Coming of Age: An Interview Between Sarah Feldbloom and Sofia Mostaghimi

Sofia Mostaghimi and I met back in 2019, when she edited my short story “Good Thing” for Broken Pencil Magazine, in which a young girl takes a 16 hour bus ride through the mountains to visit a lover she’s haunted by having left behind.

Sofia Mostaghimi and I met back in 2019, when she edited my short story “Good Thing” for Broken Pencil Magazine, in which a young girl takes a 16 hour bus ride through the mountains to visit a lover she’s haunted by having left behind. I reached out to Sofia again this past summer after reading her beautiful debut novel, Desperada. I made that first call from a small fjord town in Iceland, where I was completing a writing residency. Coincidentally, Iceland is the first stop on the protagonist’s journey in her book.

I had recently finished the manuscript for my novel Where We Were Young, and had begun sharing it with agents and publishers. I was curious to speak with Sofia because the stories we wrote share many themes and motifs––both feature young, female protagonists “coming of age” unconventionally; bonds with lost sisters inform their life choices in painful but meaningful ways.

In Where We Were Young, the central character traverses every province and territory in Canada, looking for her sibling who left home as a teenager and never returned. In Desperada, the protagonist flees her family after hers dies, seeking escape and transformation in travel, sex, and drugs. I cared about Sofia’s protagonist so much; it felt like she was a cosmic sister to mine. Interviewing each other revealed many ways that Sofia and I share a deep bond in our approaches to living and writing, too.

In our discussion, we talked about the ways that peripatetic stories offer possibilities for growth, and how the legacies of place and land collide with identities, shaping characters, who, in turn, contribute to shaping their environments. Our wholehearted and energizing conversation ensued in a cool, sound dampened room at the Fort York Library, in Toronto.

The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Feldbloom: I'm so curious to ask, how did you feel about writing a novel that, to me, feels like you didn’t censor yourself within it? That’s a thing I love so much about your book—that it's vulnerable. It's something that I sometimes worry about as a teacher, which I know you are too. How will my students interact with what I write and how? How will my colleagues feel about it? Especially with elements like sex.

Sofia Mostaghimi: Well, to be perfectly honest, I needed to not think about the reception while I was writing Desperada, and I never did.

Sarah Feldbloom: Really?

Sofia Mostaghimi: I thought, if we're going to go on this adventure, I have to show what's going on. It's not a story about sex, but to deal with her grief, my protagonist is super promiscuous at points in the book. To me, the sex she had didn’t have to pan to, like, a fireplace. It could be no different than describing her eating a meal or taking a phone call. It was important to do that, though after it was published, yes, it did suddenly occur to me that people would read it, hopefully—and obviously that my high school students or my dad might read it, and some of my students did. But I figured the ones who would, well, good for them for reading a book.

SF: Has your dad read it?

SM: He has. He thought it was really beautiful. And I was like, okay, great, Dad. Bye. And hung up the phone. In the past, I'd always kept my personal life and my writing life separate and so after publishing my first novel, I felt like these two parts of me had clashed and it made me feel very uncomfortable. But I don’t want that feeling, the discomfort, to censor anything that I write in the future, so I'm working on assuring that my relationship to my work stays private.

I don't know if people have said something similar to you, but a lot of people I know were like, “Well, I can't help it, when I read your book, it feels like Kora is you. I just picture you.” Have people said this to you, too, but about your novel’s protagonist?

SF: It's such a weird thing because I purposefully wrote experiential elements that are mine into the character, because also being a white settler, I feel like it's important that the reader sees that I'm identifying the perspective this character is coming from. But then it does bring on the problem you're talking about.

Because the protagonist, Shirah, she's not me. And sometimes I'm so frustrated with her. And if somebody thinks that Shirah and I are one singular being—I mean, no.

SM: I know. It's not a comfortable feeling.

