An interview with Akhil Sharma

Henry Ace Knight

Photograph by Jack Llewellyn

To Ajay, the teenage narrator of Akhil Sharma’s semi-autobiographical novel Family Life, it seems inconceivable that one could travel to France and Spain without being a doctor or an engineer. Reading the opening passage of The Young Hemingway, which details the writer’s return from World War I, is a watershed moment in a childhood pockmarked by misery.

Dislocated from his native Delhi at age eight, Ajay grows up in America, where a swimming accident leaves his older brother severely brain-damaged and the rest of the family broken. To the extent possible, Ajay escapes their unraveling through the worlds conjured in the books he reads. Learning of Hemingway’s European escapades is particularly revelatory, because they gesture toward something more than just a temporary removal from his present reality. Ajay is moved to write, not out of any lofty ambition to be great, but as wish fulfillment, the tangible desire for a life of adventure and delight: “the biographer had mentioned that Hemingway’s style was very simple. I understood this to mean that if I became a writer, I wouldn’t have to be very good, that being merely acceptable would be sufficient for me to have a good life.”

Ajay checks out a dozen critical volumes on Hemingway from the library, but at first he finds them hard to follow: “The sentences were like long weeds waving from the bottom of a muddy pond.” Sharma’s sentences, by contrast, knife through his family’s traumas like a swordfish against an ocean current. Even in these dense critical tomes about material he has not yet read, Ajay occasionally latches onto something practical: “One essay said that Hemingway got away with writing plainly because he wrote about exotic things. If he were to write about ordinary things in an ordinary way, he would be boring . . . As long as I wrote about exotic things, I thought, I could then be a not very good writer and still be successful.”

This is not a syllogism Sharma himself abides by. In his newly released story collection, A Life of Adventure and Delight, as in Family Life, Sharma manages to write in unvarnished prose about ordinary, if abnormal, experience without ever boring. His stories, often tragicomic, are unsentimental but highly affecting. They call into question whether much anything, given the generosity of Sharma’s eye and the timbre of his voice, could be pigeonholed into the ordinary.

This September interview was conducted by phone, between New York and Shanghai.

—Henry Ace Knight

That you were once an investment banker is something I never would have intuited from your writing. What was it like for you to transition from the stable, societally reinforced world of finance to a self-structured, less culturally valued discipline?

It was a long time ago so it’s hard to recall it. But I do remember that it felt awful. It isn’t that I was important. As soon as I left I was forgotten. At least I had a role, whereas in writing there is no role. It isn’t like people are waiting for you. So that sense of being adrift was very strong.

Were you writing as a banker?

A little bit. Not tremendously. But a little bit. I had mostly written before I started being a banker. 

Have you ever tried to write about that phase of your life, or did you find it too odious to be worthy of fictionalization?

I wrote one short story, a two-page thing, for a charitable anthology, and that was about banking, but I have not read it since then. It was not a very good story. That’s the only time I’ve addressed that period in fiction.

What was it like to work on your newly released story collection after twelve and a half years wrestling with Family Life, ultimately paring down more than seven thousand pages of drafts to a trim two hundred, roughly, a process that you’ve said was “like chewing stones”?

It was a relief, because with short stories they work or they don’t, but they’re not going to take up years of your life. I would begin a story, and within a couple of weeks, a month or so, I would know whether or not it was going to work. That was sort of amazing. It felt miraculous, like it wasn’t something I had done. It felt like somebody else’s book.

You’ve said of An Obedient Father that you wanted to create a book that was unequivocally deemed a good read. With Family Life, you hoped to produce something useful. What experience were you trying to provide with this story collection? Can you say something about the pacing of the collection, the arrangement of the stories? 

I chose stories that I thought were good. I’ve published stories which I now look back on and think are not good. Whatever I write, I want people to finish it, to care enough, to be interested enough to read it all the way to the end. For me, I find with many books, I just don’t care enough to finish them. I get bogged down, they irritate me, or I feel like I know what the joke is, what the point is, so I stop. That desire has always motivated me.

