June 8, 2004
Author Finds That With Fame Comes Image Management
n one whirlwind year, Azar Nafisi has found herself drawn further and further into the maddening, seductive fold of American success. She has gone from unknown academic émigré to literary celebrity with the startling commercial success of "Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books," about life and literature under the Islamic government in Iran. Pushed by world events that have made Muslim women interesting to American book club readers, the book is now in its 21st week on the paperback best-seller list of The New York Times.
The stars seem aligned in her favor. So why has this Iranian professor and author been brooding as much as celebrating? "We all know how dangerous it is for a dream to come true," Ms. Nafisi said in an interview. "It is so amazing in America because you say, `I want this' and they say, `Come and get it.' " Now, she wonders, "How much time do you have to spend creating or not creating an image?"
Ms. Nafisi, 54, is learning the pitfalls and conundrums of playing the fame game in her adopted country as she contends with her corporate handlers, her book club fans and jealous former countrymen. "I thought I can live with the snide remarks: `Look at her wanting to become a celebrity, yada yada,' " she said. "That is not pleasant, but you can live with it. But one thing I can't live with, which I would criticize, is to be in competition with my book. A writer should allow the work to speak for itself."
Still, when Random House, her publisher, encouraged her to take part in a marketing campaign for Audi, sponsored by Condé Nast, she agreed. After all, in exchange for her participation, for which she was not paid, Audi is sponsoring literary events in five cities. "This seemed a good chance to talk about the causes I like to a wider audience," Ms. Nafisi said.
To promote Audi, a picture of Ms. Nafisi, suspended in air in front of a shelf of books, appeared last month in several publications owned by Advance Magazine Group, Condé Nast's parent, including Vanity Fair, Wired, Golf Digest, The New Yorker and Vogue.
She is joined by David Bowie (Audi is sponsoring his latest tour), the actor William H. Macy and the teenage soccer star Freddy Adu, all part of Audi of America's "Never Follow" campaign to promote the brand to affluent and educated potential buyers. "We want to make Audi distinct from BMW or Mercedes by associating it with these people," explained Rod Brown, management supervisor for the Audi of America account at McKinney & Silver, the North Carolina advertising company that dreamed this up with Condé Nast for Audi. Last year's "Never Follow" honorees included John Malkovich, K. D. Lang and Daniel Libeskind.
"We wanted people who weren't just famous or rich but who are doing something really cool," Mr. Brown said. He had an immediate response when Ms. Nafisi's name was mentioned by a Condé Nast publicist who used to work at Random House. "A light bulb went off," he said. "Azar is to literature what Audi is to cars."
The analogy might be strange to Ms. Nafisi, who does not drive. And the strangeness of her new life struck her in full force at the Manhattan party introducing this year's "Never Follow" campaign. For certain New Yorkers it was a familiar scene: mountains of hors d'oeuvres, opulent flowers, open bar, the paparazzi outside, the sleek men and women admitted to indulge and to gawk. The guests included celebrities like Brad Pitt and Edie Falco. For Ms. Nafisi this was new. "What does any of this have to do with my book?" she asked more than once.
Not even a few gulps of Champagne loosened Ms. Nafisi's restraint, even as she stood less than 10 feet from Mr. Bowie as he serenaded about 500 undulating partygoers. "While I was going through the motions, I was analyzing myself, analyzing David Bowie, looking at the crowd, wondering what they were thinking," she said. But, she said: "To be a writer you want as much experience as possible. And I liked David Bowie. There is an inner elegance. Another rock star I would not have wanted to be associated with."
No one expected any of this from a book that requires readers to undertake a serious examination of the relationship between literary text and life. "I've worked on books that have taken off beyond expectation but never on this level and never this kind of book," said Libby McGuire, Random House's senior vice president for marketing. "This is not an easy book. I wasn't surprised that something like `The Secret Life of Bees' took off. You can give that book to anyone from 15 years old to 80 years old. This is so different from that."
Ms. Nafisi had been overwhelmed with pessimism about her book's prospects. "I would call my editor day and night," she recalled. "I told her: `This book will not sell a copy. It is hopeless.' "
Random House acquired the book in 1999, when it was still an idea, for a $30,000 advance. "We felt there was definitely a message about books we thought would appeal to booksellers, and if they read it you have a better chance of them recommending it to someone," Ms. McGuire said. "That was our hope, our wish." In 2002 the company announced a first printing of 25,000 copies, intending, Ms. McGuire said, to print 12,000.
But Sept. 11 had changed the subject's appeal and its potential audience. The sales force obtained orders from bookstores for more than 20,000 copies before publication. The announced first printing was increased to 50,000 copies. Meanwhile the buildup to war in Iraq increased Ms. Nafisi's public recognition. As a visiting professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and with her intelligence wrapped in an appealing package of warmth and forthrightness, she had become a popular commentator. Her persona, along with enthusiastic reviews, helped sell 95,000 copies of her book in hardcover.
Using standard prediction for nonfiction titles, Random House expected paperback sales to be similar to hardcover or maybe a bit more, Ms. McGuire said. Random House promoted the book in its online newsletter, which goes to 5,000 reading clubs, and offered to have Ms. Nafisi call and discuss the book while they were meeting. The book made its paperback debut on The Times's best-seller list in January, quickly moved to No. 1 and has sold 484,000 copies. The company has also sold rights in 22 countries.
Ms. Nafisi has been traveling and speaking extensively for more than a year. Last month she was onstage with Eve Ensler, who wrote "The Vagina Monologues," at a PEN event in New York. Ms. Nafisi is now touring Europe as part of the paperback promotion. She has done interviews together with Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir's son, and bonded with make-up men from Afghanistan.
She has also confronted naysayers and ill-wishers. "People from my country have said the book was successful because of a Zionist conspiracy and U.S. imperialism, and others have criticized me for washing our dirty laundry in front of the enemy," she said.
Ms. Nafisi said she has also had to contend with her own intellectual snobbery as she has toured the United States and met her fans, most of whom live outside the academic realm she has inhabited, first in Iran and now in the West. "I had always looked at book groups a little condescendingly, like ladies clubs from the 1950's," she said. "Then I met all these people through bookstores and book groups and realized how fantastic it is that people get together to talk about books."
Now, she says, she fears the biggest obstacle to writing may be success. Before leaving Iran seven years ago, she said, "I wondered, `Will I ever be able without worry to sit down and write and teach?' I can now complain to no one because no one is preventing me from writing. But they are, in a sense, by their enthusiasm. There are too many good people to talk to."