SF: Where did you write Desperada? It’s interesting to me that we both wrote peripatetic novels filled with so much travel and movement. I think Kora visits six different cities?

SM: She does. She sets off just a few months after her sister drowns. I wasn’t travelling though when I wrote it; I was home, in Toronto. It was mid-pandemic when I finished the final draft.

SF: I don’t know if you’d agree but I find Toronto to be a hyper-productive place, which is sometimes incredibly helpful.

SM: Definitely.

Sometimes I experience a lot of anxiety about that––about telling stories of any land in any way, frankly. It’s like, how can I do this? How can I write thoughtfully and explore and respect that unease? Because I don't know who I am without this place.

SF: You know, when I was little, I hated Toronto. I don't hate it now. I actually really love it. But when I was a kid, I had this feeling of nothingness about where I was, and I didn't understand what it meant. I loved being in the park, and at the beginning of my book there are these scenes where Shirah and her sister are very engaged in the community suburban nature of their space, but it was just the top layer—I could feel that, and it put this question into my heart that I lived with, which was, what is this place, really?

It’s also the land I have the longest standing relationship with, and it’s affected who I am a lot, you know? I have such a deep relationship with it; even still, I understand that in a lot of ways it's very superficial. So sometimes I experience a lot of anxiety about that—about telling stories of any land in any way, frankly. It’s like, how can I do this? How can I write thoughtfully and explore and respect that unease? Because I don't know who I am without this place.

SM: You've been shaped by it.

SF: For a long time, when I was a teenager and in my early 20s, I thought: I’m just in the wrong place. I need to go figure out the right place for me. Then I lived in a lot of different spots!

I started to think more about that question, and what that feeling of absence was. I thought maybe if I was someone else in those places, the experience would be different, and I would have more understanding. That’s when I came up with the initial idea for Where We Were Young. I wanted to write a book with stories that happened in every province and territory, because that seemed like a geographical approach that would make sense for covering culture in a way that people would recognize.

SM: I love that idea.

SF: At the time I was thinking about what it’s like to be a young person in all of these areas that are supposedly unified? I thought maybe if I had a comparative understanding of that, then I would have a stronger sense of what was missing for me as a child. But ultimately, the answer to the question that formed for me as I came into being an adult was that the land was stolen and there’s constant resonance of that, and a real sense of absence that's very present.

And so the book started to become about accidentally learning that lesson, feeling that in the land, and having a central character who is on a weaving journey through this geographic domain that isn’t provoked by that question, but still the story can’t help but be about it. She’s trying to find her sister, and because of the age that she is, she’s also kind of searching for a life, and through that realizes that hers is very influenced by the land she lives on and this history.

SM: I love that in the beginning of your novel, you really get a sense of Shirah’s family and her relationship with her sister. It’s cool that in real life you have a sister. Me too!

SF: Aw! Sofia, let’s focus on that for a minute! Is that how the concept of centering the novel around sisters came to you?

SM: It actually didn't start out that way! I wasn’t thinking about sisters or family; I was just following the voice. And when Kora had a memory, her sister was dead and I just kept going with it. There were a lot of other threads that I dropped, other things that were propelling her to want to leave home. But it seems like, looking back, it makes sense that that would be a choice I made in terms of imagining one of the worst things that could happen, or spur somebody to throw their entire life away and not care that they're doing it.

At the time I was grappling with grief in my family, though not with my sister. And my best friend was very sick, as well. It made sense to go there, even though it was a scary headspace to be in. I read a lot about grief for a while, and just sat with that. Because, similar to Kora, I had had a pretty lucky sort of run up until that point, with no grief or sickness present. And then it just came.

So I was thinking deeply about those things. I know that my sister said it took her a couple of months to get through the book because she felt so emotional. And obviously, this book is not about her. You draw on your life, but it's fiction. Still, it felt very raw for her to read.

