New Routes in Fiction
by Alec Niedenthal
A Talk with Akhil Sharma
Akhil Sharma’s Family Life is a small but major book. Slim, just over 200 pages, it’s a novel based on the writer’s own life, which is fictionalized as follows. The novel’s narrator, Ajay, immigrates to America as a child and settles with his family in New York. Soon after, a nearly fatal accident befalls his talented, promising brother, who’s on his way to a high-ranking prep school; the rest of the novel tries to treat the abscess this inflicts on Ajay’s family life—with some failure and some success. Family Life is a quick, often comic look at the envy, guilt, and especially shame that inform family ties. It is the kind of brisk novel that uses its speed and tightness to hide the pain of facing—and structuring in narrative form—a chaotic past; its relentless forward motion belies the sweeping pain the narrator feels in looking back and trying to see himself, and those whom he’s loved, with clear and open eyes, shucking off the shame that hobbled him as a younger man and as a boy.
I spoke to Akhil over the phone and, afterward, transcribed our conversation.
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): I’ve heard you talk about how hard it was for you to find a voice to tell this story (Akhil’s newest novel, Family Life, W. W. Norton & Company, 2014) in. Could you maybe talk a little bit about some of the other voices or tones you tried, and why you thought they didn’t work?
Akhil Sharma: One voice I tried—a third-person focused on the point-of-view of the child. The third-person narrative consumes plot at a different rate than at the first-person. There isn’t enough happening in the book to justify the third-person. In the first-person you can have less happening because something else is constantly at stake, which is the “I,” the responding “I.” The “I” is always present, always at risk. The “I” is always in danger. The “I” means that you can have a slower-moving plot. When you have a third-person, the plot has to move faster. What is at risk is not as present. So I tried the third-person. I tried a voice that was much more soulful. A little bit like Housekeeping. That felt decadent to me.
Rail: In the novel, there’s a feeling for the past and what’s happened. This is modulated by what the book jacket calls unsentimentality, but which I would call irony. There are small moments in the book, however, when you have an emotional overtone, but they’re very rare and placed well. One that stuck out to me was this sentence. When Ajay is discovering books for the first time, he says, “Vanishing into books, I felt held.” That’s one of the few moments when you use language in a way I would call poetic. It’s very dear. I’ve noticed in your short fiction there’s much less of that. In this story that was in the New Yorker several months ago (“A Life of Adventure and Denlight”), the whole tone was driven by a distancing effect, an attempt at objectivity. But in Family Life the seal of neutrality breaks at certain point. Did you notice that while you were writing? Was it uncomfortable sometimes?
Akhil Sharma: In that passage, that line you mentioned, what occurred in that moment is that there’s a past. Somebody is recalling. And their recalling needs a summary effect. The summary effect causes one to reach for figurative speech because of the gathering that occurs, an organizing of meaning. That’s one example. In other places where there’s figurative language, such as when Ajay holds a girl for the first time and says this was like holding a bouquet, it’s because the moment is so intense that it requires language to hurry along. Normally I want language and life to walk at the same pace, to be side-by-side, but sometimes life becomes so intense that language needs to hurry up to capture it.
Rail: There’s another moment after the accident: “A series of automatic doors kept sliding back and forth like the flippers of a pinball machine.” Do you think it’s something similar there? The narrator narrating in the present moment knows what happens; the character doesn’t. How do you deal with the way you use language in such a pivotal moment?
Akhil Sharma: It depends, because you want to capture excitement. And so to the child, it’s so… they’re waiting at the bus station. He’s waiting for his mom. Everything is already so heightened, an accident has occurred. Everything is being described so plainly, yet what has occurred is so insane. And at that moment you want the leakage of emotion. That was the reasoning behind that. If I were to describe everything plainly, it would become a little like Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, but surely, this intense emotion must be manifesting itself through perception.
Rail: And that’s something you feel that you can do better with a first-person narrator?
