Mahdis Marzooghian and Swetha Amit

Swetha Amit talks with Mahdis Marzooghian about her novel Death Has None, writing and immigration, and literary inspiration.

Swetha Amit: Death Has None is a beautiful tale of a young boy who loses his mother and faces trials and tribulations in the following days. How and when did the idea to pen this book come about?

Mahdis Marzooghian: I started working on this novel at the end of 2016. As an aspiring writer, I always wanted to write a book. As an immigrant, I wanted to merge my experience and create exceptional characters by giving them some of my own memories and experiences as an immigrant. As someone fascinated by Persian history, I wanted to incorporate some of it into my novel, as well. While researching Cyrus the Great’s life, I tried to learn about the kind of person he was. I wanted to inject some love stories about him and his wife and instances like the scene with the coin test and the three blind men into the narrative. I tried to portray him as someone with great values and whom my protagonist, Cyrus, could admire.


SA: You begin the novel with a fable of the leopard and the moon, which has a moral. This sets the tone for the book, which is structured as a story within a story in some parts. How did this idea pave out?

MM: Having a story within a story and merging the past with the present is a challenging task. The inspiration for several scenes would come randomly to me. I first created an outline for the novel, the characters, and the timeline, especially since it weaves the past and the present. It wasn’t something I figured out 100 percent from the beginning. A lot of things came to me as I was writing the novel and thinking about my characters, like Cyrus’s memories of his parents. I remember that during graduate school, I was working on a completely different book. I kept pieces I thought worked in that novel and used some in my current book. I finished the book in 2018 and started sending it out in 2020.


SA: In your novel, you drop breadcrumbs along the way, keeping the readers glued to the page. Tell us more about your pacing approach.

MM: Pacing is very important to me. I tried pacing the narrative in a way that gives enough hints and has tension to keep the reader hooked and keep that suspense going. I wanted readers to feel that they were Cyrus themselves, looking for clues to the mystery and saving the revelation for the end. It was helpful to outline the entire story by chalking the beginning and the end. The hardest part was the editing and working everything in between. For instance, I had to ensure I got the legal language and courtroom decorum right. It involved a whole lot of research.


SA: What kind of research was involved?

MM: I googled so many weird, questionable things throughout the research process. Things about murder weapons and stuff that would be puzzling if someone were to go through my search history (laughs). Regarding the courtroom decorum, I didn’t want to indulge in too many technical details as it was all from the perspective of 15-year-old Cyrus. Plus, I didn’t want to make the courtroom scenes the central focus of the novel. The information Cyrus is giving the reader may be about things he might not know, and that was intentional on my part, so that it came across as organic and authentic to Cyrus’ POV. I also had to ensure I read about Virginia law, where the story is set, and the legal and prison system worked there.


SA: The entire novel is told from the perspective and voice of Cyrus. Was it challenging to get into an adolescent voice?

MM: During grad school, we would be assigned writing exercises where we would try to write from someone else’s point of view, such as the POV of a child. With this novel, I wanted to challenge myself and write in the voice of a teenage boy whose perspective and gender obviously differ from mine. Growing up with a brother also helped because I grew up hearing him speaking to his friends and so I learned how boys generally converse with one another. I did, however, inject a little of myself and my own memories and experiences into Cyrus’s character, where I muse a lot about my experience as an immigrant.


SA: Your protagonist, Cyrus, ruminates about the price one has to pay as an immigrant. How did being an immigrant affect you as a writer/person?

MM: My space as an immigrant shaped the kind of writer I became. As immigrant writers, we have a bit more to prove, as it’s a struggle to find a place for our voices within this big writing world dominated mainly by white, Western voices. It’s so gratifying and humbling when we can tell our stories and have them be so well-received. I find it rewarding when someone tells me they’ve connected with a piece that I wrote, or this novel, even though they come from a vastly different background. Additionally, I tried to work many Persian idioms into my novel, even though they were written entirely in English, or Finglish as we like to call it, which is writing out Farsi words using the English alphabet (and for those who don’t know, Farsi uses an entirely different alphabet system, called Perso-Arabic script, and is written from right to left). I attempted to do this organically and had all the Farsi in italics to set it apart from the rest of the prose and then in the next line, I translate or explain its meaning in English.


SA: When discussing certain words, customs, and traditions, did you ever worry about how the white, Western audience would receive them?

MM: I did. While promoting the book, I was initially worried about my story’s appeal to the English audience. So far, though, the feedback I have received from the English-speaking audience has been really great. They seem very interested in learning about the Farsi language and the Persian culture. Additionally, a large number of the novels I’ve read by Persian authors – all of which are wonderful, beautiful works – focus mainly on the Iranian Revolution. I didn’t want to write about that even though it’s integral to our history. First off, the Iranian Revolution happened before I was born and then when I moved to the U.S. with my family, it wasn’t something I ever experienced the aftermath of first-hand. So, I made the decision to avoid politics altogether, a topic that’s intensely divisive within the Iranian community, and instead highlighted our culture, food, language, history, and the things that bring us together. Lastly, I believe that the freshness of writing comes from the writer’s ability to touch upon universal themes while still narrating stories from various perspectives and about different experiences and find that your audience can still relate to what you’re saying.


SA: In the novel, Cyrus says that his father Sohrab once told him that even the smallest object has a story. Do you, as a writer, use objects as an inspiration?

MM: A writer’s talent is clearly exhibited when they can take something ordinary and portray it in a manner that makes it appear like the most extraordinary thing in the world. One of my friends wrote a poem about giving blood, and she talks about this ordinary task so beautifully and poetically, and I think that takes real talent to do. Also, in Nabokov’s Lolita, child abuse is portrayed in a narrative that uses such beautiful prose that you are compelled to read it even though you are well aware of just how horrible it is.


SA: Since the stories within your novel convey a moral, did your book have an intentional message for readers?

MM: One of the things that inspired the novel’s title and theme was a line from a poem by the Persian poet Rumi, which states, “Only love has power over lovers, death has none. In the book, Cyrus mentions how this quote helped him overcome some horrible things he went through. My message to the readers is to tell them to hold on to that love and faith during tough times. Love and faith triumph over everything else, and the truth will ultimately come out, just like in the book.


SA: Are there any authors/books that have inspired you?

MM: One of the authors who influenced me to become a writer at an early age was F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve always wanted to write a novel like The Great Gatsby. His prose is so beautiful, and I have taken a lot of inspiration from his writing. I loved Tender Is the Night and This Side of Paradise, as well, and these works by Fitzgerald influenced me and my writing greatly because the prose is just so beautiful and lyrical. As I mentioned earlier, I admire Nabokov’s writing, as well. His stories are beautifully written and just so heartbreaking.


SA: Lastly, do you have any other books in the pipeline?

MM: I want to work on a nonfiction collection next about my immigrant experiences and the various nuances of Persian culture. I love writing nonfiction, though it’s a little harder to get published. I learned a lot about how to write good nonfiction from one of my grad school professors, Angela Pelster, whose nonfiction book, Limber, is one of my favorite works of nonfiction.


Mahdis Marzooghian is cofounder and editor-in-chief of Five on the Fifth. She has a master’s degree in professional writing from Towson University, and is an author and editor based in McLean, Virginia. Currently, she works as Managing Editor at Weiss Ratings. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Miso for Life anthology, Heartwood Literary Magazine, Welter Literary Journal (print), Mud Season Review, BULL Men’s Fiction, Lunch Ticket, Arkana Literary Journal, where her piece won the Editor’s Choice Award, and most recently in Nowruz Journal. Mahdis is the author of debut novel, “Death Has None” (Austin Macauley Publishers, 2023). She is a founding member of the PRWR Towson University Alumni Alliance Writers Retreat program at Still Point, WV.