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When debut novelist and Northern Virginia native Arvin Ahmadi was 16, he ran away from home. For, like, 12 hours. “I slipped out the window, hopped on a Metro bus in Centreville, and ended up in Dupont Circle,” he says.
Not coincidentally, the questing hero of Ahmadi’s rollicking new young-adult novel, Down and Across, is a wide-eyed, wisecracking 16-year-old named Scott Ferdowsi who runs away from Philadelphia to D.C. for an entire summer month.
Struggling under intense pressure to figure out his future, Scott quits his parental-approved internship studying mouse poop and gets on a Greyhound. His plan? To just show up at the Georgetown University office of a fictionalized professor whose research made famous the concept of “grit”—sticking with something you care about for the long haul—as more important than talent in achieving success.
In the novel, coming-of-age scenes are drawn as comedy, rooted in Ahmadi’s sharp-edged characters’ problems and dreams, which unfold with the gold of true emotions in local spots like Kramerbooks, Tonic, and the National Zoo.
Dupont Circle features prominently in the novel. The fictional Hanover Hostel is set in a brick townhouse at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and 21st Street NW.
“I picked my favorite places in D.C.,” Ahmadi says.
The eldest son of Iranian immigrant engineers, he notes that his father is a professor at George Washington University. His mother and three siblings all went there.
In his literary imagination, GW also has a starring role. Scott meets Fiora, a jaggedly witty, troubled, and crush-inducing student from South Carolina who creates the novel’s namesake crossword puzzles. He also meets her childhood friend Trent, a street-smart saint who tends bar at Tonic—the GW hangout—and aspires to work for a libertarian senator.
Down and Across shows the fighting plights of characters beset by real-world issues: coming out as LGBTQ to parents who disown you, hospitalization for depression and anxiety, and racial and religious bigotry fueling an attack outside a D.C. bar (“I’m speaking to you, fookin’ terrorrrrrist”).
The theme of looking different while sharing similarities with everyone else—being fully human inside and out—emerges early in the novel’s classic narrative of finding one’s way. Scott’s Iranian name is Saaket, which means “quiet” in Farsi. His first days of school were a nightmare: “Kids used to call him ‘every variation of ‘Suck It’ imaginable.'” Scott, being a Muslim teen, feels so genuinely lived-in that Ahmadi even has him say, “I wasn’t ever much of a Muslim, anyway.”
Ahmadi told Entertainment Weekly last August that at first, Scott was white. Then he made him half-white, half-Indian. As his friends who read drafts questioned why he was reluctant to make his main character Iranian, he realized he needed to “write this authentically me character, and I don’t care if it doesn’t end up selling.” Now, he speaks out about diversity in literature.
It’s moving that, while Ahmadi’s public self has a Google trail of student leader accomplishments, his fictional creation of Scott isn’t exactly successful like his aspiring career-track friends from back home.
Readers first encounter Scott at a McDonald’s, slumped in his seat and being lectured by his father, who is all but calling him a devoid-of-grit failure.
At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Ahmadi was editor of the student newspaper, won a countywide election to serve as the 2008–09 student representative on the Fairfax County School Board, and served as class president for freshman and sophomore years.
“On the surface, I was really involved, had done really well, checked all the right boxes. But a lot of times I still felt like a failure,” Ahmadi says. “Constantly being hungry, constantly wanting more. Asking myself ‘What next, what next, what next?’ All of that comes together for my specific flavor of teen angst—which was around success, the future, and what I’d do in life.”
Ahmadi may come from a GW family, but after high school, he left home for New York City. At Columbia University, he studied political science and computer science. During his senior year, he watched 2013 MacArthur Fellow Angela Duckworth’s TED talk on grit and he started writing Down and Across.
After graduation, he kept writing on nights and weekends while working at a tech start-up. “My one goal was that I had to finish this book,” he says. “How ironic would it have been if I hadn’t finished a book about grit?”
Meanwhile, his teenage sister was feeding him a lot of YA books. He also picked up the Afghanistan-focused novel The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, which he says was like looking “in [a] mirror.” Hosseini, too, was a child of immigrants who felt like he owed his future to his parents because they sacrificed so much to come to this country.
He realized how much he enjoyed the writing process. “I met the YA community, which is really, really tight-knit. At that point, I was in,” he says. “I passed my writing around, found my agent, and ended up here.”
When Ahmadi signed a two-book deal and quit his job, his parents supported his decision, encouraging him to give it a shot.
His next novel is a futuristic murder mystery about a brilliant teen girl who enters a virtual-reality contest and goes massively viral. It’s set at a high school in Palo Alto, Calif., that’s modeled on Ahmadi’s alma mater.
Just like “Down and Across is a love letter to D.C.,” Ahmadi says, the next book is “a love letter to TJ.” Someday, maybe he’d like to write for adults, he says.
Arvin Ahmadi appears with Ema O’Connor and Azar Nafisi tonight at Kramerbooks. 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW. 7 p.m. Free.