Akhil Sharma: You can do it in third-person as well, but it’s a different attachment to the material. Is it a close third-person or more like a middle-distance? A close third-person is almost like first-person in drag. In a slightly detached third-person, with characters at a middle distance, the language needs to justify itself not only based on itself but also based on the narrative stance. The language needs to be organizing itself in response to certain structural issues. When you mentioned him talking about being held, that’s a summary—poetry justifies summary. In middle distance, the language must be justified for structural reasons. Not so much for emotional reasons, because emotions don’t belong so much to the narrative point-of-view. It belongs to the characters. Dog Soldiers for example.
Rail: So for the most part, for you, the use of language in a ‘thick’ way, poetic, figurative, has to be prompted by a phenomenon. There’s always been a strain in fiction that’s exhibited a flattening effect with detail. It comes from Flaubert, I think—this idea that things can be described in a ‘thick’ way and can be assigned figurative language without there needing to be emotional attachment on the part of a narrator or character. A windowsill, a chair. Would you say you find yourself distant from that tradition?
Akhil Sharma: All I’ve done in my life is to try to learn how to write in my own way. If I had devoted myself to learning to write in a different way, maybe I would be able to write in a different way. I don’t have a hierarchy where I think I have all the answers or my way is best. It’s what I’ve learned. The reason I’ve taught myself this over the years is that for me the thing that is most urgent is the character and his/her situation.
Rail: That comes first. Before any specific use of language, getting the character/situation right and lifelike.
Akhil Sharma: For me. The reason that’s the most important thing is that that’s the stake/risk that matters. Language is there just to make this thing important.
Rail: You wouldn’t say that’s a general principle for how fiction should operate. But that’s your way.
Akhil Sharma: That’s how I taught myself how to write.
Rail: At what point in your life as a writer did you realize, consciously, that that’s how you work?
Akhil Sharma: When I was fifteen.
Rail: What led you to that? I know that the character Ajay discovers Hemingway.
Akhil Sharma: Same for me. For me the first-person narrative in Hemingway mattered much more than the third-person one. The first-person was always at stake. That taught me that you have to put something at risk which matters to the reader. The easiest thing to put at risk is the narrator. I was just organizing the table of contents to my short story collection, and there are eight stories, I was surprised to learn that five of them are third-person. I thought that five of them would be first-person. That really surprised me. That’s not how I’d imagined what I wrote.
Rail: Do you think it’s part of a process of aging? Why do you think that is?
Akhil Sharma: I wrote third-person from the very beginning. I just thought I had written more first-person, but all my life I’ve written both.
Rail: Why do you think traditionalists and certain realists think that the first-person is a little less serious?
Akhil Sharma: They don’t know how to do it well. In some ways, you can create more of a sense of dignity with the third-person. With the first-person there’s some more anxiety—why is this thing important? Why is the “I” important? With third person because you don’t have the “I” you can hide from the issue that nothing is important, it’s only your making it important that makes it important. Does that make sense? Is that credible?
Rail: Yeah. I wonder how the writer sets out what’s important. We often use the word “stakes,” but what does it mean? What does that refer to? Plot, characterological stake, emotional? There are all sorts of stakes, but it’s often something you can’t break down, like the smallest possible atom or subatom of a work of fiction. The stakes. What do stakes mean for you?
Akhil Sharma: The stake is, why am I reading this thing? What is the claim of importance this is making? Why is it important to the reader?
Rail: Is there something in the work you’ve produced that you like… a stake it all shares? Something it’s giving to the reader?
Akhil Sharma: I think everything I write has to do with love. How to receive love, how to give love, how to find love.
Rail: I read that interview you did with Deborah Treisman, about “A Life of Adventure and Delight,” and you were talking about the moral judgment of that character. It’s interesting because that’s a great way of approaching love. Much of that story is about a guy who has trouble loving. He’s off-balance in that way. It’s interesting that it’s a moral question for you almost. In Family Life it’s very similar. In the beginning of the book, the narrator doesn’t love right, or doesn’t love the way he should: he’s envious and jealous, but he’s a nine-year-old kid. For instance, when people pay attention to his brother after the accident, he’s jealous. How do you deal with readerly judgment when you’re writing about Ajay as a child?
