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The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Ask the Author | ‘Martyr!’ author Kaveh Akbar needs writing just as much as it needs him

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop professor and recent New York Times bestselling author of “Martyr!” spoke with the DI about his recovery from addiction and his subsequent necessity of writing.
Ethan McLaughlin
Kaveh Akbar speaks during a panel on Leslie Jamison’s newest novel, Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story, at Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024.

 At the top of TIME Magazine’s list of the 25 most anticipated books of 2024 sits Kaveh Akbar’s first fiction novel, “Martyr!” which hit shelves in January. Since then, the author’s work has received unending praise from literary critics at The New York Times, PBS, Oprah Daily, NPR, and many others. Akbar is the newest name to be reckoned with in the literary genre.

Published by Knopf, “Martyr!” tells the story of the disgruntled poet Cyrus, an addict-in-recovery who is burdened by loss, mourning, iniquity, and suicidal ideation. His curiosity for martyrdom — “people whose deaths mattered” — leads him to New York City, where he meets a dying artist who teaches him what death truly means.

Born in Tehran, Iran, Akbar is the director of the English and creative writing major at the University of Iowa and teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Akbar is also the poetry editor of The Nation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Daily Iowan: Tell me about the moment you sat down and began writing “Martyr!”

Kaveh Akbar: Unfortunately, there wasn’t a concrete moment for me as someone who is constantly writing and who publishes very little. So, there are scraps of language that appear in “Martyr!” that are 10-15 years old, and early drafts of conversations that appear in “Martyr!” are 5-6 years old — it was a gradual process of sticking with some of those early drafts, recognizing I was writing recurring characters and sustained dialogue across times, to then build towards a more cohesive vision. I have a friend, Tommy Orange, with whom I traded weekly pages every Friday. When both of our pages started to get prosier and prosier, we wrote our books together. Over the past half-decade, I wrote “Martyr!” and he wrote “Wandering Stars.”

Your work has seen national praise. How does it feel as an author to be platformed on a national level — to write a book that sticks?

All the work wants is to be practically useful in the lives of people who will never meet, and each of those [platforms] you mentioned is hopefully helping the work people for whom it might be useful, people whose lives might usefully illuminate, complicate, or whose experiences might resonate. That idea is immeasurably gratifying. I have the highest ambitions for the work.

In your opinion and your experience, why might artists and writers be more susceptible to addiction?

Well, I don’t know that it is statistically more common among artists or creatives than bricklayers or teachers, but I can say that there is a pervasive mythology about the drunk writer, and I certainly identified that myth in my younger days. I think the truth is there’s a defamiliarist potential that can be activated through narcotic experience, but one can achieve similar or superior defamiliarization through the training of one’s attention and different modes of contemplation, meditation, reverence, through watching children, talking to people who are dissimilar from yourself, learning a new language — there are lots of other modes of defamiliarist experience that are not so corrosive on the individual artist and the people who love them.

Does it feel reductive to be asked about addiction in the context of your book?

No. I’ve been sober for 10.5 years, and I’ve written about that experience in every book. It’s a massive, massive part of my life, and the reason I can talk about it in conversations like these is that I’ve done thousands and thousands of hours of recovery work outside of these conversations; I’m not just white-knuckling it. It is because of the work I do in my actual life that I’m able to write about it and speak about it with some amount of objectivity. I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak about it, you know? I’m not speaking for anyone else or prescriptively in any way, but I can say that, today, I haven’t had a drink or used a drug, and — it’s been a few “todays” in a row now. If talking about my experience might help someone else stack a few “todays,” that is a reason for gratitude. 

During the scene when Cyrus takes the job as a practice patient for student doctors, you wrote of the student: “It was her way of inviting Cyrus back into the performance.” When writing “Martyr!”, did you often feel you had to call yourself back into the performance of writing Cyrus’ character in the third person?

That’s a lovely question. Each character I write in “Martyr!” is just me turning to face a different part of my brain. Cyrus and I share some pretty legible biographical symmetries, but I feel like Orkideh is also very much me — we speak art in ways that I have thought about endlessly. Similarly, Ali, Arash, and Zee are very much me. So, I think that remembering which part of my brain to look at with time, character, et cetera, is something I have to constantly calibrate when working in narrative fiction.

How do you learn to trust your voice as a writer, and have you found it easier to trust your voice with poetry or with prose?

I just write a lot, and I don’t worry too much about trusting or not trusting my voice. I just get a lot of stuff out on the page. Once I have a lot of stuff out there, I go through it and say “Okay, this is interesting, but this is maybe self-congratulatory.” That also helps me to understand my living. But the actual process of composition doesn’t involve a lot of real-time doubt. The doubt comes afterward, and then some of it can be useful — doubting my own intentions, my impulse for catering towards legibility — but some of that doubt has to be exorcised as well.

Why do you write?

I love it. Being an addict in recovery, I’ve lost my privileges to all my favorite highs. I’m not allowed to do any of my favorite drugs anymore, but writing is the only exception. I can get high as sh*t off writing. It sounds corny, but for real — If I write in the morning, all day I’ll be walking around like I’m floating. So, it’s about doing it as much as possible and, hopefully, I can do it in a way that makes it easier for other people to do it as well.

In that same analogy — writing as almost a replacement drug — what does writer’s block feel like for you?

I’ve never experienced it.

Woah. Really?

I mean, I have project block — sometimes I can’t finish this essay, or I can’t finish this particular thing — but writing is just sticking words to each other. Nobody says that they have Lego block; these are my materials and I’m just playing with them.

Akbar returned to Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City during his national tour for “Martyr!” on Wednesday in conversation with “Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story” author Leslie Jamison.

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About the Contributor
Avi Lapchick
Avi Lapchick, Arts Editor
Avi Lapchick is an arts editor at The Daily Iowan. A fourth-year student studying English and Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, she previously held the positions of staff photojournalist, summer arts editor, and assistant arts editor at the DI. She is happiest when she is writing or painting.