Medium: As a child, what did “going to work” look like to you?
Karan Mahajan: I had a pretty standard bourgeois idea of the man going off with a mysterious set of papers that no one in the family would see. When I was five or seven, I would take sheets of paper and walk to the driveway with my red plastic Lego briefcase and pretend that I was going to the office. I must’ve picked that up from my dad. Mom had been a lecturer in English at Delhi University, but after she got married and went to the U.S., she was a homemaker.
Was there anyone modeling an artist’s life?
The idea that someone could be a full-time writer — just leave college and say, “I’m going to be an artist” — was extremely alien to me. But there were women who were homemakers who had started businesses in their homes. I had one aunt who became a prominent fashion designer. Another family friend was an excellent painter. So art seemed like an adjunct to a role you’d been assigned already by society. It’s strangely gendered, and I wish that weren’t the case, but that’s how I remember seeing it.
Were you writing as a kid?
I was a big reader. I started to write rhyming poetry, which was not very good. But my mother was especially encouraging and treated it with a seriousness that made me more serious as well. Most of our work in English class was rote memorization. We didn’t write essays longer than 250 words. But my younger brother and I were obsessed with cricket, so when we got a PC, we started an Indian cricket website. We would come back from school, watch matches on TV, and then write reports about them. When our site began to grow — we were 14 and 12 at the time — the largest sports network in the world hired us to be their official Indian cricket editors. It was that particular period on the internet when money was fast and loose, ’98 or so. I think my writing muscle was exercised in a way that was unusual for someone in high school in India.
Did they know you were kids?
When we talked to them on the phone, they quickly figured out our ages. But they didn’t seem to mind.
As a student in Delhi, what was expected of you?
It was a very narrow world. If you’re a good student in India, you get funneled into science training in grade 10. It was expected that I would study computers or mechanical engineering, go to the U.S. for a master’s, and work in a tech company. It would be a very respectable life for an Indian male in the early 21st century.
And yet you dodged this…
I was lucky to get into Stanford, because they were strong in both programming and English. I quickly realized that I loved English courses and didn’t have an aptitude for programming. So I substituted economics for computers. It was a way of pretending I was not becoming a writer, that writing was secondary. I was still being a responsible Indian kid getting a monetizable degree from an American university. My parents were fine with me taking creative writing classes, but they did feel that I was going to get a job at a consulting firm or a Goldman Sachs, that I would write on the side.
I felt that if I was published, then I’d show my parents — but more importantly, the world that I came from — that I was doing something that had been validated externally.
You started your first novel at 20, back home in India, right?
Yes, it was on winter break home from Stanford. I had taken a fiction class when I was a sophomore, and I found that I didn’t have a natural grasp of how to write a story. It fired up something competitive in me — I really wanted to get good at it. So, when I was back home in India, I would write. Winter break my senior year was the first time I felt that I was coming into my material, that the stuff I had seen growing up was the stuff of fiction. I kept working on [that novel] after college, and the opening of it eventually became Family Planning.
At that point, did anyone tell you to keep going?
There are so many people one owes along the way. [My professor] Elizabeth Tallent encouraged me to write a novel in the first place. Another teacher told me, “Maybe you should not even do an economics degree, because if you do, you’ll have a backup, and if you do, you will always back up.” Which proved to be true for many years. I ended up dividing myself between economics and English — that’s partly why there was a gap of seven and a half years between Family Planning and the next book.
What did you do after college?
I left college without a job, which was a big shock to my parents. I had come such a long way in those four years. I definitely felt like I was going to be a writer. I’d fallen in with students who wanted to be writers, and we formed a writing group. I was the only immigrant, but the rest were first-generation Asian American. The fact that there were people alongside me who had also decided to become writers made doing so a less frightening decision.
I got hired at an indie publisher in San Francisco a month later. It didn’t pay particularly well, but there were times of the day when I could write. And I was reading novels off the slush pile, which taught me a fair bit about the mistakes first-time novelists tend to make.
What kind of mistakes?
Authors with a great first 50 pages who didn’t know what to do after that. The same settings reused in the same way. Authors who thought a novel should be slower and have longer themes than a short story, when in fact a novel should have the same amount of compression. The job really taught me to structure a book.
Tell me about your writing practice at that point.