The way I was trying to arrange it was—I think that with a story collection a third of your audience reads the first story, the last story, and the title story, and that’s if they’re patient. If they’re impatient they’ll read the first story or the title story and decide if they want to read more. If you win them over with the first story, they’ll be willing to go on to the next story, so then the order, the selection of stories matters. What I was hoping for was to provide a range of voices for the reader, so trying to organize it in that sense. I was also trying to make sure that two first-person stories wouldn’t be next to each other. I didn’t succeed with that. I wanted to make sure that “If You Sing Like That for Me” preceded “A Life of Adventure and Delight,” because “A Life of Adventure and Delight” is cynical and harsh enough that it would make the romance of “If You Sing Like That for Me” seem weird. There were these different balancing concerns, as well. “If You Sing Like That for Me” is the longest story, so I didn’t want that up front. I wanted something very charming as the first story.

Why was “If You Sing Like That for Me,” which you’ve referred to in The New Yorker as your best ever story, not among the three you chose to bookend and title the collection with?

To me it doesn’t seem like one of the stronger stories.

Has your view of “If You Sing Like That for Me” shifted?

No, I mean, look, it’s the best thing that I’ve written. I can’t see it clearly, so I don’t know how to place it. I can’t see it clearly, so if I don’t know how to use it within a collection, I don’t know how it’ll be in terms of linking themes.

Was it purposive to place that story at the heart of the collection, the only one with a female narrator, in stark contrast to the eponymous story, “A Life of Adventure and Delight”?

Yeah, that I was aware of. There are certain things I worry about with that story. It’s confusing for me. I wonder if it’s overwritten. I wonder if the voice is too soft, if it’s asking for sympathy. I have a very hard time seeing that story clearly, but it’s certainly the story that has received the most accolades by far.

Is it strange for you to house stories written more than two decades apart under the same collection? What writerly continuities/disjunctions do you trace longitudinally across that timespan?

What I was surprised by was how connected they were by the themes of loneliness, a desire for and a failure to obtain connection. That surprised me, how similar they were, how I kept going back to the same themes. All the stories are designed to be read compulsively. That’s always felt to me like what one should try to do. What also surprised me is how much the style changed. If you look at “If You Sing Like That for Me,” which is the first story, or even “Cosmopolitan,” and you compare it to “The Well,” or “You Are Happy?,” the styles are so different. The newer stories cover so much more time, there isn’t a linkage in terms of plot, there isn’t a single action that is driving everything. How much the style has changed and yet the content has not.  

Henry James said that what matters is not whether a character is good or bad but if they are interesting. That seems to be an idea implicit in this collection. Many of your characters are forced to negotiate the relationship between morality and a life of adventure and delight, with moral valence hardly ever mapping cleanly onto interest. Your more innocent characters often seem mired in ennui, and your most grotesque characters relish in their misdoings, even when they bring shame and guilt. I’m thinking of the eponymous scene, when an NYU grad student asks the prostitute with whom he cheats on his girlfriend to jump up and down while he fondles her breasts. Or Anita’s line in “If You Sing Like That for Me”: “What a good man, I thought then, watching him standing proudly in a corner. What a good man, I thought, and was frightened, for that was not enough.” 

So to me, these characters—it isn’t that they’re grappling with ennui. They’re just living difficult lives. They don’t have many choices. They’re trying to do their best under those circumstances. That’s how I perceive them. I also see many of them as having lived very difficult, traumatic childhoods. It makes sense to me that Anita would say, “It doesn’t matter enough if someone is good.” That’s not what matters in a relationship. I don’t know about you, but I certainly think that’s the case. It doesn’t matter to me whether or not the person is good. That’s one of the basic requirements, but it is not sufficient in and of itself. You can’t be in a relationship just because the person is nice. I also feel if you’re twenty-three years old and you’ve never had sex before, you’re going to be a bit weirder than if you’re a fifty-year-old man. To be judging this guy who’s twenty-three or twenty-four, whatever his age is, in comparison with a fifty-year-old married man with two children, I think that’s unreasonable. Lots of people when they’re young in their twenties do weird shit, and then they stop. You can’t take these people and say that’s representative of who they’re going to be for the rest of their lives.

