From the moment I glimpsed the cover and read the description, I knew there was something special about this book. I love stories inspired by mythology and cultural experience, and I especially love books that are written with a tenderness and care that we don’t often see in the world. For me, Once There Was, was that book. And after learning more about it, I knew I had to chat with the author, Kiyash Monsef about his inspiration and creative choices.
I was struck immediately by the title and the first line of the book, One Was, Once Wasn’t which also starts Marjan’s father’s stories. It’s very lyrical. Did that line come first when you were first coming up with the idea for the book?
I wouldn’t say it came first. But when I decided to make this book a story about an Iranian-American experience, it was the line that made everything else make sense in my head. My grandmother used to tell me stories that began that way, so it has a powerful personal resonance for me. And when I wrote it down for the first time, it just made sense, and I saw instantly how it tied into Marjan’s understanding of both the creatures, and of herself. It was definitely one of those magical writing moments, where the story you’re trying to tell just snaps into focus, all at once.
The book has been optioned by Imagine Entertainment and is in early development, which I think has to do with the cinematic nature of the book. Was it your background in producing and directing that helped you create that film-like quality of the novel while writing or something else?
I’m sure that my background in visual storytelling played some role. But really, I think I was trying to write the kind of story that I like to read. The books that have stayed with me seem to build themselves around visual tableaus — moments that just pop off the page and burn themselves into your imagination. I had a few moments like that in mind for this book, very early on in the writing process, and I tried to build the flow of the story around them. I think that’s partly a cinematic instinct, but it’s also just a way that stories naturally speak to me.
I read in your great interview with Betsy Bird that this book began as a series of short stories. How did you work on connecting the threads to a specific plot?
It was really about understanding the character of Marjan, and asking questions about her. What did she want, from moment to moment and scene to scene? And then building off of that, and deepening her world beyond her interactions with the creatures that she meets. As I got to understand her better, I started to see which scenes and which stories were going to serve her arc and her needs as a character, and which ones weren’t. So that helped me start to shape those disconnected stories into a meaningful flow.
I love that there’s a rich connection to your own Iranian heritage throughout the book, especially in the creatures that come up within the story. Were there any elements to these magical beings and myths that you didn’t get to include and will it make it into another book?
In case it’s not clear from the book, I’m a big fan of old mythology and fairy tales. One of the most fun and personally rewarding parts of writing this story has been researching Persian mythology. There are definitely more creatures and more myths, and I hope to be able to explore them in a future book.
I always love to ask authors what books inspired them but also, what books they think readers should enjoy after reading and loving their current books. So, what do you think readers of Once There Was should read next?
Bea Wolf by Zach Weinersmith and Boulet, a graphic novel retelling of the Beowulf epic, but set in the modern day, and with kids as the main characters. It’s an absolutely joyous rendition of the story, which is quite a feat. As a fan of old stories, I love the many clever ways in which it honors the original text, but also how nimbly it reinvents the mythology around present-day children. And the artwork is glorious.
Also, what’s on your nightstand? What’s a book you recently enjoyed and want the world to read?
The City We Became by NK Jemisin. It’s thrilling, smart, expansive, confrontational, and funny. A love-hate letter to New York, HP Lovecraft, and humanity.
What’s one takeaway from readers that surprised you? Was there anything you wish readers picked up on more?
One thing that’s been interesting to me is how much the ethics of animal treatment in our society has resonated as a message with readers. I do have strong feelings on that issue, but they weren’t feelings I’d intentionally foregrounded in the story. So it’s interesting to see that that theme has come through for so many people — and I’m happy for it to have done so.
I read that you want this book to be for anyone who “ever pondered whether the world might possibly be just a tiny bit larger and stranger and more wondrous than it seems.” Is there anything in the writing or researching of the book that you discovered about the world that was larger, strange, or more wondrous?
For me, the wonder of researching and writing this book really came through the connections to Persian mythology, history, and storytelling traditions. Discovering, for example, that the griffon is a creature that goes back thousands of years in Persian and Iranic tradition, gave me a new appreciation of my own cultural heritage, and of the contributions of Persian culture to the collective imagination. That I have the chance to tell that story, to highlight that connection, to be in conversation for a moment with the artists and storytellers of ancient Persia, has made my world larger, and stranger, and more wondrous.
I love that the book is described as being about compassion and healing. I find that some of the characters and worlds in fantasy novels are brutal and hard. Why was it so important to tell a story that was about healing and layered with compassion and tenderness?
I think we’ve all lived through a lot of hardship the last few years, and a story about healing and care is especially important right now. Also, I have young daughters, and I found myself writing more and more for the kinds of people that I hope they will become — just in terms of how they look out for and take care of the people they love. And honestly, it was just comforting to write about people trying their best to be kind and caring.
What can you share about what’s next for you?
There is a follow-up to ONCE THERE WAS in the works. I can’t say much about it right now, but I’m very excited about it!
Once There Was was published on April 2, 2023.