SF: Absolutely, my sister had the same kind of experience when I gave her a draft of my novel to look at. She said she knew that the Becca character wasn’t her and that this didn't actually happen, but it was hard to read anyway. It was important for me to bring my sister’s energy into the book somehow, which might be why it felt so intense for her.

I’m curious, is that something that you feel as well? For me, there was safety in going through this painful journey with my protagonist, because I actually got to be with my sister. My sister, who in my actual life, is the person I can always count on, the most consistent presence for me.

SM: I hadn't thought about it that way. But it's a really, really beautiful way of looking at it. I would have to sit and consider it, but it's very possible, especially because I went places in the book that were very dark, and I managed, so there must have been some sense that I could.

SF: How did you prepare to write the things in Desperada that you didn’t have any experience with?

SM: Well, I don't know how you feel about doing research for fiction, but I think it's fun, so I did a lot. It was really important for me and for Kora that the places she visits be layered, and for the reader to sense that she was stepping into somewhere that already existed before she got there and will continue to exist after she leaves. One thing I did was create a map, and save all the places that she might go. I did both conventional research and crept a lot of Reddit boards—to read about people’s feelings and experiences of those locations.

SF: That's so smart. Reddit is a very honest place.

SM: Yeah, I think so, too. If I hadn't been to the place, I did more research. By the end, I think I knew more about Iceland than some countries I’ve been to. I had one of my good friends, Jess Taylor, who's also a writer, take many, many voice notes for me describing the place when she went, and I listened to them carefully.

Checking in with folks who have been to where you’re writing about is another good way that I found to do research. In Thailand—not to give any spoilers away—but the incident with the roofie, that happened to my husband. He woke up on a beach very confused. He laughs about it now, but it wasn't funny at the time.

SF: You’ve also mentioned to me that you used to be a tour guide, so that must have influenced your approach to researching, too. Either intuitively or because of that experience, you must have known better what people really want to learn about a place when they're being shown around inside a story.

SM: I've thought a lot about that. I tour guided in Quebec City for years, and Montreal and Toronto more briefly. I always felt a little bit like a phony when I was a tour guide, showing people these spots that don't matter to locals whatsoever.

I remember one time in Toronto I was giving a tour on one of the big red buses, you know, the double decker ones, and we were near the Distillery District, and this guy on the street corner shouts up at me: “Don't forget to tell them the methadone clinic is right here.” But it's true. The places that we take tourists to do not comprise the real city. Sometimes people want to know the reality of a place, but they often don't. It’s interesting—people hate being called a tourist, but then they also like the safety of being herded through the streets as a group. There’s a sense that to know a place in its fullness, you are risking a little bit of something, and so there’s going to be at least some feeling of unease and discomfort. Because Kora is very fucked up for most of the book, she doesn't mind the unease; she seeks it out.

How about you? How did you approach doing research for your book?

SF: First, I checked in with friends to see if they knew people who had lived where my protagonist was going, then I asked those folks to tell me all about growing up there. Interviewing teachers and profs was the best, because they were able to say, “This is what it was like for me when I was feeling connected to youth culture here, but also, I'm watching teenagers experience it and am seeing how different it is for them.” Not that my characters are generally teenagers, but they're young people exploring themselves through exploring where they are.

Another thing I did to research was travel to all the places that are in the book. I mean, in my life as a peripatetic young writer, community-arts/media producer person, I had already been to a lot of different spots all over the country to work on projects. And when I got the idea for the book, I started filling in travel to areas I hadn’t already had the chance to explore.

SM: Yeah, and maybe there’s another layer of meaning to travel when you know you’re going to write about it.

SF: It feels like travel is a really important element of Desperada as well. What do you think travelling means to your protagonist, Kora?

SM: It means nothing to her at first. She’s only gone off to Iceland as a form of escapism, to hook up with an old fling. But her grief has made her raw, and very open to everything and everyone. So when the fling fizzles out, and she keeps moving, it’s with this sort of accidental courage that’s like, a by-product of her grief. She’s inviting all of these new experiences as if she were a blank slate. And she’s blank because of all this pain and grief and guilt that’s split her open.