Can you foresee a technical challenge as daunting as the one Family Life posed for you?

It’s hard to foresee it because you wander into some swamp, and you don’t know how the hell to get out of it. Also, of course, you do learn certain things from writing. You learn how to abandon stuff, so you don’t get into certain troubles that you would otherwise. You make one mistake and you make it maybe five times, but you don’t have to make it twenty times. In terms of the technical challenges of the story collection, each had its own set of problems. For example, with “You Are Happy?,” the story was originally written—the first four or five drafts—in the first person, but it never quite gelled and switching it to third person made it work a lot better. “The Well” had an introduction, or a section where the person was new from India, and I took it out because that made it all about immigration. But it’s not the same vast set of problems that Family Life had, just by the very nature of it being a short story.

When would you say you were closest to giving up on Family Life?

I thought about it all the time. I didn’t have it in me to give it up. I just didn’t have it psychologically in me to do so. The way you would abandon it would be by starting something else, and I never did that. I chose not to, because I feel like if I had, it would have led to an abandonment.

Do you still feel a compulsion to return to Family Life and further revise it?

No, I’ve basically forgotten it. I just don’t think about it. What’s funny is the fact that there were so many thousands of pages, I don’t remember what’s in the book versus what’s not in the book. There are all these images, thoughts, and scenes which never made it into the book and yet which were so important to me, that I spent a lot of time perfecting. And so it surprises me that they’re not in it, but I have no desire to really go back to it.

In an interview with the AAWW, you said of Family Life, “What was more common was remembering things and excluding them. You can’t include everything, because it disturbs the pattern of the novel. And that is what I tried to protect—the pattern of the novel. It was tricky, because when you remove something you begin to wonder, am I being dishonest? Is the entire thing true?” How did you navigate that filtering of detail to protect the pattern of the novel? 

Whenever I would finish a draft I would begin with a blank screen and start writing it again, from page one. That forced me to remain true, be very conscious of whether or not this thing is reading fast, if it’s reading the way I want it to read. That’s what I was interested in. The pattern of the novel was protected because it got rewritten every time.

Is that generally your approach to revision, or distinct to Family Life?

That was largely Family Life.

You’ve said of Family Life’s technical challenges, “If you have a weak plot, that is weak causation, you can’t take the reader into this visceral reality . . . you need to thin out that reality. What I did was remove certain elements of the sensorium. There’s very little sound in the novel. There’s very little smell. There’s very little feel . . . What’s left is largely the visual. The dialogue serves as sound.” How did you develop your ear for dialogue?

For me the dialogue comes from the character, trying to get a clear sense of what the characters want. Dialogue is just dramatized action. So being aware of what the characters want and how they are trying to get it. That’s what makes it feel real. You can feel the jostling that’s going on with the characters. That’s what I focus on.

“One doesn’t want to handle a subject in the way that the subject demands to be handled . . . If you were to handle the subject based on the way that it demands to be handled, it would become less life-like,” you’ve said of the coeval humor and morbidity in Family Life. What does that approach look like at the sentence level for you?

The sentences remain similar. There are very few flights of fancy. The sentence lengths vary but not that much. If you’re applying the same voice to serious and unserious things, if what you’re seeing is people trying to take care of themselves and behaving selfishly in situations where one’s behavior is both honest and selfish, and create a sense of recognition for the reader, and a sort of laughter at how clearly these characters are able to see their own weirdness—that tends to be the big focus for me.

You’ve spoken of Chekhov’s “tenderness” as a model that you admire. What do you find so compelling about it?

