Interview by John Shakespear
Akhil Sharma is the author of two novels—Family Life, the winner of the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award and the 2015 Folio Prize, and An Obedient Father, which won the 2001 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award. His latest book and debut short story collection, A Life of Adventure and Delight (W.W. Norton, 2017), was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice pick. Sharma’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Best American Short Stories, and O. Henry Award Stories. A native of Delhi, he lives in New York City and teaches at Rutgers University–Newark.
In October 2017, Sharma came to Vanderbilt and gave a rousing reading from his latest collection. This interview was conducted over email in the weeks following his visit.
Interviewer: In your novel Family Life, there’s a wonderful, quietly funny passage in which the narrator Ajay, then a ninth grader, devours critical works about Ernest Hemingway to try to glean the tools and secrets of professional writers. For me, this passage—for all its subtle criticism of Hemingway—was suffused with the familiar glow of an early, meaningful literary encounter. You’ve said elsewhere that Hemingway was indeed an influence on you, but would you be willing to speak to one or two other early literary encounters, and how those authors shaped you—or, in the long run, did not shape you—as a writer?
Akhil Sharma: When I was a child I used to cry when I finished a book because I would never see these characters again. I did this for good books and bad—for novelizations of movies such as Swiss Family Robinson and for the actual Robinson Crusoe. All these books, good and bad, shaped me. What they gave me was a sense of what I wanted a book to do, be as real as life and to matter more than life.
Later in that same passage, Ajay recalls that as a teenager he didn’t know how to write fiction about his Indian family. “Having read Hemingway,” he reflects from the distance of several years, “I knew that I should just push all the exotic things to the side as if they didn’t matter, that this was how one used exoticism–by not bothering to explain.” In addition to implicitly calling Hemingway to task, this line made me wonder about how you navigate the expectations of multiple audiences as you work. There are the American and European literary marketplaces, dominated by white readers and gatekeepers; there’s India’s booming book market; and then there are readers who connect with your work around the world (Family Life was translated into six languages). How do you approach the question of cultural translation and “bothering to explain” in your own writing?
I think even Hemingway was always explaining. Even when he said things which suggested that he was not going to explain, it was to indicate the contours of an experience and invite the reader to imagine it.
When I write, I write with the idea that my audience won’t be able to imagine the alleyways, the smells that my characters are familiar with. If I were to write primarily for an Indian audience, everything would change. The pacing of sentences would alter. I might have to drop the amount of exposition.
In the end, I believe that what I am writing is not so much explaining as it is creating. I am creating an experience for my readers and so the style is part of generating that experience.
One of my favorite stories in your 2017 collection A Life of Adventure and Delight is “Surrounded by Sleep,” which contains some of the material that would later appear in Family Life, in a different form, alongside other passages which are not in the novel. How did the experience of writing that story, and knowing that it was out in the world, inform and/or complicate the process of writing the novel?
The story felt complete, so it was a challenge to open it up into a novel. Also, I had the feeling that the story was good and that it was good in a particular way and so I believed the novel had to be good in the same way. This created confusion for me. It led me down a lot of wrong paths because I thought the book had to match the story.
One of the qualities I admire most in the stories in that collection is their emotional directness. I’ve rarely read straightforward statements of feeling—like “I had been cruel and indifferent and had learned nothing from my own life,” in “The Well,” or “it made him wonder what love was and whether he was capable of it,” in “Cosmopolitan”—that land so hard or seem so earned. Is this quality of directness something you think about consciously as you write and revise? On a craft level, what does it take, elsewhere in the story, to make a strategy like this work?
These characters are struggling so hard to feel OK that the primary plot of the story is: will they or will they not feel OK? Because of that, it seems possible to talk about these things directly.
There’s a lot of ambient visual media in these stories–the bombings of Lebanon on the nightly news in “Cosmopolitan,” the Entertainment Tonight interview in “Surrounded by Sleep,” the narrator’s love for Wonder Woman in “The Well.” Do you see your writing as in conversation with or inspired by television and film in any particular way?
Most people live with ambient media and so it feeds into their world. I don’t think of my writing as being in conversation with other media. In fact, I try to avoid mention of other media because it highlights the fact that the reader is reading fiction.
Relatedly—and perhaps this is an all-too common question, but I’m curious—do you think the requirements for what a short story or novel must do to resonate with readers have changed at all in the digital age, when we’re inundated by all sorts of other media at all times? Or is the bar for good fiction what it always has been? It strikes me, for instance, that your work employs introspection and self-awareness in a way that seems nearly impossible in other formats.
I do think that there are things that written fiction can do which other media cannot. I also think that the pressure of new forms of entertainment challenges written fiction to demand attention. There is less attention that a novel can assume it will receive before it is dismissed. There are stories by Cheever and Fitzgerald that I don’t think are good, and I wonder if I am not the ideal audience or whether time has made certain things not tolerable. On the other hand, nothing by Chekhov seems to have aged.
You’ve said before that when you were writing Family Life, you wanted to write something useful. Can you expand on what you think makes a book useful?
A book is useful if it lets readers feel things which they have not felt before or if it lets them know that they are not alone in their feelings.
To whatever extent you’re willing and able to discuss it, what are you working on now?
A new novel. Way too early to talk about it, but I hope that it won’t take as long as the last one.