Constructed Reality: A Conversation with Novelist Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma’s novel Family Life was just named one of the ten best books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review and New York Magazine. In an intimate conversation with Mohsin Hamid, the celebrated author of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Sharma talks about Family Life, his heart-wrenching work almost thirteen years in the making.

Mohsin Hamid: I know that [Family Life] is very similar to your life. Could you give me a sense of how much of the novel is autobiography?

Akhil Sharma: This is one of those questions that novelists hate to answer.

MH: I know.

AS: Novels should be judged rigorously. Either a book works or it doesn’t. The fact that something is true in the real world should not lend authority to it in fiction.

MH: I know. I ask because I have a second question based on your answer.

AS: Almost everything in the novel is true. In the novel, though, things do not occur in the order that I describe them as occurring in. There are also many things which I left out which were important to my formation.

‘Family Life’ is in stores now.

MH: Why did you not write a memoir?

AS: For me, a memoir is nonfiction and nonfiction has to be absolutely true. I can’t have composite characters. I can’t attribute dialogue to someone based simply on my memory and not based on notes taken at the time that the words were spoken. I also need to tell the things that are important but which don’t make sense in terms of the narrative, things that would destroy symmetry or narrative pace. This is my personal belief about what it means to write nonfiction. I felt that I could not leap all these hurdles and still write something that would have power.

MH: You said that you left out things that were important to your formation. Could you name one?

AS: The constant despair of living with someone ill, of having no hope. The gravitational pull of that was the most important aspect of my childhood and youth. To describe it truthfully would be to foreground it. Despair is repetitive and dull, however. Not only is it boring but it also kills the reader’s interest in the other strands of the narrative.

MH: Twice now you have suggested that you are writing about a character’s formation. Could you talk a little bit as to what you think the novel is about?

AS: To me the novel is about a child in a claustrophobic family turning into a self — and about the grown-up going back and trying to figure out what happened. This as you know is a traditional thing for a modernist novel to do. I would compare Family Life to The Way of All Flesh, for example, or to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which was inspired by The Way of All Flesh. But to me it is also the story of my generation of Indian Americans. My sense is that this is something new: a rigorous modernist novel of the childhood self that deals specifically with the Indian immigrant experience.

MH: Do you expect the book to be called an immigrant novel?

AS: Philip Roth and Saul Bellow were called Jewish novelists for the longest time. Faulkner was called a Southern novelist. Virginia Woolf was called a woman novelist. People often need to describe things quickly and so they use a shorthand. The problem is that after they use a label, they begin to think only in terms of the label instead of the totality of the experience a novel provides. It is like how in relationships we can focus on only one thing to the detriment of all the other aspects of a loved one.

MH: Also, labels are used by people to decide whether or not they will read a novel.

AS: Yes, but the reality is that shorthand is necessary.

MH: One of the things that is interesting about you is how quickly you move between the specific and the universal.

AS: I tend to think that we are all pretty much alike. We all feel despair. We all have problems with relationships. We all get afraid. We all look at others and think these other people are more fortunate than us. Certainly the details of our life are unique. Spending time thinking of how I am different from someone else, however, does not tend to be very productive.

MH: What about the details of your novel and of your life? They seem unique in ways that are not universizable. The strange miracle workers, for example.

AS: They are not unique. I hope you never suffer from a grave illness, but if you were to do so, you might end up looking everywhere for help.

MH: And what about the people who think the mother is saintly and come for her blessings?

AS: Isn’t that common in Catholicism — all the martyrs who are considered holy?

MH: On a slightly different topic, you spent thirteen years on the novel.

AS: I cringe when you say that.

MH: Is that number correct?

AS: It is correct, although I have been saying twelve because for some reason that number feels less painful.

MH: Did the autobiographical nature of the book cause you to take so long?

AS: Because I don’t want the book to be treated like a memoir, let me first discuss the book as fiction, as a constructed reality.

The book was an incredible technical challenge to create. I hope the solutions I invented don’t show, but they were hard to develop. One challenge was that it is hard to write about physically difficult things without causing the reader to disengage. The reader reads about a character becoming blind and this is so wrenching that she wants to put the book down. I had to create a solution to this.

It is also hard to create a first-person narrator that can be a child and yet is able to take in enough information for the narrative to be legible to the reader.

Finally, in a situation of long-term illness like the one that I am writing about, there tends not to be plot. Mostly what happens is that time passes. This is tremendously boring and so I had to create a series of small narratives so that the reader would keep reading.

MH: And what about the autobiographical elements? Did they make the book hard to write?

AS: I had a hard time coming up with a stable point of view on the various events that I describe. My mother had various kooks come to our house to wake my brother. I feel great sympathy for this. I also feel that doing this created hurt for me and my father. Was my mother selfish? Perhaps she was ignorant? If she was ignorant, was she willfully so? These sorts of questions bedeviled me through the writing of the book. I hope that my struggle with the characters, the way that they pull at me and also push me away, is something that the reader also experiences.

MH: I noticed that pull/push. Can you compare this book to your earlier one?

AS: I think this book is much more tender.

MH: I noticed that as well. My heart went out to each of the characters.

AS: One technical difference between Family Life and An Obedient Father is that I use much more exposition in Family Life. To me exposition always contains tenderness. While a dramatized scene is a way of proving and guaranteeing an emotional experience for the reader, exposition assumes that the reader is sophisticated and can see the universal. Exposition suggests a great trust in the reader, and this expression of trust makes a book feel tender.

‘Family Life’ is available wherever books are sold.

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Read the New York Times review of Akhil Sharma’s Family Life: