The author Porochista Khakpour's earliest memory is of being terrified by anti-aircraft missiles dropping near her Tehran home during the Iran-Iraq f War.
Nine years later, Khakpour was living half of a mile from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. From the living room window of her 25th-floor apartment, she watched the twin towers collapse.
No wonder her two novels imagine a world on the brink of apocalypse.
"I've had so many personal disasters in my life that I always felt anything could happen," says Khakpour, 36, who received a master's degree in 2003 from the Johns Hopkins University's Writing Seminars. (An edited transcript of her conversation with The Baltimore Sun appears below.)
And yet Khakpour's new novel, "The Last Illusion," is more fanciful than grim. The author channels her preoccupations into the tale of Zal from the epic Persian "Book of Kings."
In place of the mythical albino Iranian boy who was rescued and raised by a giant bird, Khakpour imagines Zal as a fair-skinned Iranian boy kept confined to a bird cage by his deranged mother. He's adopted by a kind behavioral therapist at age 10 and moves to New York, but can't shake his appetite for insects or obsession with flying.
He meets Bran Silber, a Las Vegas magician who's planning a career-capping illusion for the new millennium — making the World Trade Center disappear.
Khakpour will read from "The Last Illusion" on Monday at the Friends School. She'll be joined by her fellow New York author Julia Fierro, reading from her debut novel, "Cutting Teeth."
What was the inspiration for "The Last Illusion"?
When I was a child, my father would read me stories from the Persian "Book of Kings." I really connected strongly with the story of Zal, the bird boy.
He was basically an outcast, and the story resonated with me at a time when I was feeling extremely alienated, not only from American but also Iranian culture.
I was just learning English when I was suddenly thrust into the school system. I couldn't understand American culture since my home life was so incredibly different from what I saw on TV. My family was still talking all the time about returning to Iran. We felt that we were very temporarily in a sort of exile.
You've written that "The Book of Kings" progress forward in time from myth to a heroic tale to a historic record. "The Last Illusion" does the same thing. Was that intentional?
Huh. No, but I love that idea.
The Persian "Book of Kings" goes from ancient Persian history in the 10th century B.C. to 651 A.D. and the Islamic conquest of Iran. It ends with a very stern reality — the end of Persia, basically. While the beginnings of it are very suspended in myth and fantasy, by the end it becomes an almost documentary-style historical account.
I didn't think about that when I was writing my novel, but I wonder if I just naturally went there.
Birds play a pivotal role in both your books. What's their meaning for you?
Avian life has always terrified me. My parents and I think it goes back to my first memory is of anti-aircraft missiles in the air around midnight around the time of the Iran-Iraq War. My family was gathered outside around our bomb shelter right around midnight. I looked up into the night sky and I remember these pink lights. My mom was saying prayers and crying, and I was in her arms shaking.
By the time we got to the U.S., I had severe [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Anything in the air seemed very sinister to me. Every time I would see helicopters or even hot air balloons, I would have hysterical fits.