Akhil Sharma is the author of the novels Family Life and An Obedient Father, which won the 2001 Pen Hemingway Prize. An acclaimed short story writer, he has been published numerous times in The New Yorker and has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories. He lives in New York City with his wife Lisa and teaches at Rutgers, Newark.
This interview was conducted over the phone by Interview Editor Rosie Huf. Of the process, she said, “Mr. Sharma is a patient, introspective, and well-spoken man. He indulged my many questions and he taught me a great deal about process. For his books as well as his time, I am truly grateful.” In this interview, Mr. Sharma discusses his new book Family Life, and he also offers insight into the world of publishing for both new writers and aspiring editors.
Superstition Review: Throughout Family Life we see salient themes of lament and loss. Could you talk about how those themes find their way into your work? What are some of the tools you use to balance the exploration of such difficult topics with “carrying on” with daily life?
Akhil Sharma: There is certainly lament and loss in the book, but to some extent we know right from the beginning that the narrator gets through it—because the beginning of the book is him remembering back—that sense of lament and loss is always undercut. Things are difficult but we do know we are going to persevere. So, that’s one thing. The other thing is that even though there is lament and loss, the book is full of humor. It begins with a joke, with the narrator talking about his father and then it continues with laughter, and how his father brushes his teeth, and all that other stuff. And because of that the reader has a sense that this is a book that is full of life. When something is full of life it can be difficult stuff, but we can also delight in it.
SR: You said in an interview with Moshin Hamid in Guernica Magazine, that “Exposition suggests a great trust in the reader.” And, I read “A Mistake,” published recently in The New Yorker, and compared it with the novel to see how it differed. I was impressed by the lyricism and the commitment to authenticity. Can you elaborate on your process to expand a narrative with exposition?
AS: The reason that exposition requires more trust in the reader is that dramatized action almost compels the reader’s attention but when there is exposition it is much easier for the reader to turn away. So that’s what I meant when I said that exposition requires much more trust in the reader. It might also show much more confidence in the writer as to his material. So, for example, because the characters in my book are sympathetic, I know that the reader is willing to go along with me. If the characters were not sympathetic, I think that my reader would be much more willing to turn away. So I would be forced to have much more dramatized action. So that’s part of the answer to your question. What was the second part of your question?
SR: Could you just elaborate on your process when it comes to exposition? How do you know when to elaborate and then maybe to pull back?
AS: You know, I don’t know. A lot of it is simply instinct. Instinct and time. So you write something, you think you’re a genius, you put it away, the next day you look at it and you think “My God! I’m such an idiot.” And then you go and you tweak it and you put it away, and then the next day you look at it again. And that’s sort of how you figure out whether you have gotten the right distance. The other thing is, having read so much, I have a sense as to what works and what does not work. And that’s another way to guide myself through the writing of a story or novel.
SR: Mr. Sharma, you are quoted in an interview with The Irish Times as advising aspiring writers “Don’t do it! And if you are going to do it, take joy in the satisfaction that comes from writing and don’t wait for the book to be done to be happy.” Can you expand on your advice to young writers to focus on process over product?
AS: The reality is, say you work on your book right? The reality is that it will be difficult getting it published. When and if you get it published, it is very likely that it is going to be ignored. So that’s the reality of the life of a writer. Even if the case were, “Ok once I finish this book I’m going to get all these wonderful things, or I’m going to be hailed as a genius,” what is the value in waiting for happiness? Why not try to be happy right now? And that commitment to happiness is what I encourage. Not just for writers but for everyone: to be doing the work and to be grateful to have the opportunity to do the work.
SR: Mr. Sharma, expanding on that thought of finding ways to be happy while continuing a project of this magnitude, was there something, or was there ever anything, that you did to keep pushing forward? I know that this book took about thirteen years to write, was there something in particular, or generally, that you did to keep yourself pushing forward?
AS: Honestly, what occurred for me was that I had been writing it for such a long time that I couldn’t back out. You know, I felt that if I backed out I would have a nervous breakdown. I felt that I had no options other than to keep going forward. But even then, knowing everything I know now, I would not have chosen to write this book. Despite all that, in the process of it I tried to be happy and I tried to worry as little as I could.
SR: What was some of the best advice that you received while you were an emerging writer?
AS: I think it was when a friend of mine said to me (and I don’t think that this is true) "everything is possible after the book is done." I don’t think that’s the case because for most people very little changes after a book is done. But that was his advice, and that sort of comforted me and led me through it. The advice that would be useful is just try to be happy right now.
SR: In your interview with The Irish Times, you state that your first story, written around the age of five, was about “A submarine captain who possessed a rare pearl.” Where did this captain originate? What ever happened to this captain? Is he still with you when you write these days?
AS: Yeah, I think even in the character of that captain there is a lot of the weirdness and dysfunction which I still possess. So that captain had this rare pearl, and it caused everybody to be attracted to him and made him valuable. For me, he was a character who was attractive not because of who he was, not simply because he was acceptable, or that he was cherished, but because he possessed this other thing. And I also have this belief that if I am this other person, if I can do these things, if I write a good book then I am going to be deserving of love. And that’s craziness. So that captain haunts me, but I’m trying to get rid of him.
SR: Yes, I think that we all have a little bit of that captain in ourselves; that’s always something to be pushed against. You’ve stated that your favorite quote, spoken by Lincoln, is that “most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Could you describe your own journey towards happiness?
AS: Every day I wake up and I say "I’m gonna be happy today; I’m gonna make the choices that lead to happiness." Often, that means just trying to see things differently. So when you asked me how I was, my first response was to say I am busy. But that’s actually not true. I am busy but that’s not how I am. That’s me identifying myself with whatever anxiety I possess. And, so, it’s making these choices to separate myself from my natural tendencies and to try to cultivate other ones. You know there’s this old saying, this Native American story that there are two wolves fighting inside me. Which one wins? The one that I feed. And so what I try to do is to feed the part of me that is cheerful and optimistic.
SR: This is definitely a theme that you see throughout the book, whether you have AJ responding to his mother’s need to focus on Birju or at the end of the book when AJ is reflecting on his relationship while they’re at the beach and his partner is drunk. Could you speak to how you tried to weave the theme or the need to be happy through the book and what message you would like your readers to have received from that?
AS: I don’t know if I would say that the need to be happy is one of the themes in the book. Instead, I tend to view my books as these slabs of reality. And so like any sort of slab, any stretch of reality, there’s going to be many things in it. What occurs with these characters is them trying to come to terms with a very difficult thing. And, to some extent, what that means is that to the extent that we can relate to these characters, if we are mentally healthy, what we are relating to is choices made towards happiness because that is the rational decision in almost every situation.
A mentally unhealthy reader could read this thing and be baffled. That is not so much a theme as it is just a part of living one’s life. You know the mother wants to be happy, the father wants to be happy, the son does. Each of them actually says that at various times. I did structure the book so that more things would be apparent. Beginning the book with us aware that the characters are part of your soul takes away some of the pressure of the narrative. So we can see the likeness in the subject matter a little more easily. That is something that I was conscious of and I wanted the various elements to be visible.
SR: In the novel Family Life you mention that before moving to Queens, Ajay had previously only been to two libraries in his life, one in which the books were locked in glass cases. Could you describe the thematic origins of this image?
AS: You know, honestly, it’s not so much thematic origins as the fact that before I came to America I had only been to two libraries. One was next to the barber shop and that’s where people went to look at the newspapers so they could find job ads. And, then, the other was this library on the second floor of a temple. And books were expensive. You couldn’t just randomly allow people to check out books. That wasn’t what was possible in the community. People would steal the books. So, you had to buy a membership. Then, once you bought your membership you would take out one book at a time and the books were precious and they were kept locked up.
SR: Did this resonate with you as a young writer? When you wrote your first story you were around the age of five, so seeing these books locked behind glass cases—was it reverence?
