Issue 13

An Interview with Akhil Sharma

 · Nonfiction

© Nicholas Prakas

Akhil Sharma’s first collection of short stories, A Life of Adventure and Delight, was published in 2017 by W.W. Norton. His first novel, An Obedient Father, won the 2001 Hemingway Foundation/PEN award. His second novel, Family Life, won the 2015 Folio Prize and the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award. He teaches in the M.F.A. Creative Writing program at Rutgers University – Newark.

I met Akhil in the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel on Broad Street. I asked him if he would be more comfortable conducting the interview at a nearby coffee shop, but he declined. It was only at the end of the interview, and after he had discovered the upstairs restaurant had closed to prep for lunch service, that he told me he had not had breakfast yet. I brought him around to the Good Karma Cafe, where I’d initially assumed we’d speak.

Journalistic ethics demand I disclose that, at this point, Akhil bought me a coffee.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

One prominent theme in A Life of Adventure and Delight is that of money. I find it fascinating that so many familial relationships are dominated by conversations about money. Several characters in this book are dealing with an expensive tragedy or a history of poverty. Why does money come up so frequently in your stories?

 I think money is a pressure on us all the time. I think we’d rather not be aware of it, or we might be denying it, but it must be pressing on us. So, for example, if we had gone to the coffee shop, right? I would have bought your coffee, because of course, you know, you’re a student. But that means I’m aware of the fact that you have less money.

So, money is always there. That’s just the nature of what life is. And it’s part of this gravity we need to acknowledge — it’s a little bit like lust. Just such a basic primal part of life.

There are a lot of characters in this book who have dealt with poverty in the past. What do you think happens to a person when they emerge from poverty, when they’re no longer quite tethered to money problems the way they once were?

I’m not tethered to money problems the way I was, but I grew up poor, and I have an awareness of it all the time. It’s always in the periphery of my vision. And I don’t know if I have a healthy relationship, like, when I spend money, sometimes it feels like a dangerous thing. Like I’m doing it cavalierly, like I’m flinching. So, that’s my experience of it. Chekhov once said that he had squeezed every drop of serf blood out of himself. And what I tell myself is I want to live like I had a happy childhood. So, there are natural fears that you have trained in you, but you can become conscious of them or overcome them.

I was recently listening to an episode of The New Yorker Radio Hour in which you talked about stumbling into an investment banking job —

 I aggressively chose it! There was no stumbling! I was chasing it down.

But you were saying in that episode that you didn’t necessarily feel like you were qualified for the job, that you just wanted to pursue this job because you could do it.

Yeah, man! Because it pays so much! Why the hell wouldn’t you do it?

Absolutely. And eventually you made the decision to leave it. What effects did that job have on your writing? Did you feel like it became much easier to write when you left?

 I found it very hard to write during that time, because you’re just so busy all the time and you’re tired all the time. But it does, in some ways, to not have to worry in any way at all about money, because I was making so much money. It liberates you? You can just do whatever the hell you want. You can stay in any hotel. I used to travel from city to city, because I just didn’t want to bother with train schedules. I would say, “Look, I don’t want to waste my time waiting for a train, the train’s in an hour.” I’d get into a taxi and say, “I’ll pay you two hundred pounds.”

That’s incredible. When you left, did you feel at all upset with yourself for turning away from that money?

Oh, yeah, of course. All the time. To give up that sort of money, and especially to give up something you worked so hard to get, and then developed skill sets in, it just seems like a waste. Like you’re throwing away something valuable. It was also something I never wanted to do.

Investment banking, you mean?

Yeah, it meant nothing to me. There was no emotional value to it for me. Money was a way of feeling important and money was a way of feeling safe. But money doesn’t make you feel important and money doesn’t make you feel safe. It’s like a bandage for something where the issue is not a surface wound, but something deeper.

There is another theme that I see running through this book — the issue of compulsive behavior. It’s in “You Are Happy?” to some degree, and is a big issue in the title story. But last week while we were talking about the story “Cosmopolitan” in my fiction workshop, we talked about this beautiful moment where Gopal is touching a woman before he realizes he’s actually doing it. And the same sort of thing happens at the end of “We Didn’t Like Him,” where the main character does something particularly heinous to another person and he doesn’t quite register the gravity of what he’s done until immediately after. What is it about compulsive behavior that interests you?

You know, the ending of “We Didn’t Like Him” is based on the fact that when I went for my brother’s funeral to India, I went out to the boat, and my cousin, who was trying very hard to help me because he saw that I was sort of overwrought, did that. Used his car key to open the bag of ashes that were my brother’s, and did that part of the ritual. And I felt I had failed my brother. That it was something I should have done. But, for him, the motivation was something good. In the story, the motivation is not necessarily good.

Often, when there are jumps in human nature, our mind is not registering these things. We’re not behaving logically anymore. Because if we were behaving in a logical way, we wouldn’t do these things. But we’re basically irrational. The idea of rationality is that it allows us to go about and do our little tasks, but then there’s lots of bits inside us that are irrational. And so, it’s that irrationality inside us which is part of it.