Akhil Sharma: For me, as I’ve gotten older, I love more of a person. Before, when I was younger, I would need the person to be a type, a certain way. For me to love the person. When they wandered away from my expectation, my love would diminish. For example, say you like a girl very much and then at some point you realize that when she sweats, and she sweats regularly, she smells like an onion. When I was young I would have minded it. I would have felt that I was loving this person relative to some ideal. And when they wandered away from that ideal I would be irritated by the fact that they were not that ideal. Now if I were in the same situation and the woman got oniony, I would think oh, here’s this new delight. Here’s this new thing I can see and admire about this person.
Rail: Do you think your characters, insofar as they grow, are getting led toward that state of mind?
Akhil Sharma: My characters, when the story ends they end. The only love possible is trying to love someone fully without hiding them. Having them be as honest as possible. If you don’t, what are you loving? You’re loving some sort of shell.
Rail: Part of your work’s motor is being extremely honest about your characters, very transparent. It’s where the humor and heartbreak come from. What you’re saying is kind of consonant with that. You try to love these characters all the way down, in the sense of showing the reader who they are.
Akhil Sharma: The other thing I’ll say is that everyone thinks this way. I think to the extent that people say they don’t, they’re lying. Everyone thinks, “What about me?” Everyone is scared. Everyone feels useless regularly. Everyone has feelings of self-pity. All of this is constant.
Rail: It’s funny when you talk about judgment because in those moments I would judge Ajay, I think, “That’s me. I’ve done that.” I don’t judge; I think, “That’s true. I’ve done that.” In those moments of perversion in “A Life of Adventures and Delight,” I never judged him, I thought, “I have these foibles too, I’ve done that too.” But that can’t be the only endgame for you in terms of getting your readers to identify with your characters.
Akhil Sharma: Identifying only works if there’s a plot. Otherwise, what’s the point of identifying? It’s a shapeless thing. Identification only works if there’s some movement-toward.
Rail: Your work is plot-driven, but the plots aren’t naturalistic. There’s something more going on.
Akhil Sharma: My plots are event-driven. It’s not A is causing B is causing C. That would be plot as such. It’s A is causing B is causing C, and C leads to a decision which causes G, which causes F, and F leads to M.
Rail: That’s your event-driven causality.
Akhil Sharma: It’s not a plot. A plot is A causes B causes C. What I described is my structure. So, the family comes to America. They do various things. And then the accident occurs. A and then B, and then G, which is this accident. G causes—they’re in the hospital for a while, they have to move somewhere, so H. Then they decide to bring him home, which causes N. Because there are all these options they could have had. N does not necessarily cause miracles to be worked, so B wanders in.
Rail: It’s more amorphous and non-linear, more decision-driven. Did it take you a while to come to that structure?
Akhil Sharma: It took a long time to realize that this would be okay.
Rail: Is that how you see life happening?
Akhil Sharma: That is how life happens.
Rail: I also wanted to ask you—I’ve been to a couple of readings of yours now. I’ve noticed you have this prepared bit you do, which sells the book quite effectively. Why do you decide to read that way and not the traditional way?
Akhil Sharma: Nobody wants to hear that shit, man. Nobody wants to hear it. If you’re coming to a reading to be entertained, you want to get something you can’t get otherwise.
Rail: Right, and you’re performing the personality of the book. So you went through 700 pages in drafts for the book—
Akhil Sharma: 7000. A little over 1.75 million words.
Rail: When you finally got the tone, how long did it take?
Akhil Sharma: Six or seven months.
Rail: Did you have the structure in place and you just needed to find the tone to complete it?
Akhil Sharma: I had all these events and scenes. It was pretty easy.
Rail: The dialogue suits the tone very well. It’s got this mordant love to it. Is dialogue something that comes naturally to you? How do you write it?
Akhil Sharma: You try various things. You see what sounds interesting.
Rail: But there aren’t many long conversations in the book, many extended exchanges. There’s much narrative control over the length of conversations. Why did you decide that dialogue for you should work that way?
