SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Scott Ferdowsi is 16 years old, hasn't figured out what he wants to do with his life. That worries his Iranian-American parents who believe their son lacks drive - grit - and doesn't take advantage of the opportunities they work so hard to give him. Hoping to find his purpose in life, Scott quits his perfectly good summer internship, high-tails it to Washington D.C., the city of ambitious young people working as bartenders and servers on their way to being lobbyists and legislators. "Down And Across" is the debut novel for young adults from Arvin Ahmadi. He joins us from New York.
Thanks so much for being with us.
ARVIN AHMADI: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Does he lack grit, or has he just not found something to fall in love with a little?
AHMADI: He doesn't know. And that's the thing. And that's kind of how I fell upon grit. It's this inspirational idea that the No.1 indicator of success isn't your IQ or where you come from, it's grit, your ability to persevere.
SIMON: Tenacity might be - yeah.
AHMADI: Sure. Tenacity, persistence. But it's also kind of terrifying, especially if you have this track record of trying different things or giving up.
SIMON: Scott's given up a lot, hasn't he?
AHMADI: He has. He's tried every club at school, switches his future path every five seconds. He can't quite nail down what that future path will look like.
SIMON: His name at birth was Saaket. Tell us about his name, how he changed and about his family.
AHMADI: Sure. So Scott is Iranian-American. His parents are Iranian immigrants. And Saaket in Farsi means quiet. And he ends up going by Scott from a young age. And that, to me, was because I think so many of us, especially children of immigrants - children who look different - hated being different. And so Scott from an early age - you know, he decides to go by an American name because that's a way of making himself less different.
SIMON: And tell us about his parents. I loved his parents.
AHMADI: Yeah. Well, his parents are tricky because the opening scene is an argument between Scott and his dad, you know, who he finds to be overbearing. And his dad is trying to compromise. And Scott, of course, takes that little bit of compromise that his parents are leaving him home alone for a few weeks, and he abuses it. He runs away from home. And I think that's the struggle with his parents.
SIMON: Any of you in your character?
AHMADI: No, no, not at all (laughter). Now the story...
SIMON: That wasn't the answer I was expecting.
AHMADI: No, the story is very autobiographical. I mean, it was inspired when I saw a real-life TED Talk by a real-life professor, Angela Duckworth, about grit. And it inspired me, and it terrified me. And so I created this fictional version of her and had Scott run away to meet her.
SIMON: I've read that Scott, as you originally drafted him, wasn't an Iranian-American youngster.
AHMADI: That's correct. When I first started writing "Down And Across," Scott was Jack, and he was not Iranian. And then I - you know, eventually, I made him half-Indian and half-white so that I could inject some of my experiences in there, the son of immigrants. And you know, finally I decided - screw it. I'm going to make this an authentic story about my experiences growing up and struggling with failure and my future path.
SIMON: You struggled with failure?
AHMADI: Yeah, which is funny to think about because I was, like, your classic overachiever in high school.
AHMADI: I grew up in Northern Virginia. I went to a local magnet school, Thomas Jefferson. And I participated in every club and went to a good college. But no, deep down, I constantly had impostor syndrome. I think it was this constant uncertainty about my future. And I think we're seeing more stories like that in a lot of different mediums - how, on the surface, a person may appear one way but underneath the surface, they're are a lot more complicated and there's this self-doubt.
SIMON: Yeah. Well, that's one of the oldest stories in the arts, not to mention YA...
AHMADI: Of course.
SIMON: ...literature, isn't it? Yeah.
AHMADI: Right. But it's not a story that we saw very much among diverse folks - among marginalized folks, among women, among people of color, people from different sexualities. So I think we're getting those classic stories now but repurposed in a diverse sense.
SIMON: As a parent, I don't want to approve of a youngster who deceives his parents and runs away. But all of that being said, he shows a lot of grit in doing that, doesn't he?
AHMADI: He does. And I wouldn't advise running away either. I gave it a shot when I was a teenager, and I only lasted 12 hours. And...
SIMON: Twelve hours?
AHMADI: (Laughter) Yeah, I ran away from Northern Virginia to Dupont Circle, so I didn't even make it very far. I...
SIMON: Twelve hours - that's 12 blocks, too, or is it...
AHMADI: No, I mean, I just hopped on a Metro bus.
SIMON: Forgive me - when you got home, did your parents even know you'd run away (laughter)?
AHMADI: They did. And you know why - you know how they did? Because I had left a window open. I - you know, I could've have used the door and closed the door.
AHMADI: But because I was a dramatic teenager, I escaped through the window and left it open so they knew I had run away. But no, I admire Scott's tenacity. And I think it's a lesson for us all that we're shaped by experiences and that we should be willing to take risks - maybe not necessarily running away, especially as teenagers, but do things outside of our comfort zone.
SIMON: Arvin Ahmadi - his debut YA novel is "Down And Across." Thanks so much for being with us.
AHMADI: Thanks a lot, Scott.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRECIOUS FATHERS' "PRAIRIE TRAIN")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.