to life and the story organically flows as I write the first sentence.
Jackie had lots to say about her life, her mistakes, and her sense of right and wrong. But, as she grew from a shapeless entity to a fully defined human being, so did the story of “Tell Me More.”
I am hoping this part of the conversation would make the reader pause and think about our society. For me, it’s about where we are now in the world and the sad fact that “truth decays.” I am sure I am not alone to think that now more than ever we have access to far more information and yet our general knowledge has decayed and hence half-truths and “newspeak” is taking hold not because of the big brother but because of our own follies.
CA: The Hubris of an Empty Hand is a book of ideas. How do you balance conveying these ideas with the need to tell a story that keeps the reader’s interest?
MA: Half of my professional life has been at a Think Tank (RAND Corp), writing national security policy papers. In order for your audience (Pentagon in my case) to understand complex and complicated ideas so they can implement and solve major problems, you have to “tell a story.” Writing a novel is somewhat an opposite process; you tell a good story but hide ideas within it. I think the latter is much easier since everyone enjoys a good love story as we have done since we invented storytelling. But first and foremost, this book is about the relationships, love and frailty of us as human beings. I grew up with parables and sayings in my household, and of course, these were just that, mere stories that were fun to hear, but you learn to look deeper within if you try.
I am fascinated by human strength and frailty and the complex ways we interact with each other. Yet, paradoxically, literary fiction can speak more truth than the real world, which is why I love reading a good novel and hopefully writing authentic stories
CA: What’s the last book that you read? Who are some of the writers whose work inspires you?
MA: I generally read two novels at the same time. I just finished “Sorrow and Bliss” by Meg Mason and “The Office of Historical Corrections” by Danielle Evans.
I get inspiration from every book I read, but the authors that I love the most are Hemingway, Graham Greene, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ann Patchett, and Jasper Fforde.
CA: There’s no shortage of ways to spend one’s time. Why do you choose to write fiction?
MA: To me, writing is a must. It keeps me alive and keeps me sane so I can do my day job. ☺
I try to write at least a sentence each day, even if it’s a random idea, but more importantly, I think of stories and eavesdrop on characters every night before falling asleep.
The son of a bookkeeper, Mahyar A. Amouzegar grew up in his home country of Iran surrounded by literature. Every night his father returned from his job at the publishing house with a new title in hand, filling Amouzegar’s childhood home with a panoply of books. Then at age fourteen, Amouzegar left Tehran to live with his older sisters in California. The year was 1978. Delayed by the political unrest that would soon lead to the Iranian Revolution, his parents were unable to follow him to the United States for over five years. On entering adulthood, he found himself balancing a promising career as a national security analyst with his boyhood love of literature. Mahyar is the author of three previous novels, A Dark Sunny Afternoon, Pisgah Road, and Dinner at 10:32. His short story, “Tell Me More,” appeared in an anthology as part of The Reading Corner series. Mahyar has lived and worked on four continents and currently resides in New Orleans with his wife and two daughters.
Chuck Augello (Contributing Editor) lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, two cats, and several cows that refuse to cease. His work has appeared in One Story, Juked, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review.