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Author Reza Aslan reveals 5 pieces of writing that changed his life

We spoke to Aslan about his influences, his new talk show, and why truly great writing is so rare.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Reza Aslan loves writing.

That might seem like an obvious thing to say about a writer who's known for several approachable but scholarly nonfiction works about religion, including Zealot and No god but God, among others. But Aslan also loves to talk about the craft of writing, about other writers whose work he's loved, and the sheer joy of a perfectly wrought sentence.

Aslan recently brought that love to television with his new talk show, Rough Draft. Airing on the Ovation cable network (a channel dedicated to the arts), Rough Draft features Aslan talking with different types of writers — though his season one guests mostly work in television — about their philosophies of life, their work, and their art. Aslan is quite simply interested in what his guests might think about things beyond their work, but he's also interested in their working lives, their writing processes, and the technical details of that work.

In keeping with that theme, I wanted to ask Aslan about the books that have inspired him — and which of his own pieces he's most proud of (in spite of the fact that, like many writers, he's endlessly self-critical). We talked about Dostoyevsky, Wolf Hall, and Star Trek, among other things.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The first book he read that changed his life

Reza Aslan

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was 16 years old, and it was The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

I didn't go to a very good public school in California in the Bay Area. I'd always been very interested in reading and in literature, and I was in the advanced English class, but it wasn't all that advanced. We were all reading James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, which I thought was awful.

I didn't want to read it, so I found this book and it was by a Russian author and it was 1,000 pages, and I knew nothing about it. I just thought, how cool would I be if I read this book? I started reading it, and I could not stop. I was sitting in my English class, reading it under the desk. The teacher caught me and said, "Put it away," and I did. I pulled it out again, and he said, "Put it away." I did, but I pulled it out again, and he gave me detention.

I just want to clarify that I got detention in English class for reading Dostoyevsky.

I was at the very end of the book when you finally discover who the murderer was. Instead of going to the dean's office, I sat on a bench outside to finish it. I finished it, and I had this feeling I had never felt before. I thought to myself, "I want to make other people feel the way that Dostoyevsky just made me feel," and that was it. I wanted to be a writer, and I've never wanted to be anything else.

Todd VanDerWerff

How would you describe that feeling?

Reza Aslan

As though the lights had been turned on and I'd been caught naked. That's probably the best expression.

The best thing a writer can do is to put into words emotions that you have always had but have never been able to actually verbalize, to actually admit to yourself. They're emotions that you have tucked away in the back of your brain in the deepest, darkest regions of your identity, and suddenly someone steps forward and says, "Not only do I know what that emotion is, I'm going to describe it in words."

That talent is extraordinary. That's why there are so few really great writers. But when someone does that to you, it changes everything.

Todd VanDerWerff

Since you now have a show where you interview writers, what would you ask Dostoyevsky, if you could?

Reza Aslan

I'd probably talk to him about how his struggle with his faith informed his artistic endeavors. Dostoyevsky was very famously Russian Orthodox. A lot of his writings, in particular The Brothers Karamazov, grapple with what that even means.

What does it mean to be a person of faith, particularly a Christian in this case, in a world that, if you recall, was post-Enlightenment? It was the industrial revolution. It was the "God is dead" moment. Nietzsche. Freud. Everyone was saying the intellect is going to finally rise above the notion of faith in the world.

[For Dostoyevsky], it was Raskolnikov with Crime and Punishment, this person who thinks faith is all superstition and that his reason alone will raise him above human morality — but of course it doesn't. Or it's Ivan and the great story of "The Grand Inquisitor," [a section of Karamazov]. Jesus comes back, and the grand inquisitor puts him in prison and says, "We don't need you anymore." Jesus stands up, kisses the grand inquisitor on the forehead, and walks out.

These kinds of things I'd love to pick his brain about, and it's not just because that's what I'm interested in — faith — but also because I think faith is still something that's ever present in art, even when the artist is unaware of it.

I talked to [Transparent creator] Jill Soloway about her Jewishness [on Rough Draft] and how it's so present in Transparent. It's just there all the time. It was remarkable, because she was saying she did not grow up very Jewish but always had this longing for it, and when she had an opportunity to create her own show it just kind of came out of her.

Same with Damon Lindelof [another Rough Draft guest], who clearly writes about these very spiritual topics whether it's The Leftovers or Lost, but who himself did not grow up in a very religious family. Yet he is so fascinated by mystery and enigma that he almost unconsciously suffuses it with spiritualism. It's ever present.

The book that taught him the most about writing

Reza Aslan

I went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop — the sort of famed, celebrated place, incubator for great writers — and studied with the legendary Frank Conroy, who had been there for 30-something years.

I was invited there by him actually. I [had written] a novel. I didn't know what to do with the novel, and I was a big fan of [Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist] Marilynne Robinson. She taught there, and so like a moron I just sent the book to Marilynne Robinson and said, "I like you. I wrote a book. I hope you like it."

God bless her, instead of tossing it into the recycling bin, she threw it into the [writers workshop] submissions pile, and next thing I know I was called by the workshop and offered a fellowship to come and study there. I was told that Frank Conroy specifically asked for me.

