Kiyash Monsef grew up in northern California in a house on the slope of a forested ravine, with his parents, his Iranian grandmother, and his younger brother. His earliest creative influences were the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual, D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, and Tom McGowen's Encyclopedia of Legendary Creatures. After finishing college, he spent 20 years working in media, producing Emmy-nominated television and writing short stories, comic books and games. These days, he lives with his family on the slope of a forested ravine in northern California, and thinks about monsters and legendary creatures.
Once There Was (Simon & Schuster Children's Books)
Once There Was brings ancient Iranian legends and stories of mythical creatures into a very contemporary landscape. Marjan, who is struggling with grief following her father's death - and with all the problems that come with running his veterinary business, discovers that creatures that should only be found in fairytales really do exist... and that they need her help.
Read a chapter from Once There Was
5* Review: "This is an extraordinary, many layered novel, weaving monsters with Iranian folklore and a girl, unable to grieve for her parents and left with a gift she does not understand."
Author and screen writer Kiyash Monsef tells us more about his debut novel, Once There Was, and what inspired the story, and gives a short reading from the novel.
Q&A with Kiyash Monsef
1. Can you tell us a little about you and how you started writing for children? What is your 'day job'?
Once There Was is my first novel, and I like to think of it as not just a story for children, but a story for anyone who enjoys realistic fantasy, mythology, and the tradition and power of storytelling. These are themes that have always interested me. My work outside of books has almost always had a storytelling element. While I was writing this book, I was also working in video production, comics, game design, and interaction design, all of which required a storytelling mindset.
2. What happens in your debut, Once There Was? Where does the title come from?
Once There Was is the story of a fifteen year old girl named Marjan who inherits her father's veterinary clinic after his sudden death, and soon discovers that he was in fact secretly caring for creatures that should only exist in fairy tales -- and now those creatures need Marjan's help. Marjan must use the stories and fables her father told her when she was young to guide her in helping the animals, while also trying to solve the mystery of her father's death, and figure out who in this world she can trust. Marjan's father was Iranian, and the title of the book comes from a phrase in Farsi that is used to introduce fairy tales: "yeki bood, yeki nabood," which means "once there was, once there wasn't."
3. You have said that it has taken several years to write Once There Was - what was the idea that started it?
The story began with the vague idea of a veterinary clinic for mythical creatures. But what made it real and meaningful to me was Marjan's journey to connect with and understand her Iranian heritage, and the interweaving of Iranian storytelling traditions and mythology.
4. Have the myths and monsters you mention stemmed from stories you heard in your own childhood? How have you made them your own? What gave you the idea for including the short stories / fables between the main chapters?
I have always loved learning about monsters and mythical creatures, ever since I was a child, so the creatures in this book have been with me in some form or other since childhood. I think monsters and mythical creatures give a unique window into the cultural beliefs that created them, and at the same time, they are always being reinvented and reimagined, and there's something magical about that -- that as a storyteller today, you can be in direct conversation with storytellers from thousands of years ago.
That conversation, and the short fables and stories that came out of it, was one of the most exciting parts of writing this book. Those stories happened because I wanted to give these creatures a distinct mythology that belonged specifically to this story. I wanted that mythology to feel familiar at times, ancient and obscure at others, strange and new at others, and ultimately visceral and accessible for a modern audience.
5. How else have you drawn on your Persian / Iranian(?) cultural heritage in writing Once There Was? What do you have in common with your protagonist, Marjan?
Marjan, like me, is Iranian-American, and her experiences with her cultural heritage are very much based on my own experiences of trying with varying degrees of success to figure out how to fit into different social and societal structures. When I was young, my Iranian grandmother used to tell me stories. That feeling -- the power of sitting at the feet of an elder and receiving an old story, was something I wanted this book to radiate. There are elements of it in Once There Was that are specific to Persian tradition -- the phrase "yeki bood, yeki nabood," the settings of the stories that Marjan is told -- but the feeling of taking in a story that way is something that I think transcends any one culture, and is in fact fundamentally and universally human.
6. Marjan inherits a veterinary clinic, and her work with mythical creatures uses these skills; you give some quite graphic accounts of this work. How did you go about researching these ailments, and was giving these creatures real illnesses part of making this world convincing to your reader?
What initially excited me about the idea for this novel was the juxtaposition of these mythical creatures with the banal realities of medical care. The idea that even they can get heartworms, that their injuries require the same kinds of treatments that ours do. These creatures take up real space. They bump into walls and ceilings in rooms that aren't designed to accommodate them, and that's part of what makes their presence in our world convincing. I did a lot of research to try to get all the medical parts right. I read veterinary manuals and medical pamphlets. I learned about specific instruments and technologies. I watched videos of surgeries and other procedures on youtube. And I paid extra attention every time I took my dog to the veterinarian, for texture and details to make that part of the story feel real.
7. While the story is about mythical creatures, are you also reflecting on how we treat 'exotic' creatures in the real world?
I think I'm reflecting on a lot of things through the creatures. The concept of empathy for all creatures, exotic or not, is one of them. Monsters and mythical creatures have often served as metaphors for human qualities -- admirable ones, and unpleasant ones. That's a tradition that I wholeheartedly embraced in this book, and the creatures that Marjan meets all individually represent different concepts. Together, though, I think they do send a message about conservation and care.
8. Other than a great story, what would you like your readers to take from Once There Was?
An appreciation of the contributions of Persian storytellers to the collective imagination; the idea that anyone you meet might be secretly carrying a burden that is both heavy and invisible, and that everyone deserves grace and empathy; the notion that grief is different from sadness.
9. Once There Was is a stand-alone story, but are you planning to revisit that world? What are you writing currently?
I do plan to revisit the world of Once There Was -- stay tuned!
10. Given that you have a background in film, are you also writing a screenplay for Once There Was? Is there interest in developing the idea for film?
There is definitely interest in seeing Once There Was as a feature film. Imagine Entertainment -- Ron Howard's production company -- has been working on developing a movie. I can't say much about it right now, but what I've seen so far has been amazing.