20 Questions with Abdi Nazemian

Abdi Nazemian
Photo: Tommy Wu

20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.

“Art is our superpower as humans, and we all deserve to be present in it.” Abdi Nazemian spent his childhood in a series of exciting locations (Tehran, Paris, Toronto, New York), but could usually be found in his bedroom watching old movies and reading. His first novel, The Walk-In Closet, was awarded Best Debut at the Lambda Literary Awards. He has written two young adult novels, The Authentics and Like a Love Story, an Indie Next Pick, Junior Library Guild Selection, Stonewall Honor book, and a best book of the year from Entertainment Weekly, Audible, BuzzFeed, YALSA, NYPL, and more. His next YA novel, The Chandler Legacies, is scheduled to hit shelves in February 2022.

Nazemian has also written for television, including Almost Family (Fox), The Village, and Ordinary Joe (both NBC). In film, his writing credits include The Artist’s Wife, Menendez: Blood Brothers, The Quiet, Celeste in the City, and Beautiful Girl. He also wrote, directed and produced the short film Revolution. He is proud to say that his words have been spoken by the likes of Carmela Soprano, The Nanny, and The Girl With The Most Cake. In addition to writing for film, Nazemian has been an executive producer or associate producer on numerous films as Head of Development for Water’s End Productions, including Call Me By Your Name, It Happened in L.A., The Price, The House of Tomorrow, and Little Woods. He lives in Los Angeles with his two children and husband, and holds dual citizenship between the United States and Canada.

I had the privilege of speaking with Abdi for the latest edition of 20 Questions, where he told me his take on the power of storytelling, the differences of writing for the screen and for the page, which books he’s gotten into lately, and how he dances to Lana Del Rey — usually alone.

What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a writer?

I used to be an avid reader of Archie Comics, and by avid, I mean I was completely obsessed. My earliest memory of wanting to be a writer is probably taking a stab at making my own comic books. I would write and submit stories to the Archie offices (never published, but they did publish some of my Betty and Veronica fashion sketches).

As a screenwriter and film producer with credits on everything from Almost Family to Call Me By Your Name, what is your favorite part of writing and producing for the screen?

Collaboration. Writing books provides me with the chance to go deep inside myself and write about my personal history and the things that feel unfinished inside me. Conversely, film and television are collaborative mediums. They give me the chance to work in teams of beautiful people who make me laugh and feel less alone. My ideal year would consist of both experiences, because I need the feeling of being part of a team, and I also need the chance to process my individual creative needs. I’ve just wrapped up my time in the writers room on an extraordinary TV show called Ordinary Joe, and I miss the incredible people I worked with so much.

What is the most challenging part of writing for you?

Rewriting, because it’s the least fun for me. I love the process of writing a first draft because it’s full of discovery, magic and surprise. I don’t plot out my novels, so the first draft often feels like it’s flowing through me and I love that feeling. Rewriting is work for me.

Favorite book of all-time?

Another Country by James Baldwin. I first read it in college and it changed my understanding of myself and of the world. I re-read it every few years and always learn something new from it.

What inspired you to want to write books?

I always loved novels, but I felt I wasn’t a good (or patient) enough writer to tackle a novel. But after a decade of writing for film and television, I grew frustrated by watching all my most personal scripts sitting on shelves. None of the scripts I wrote about Iranian characters or queer characters ever got made. So I took a deep breath and tackled books because I knew I needed to find a way to get my personal stories out there. And it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

One piece of advice you would give to your younger self?

What other people think really shouldn’t matter so much.

The last series you binge-watched?

Because I write for television, I often watch one episode of a TV show just to be educated about what’s out there. But recently, I binged a show called Brand New Cherry Flavor on Netflix. It’s very David Lynch in tone, completely transfixing, and features epic performances from Rosa Salazar and Catherine Keener.

The best book you’ve read in the last year?

So many, but I’ll choose Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters. I couldn’t put it down, and want to gift it to everyone.

Favorite movie of all-time?

I’m way too much of a movie lover to pick one, so I’ll narrow it down to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, All About My Mother, Gilda, Beaches, and Humoresque.

As a queer author, how would you explain the importance and significance of queer visibility in literature and media right now?

Storytelling creates empathy and helps us find our path in the world. When we see someone different from us in media, we see our common humanity. When we see ourselves in media, we know we’re not alone. Art is our superpower as humans, and we all deserve to be present in it.

If you could have one writer, dead or alive, to compose your obituary, who would it be and why?

What a bleak question. I’ll go with Lana Del Rey. I want my obituary to be a sad song you can dance to. (Yes, I dance to Lana, usually alone.)

What’s your current read?

I’m currently writing which means I’m reading slower than usual, but I’ve got Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby and Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras in my car because I like to have a book with me everywhere I go.

Favorite quote of all-time?

These favorite questions are so hard. I don’t really have a favorite quote, but I love Persian poetry and this Rumi quote has always moved me and feels more relevant than ever: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

One song that you will never be sick of?

These “choose one” questions are so hard for me. I love music so much. I’ll go with “Gold Dust” by Tori Amos. I could listen to it, and to most of her songs, on a loop.

How would you describe the importance of storytelling, especially in an age of social isolation?

Art connects us. During the pandemic, I had the wild experience of having my novel Like a Love Story come out in Brazil. The messages I received from readers there during my isolation were such a reminder of the power of art to cross borders and unite us. Even when we’re quarantined, art allows us to connect to each other, which we need more of right now.

You’re stuck on a long flight. Which world-famous musician would you want sitting next to you and why?

I mean, Madonna. Why? So I could personally hand her a copy of Like a Love Story and watch her read it.

As a writer and artist, what would you say is the best way to rest or decompress?

I’m a big fan of journaling. It’s so effective at getting the thoughts out of your head. Meditation is amazing. But ultimately, I think the best way to decompress is to remind yourself that a big part of writing is living and being present for your family and friends. Playing tennis with my kids. Walking our dog. Laughing with friends. Travel (I miss travel so much). All those things help me decompress.

Favorite social media app?

Instagram. It’s the only one I’m consistently active on. But I don’t know that I would use the word favorite to describe social media, honestly. It’s a part of life I struggle with often.

One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?

My kids. Watching their curiosity flourish not only kept me sane, but also was a beautiful reminder that time didn’t stop. There was still so much room to have rich life experiences, even stuck in one place.

What can we expect to see next from you? Are you working on anything new in particular?

I’ve been on the writing team for Ordinary Joe, which is currently airing on NBC and available to stream on Hulu and Peacock. It’s a show I’m deeply proud of. And I’m now beginning to work on my next novel. Since I don’t plot out my books, I’ll refrain from saying much about it, because it could all change.

Follow Abdi Nazemian on Twitter and Instagram, and pre-order his next novel The Chandler Legacies wherever books are sold.