AS: They made me feel that books were precious, that the written word was precious. They had status. To me a book was as valuable as a piece of jewelry. And, that’s what those locked book cases suggested or inculcated in me.
SR: When Birju suffered his accident, Shuba and Ajay’s aunt turned to shrines and incense and clarified butter to help promote healing for Birju. Ajay states that he began to pray constantly for Birju when previously he had not believed in God. Can you discuss how India’s cultural relationship with religion and science inform these characters?
AS: India then was even more religious than it is now, and it is tremendously religious. Religion in India is closer to superstition or witch craft than what we think of religion in the upper middle class of the West. I’ve had relatives whom people in the family viewed as being possessed by ghosts. So, you would hire somebody to beat them, or pray over them, or things like that. And because we came from that sort of background, it seemed natural to us, or it seemed natural to these characters that they would turn to religion as a way to cause change. They believed that if they prayed enough, if they did enough things, the sick son would get better.
SR: In many of your interviews regarding Family Life, you renounce the label “Immigrant Story.” You have also said that you do not want to be labeled as an immigrant author. Could you describe some of the difficulties of navigating the literary world given your own personal journey as an Indian American?
AS: The reality is that I’m an Indian, I write about Indians; I’m an immigrant, I write about immigrants. I reject the label because it is so narrowing. It is the same way that Phillip Roth or Saul Bellow rejected the label of being Jewish writers. Is there a way to navigate through people’s perceptions? I can articulate what I feel is a proper way to view a book, which is to read a book as a book among other books; that of course, a book contains certain subject matter, but that is almost secondary to the fact that it is a creature of language and so it exists within language. I could make those sort of arguments. But the reality is that people are going to think what they are going to think. It would be a waste of time thinking about that sort of stuff. I don’t really think of Stendhal as a French writer, I don't think of The Red and The Black as a French novel; I don’t think of War and Peace as a Russian book or Tolstoy as a Russian writer. What they’re saying is true for me in the same way it is true for Russians or French people or Germans or Indians.
SR: You have also stated you hope Family Life is “the story of [your] generation of Indian Americans.” What types of wishes do you have about the influence your work may have with a younger generation?
AS: There are two things—the younger generation of non-writers and the younger generation of writers. And so for the non-writers, my hope is that they’ll have a sense of this particular community at this particular time. And to the extent that that’s relevant, I mean if you’re an Indian person, it might be interesting to see where you came from: what is your past or what is the past of your community? If you’re not an Indian, it might be interesting to see how this community existed; how immigrant communities formed themselves. For writers, I think that they’ll—to the extent that they are Indian writers—they might gain some sort of pleasure and comfort seeing how somebody else handles this subject matter. To the extent that they’re not Indian, the younger writers might just enjoy seeing how I try to grapple with particular subject matter.
SR: I’ve read that when you write you sit at your desk and keep a stopwatch with you for when you take calls or check e-mails. What helped you develop such disciplined practices as a writer? Could you describe some other practical tips or rituals that you use?
AS: I do this—I mean I have always—it isn’t so much that I’m disciplined, I just don’t like anything else. I hate writing. I hate writing, but I am indifferent to other things. And so, at least writing feels like something important. So that’s why it is easy to keep trying. Another thing that I tell myself when I’m writing is that I’m writing a bad story and that all I need to do is to aspire to something that looks like a story or that looks like a book. There’s a freedom in that. I can then move forward in the narrative. I can write a draft and if it doesn’t work out well it doesn’t work out. That’s ok. Think about how low the stakes are.
SR: So, you’re less likely to talk yourself out of a book by building it up then if you keep it simple, is that what I’m hearing?
SR: Oh, that is great advice. I just love that. I’m just wondering, how often do you write now? Is it a daily event?
AS: Well, these days no, just because I am traveling so much. But otherwise, yes, every day. I mean there’s just nothing else that I like to do.
SR: So, do you journal? Or, when you do find the time—
AS: No, no. I always just work on short stories or novels. I don’t keep a journal.
SR: Could you elaborate on where you find your inspiration? How do your characters come to you?
