drDOCTER: Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up?
Oliver Zarandi: I grew up in Wolverhampton, which is in the West Midlands in England. It has a bad reputation. I think Lonely Planet said it was one of the top 5 worst cities in the world. It’s not. But it’s not the most interesting city in the world. It’s pretty small. Most of my youth was spent indoors, playing with toys, or in the park. My father – who is from Iran – owns kebab shops. I remember driving to places with meat lockers and the backs of the kebab shop. My father – a wonderful man – always cared so much. I remember being with him and it’s a nice thought.
You could slide on the floors because of all the grease. Tubs of fat nearly as tall as me out back where the toilets were. But I had a good upbringing. My mother and father gave me everything and I feel I let them down when a certain event in my life changed the way I was.
dD: Do you care to share what the event was that altered their view of you?
Zarandi: When I was twelve I developed an eating disorder. I didn’t eat properly for four years. I was very ill and I believe this changed me – perhaps for the better? – mentally. I started thinking in more detail. I often disappeared into literature and films. Starving for four years is a strange thing. I swear, at one point, I looked like something out of a Egon Schiele painting. Ridiculous.
dD: Thanks for opening up about that. There’s a sense that hunger is all we have sometimes, a constant, and it can be useful. Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast, “I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry.” He also stated that “… it [hunger] also sharpens all of your perceptions.” How would you say that that experience as a kid impacted your writing?
Zarandi: Well, it gives my work a sense of urgency and bodily specificity. It does sharpen some of your perceptions, yes, but it also numbs you somewhat. It would be very easy for my work to be quite negative and downbeat, but I don’t think it is. A sense of humour is always needed.
You could say that my writing was born out of a literal hunger and desperation, to hang onto something. Not eating for 4 years felt like a lifetime when I look back on it. It’s actually something that I’m working into my novel at the moment.
dD: Here at dD we hate the what’s your novel about question. But, what’s your novel about?
Zarandi: It’s got a pretty simple story at the heart of it. I’d been reading a lot of DeLillo, things like Mao II, J.G. Ballard with High Rise,The Atrocity Exhibition. Lots of Ian Sinclair, too. A lot of my stories had an American vibe to them but with my novel I wanted to “return home,” so to speak.
I wanted to engage with my city, London. I wanted to use things that occur in my life. I live in a warehouse unit behind a garage with my girlfriend Rosie. Above us there’s a fetish wrestling club and below us there’s a sweatshop. We hear the grunting and bone crunching every night. In the car park, we find condoms strewn everywhere.
So I worked this into the novel about a young man who finds boxes of notes, lists, medical diagrams, essays on terrorism. The novel sees the main character tracking down who these boxes belong to – with devastating results. It’s written in a style I think I could only say is mine, too. There are photographs in there, moments of reality penetrating the fiction. It’s the way I see the city. It’s me.
dD: A lot of your stories are in lists, which seems to point out to the absurd relationships between people and people and things. How did you come to that form?
Zarandi: I have this problem with ‘knowledge’. It’s an interesting thing, to question what this is. Growing up, going to school and university, there was always such an emphasis on knowledge and facts. And I think now, what’s the point of knowing facts and figures? To pass exams, you didn’t have to know something – know it truly – you just had to know bullet points, the watered down version.
Absurdly, when I studied at university, we all had an exam on James Joyce’s Ulysses. A great book, yes. But it was nearly ruined by the exam. All of us highlighting the book, memorizing quotes, memorizing what people thought about Joyce, making points about certain sections of the book. It was just stupid. And on results day, most students would get so bitchy about their results.
So lists are my way of simplifying things. It’s clean. A lot of my work has facts and figures that are quite obscure. Quite anti-social for some readers. I was heavily influenced by David Markson and Paul Auster, two wildly different writers. They reward patience. So with my work, it can be difficult, but at least it’s presented in a clean way. I want the reader to dig deeper. Keep going and there is a heart in there.
dD: When did you start writing or making things?
Zarandi: My mother worked at a hospital and had access to reams of computer paper. She’d bring it back and let me draw all over it. I owe a lot to my mother. Her taste in films, books – always impeccable. We’re very similar. Caring but intense. I honestly don’t think I’d think the way I think if it wasn’t for my mother.
In terms of stories, I started quite late. I was always writing, yes, but only in the last 3 years have I taken in seriously. Writing every day.
But the things I write about – medical things, diseases, bodily functions, space, the city – you can definitely see the seed of this in my upbringing.
My mother owns a lot of pathology books. I’m obsessed with disease. Even as a child, drawing bodies was fascinating for me – the skin, the shading, the musculature, the bones. Looking at these books with their cross sections of bone marrows, ventricles, pictures of disfigured people, essays on sexually transmitted diseases – it’s something that really informs my writing. These books are all over my parents’ house – and it’s the same in my flat in London now.
dD: Do you work in medicine as well?
I don’t work in medicine. I don’t think I have the guts for it. I feel safer with books. But, actually, at the moment, I’m setting up a new magazine in London and I’m trying to get some of this medical writing in there. It’s involved contacting a lot of writers, reading submissions and so on.
dD: Well thanks so much for sharing your work. And best of luck with the novel and magazine.
Oliver Zarandi is a writer and co-editor of Funhouse Magazine. His most recent work can be found on The Quietus, Dum Dum Zine, The Bohemyth, Peanut Gallery Press and Potluck Magazine. Follow him on Twitter or email him firstname.lastname@example.org.