Akhil Sharma: I don’t work as much in pure scene. If I look at my first book there’s much more of back and forth, because I was working in pure scene.
Rail: So much of Family Life is summary, but so little of it feels like summary. You go over long swaths of time but you don’t summarize that much. Much of it is so concrete. Which is basically pacing. Was that a big issue?
Akhil Sharma: That took forever. How do you make this thing work? It just took forever.
Rail: Why is it such a small book? Your first book is longer. What about it had to be small?
Akhil Sharma: I think these types of events are not the types of events that people want to spend a lot of time with. As a reader, you don’t want to spend a lot of time in a sickroom, in a room full of illness. That was the one sense that I had, that it had to be very swift. Another was this idea, this appearance that there’s a lot of momentum, that occurs because it is short. For it to be longer would be to make it feel slower.
Rail: And that occurred to you from almost the beginning.
Akhil Sharma: I sort of always knew these issues, but it became more present over time. The pressure of the pacing.
Rail: You can feel it when you’re lingering too long. You’re just completing the manuscript of your third book, your first collection. How did assembling that differ from completing a novel? What are different challenges?
Akhil Sharma: Same issues. You want it to be only good things. And there are certain weaknesses in your style that you need to figure out how to hide. To some extent I am one writer and all my stories are similar. They contain my fingerprint. The obviousness of that is magnified in first-person narrative. The “I,” even though the claim is they’re different “I”s, they’re the same. They use the same vocabulary. They have habits of thought that are similar. So between every first-person story, there are two third-person stories, so that the reader forgets a tiny bit what the first-person was like.
Rail: You started as a short fiction writer. Does the pacing of short fiction come more naturally to you? Or does it seem more challenging?
Akhil Sharma: The novel is harder, because it’s like building a building.
Rail: What ways do you find to put pressure on the narrative in short stories? You have to set up the stakes so quickly.
Akhil Sharma: It’s the same as everything else—something important occurs. And you try to make the important thing feel natural and real, and you move other to something else that is important and real, and you keep doing that.
Rail: Do you think you’ve undergone some stylistic shifts in between your two books?
Akhil Sharma: It’s become much simpler. I think it’s much gentler. The characters are different. They’re much kinder.
Rail: To one another? To themselves?
Akhil Sharma: And to the world. There’s much more of a recognition that the world contains an enormous amount of love and generosity and decency.
Rail: Is that a change happening in you too?
Akhil Sharma: As I’ve gotten older I’ve become less afraid, and as I’ve become less afraid I’ve become much more willing to see good things.
Rail: Do you have less patience that sees only bad things or mostly bad things?
Akhil Sharma: I remember Desperate Characters by Paula Fox. A very good book, but it’s very simple, because it is one tone.
Rail: Hm. I tried to read Otessa Moshfegh’s Eileen a few months ago and couldn’t get through it. I wanted to like it. The language was beautiful, etc., but I felt there was no dialectic in it. Only unremitting bleakness. It’s gotten a lot of praise. But I felt that I was wrong to feel that way, that my feeling was invalid.
Akhil Sharma: Why is that unfair on your part?
Rail: Probably the pressure of public opinion. That’s the most weak part of myself. If I’m honest, I think I’m right. I’m a human being, of course I think I’m right. There was some kind of pressure leading me to think the other way. When you’re writing, working on something new, do you have a default tone that is kind of a crutch to you, you feel? A lot of good writers with a strong voice have that.
Akhil Sharma: I think I do. It’s a very—a confessional tone. It’s very serious, it’s hurrying. Let’s begin the story quickly. Let’s talk about this important thing and how this thing led to this weirdness. Everyone has that. That’s who these writers are; that’s their sensibility. But as you get older, other things occur, where that tone, that point of view becomes more complicated. And so for me, one thing I’ve noticed is that I cover a lot more time inside a story. What would have been a simpler thing, the intensity would’ve been simpler because limited by an intense moment or series of events, now becomes bigger. Because it’s going on over decades.
Rail: You mentioned weirdness. Most of your characters are such eccentrics and perverse in certain ways. “A Life of Adventure and Delight” is fresh on my mind: that character is an eccentric. Are there any moments when you feel that a character is too weird or too perverse?