AS: Everything is an inspiration. You know—you seem like a wonderful character. A young woman who’s curious. I think about you and I think what can I do; how would somebody like you fit into a story, right? And, then I think, okay, where is she from? You know, where is Rosie’s family from; how did she become interested in this thing? What are her fears? What are her aspirations? What will be appropriate; what sort of risk exists in her life? What will be the right sort of pressure to put on a story with a character like Rosie in it? Everybody is a stimulus.
SR: Can you speak to if there was ever a character that came to you, or an inspiration that came to you, and it still sits with you, that you haven’t yet written their story? Is there a character that is just waiting for you to write their story?
AS: No. There are so many people out there that if I don’t write about one person and one thing, then I’ll write about another person or another thing. In the same way that there isn’t only one person for us to love, in the same way that there isn’t only one relationship that we can have, the same is true for stories and novels.
SR: Will you talk a bit about your relationship with your editor? What are your mutual expectations of each other?
AS: You know editors, to some extent, can’t help you until you have presented them with a manuscript that’s almost working. Because until the thing is almost alive, they can’t really do that much because so many things have been left undecided. But, once the story is almost done, then they can come in and make it better. It’s almost like you have to figure out where to put the camera, you have to turn on the electricity, you have to move the characters in front of it—in front of the camera. Then, they can come along and say, “Maybe adjust the height of the camera [or] adjust the depth of focus,” things like that. But, my experience has been that an editor can only really be helpful near the end.
SR: Okay and, for aspiring editors, as an author what do you look for in a successful editor? What editor will push you forward?
AS: I don’t know if the editors really push writers forward anymore. I mean, the reality is that working with a writer is maybe twenty percent of their time. Eighty percent of their time is devoted to acquiring manuscripts, dealing with internal stuff, and figuring out marketing. Internal sales and external sales; selling the writer to other editors and inside the publishing house, and doing what they can to help position the book in the world. I think that is the reality of how editors work.
SR: In a recent segment of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Audie Cornish states, “For many young writers from different ethnic backgrounds, it comes down to this: They believe the diversity they experience in their daily lives should be reflected in the books they read and the stories they write. And if a culture that supports that doesn't yet exist, they are willing to create it.” How does diversity influence the characters and stories you create?
AS: I don’t know whether what she says is at all true. So, for example, the majority of my life, the majority of my day is boring. I don’t see any need to represent boredom in my writing. Right? A lot of my day is dealing with work and finances, and I don’t feel much of a need to represent that. So, in the same way that there are vast stretches of my day that are not calorie rich, not very literature appropriate, maybe diversity needs to be represented in my writing, maybe not. I am happy to write about primarily Indian people. My wife is causation so I live in a diverse environment. But what I am writing about is not necessarily diverse. I don’t know if I have to be responsible for representing my community or representing the world. I have to be responsible for representing my talent. I don’t have that sense that Zola did, which is that I need to represent how mine workers live. None of that stuff matters to me.
SR: Okay, so then at any point does culture play into your imaginative life?
AS: I’m sure it does. When I look at Rembrandt’s “Night Watch,” I am affected by it. When I listen to music, I am affected by it. But, there isn’t a particular relationship between these things and my work.
SR: Could you maybe elaborate on your perception, if there is one, of diversity in publishing, in general?
AS: Ah, there is not much diversity in publishing. It is mostly white people from the middle class and upper middle class, and also mostly white people from the middle class and upper middle class who do certain elitist situations. So, there isn’t that much diversity. Would publishing be better if there was more diversity in it? Ah, yes. It would be. I'm not really invoved in a lot of that. I produce my work and I try to sell it, but I am not in a publishing house. I mean, all of that has nothing to do with my life or the decisions that I make, or anything that I have any influence on.
SR: Okay. Thank you. We are coming to a close, but I would like to ask you what does your writing space look like?
It is a small space, which I like because of the sense of concentration that it provides. It is a desk, a computer, and a window. It is basically almost like a closet with a window. And, I love the fact that there’s nothing; that all there is is me and the computer screen.