We had the good fortune of connecting with Olivia Abtahi and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Olivia, why did you pursue a creative career?
My parents absolutely pushed me to have a creative career. I remember applying to colleges and thinking I would do something in International Relations (lol, I am terrible at this, why did I think this could be a good career?) when my father sat me down and said I should go to film school. “You’re always watching movies and making movies with your friends. You should apply.” It is the opposite of many first-generation kids’ experiences, and for that I am very grateful. After that, I got into NYU and began working on documentaries for causes and companies. Only in the last five years did I pivot to becoming an author, and I still work on documentaries when my schedule lines up.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I think what sets me apart from other artists is my tenacity. It’s taken me half my life to get to where I am today, and every time I’ve hit a roadblock I feel like I’ve taken a detour and always kept my goal in mind. As a kid, all I wanted to do was tell stories. I grew up hearing my parents stories from Argentina and Iran, and I’d take screenwriting classes at our local community center where I felt like I found my voice. But, I knew stories didn’t pay the bills. I looked into international relation programs for college, figuring I could work abroad and make stories on my own (hey, I grew up in the suburbs of DC, this was a very realistic plan for a 16 year old). But my dad sat me down and said, “Olivia, I see you watching and writing movies in your spare time. I think you should apply to film school.” I applied to NYU Film and got in. At NYU Film I worked on my screenplays and learned how to bring them to life. I’d browse used bookstores when I wasn’t in class and wrote features or shot music videos in my spare time. When I graduated, my screenplays got into festivals. But then the 2008 recession hit, and I had to move back home. After the glitz and glamour of NYC I was suddenly back in my twin bed in the suburbs. To make money, I’d shoot commercials and documentaries for brands that were starting to build out their webpages and needed more content. I hustled, but I still missed writing. I’d upload screenplays to websites like the Blacklist where they’d do well, but nothing would come of them. So, I signed up for grad school and became a copywriter for ad agencies. I wasn’t writing what I wanted, but at least I was writing. Surprise: I was miserable writing for these huge companies, many of whom didn’t have missions I believed in. I went back to making documentaries for organizations and tried to work with ones who actually made the world better, not worse. Many of them needed Spanish-speaking filmmakers, and that’s where I found my niche. But at night I would still draft my novels and fiddle with my little screenplays. When I was stressed, I’d turn back to the Young Adult novels that I loved reading as a kid. And that’s when I wondered: what if I adapted one of my screenplays to a novel? Writing a novel was so incredibly freeing. If I added a scene or a location, it didn’t cost any money. I was my own cinematographer, my own editor and director. After multiple rewrites I finally had a manuscript called “Twin Flames,” based on the same screenplay I’d written earlier. I researched how to query it to agents and how publishers worked to turn a manuscript into a full-blown novel. But when I sent it to agents, they were interested but many told me they straight-up didn’t know how to sell my book. On a whim, I applied to the LEE & LOW Tu Books New Visions Award Contest and emailed my manuscript. Then I printed the book, put it in a shoebox, and put that shoebox under my bed with all of my other stories and screenplays. I turned back to my film job and kept shooting commercials for companies, now in Denver. I was still directing and editing, a kind of writing in its own way, and I told myself it was enough. Months later, I got a call from a 212 number that I ignored. I kept getting spam from Submittable.com telling me I’d won some prize. I figured it was a scam. When I finally checked my voicemail I learned I won the contest and would be getting my book published. When my editor, Stacy Whitman called to confirm, I hung up and just broke down into sobs. That leap of faith that Stacy took gave me the courage to write more novels. One of them, Perfectly Parvin, got me my agent. When I signed with my agent, he introduced me to a film agent. I’m now talking to a production company who is interested in adapting my book for TV. Ultimately, I started writing screenplays in 2004, when I was 16. Exactly 16 years later, I got to write the pilot for the adaptation of my novel. It’s been a long, long journey. And I’m just getting started.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I’m biased, but my favorite neighborhood is South Broadway. I recommend starting with a movie at the Mayan during happy hour where the bartenders there make incredible cocktails. Then just work your way down the strip, going to places like Loteria for amazing tacos or Adrift for great frozen drinks. You can round out the night at Hi-Dive where, in my opinion, are some of Denver’s best dance parties. Then close out the night playing drunken ping pong at Punch Bowl Social once all the people on dates clear out. Some other places that I always take people from out of town to is DOMO for incredible Japanese food, Buckhorn Exchange for the taxidermy bar, and Sweet Action for my favorite ice cream. Outside of my neighborhood I love showing people Sloan’s Lake or Washington Park to work off all the food we’re inevitably inhaling. I also love taking folks out to Golden for a hike at Red Rocks or White Ranch, topped off with a trip to Holidaily Brewing Company.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Absolutely! One of my biggest inspirations has been YA author Brenna Yovanoff. She lives in Colorado as well and has been incredibly helpful. I remember meeting her at a writer’s mixer in Denver and she essentially took me under her wing and explained how publishing worked. Not only that, but whenever I had a question she couldn’t answer, she’d ask her other author friends or even her agent. She has been incredibly encouraging and such a wonderful mentor. I am so grateful for her!
Author photo credit: Heritage and Bloom. Book cover credit: Penguin Random House