What inspired you to tell this story?
The first time I tried to explain the contours of my family and, frankly, my grief was when I was in third grade. I wrote a little story of my father’s death, illustrated it, and then my teacher helped me bind it. I knew then that I’d write this book. Every few years, I’d tell it, again and again. On holidays and family gatherings, my mother or aunts and uncles, cousins and family friends would exchange stories, and I wanted to be the one to record some of them.
Then, after my mother died when I was 31, it felt like the story I had to tell–a way to grieve her loss but also, a way to honor my parents, my family, and the whole of our community. It was also how I learned to write long-form.
What did you edit out of this book?
They Said They Wanted Revolution has had several forms, but it really began as my MFA thesis. Hundreds of pages of research and reporting, various attempts to get scenes down were cut out. Honestly, there was more cut out than there was left in.
Mainly, I took out stories I couldn’t verify – I had spoked to one Leftist revolutionary in northern California who told me an amazing story about how he smuggled guns from Los Angeles to Tehran, Iran. He used appliances and digital clock radios, he said. I still wish I could’ve gotten one more source on that to feel comfortable getting it in the book.
I also edited out scenes I felt I didn’t have the skills to fully convey. One scene, for example, I finally get to my father’s grave for the first time. I’m 24 years old and completely overcome. I fell my knees and crying, and crawled to the grave. The amazing part was that the family members who were with me gave me space to lose my mind a little. Eventually, I got myself together.
When I tried to write that scene, it felt overwrought. Its the adage, write from your scars and not your wounds. I think I have the skills and distance to write now, but I didn’t then.
How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion?
I don’t honestly remember how I knew I was done. I had a pretty tight outline, so when I reached the end of it, I sent in my draft. My editor was pretty distracted and ended up leaving the publishing house, which was really tough blow. I felt like I ended up editing it myself even though another person, who was very talented and kind, helped me get it to the finish.
In the end, I was done because there was deadline and a month later I had a baby. It was a pretty clear before and after. Since my memoir was reported, I literally learned a lot about myself–details about my parents and our families, developed skills around reporting and research, and how to be a professional writer. Then, when it was filed and going copyedits, I was recovering from a tough birth and figuring out motherhood. The book, I think, taught me patience and, probably, how not to take things so personally.
What was your agenting process like?
Oh God, my agenting and publishing process were painful. My first agent ghosted me. The second clearly didn’t vibe with my work and handed me off to her junior agent. The junior agent was great and super supportive, but then she left agenting and handed me off again. It was great luck that four times was a charm.
It ended up being a great lesson, in the end. Agents are your first-round editors so, yeah, try and land one who is good at editing and writing; one who will champion your work, and know that they are providing a service, one they’re paid for handsomely. Actually, it’s a little dating: we rarely end up with the first person we go out with, and that’s a good thing. Know your worth, believe in your work, because no one else is obligated to do either.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
A couple things come to mind: every plane ticket, tank of gas, or train journey that got me to a place I was writing about has proved priceless. Even if the event I’m writing about is decades in the past, going to where it happened changes how I write it. There are surprises and details I couldn’t have known over the phone, or in an archive, or via Google maps. My job becomes easier in some ways. It’s becomes description, rather than invention.
I also decided to get my MFA from Goucher College. It is a low-residency program with extraordinary professors, and I found my writing family there. I learned the pain and privilege of writing nonfiction with those people. People who inspire me and have made me a better, more fearless reporter and writer.
How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day.
It depends on the day or what I’m working on. I’m a print reporter, audio producer, and television writer; I write essays and sometimes fiction–I’m supposed to be working on a book proposal now–so it depends on the rolling deadlines in my life.
Generally, for generative work, I have to write or, at least start writing, in the morning. Once there are words on the page and I have a narrative map, I can write into the night. This is a little different for news writing, but for longer, more complex pieces, it’s new stuff in the morning and editing in the afternoon or evening. Honestly, I wrote most of my book between 5 A.M. and 9 A.M.
Through trial and error, I’ve learned to set a timer if I’m particularly anxious. Normally, in the beginning of a project, I can write for 45 minutes. Then, I break. Then, another 45. I am less worried about time in the chair, than I am about words on the page. A lot of my work comes through in my revision process, and that only happens after there is something to revise.
What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?
I think, writing begets writing. In other words, write a feature and then sitdown and write a script, and then write a poem and journal. In my opinion, writing is a craft more than it is an elevated artform–the only way to be a good craftsperson to do work. The great privilege of being writer or a reporter is that if you do it, you are it. No one has the authority to tell you that you’re not a writer or a reporter. So get to work.
Figure out how to tell a story: watch lots of television and movies, listen to podcasts, read popular fiction. High-brow stuff is great and will teach you how to take risks in your sentences and in other ways, but the genius of storytelling is found in commercial spaces, where success is measured keeping people glued to a book or the screen. This is where character, story, and pacing are everything. Don’t be a snob. Study it.
Fail. Fail often. Fail spectacularly. Bathe in your rejections. It will build your resiliency. You’ll learn, get better, more determined, and, hopefully, kinder. Editors need determined writers, the whole system relies on us.
What does literary success look like to you?
I don’t know, really. Am I successful because I wrote the book I wanted to write and got it published? Am I successful because readers have connected with it? Or because having written my book has given me confidence or because doors I didn’t know were there opened wide for me? My book wasn’t a bestseller but I am proud of it and of how it has made its way in the world.
I think what makes me successful is that my book is just one thing I’ve done, not the totality of my literary career or ambitions. Having a future–or, rather, claiming my future in this often difficult space is its own kind of success.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I’m lucky enough to have quite a few author friends Kristina Gaddy, Nick Tabor, Stephanie Gorton, Jean Guerrero, Adam Valen Levenson, Rachel Dickinson, Theo Emery, Nilo Tabrizy, Porochista Khapour, Kati Standefer, Jana Pruden, Linda Yablonsky, Amanda Becker, and quite a few more. I think, mostly, they teach me how to be a better writer by being generous, patient, honest, enthusiastic, and kind. Most I met in graduate school, others in residencies, or through work. Each one is a working writer, so there is no real airy-fairy-ness.
Writing is work. Work is hard. We’re our own bosses, and bosses often suck. It’s nice to have people who get that whoever said, “Do what you love and you’ll work a day in your life” was a lying liar.
Who are you writing for?
Ultimately, I guess, it’s myself, always. I write news, features, and nonfiction in all its forms for those without a voice and to reveal hard truths about our world. I write fiction to remind myself how people persevere and, often, to laugh. I also write for my kid–so he gets to know me apart from being his mom.
Neda Toloui-Semnani (she/her) is a three-time Emmy award-winning journalist. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Cut, The Washington Post, Kinfolk, New York Magazine, LA Review of Books, The Baffler, and This American Life among others. She wrote and produced television for VICE News Tonight. She holds a masters of science in gender and social policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a masters in fine arts in nonfiction from Goucher College. She was named a 2017 NYSCA/NYFA fellow in Nonfiction and a 2018 fellow with the Logan Nonfiction Program. Her acclaimed debut, They Said They Wanted Revolution: A Memoir of My Parents, was published in 2022 by Little A.