You need tenderness to be able to accept human beings. Once you can accept human beings, you can then start to see them as varied. And once you begin to see them as varied, it allows you to see a more complicated world. So that’s why tenderness is so important, because it leads to acceptance. 

How do you write such emotionally resonant but entirely unsentimental stories?

I show people behaving both well and badly and that tends to keep one away from sentimentality. I show that in both the good and the bad people can behave in a selfish way. But honestly, I don’t really know. My worldview is that people are strange, and they behave well and badly. The world I try to describe, I want to describe in as real a way as possible. It feels unsentimental, just because people are being described in a realistic way, but I don’t know how it’s achieved beyond that.

Which Chekhov stories hold particular resonance for you?

“Lady With the Little Dog.” “Ward Six.” “Peasant Women.” They all begin one way and end in a completely different way. That’s sort of what happens in my stories. 

You’ve said that you don’t read contemporary fiction. Why?

Because it hasn’t been weeded out. I do read contemporary fiction, I just don’t read a lot of it. I abandon a lot of contemporary fiction without finishing it because it isn’t that good. I read it and I wonder, what’s the point of it. All writers are reading across time.

You know, when we think about writers, all writers are reading across time, right? So I am reading Stendhal, and he still remains relevant to me, so in some ways he’s contemporary. It’s easier to make a connection to someone in the past, because I know that book is good. It’s hard to be convinced of the same thing for a random book that has been well reviewed. I’ve judged all these contests—I’ll get two hundred books. I begin reading them and most of the time, I think, Wow, why is the writer bothering?

How do the kernels of your stories originate?

There are so many ideas for stories. There are always so many things worth writing about.

How do you prioritize to which ideas you devote your energy?

I begin something because it seems interesting enough that I can imagine it, I feel strongly enough. After a little while I stop and decide, Oh this is not working for me. And that’s it, I just realize it’s not working for me and so I stop.

Can you tell us something about your view of the term “immigrant writer,” a subject which you’ve recently written about in the New York Times? Has your outlook as a novelist shifted at all since the election of Donald Trump?

I still think of myself as just a writer, but I’m much more willing to accept the label of an immigrant writer. It means I write about immigrants in the same way that other people write about white people. I don’t think, Look at this guy, he’s a white writer. It just seems like a goofy way to describe things.

Can you tell me about your earliest stories, the ones you wrote back in high school?

I would write these one- to two-page stories. There was a story about an Indian woman coming to America who sees a grocery store for the first time and is astonished by it, by conveyor belts moving food forward. I wrote a story about kids bothering somebody selling food on the street in India. I wrote a story set during Independence, about somebody who has to go pick up the body of a son who has died. My first thing is always to try to make it emotionally accessible to the reader. Whatever I’m writing, I want it to be available to the reader. That’s the first thing that I do. Then the second thing is to make sure that the reader will keep reading. That’s what I tend to focus on.

What about your approach, your working environment, your process has changed since you began writing?

These days I haven’t been very disciplined. I just sit down—if I find something interesting, if I’m emotionally connected to a subject matter, I move forward with it. The only difference is that I show drafts of my stories much earlier on than I used to, my reasoning being that it would be helpful if someone told me whether a story is good or not. If they tell me it’s not good then I can stop, versus my deciding it on my own, which I think would be hard for me.

So you will scrap a story if you show it to someone you respect and they see no promise in it?

I show it to two people, and if both of them say it, then I move on. It’s hard. It’s a sunk cost, so it’s best to move on quickly.

Do you still set a timer for five hours every day as you write?

I don’t do that anymore. But I used to do that every day.

When did you abandon that practice?

Once the novel was done.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on another novel. I’ve just begun it. I have no idea what this thing is going to be.

Many of the stories in your collection were already fully fledged. Does the prospect of a post-Family Life novel excite you?

I’m scared, not necessarily excited.

That it might take another twelve years?

Yeah, or that I’ll do a bad job, or that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. It terrifies me.