She only starts coming into her own in the last country she visits in the novel, which is Thailand. I picked Thailand intentionally because it is traditionally a place where white tourists go and use it like an amusement park. They don't pay attention to what they're doing to the place, and so I wanted to put her there for her to realize that and think about travel—though I don't know that she gets too deep about it.

Maybe I'll write something else one day that does, but I wanted her to be thinking about how she was using up these spaces to deal with her grief, and asking herself: what role did I play, taking advantage as a tourist? Travel becomes a really generative force for her in the end.

I find it liberating when you just tell yourself there's no rush. Just follow the joy of it. Sometimes I'm like, I should be writing more, not just researching, forgetting that it energizes the work.

SF: I have ADHD, and so does my protagonist. And I feel like travel, or even just the experience of changing locations in a more micro way, has been a really important tool for my learning, and the shifts in perspective and tone have been really good for my mental health.

SM: Absolutely. And in terms of supporting mental health as a writer, sometimes I find it liberating when you just tell yourself there's no rush. Just follow the joy of it. Sometimes I'm like, I should be writing more, not just researching, forgetting that it energizes the work. You can't always be doing the literal writing because that's when you become drained.

That’s a lesson I knew and then forgot, but remembered recently. I’d been obsessing over writing, telling myself I'm not writing enough, I need to be writing. The writing was not coming and I just watched what happened. It was like: “Oh, if I just like, take care of myself and go do fun things the writing becomes so much easier and more natural, because the pressure is off and I can really enjoy it again.”

Especially coming from finishing a polished work and seeing it published, you have this feeling like you need to have a product again quickly. Because of that pressure, it took me almost a year to remember how to write. Also, the circumstances are totally different now than they used to be, say, 20 or 30 years ago, in terms of the cost of living, and funding opportunities for artists, so it isn’t fair to ourselves to feel that we have to be so prolific all the time. Honestly, it's pretty amazing that we're still making art at all at this point.

SF: But our art is the product of the lives that we're living. And there's something so valuable about that too. Like this is the life that we have access to. And these are the stories that we're sharing.

SM: Exactly.

SF: That’s partly why I believe in a slow writing process for myself. To enjoy it, and to be embodied. Because I think that with a story, there's that feeling, that connection which people call the “muse” or whatever, which is just the feeling of it in you. And when it's coming through me, it will guide me so I can see the shape of something, but it doesn't necessarily mean that I'm capable of writing the thing that I see. I can write some parts of it, and some parts are clear as a Carebear stare, and then for some, I know I will have to grow as a person to be able to write them. Those difficult parts, I think, sometimes end up feeling really rich to a reader, because there are all these layers of development, all these years of life in them.

SM: There’s this amazing book called The Art of Slow Writing. It really helped me when I was pregnant because I was feeling a bit frazzled knowing that I needed to get the book finished before I popped. It’s got these great, short chapters that grounded me. It’s about the benefits of slow writing, about how if you write a little bit every day, very slowly, you get a lot done. Being a mom for the first few years, all I could afford to have were these random bursts of energy with my pent up creative juices, if she had been sleeping. I would sit and write however many thousands of words but then not touch it again. Until I adopted a slow writing process, just this past September, I was going nowhere. Now, the stability of having a slightly older child at home helps, too.

SF: Sofia, on a tangential but related note, I read this children’s book when I was a kid called The Jolly Postman, and the structure of it imprinted itself on my brain. What happens is the jolly postman essentially goes on a peripatetic journey, delivering mail door to door. And each person whose mail he drops off has a whole different household culture, and they get very different mail. And it's really exciting to see what it is. I think ultimately it shaped the structure of my book a lot—I mean, in terms of Shirah writing all the various forms of stories that she does, which get wrapped into the wider frame of the novel in all the different places that she goes.