I would get home and drink coffee to write in the evening. And on the weekends. I was desperate to finish, because I felt that if I was published, then I’d show my parents — but more importantly, the world that I came from — that I was doing something that had been validated externally. I was driven in a way that I haven’t been since, and I was excited by it. I don’t think that’s the best way of functioning, but it did get me to finish.
When did you leave that job?
I really wanted to finish the book and move back to India, which I did. I got a grant, was there for a few months, and finished. But I was at loose ends. This has always been my struggle: I was writing about India, but [in India] I was surrounded by people who didn’t quite support or understand what I was doing. So I moved to Brooklyn to be away from those voices but found it impossible to afford. Soon after, the novel sold, which was a huge relief. I lived off that and my grant for about a year, and then started a job at the New York City Economic Development Corporation. They oversee the development of new projects in the city, like the High Line or congestion pricing, what the new taxi should look like. The main character in Family Planning is an urban planning minister, and having written about that, plus the economics degree, got me the job.
I would go to cities, interview people, and produce a report. It taught me to be a bit egoless, because I wasn’t writing for publication.
What did your writing practice look like at this time?
The job was nine to five. I was getting up in the morning and writing for an hour or two before I went to work, but that was very tiring. And the job was fairly social. I was interacting with people all day, so I didn’t come home with enough energy to write. So I would write on the weekends.
I liked the job and my co-workers. I was learning a ton about the city itself, [which] could inform my fiction later on. When I advise younger writers, I always tell them to put off the MFA for a few years and do some jobs outside the ambit of writing so they actually have something to write about. But again: If you’re doing something with half your energy and half your brain, you’re probably not going to do it particularly well, and you’re not going to finish. And that’s what I began to feel after about a year and a half with that job.
What were you working on?
Right after Family Planning came out, I wrote the opening of The Association of Small Bombs. It turned out to be a much bigger intellectual undertaking than I thought at the time. I couldn’t move forward, because I needed to sit down in a library and read a ton of stuff.
Did you find a job that allowed you to do this?
So, again, this is a funny thing. For most of the time I was in the U.S., I really wanted to go back to India. So I found a way. The founder of Infosys wanted someone to hire someone with writing abilities document India’s problems. I immediately applied for it, but by the time I got the job, it had morphed into something different and more specific, which was to research what it was like to be an entrepreneur in India. I would go to cities, interview people, and produce a few-thousand-word report. It forced me to write a great deal very quickly, much more than the cricket job. And it taught me to be a bit egoless, because I wasn’t writing for publication. That was a good lesson.
How did you make time for your fiction ?
The person I was working for allowed me to spend three months traveling India and interviewing entrepreneurs, and then I’d have three months off, subletting a place in Brooklyn and writing my own stuff. I think traveling around small-town India and asking people to walk me through their lives really fed my second novel. I don’t know when I would have had that opportunity otherwise. And I should say that I was very proud to have this job outside of writing. It felt like a badge I could wear to prove to the world I wasn’t just a writer. [But] I was making halting progress on the novel, because I was just not able to find the right mental space in which to do it.
Is this why you went to the MFA program ?
It’s funny. I didn’t think I would do an MFA, because I had received a good writing education at Stanford. I published my first book when I was 24. But it was desperation. I’d tried all these different models of living, and I felt that I wasn’t going to finish Small Bombs if I just kept going the way I was going.
People also advised me it would be difficult to teach without an MFA, because you’re always competing against people with MFAs. Even if you’ve published a book or two. So I thought to myself, “Why not give myself two or three years, if I’m getting paid for them, to let myself be a writer?” The only thing that was holding me back was this fear of declaring myself a writer. I only applied to fully funded programs — I would not encourage anyone to go into debt for an MFA — and I got into the Michener Center [at the University of Texas at Austin].
Were you happy with that decision?
I’m glad I did it. It resulted in a major change of my identity. The Indian society I grew up in values conformism. Very few of my friends did anything that they weren’t expected to. So it was really a question of accepting myself [as a writer] and not letting those other voices interfere. After two years at Michener, I’d finished the book. It didn’t take long once I was focusing on it. Since then, I have tried not to do anything [other than write.] I’m going to start a teaching job next year, but that seems more complementary with writing.