Updated: Feb. 28 at 10:50 p.m.
Many young adult novels take place in the suburbs or some sort of dystopia, but author Arvin Ahmadi decided to set his book in a place close to home – Foggy Bottom.
Ahmadi, a native of northern Virginia, published his first major novel “Down and Across” this month, featuring the story of a high school senior who sneaks off to D.C. Most of the locations in the novel are set in familiar spots to students at GW – including Tonic, Dupont Circle and GW’s Foggy Bottom Campus.
Most of the inspiration for the novel came from his own life experiences and living in the area, as well as his family connections at GW.
“It obviously has a special place in my heart,” he said. “It’s why I set my debut novel there and not in New York.”
The author’s familiarity with the setting comes from growing up just outside the District in Centerville, Va. His knowledge about the University comes from the fact that he’s the only member of his family that hasn’t attended or worked at GW. His father is Shahrokh Ahmadi, a professor of electrical engineering, while his mother graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1983. All three of his younger siblings have either attended or currently attend GW.
When his agent was pitching the story to publishers, Ahmadi said they called it “a love letter to D.C.” because it features many locales across the District – some real and others imagined. The National Zoo and Bourbon Coffee are among the other locations featured.
“Down and Across” is about a young man of Iranian descent named Scott Ferdowsi whose parents push him to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer. The character runs away from home to meet a Georgetown professor, known for lecturing about grit. He wanted to learn from this professor, but his plans were delayed when he met a fascinating sophomore named Fiora Buchanan doing a crossword puzzle and gets roped into a journey exploring Northwest D.C. with her.
Ahmadi said the character is almost autobiographical because events in his life shaped the story. Similar to the character, Ahmadi conceived the idea for “Down and Across” during his senior year at Columbia University, where he watched a TED talk about grit from Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
But this isn’t a new passion for Ahmadi. When he was only 10 years old, he wrote a novel called the adventures of Jack and Skipper, which he sent to several literary agencies.
“I wrote maybe three or four chapters, and I thought I had written the greatest thing in the world,” he said. “Obviously they all rejected it being like, ‘Dude, you’re 10 years old.’”
Ahmadi said he was inspired to write young adult fiction from novels, like books by John Green, that his youngest sister gave him during his junior and senior years at Columbia University.
His sister Nava Ahmadi, a sophomore studying economics and finance at GW, said in addition to exposing him to the young adult genre, she played an essential role in giving her brother critical feedback in the beginning stages of the book, serving as his “official teen editor.”
“When he was writing it, I was really into YA. It’s my favorite genre of books,” she said. “So he took a lot of books I read as a reference. He thought that I was his target audience, I was reading what type of books he was writing.”
To prepare to start writing, Arvin Ahmadi spent a few days traveling around the District to do research for certain scenes and stories in the novel. He visited Thomas Foolery, a game bar formerly at 2029 P St. NW, where two of the characters compare life to a crossword puzzle – which inspired the title. The main character also gets a job at Tonic to pay for the expenses that come with living in the District.
In writing this novel, he said he wanted to portray the non-political aspects of D.C. that often aren’t recognized – like colorful characters and vibrant nightlife.
“I viewed it as less of a political town and more as a city of possibility, a city where young people come and figure out who they are,” he said.