SM: That's so interesting that you said that, because when I was thinking about Desperada, I was also thinking structurally about children's stories. The types where a character’s searching for something and they go to find it, and at each stop they find something but it's not quite what they’re looking for, and then they go check another place.

There’s one that I read to my daughter with a little kitten looking for milk. The kitten asks the chicken how to get milk, but the chicken only knows how to get grain. So then it goes to talk to the horse, but the horse only knows how to get hay and the cat wants milk. Then finally the kitten finds the farmer who gives it milk. But this movement, from place to place where it’s never quite right, causes them to keep going—that's how I pictured Kora visiting different cities. Like, in Flateyri in Iceland, she thinks she found true love. Not quite. In Paris, she has many lovers, but it doesn't quite work out how she wants it to either, and then she thinks maybe she could be an artist in Berlin. Not really.

SF: That's really funny.

SM: There's something about those children's books, the journeying, the moving through spaces, and the illustrations that are very enticing and immersive. When you're a little kid, a picture can be so intense. I really enjoyed creating those places and just forming that vibe.

SF: Another interesting thing about both of those kids’ stories is that they allow for the central character to move around and learn, without it having to be a hero's journey, where someone comes back from their adventure feeling victorious and, only as a result of that, transformed. That conquering approach doesn’t appeal to me. When I was drafting Where We Were Young I was trying to build an alternative and oppositional force of story, that is compelling not because of that drama. Not to say there isn’t any drama or tension in my book, but it's not in there for the sake of it.

Instead, I was trying to get my protagonist to feel more like a human being. As a person in a capitalist world, and also as a neurodivergent person, to get through experiences I often do this thing that there’s a mental health term for. It’s called masking, where you identify how you’re supposed to act in a given situation and force yourself to present like that. A lot of the time when I'm struggling to move through tasks fluidly, the way that my brain is “supposed to,” to keep pace, I think of myself sort of like a robot. I've really been trying to untrain that from my way of being.

But it made me think that if I could look at a character who comes from the same question, comes from the same place, and watch her grow into an adult by feeling more and more human, and more connected to who she started off as, who she is, to the world around her, the places she goes, her history, and herself, and feel like she's a part of nature—what a fucking success. That would be a really great way to come of age. And so that's what I wanted for her, and that became the structure that I was trying to work through.

SM: I can’t help feeling this relates back to your ideas around slow writing. How the process of slow writing allows for the character’s growth to be written in a truer way, because the writer herself is able to grow, too. Which I think is very cool and actually takes on a whole new layer if I think about how Shirah also writes in the novel, the way we get these embedded narratives within the larger work.

SF: Yeah. I think that sometimes when we know that we have to live through something, have to live through time because we're human beings, the question becomes, how am I going to do this?

SM: Is that why Shirah starts writing?

SF: I think the reason Shirah starts writing is because she needs a little bit of distance from life. And she needs a method to bring meaning to what she's doing. But as a really young person who's not totally aware of that, moving through the world and having experiences, when things get confusing for her and she becomes overwhelmed, she thinks, “Okay, well, maybe I can just move this around in my mind and reorganize it. And what if this person in my real life was a little bit different? How would that feel?”

Through the process of rearranging things artificially in her stories, she learns about the really problematic ethical elements that can come up with doing that. Which is such a big part I think, of growing into a fully formed human being—thinking about your personal ethics and what feels like a good way to live in the world.

SM: Oh man, yeah. Becoming a fully formed human being is so hard!

SF: Definitely. What about you? I love the way you built an alternative coming of age narrative in Desperada, too!

SM: Thanks, Sarah! The story exists inside Kora’s loss, and loss is typically associated with a coming of age—you know, the classic loss of innocence that we've all talked about in high school English class a thousand times. But, I don't think that the book is about that, exactly. It’s about Kora and her grief. In many classic coming of age stories there’s a lot of internal reflection, and she has some of that, but there's a way that she comes into her own only through being able to interact with other people and seeing who she is in relation to them—feeling how this person sees her and asking if that’s how she sees herself.

