Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Daniel Nayeri: How I Got into Publishing

When I came to the United States at the age of eight, I spent a lot of time in the library because I needed to learn English, and because none of the neighborhood kids knew yet how awesome I was at Nintendo.

We arrived in Oklahoma in the summertime, and I was terrified that I would show up to school unable to speak with the other kids. We were refugees from Iran who had spent several years bouncing from country to country, so I had a smattering of a few languages. My English, however, was a bit like Apu from the Simpsons. 

And so, my mom took me to the library, checking out 35 picture books at a time, determined to get us ready. At the time, I remember being dumbfounded by the likes of Dr. Seuss or Laura Ingalls Wilder (an Oklahoma favorite that I came to appreciate in due time). The language had too much slang, too many words I couldn't look up in the dictionary ("Vat is a sneetches?"). I ended up gravitating toward the Great Illustrated Classics--simple sentences, written in the Queen's English. I read abridged (perhaps abridged too far?) versions of The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, Robin Hood, and Robinson Crusoe--I fell in love with all of them.

They represented, to me, the ability to assimilate--a quality that any first-generation immigrant desires on some level, for various reasons. I realize only now, looking back, that I was also beginning to see slang as a sort of mastery over language, a kind of expert-level code that only native speakers could employ. 

When school started, I would ask the music teacher for print-outs of all the patriotic songs, so that I could practice them at home (thank you, Ms. Dobbins!). They were full of idioms, and local speech patterns. I still remember sitting in the back of our van, repeating the phrase, "Cause there ain't no doubt, I love this land, God bless the USA!" over and over again, trying to capture Lee Greenwood's particular drawl (he was born in Los Angeles).
As my reading advanced, colloquial English became like a narcotic. I had a notebook of phrases I filled daily, full of phrases like, "cowabunga," and "I thought you were made of sterner stuff, Megatron." I had another notebook of "your mama" jokes. I wanted to catalog all the slang I came across. In the parlance of our times, I had to "catch 'em all." 

That's why I would say my entry into publishing started as a volunteer job in the 6th grade at our local library. Like all good drug pushers, the librarian noted my potential addiction and gave me my first few hits free of charge (like Huckleberry Finn, and his friend Jim--I spent half a year figuring them out). Then the late fees started coming and I had to support my habit by continuing to work for the library in the summers, and as a part-timer once I got into high school.

When it was time for college, I followed the scent of book binding glue and halal chicken carts to New York City, where I studied Creative Writing, English Lit, and Religious Studies. But by my sophomore year, I cut out the middleman. Based on my library experience, I got an internship for Viking Penguin, where I was paid in Penguin Classics editions, and where I managed to break all three Xerox machines in one day. In my junior year, I began working full-time for the Carol Mann Agency (I crammed my classes into two evenings in order to work full-time) and where I learned not to be afraid of telling people “no” (a lesson for which I am deeply grateful).

By the time I stumbled my way across the graduation stage, I found I had three years of industry experience under my belt. I also realized I would make a horrible agent on account of the fact that I have terrible phone manners, and I eat when I’m stressed.

I joined the editorial department at ReganBooks / HarperCollins, where I had brilliant mentors, the opportunity to work on massive bestselling projects, and where the metaphor of books as drugs became no longer funny. We fast-forward nearly a decade. I became a pastry chef for several of those years (while continuing to edit on a freelance basis). I have been an editor at Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for more than two years now, working with a daunting array of editors and authors, including the likes of Dinah Stevenson (daunting in the literary sense. I’m fairly certain I could wallop most of them at Nintendo).

I think of my job as an extension of the notebooks I kept as a kid, cataloging funny things my friends said, or turns of phrase I didn't understand. More than anything, I look for work that shows off the great many languages of America. I tell people I look for "works that inhabit the great panoply of American voices," books worthy of linguistic catalog. (Isn't that wonderfully pompous? I didn't stop cataloging in college.)


  1. You are going to be fabulous at our fall conference. Wowzer! You'll knock 'em dead...really looking forward to it. Teresa Fannin RA SCBWI Carolinas...

  2. Great post! I love reading about how people got into the industry--and you're right, agenting is SO different from editorial!


  3. Nice, here's some Bay Area slang for you(depends on who you speak to):
    Hella- A lot of
    Tight- Good, Cool
    Smashing- Doing something very quickly
    Rachet- Un-kept, Silly, Weird, or scandalous

  4. Daniel's story is highly inspiring - the setting of Oklahoma couldn't be better, both in terms of symbol and geographic isolation.

    Would make a great movie!

    Rich Alpert, Diversity Resources
    creators of the online diversity calendar

  5. Y'know what Daniel, you're awesome!