The Sweetest Debut: Ali Eteraz Rejects Elevator Pitches, Knows Who Selena Gomez Is

Welcome to the Sweetest Debut, a regular column in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors, working with presses of all sizes, and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies. 

Native Believer is Ali Eteraz’s debut novel. (He’s also written a memoir and a short story collection.) It was described thus by New York Times critic Pauls Toutonghi: “This novel will offend as many readers as it captivates. It is unflinching in its willingness to transgress taboos, whether those taboos are religious, sexual or both. And in the end, Native Believer stands as an important contribution to American literary culture: a book quite unlike any I’ve read in recent memory, which uses its characters to explore questions vital to our continuing national discourse around Islam.”

True to form, Eteraz offers us a lively response to our questionnaire; read on to find out how he feels about Selena Gomez, publishing industry schmoozing, the art of Francis Bacon and more.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

If I ever found myself in an elevator with someone from the industry I would not know who they are, because I know little about the industry, and they would not casually strike up a conversation with me either, because they read books for a living and do not like talking to people.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

I don’t tell relatives about my book. I like having relatives.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I wrote the kernel paragraph of Native Believer in 2004. I wrote the meaty first draft in 2011 and then revised it between 2011 and 2013.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

The Bible.ali

What’s a book you’ve read more than two times?

La Gaya Scienza, by Nietzsche.

Is there a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

The novel features a plot point involving a visual artist who displays art on city buildings. I thought I was making up this kind of visual art. However, during the writing of the novel, I was approached to consult on a project by Jenny Holzer. It turns out she has been displaying images on buildings for decades. All this time I had been creating someone that already existed.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

Pakistani stage shows in Punjabi. They are funny. Plus no one I know understands them, so even though they are lowbrow I feel like an elite.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

The Magnificent Seven.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

I only listen to ghazals, ever, so I guess it must be that. This answer confirms to me that I am so not pop culture. Can I say I know who Selena Gomez is?

Who is your fashion icon?

The art of Francis Bacon. I particularly like the screaming popes.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

I am a minority writer of experimental literature, therefore, I will not be able to buy a house, ever. If I could buy a house it’ll be in a country that has not yet been constituted. I do think I would like to live in 11th century Iran, prior to the rise of the Seljuks, probably near Lake Parishan, because in Urdu that word means “worried” and that sounds like an emo place to live in.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a writer that was capable of making elevator pitches to people in the industry.

Do you prefer writing in a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Buzzing hookah lounge.

Are you a desk, bed or couch person?

For writing, bed. For sex, the other two.

Morning writing or late-night writing?

I don’t know. I just made an innuendo, now my thoughts are derailed.

Writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

I do a draft. Burn it. Commit numerous vices to inspire myself again. Do another draft. Then I print seven copies in the seven most ancient fonts and leave my novel in various elevators in various parts of the world and hope that someone from the industry sees it.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I check my bills every three months, and by that time the pay-by date has passed, therefore, I do not pay them.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

Bartleby, the Scrivener.

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

I would prefer not to.