Akhil Sharma: You have to decide, okay, this is so strange that the reader is going to get lost. Or is the character so strange that you need to put in something else that makes it concrete. Like in “A Life of Adventure and Delight,” there’s that scene where they go to a restaurant and the guy wants to see if he can avoid paying the bill. You have to figure out some way to make the weirdness concrete. Because when you make it concrete, it stops being abstract. Once it stops being abstract, the weirdness becomes more ordinary.
Rail: What’s abstract weirdness?
Akhil Sharma: A guy alone obsessively looking through internet ads for prostitutes. If you have him out in the world doing his stuff, then it becomes much more reasonable.
Rail: And you see the way he’s either forced to confront or not confront his weirdness. And the way that people either respond to it or don’t. You mentioned you try to hide your weaknesses as a writer as you assemble this collection. What are some of your weaknesses? What do you hide?
Akhil Sharma: One of the things that I admire in other writers, and that I consequently view as a weakness in myself because I cannot do, is—I wish I could have the snappy sentences of Franzen. I wish I could move around and have a tone which does not match the subject matter like Wells Tower does. These are things I have tried to do and I have failed. To me, all the things I cannot do feel like weaknesses. In some ways that makes no sense, because then I’m saying if I can’t be everyone, then I’m worthless. It’s a weakness if you can’t be yourself. If there’s some shame that’s preventing you from being yourself, or some lack of technical control preventing you from being yourself.
Rail: Do you ever experience that? That shame, that lack of control.
Akhil Sharma: When I’m too much myself the story doesn’t work. I need it to not be me.
Rail: You have to put on a mask.
Akhil Sharma: Yes. I have to play a role within the fiction, and so the story fails if the mask is not there.
Rail: Do you discover you’re good at new things as you get older?
Akhil Sharma: Yes. I’ve recently discovered that I can combine—there’s a story I have in this collection, and which hasn’t been published before, but which I think is strong. It begins one way; it goes to another thing and then goes to a third thing, and then those three things are combined. The fact that I can move the reader along and have the reader be engaged in all these three things. As I get older I feel more and more capable of doing almost anything within my voice. Within my voice.
Rail: My last question is about your material. One of the books I’ve read through recently and that has meant very much to me is Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival. The thesis of the book is that there is an ever-narrowing gap between the writer and the person. The writer and the human being. He talks in the book about trying to write about the wealthy well-to-do Oxford kids he hung around. When he was twenty-five he realized his gift was to wrote about the people he grew up around. Gradually that gift expanded to encompass the whole of postcolonial society. Do you experience a shift in your material as you’re aging? If so in what direction?
Akhil Sharma: No, what I’m noticing is that I’ve always written about a world that I know. As I get older I know more worlds. I can write about different things. I am now writing about different words. The material might seem different, but it’s just material that I know that I didn’t know before.
Rail: I’m really curious about how writers choose and are chosen by their material. There’s another quote I like by John Updike where he talks about how all of your material, your whole life through, comes from your first eighteen years. Of course this is a man who would have an experience and then wake up the next morning and write about it. But somehow he believed that. Do you think that’s true? The person you are before you become self-conscious is the person you’re always writing about?
Akhil Sharma: I write my sensibility. I’m a certain type of person. I was born that way, thin-skinned, lonely, afraid, all these things I was. I go into the world. I gain certain strengths, I lose other strengths, I am this and that, this and that. The writing changes based on that. I’m not the same person I was when I was 18 or 19, and so the writing changes as I change.
ALEC NIEDENTHAL is a recent graduate of Brown University's MFA program in Literary Arts. He has published fiction in the Brooklyn Rail, The Toast, Agriculture Reader, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and other venues. He is currently working on a novel about anti-Semitism and sex.Akhil Sharma
Akhil Sharma is an Indian-American author and professor of creative writing. His first published novel An Obedient Father won the 2001 Hemingway Pen Award. His second, Family Life, won the 2015 Folio Prize and 2016 International Dublin Literary Award.