So I went in there thinking, "Wow, Frank Conroy loves me!" I sat through my first workshop, I turned in my piece, and then he spent three hours eviscerating it. Afterward he said to me, "You clearly understand what story is, which is good, because that can't be taught, but you don't know how to write, which is good, because that can be taught."

Then he gave me a book by Jim Crace, a great contemporary British writer, called Quarantine, and he said, "Read this, and you'll understand what I mean," and he was right. It's this notion that writing happens at the level of the sentence. The sentence is what you have. It's your sole tool, and so your sentence has to be perfect.

It has to be crafted in the way that a chef is aware of every ingredient that goes into the full meal. I think a lot of writers focus on the meal and not the ingredients. That's what I learned from Jim Crace especially, who's still one of my favorite writers, but also from Frank Conroy, my teacher and mentor.

The first time he felt a film or TV show was well-written

Reza Aslan

I've always been a Star Trek fan, and I watched the original show. When The Next Generation came on, I thought, "Oh, this will be great. I'll watch this."

What Star Trek is famous for, obviously, is dealing with contemporary issues in a sci-fi fantasy realm, but the original series dealt with issues from the '60s, which were not issues to me at all. I would watch some of these episodes, and they seemed very pedantic to me. The metaphor is so in your face that it's no longer even a metaphor.

Then when I watched The Next Generation, I was just out of high school, and it was dealing with issues that I was now aware of, that I was complicit in, prejudices that I had. It suddenly occurred to me not just that there's writing involved in this that tells a cohesive story, but there is a power in that writing that I was not cognizant of before. There's a power to tackle very difficult issues through storytelling, through entertainment, that is much more impactful even than polemics or news.

I never get tired of reminding people that data does not change minds. You can be given poll after poll after poll, survey after survey after survey, challenging your view on something, and it doesn't matter. What changes your mind is relationships and storytelling. They work on a completely different part of you. They're dealing with your emotions, rather than your reason. That's what TV does really well, and that's all writing.

Todd VanDerWerff

Has pop culture changed your mind on any topic in particular?

Reza Aslan

When I was in high school, I became an evangelical Christian. Very conservative, fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, evangelical Christian, and everything that that entailed. Certainly part of that evangelical identity is a real negativity toward the LGBT community. That was fed to me with all of its biblical precepts and theological justifications, and I simply accepted it and parroted it back.

But I started watching all these sort of great TV shows, right? Many of which had these really fascinating, sophisticated LGBT characters in them who were living kind of normal lives and dealing with their sexuality.

When you start seeing someone of a different race or creed or sexual persuasion or gender or nationality, when you start seeing them in a fictionalized form, living three-dimensional lives, it becomes impossible to otherize them. This was all around the time I began to abandon evangelical Christianity anyway, but that was a real challenge to me. It actually just accelerated my abandoning of that lifestyle.

The first time he wrote something he was really happy with

Reza Aslan

I'll be honest. I am very critical of my writing, as I think most people are.

When I finished the manuscript for my first book, No god but God, I remember I woke up in the morning, I made a giant pot of coffee, and I read it from beginning to end before I turned it in. I do clearly remember finishing it and thinking to myself, "Huh. I did not hate that."

It was palpable. I wasn't overjoyed and in love with it, but I remember thinking, "Maybe this is kind of good." It's a fleeting feeling, as you well know, but it has stayed with me. There have been times now where I will read something [I wrote], and I'll think, "Wow, that usual feeling of self-loathing that I have isn't there. Maybe I've got something here."

Todd VanDerWerff

Have any of your guests said something that made you think, "Wow, I don't know anything about writing at all"?

Reza Aslan

We always end the show with what we call the five questions, and [one of those questions is] "What's the best advice that you can give a young and struggling writer?"

What I always find hilarious is how often the best advice that you can give contradicts the advice the previous guest just gave. There's a moment when I'm interviewing Tim Kring, the creator of Heroes and Crossing Jordan, and his advice was, "Take the note. You may not agree with it, but the other person's perspective is important, and you should take it. Even if it doesn't make sense to you, take the note." I thought, "Boy, that's a fascinating way of thinking about it."

Then I interviewed Mike White, writer of School of Rock, Nacho Libre, Enlightened, etc., and he said, "Never take the note. If the note comes out of left field, it's because it's irrelevant to you and just ignore it," and I thought, "Well that's pretty good advice too."

The last really great book he read

Reza Aslan

The last really great book I read that made me have that feeling that is so rare for a reader was Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I immediately began to gobble up [the sequel] Bring Up the Bodies. And I'm waiting. When is the third one coming?

When you're a writer, it's really hard to read books for enjoyment any longer. I'm sure if you're a director, it's impossible to enjoy a film really anymore, because you're constantly narrowing it down to its constituent elements and analyzing why it works or doesn't work.

I'm the kind of reader where if there's one or two false notes, or, heaven forbid, three false notes, it's over. Time to put the book away. [While reading Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies] back to back, I would actually stop every once in a while, close the cover, and take a breath and think, "Okay. That sentence left me breathless."

That kind of writing is so rare. It exists, but it tends to not be popular. To see the kind of success [Mantel] has had, the global success with these books, just makes me think there's hope.

Rough Draft airs Sundays at 8:30 pm Eastern on Ovation. Watch clips from previous episodes at the show's website.


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