SF: Right.

I struggle with these traditional notions of coming of age that promote a specific sense of how a person is formed. I mean, there are social structures, there are identity markers, there's the land, experiences, memories. How much of that is chosen?

SM: In Barcelona, there's the boy she's renting a room from, Santiago, and he and his friends sort of sexualize her, which makes her think, is that what I am? The artists in Berlin tell her everybody is an artist—you don't even have to make art. And she engages in a way she never would have if she'd stayed in Toronto. She’s not trying to become or create herself, exactly. It’s more of an unveiling, or remembering of who she is that is happening. Which I don’t believe you can do without being in relation with others. In a way, that feels truer to me … I struggle with these traditional notions of coming of age that promote a specific sense of how a person is formed. I mean, there are social structures, there are identity markers, there's the land, experiences, memories. How much of that is chosen? I think for a long time people have followed a very neat little packaged version of it.

The bildungsroman had to be about moral progress and being educated in a particular way within the status quo—becoming a person that doesn't ruffle any feathers within society. Certainly some of the books I’ve read match that, so it’s interesting to see writers doing it differently, in different, cool, and interesting ways. Like your book.

SF: Thanks, Sofia. That means a lot to me.

This is just a divergent thought, but something kind of interesting structurally to me about using an embedded narrative is this idea that if there's a story within a story, and a reader recognizes a story as something with an inciting incident, a rising action, a climax, a falling action, and a conclusion, well then that has to happen a lot through the book—and it decentralizes a singular climax and creates more multiplicity. But in your book, it felt like there was another centralizing force at play—death.

Actually, I was thinking we could talk about Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller,” which I know was inspiring to you while writing Desperada. In it, he writes about how readers have an inherent interest in death, that by reading a novel, when death is an element of a book, it creates intrigue. A feeling of suspense is brought to the reader’s life by reminding them that they will die. Was that something that you were thinking about, as a device or as a structural tool?

SM: Well, I think so. I mean, I’ve read that essay at so many different points in my life. And my protagonist is paralyzed by the question of how she can live in this world where she knows everyone she loves will die. That piece talks a lot about death because it's only in the death of something, or after an ending, that we can look back and have a full understanding of the thing.

I was also reading George Lukas’s The Theory of the Novel, and his ideas about what the novel does differently from, say, poetry or the epic. He talks about how, for him, it’s wrapped up with the way time functions in the novel, which is connected with endings, and death. The novel ending becomes like a figurative death, the thing that gives itself authority.

About the authors

Sarah Feldbloom holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and has completed residencies at Artscape Gibraltar Point, the Banff Centre, and NES Arts in Skagaströnd, Iceland. She teaches in the Department of English at Humber College, where she serves as a fiction editor for The Humber Literary Review. She’s also worked as a media producer with organizations such as Global News, The Toronto Star, CBC, and Shameless Magazine and has facilitated community arts and media projects across Canada. You can find her writing in publications including Riddle Fence, Grain, Broken Pencil, Bad Nudes, The Feathertale Review, Carousel Magazine, The Town Crier, ÖMËGÄ, Incongruous Quarterly, and others.

Sofia Mostaghimi’s debut novel Desperada is out now with Random House Canada. A graduate of U of T’s Creative Writing program, her work has appeared in various magazines such as The Fiddlehead, The Ex-Puritan, Joyland Magazine, and The Hart House Review, as well as various anthologies including Good Mom on Paper: Writers on Creativity and Motherhood and After Realism: 24 Stories for the 21st Century. In 2018, her excerpt of Desperada was long-listed for The Journey Prize, and her story, "The Day You Were Born," appeared in The Unpublished City, which was short-listed for The 2018 Toronto Book Awards. She likes to write about places, spaces, and the identities that mark them and are marked by them.