But, the thing is, when we talk about compulsiveness, like in “A Life of Adventure and Delight,” it’s only compulsive if it continues for a long period. It feels more like a phase to me, and it feels more like some response in relationship to his own sister. That’s what I would think of it as.

So, you don’t think that Gautama is necessarily stuck acting this way forever, that he might grow out of this behavior.

I mean, that’s sort of what I imagine. Or there’s another thing, which is: Who are we to judge other people’s sexualities?

I’m also interested in a conversation you were having with Deborah Treisman on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast. You were discussing “The Night in Question,” that great Tobias Wolff story, and you mentioned that there are moments in the story which are unbearable for you to read. That really struck me, because as I was reading your book, I found such moments strewn throughout it — the unbearable sadness of what Gopal is going through in “Cosmopolitan,” or the sheer horror of what Lakshman is realizing about his family in “You Are Happy?” Has your opinion on what’s unbearable in fiction changed at all since that conversation with Deborah Treisman?

 Inside fiction what is unbearable is different from what’s unbearable in life. Because I’m controlling it, it doesn’t have the same level of unbearableness to me as it would for the reader. So you have to watch to see whether or not you’re making a mistake. Whether you’re overanalyzing, whether you’re going too far, because you don’t feel the pain the same way the reader will. So that’s something technically to watch.

The other thing inside life is that you can basically survive anything. Horrible things occur but you can survive almost anything. Has my own sense of what’s unbearable changed? I mean, to some extent, like in “You Are Happy?,” the fact that the child at the end of it realizes that he can’t go back because it’s not a world he wishes to be a part of, whether that’s him surviving? Making healthy choices.

I was teaching this story to my fiction class yesterday and we were talking about how you were surprised when Deborah Treisman told you she thought the story was grim. And we all came down on the idea that whether or not things that are horrifying take place in this story, it ends with the feeling that this character is not going to be a part of this environment anymore. He’s not going to allow it to control him, so we can emerge from the story feeling at least okay about him, even if we feel great sorrow for what he’s experienced.

Onto an entirely different topic. You’ve been an instructor at Rutgers-Newark since 2011, and you were at Bennington before that. What do students in creative writing programs struggle with consistently?

Plotting. They don’t know what it means for the engine to be turned on. And then what it means to keep it going, right? And so, often, it’s very diffuse, what they’re writing. And so that surprises me, it surprises me that they don’t have as clear a sense of what works and what doesn’t work. And that they’re not even in the ballpark. That takes me aback.

When you come across this kind of a problem, are there particular works of literature that you tend to try and teach?

What I do is I give them an individual reading list. You know, I can say, “look, I sort of see what you’re doing here and there’s this French writer who’s done something very similar, you might want to read him. Notice how you don’t have visual details there and notice how Adam Johnson doesn’t have visual details.” So, you point these things out to them. What you’re doing, you’re not teaching, you’re causing to learn. Almost all the work must be done by the student.

And most of that has to do with continuing to write and continuing to read voraciously. You’ve talked a fair amount about the influence that Hemingway has had on you, and I’ve seen you talk a little bit about Hardy and Chekhov as well, and obviously Tobias Wolff. What are some of the things you have drawn on from those writers?

 It makes you aware of how good you have to be if you want to be any good at all. That’s sort of the big thing. But I don’t know. There’s sort of technical things that you learn, and there are things you learn about what can be done. But what you’re doing is aspiring to be as good as they are. Which is almost impossible. Realistically, when you think about how many great writers there are, there’s a reason there are so few great writers. There are a lot more great novels than there are great writers. To me a great writer is somebody who’s written multiple books that are great. Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders is a great novel, but I wouldn’t necessarily call her a great writer. She’s a very, very good writer, but that book is so dramatically better and more interesting than anything else that she’s written.

I heard Jonathan Franzen talk about it on some other podcast. It sounded like such an interesting idea for a novel.

Yes, it’s an extraordinary book.

I noticed in a Tin House interview you did a few years ago that you mentioned you weren’t reading a lot of contemporary fiction at the time. Does that still hold for you?

I judge a lot of contests, right? Prizes. So, they’ll send me 180 books. And so I’ll look at the beginnings of all of them. And then I will read into some of them. And I’ll finish six of them. Of those six, probably three are meritorious. None of those three are probably great. So, that’s why. Because I actually do try to read these things and they’re not super great.

So it sounds like you’re reading a fair amount of contemporary fiction.

Well, I flip through it. I met somebody that I was responsible for giving a prize to, I was part of the committee, and I thought, “Oh yeah, I read that book, I don’t remember anything about it. I remember that I gave you that prize!”

Are there any contemporary authors who you are interested in? You’ve mentioned Jane Smiley.

I’d read anything by Jeffrey Eugenides. I’d read anything by Franzen. Because I know that even if they’re not working for me, they’re the very best version of that thing. So, I would read those guys, I would read anything by Lorrie Moore, I would read anything by Jane Smiley. I don’t think of them as great writers, because I haven’t had the same response to multiple works by them, but I would read anything by them.

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