It’s a true honor for Style.No.Chaser to feature the extremely gifted writer Akhil Sharma in our online magazine. His name first came to prominence as a writer of short stories for The New Yorker and The Atlantic. He officially stamped his presence within literati circles when he released his debut novel An Obedient Father in 2001. This book earned him widespread acclaim amongst both his peers and book critics. It also won him the prestigious PEN/Hemingway award. His latest novel, Family Life, was released last year and it was one of the New York Times Book Review’s “Best 10 Books of 2014.” The book follows the story of an Indian family that moves from Delhi to Queens, NYC in the late 1970’s. The tale is dispensed through the voice of Ajay, the younger son of the Indian family, and the reader is drawn in completely by his candid and poignant narration. Family Life also manages to starkly depict how tragedy can surreptitiously knock on the doors of a tight-knit family and make a permanent residence for itself. The Publisher’s Weekly lauded the book as “A loving portrait, both painful and honest,” and respected author Gary Shteyngart stated: “Family Life will cut your heart to pieces but it will also make you rejoice.” The paperback version of the novel came out on February 2nd, 2015, and we were able to steal a few minutes of his time for a SNC chat. Read on below:
“I think I would have been hurt if the book had just appeared and then vanished …”
What is the main underlying message you are trying to get across to readers with your book Family Life?
To some extent a book cannot have a message. Proust said that being able to see the idea of a book is like wearing clothing with the price tag still on. That aside, my book is titled Family Life for a reason. I want to show families loving each other, having problems with each other, being loyal, being disloyal. To the extent I can, I want to express the love that I feel for my own family.
Are there any parallels between your own life and that of Ajay in the novel?
There are extremely strong parallels between the book and my own life. I had a brother who had an accident in a swimming pool and became severely brain damaged. He lost his ability to walk or talk or roll over in his sleep. My parents decided to take care of him at home the way that the parents in this book do.
There are, of course, strong differences between the book and my own life. For example, in the book there is a chapter where the protagonist, a child, begins telling lies in school in which he tells his fellow students about his own brother and how wonderful his brother was, how his brother learned French in one week and other such lies. He does this so that they will feel the weight of his loss. This did not happen. I didn’t tell anyone about my brother because I felt that nobody would understand. Because I didn’t tell anyone I had a secret. This kind of secret would not work in the novel because this type of secret is non-dramatized. I therefore had the character in the novel tell lies. This meant that my character had a secret. It was a different secret from the one I had, but it too was a secret.
Family Life really elaborates in a very heartfelt manner how tragedy and suffering can truly affect a family in a very major way. How do you deal with suffering and tragedy personally?
The way I deal with suffering and tragedy is by trying to be happy and by trying to be a nice guy. My first response to unhappiness is to be afraid or angry. I know though that if I act from fear or anger I will be allowing these things to rule me. I try therefore when in difficult situations to think of others first. This is not out of being a good person, but from having learned how to manage my head. Dante said that God’s will is man’s peace. (I should add here that I am not religious, though Dante is a god.)
Were you surprised at all about the overwhelming praise and critical acclaim that Family Life earned?
I have chosen not to read reviews and so the reception has not been a part of my life. I am glad the book is doing well. I think I would have been hurt if the book had just appeared and then vanished the way most books vanish.
Can you elaborate a bit about your writing rituals – are you ever intimidated by the blank page?
I am always intimidated by whatever I am writing. The way I try to handle this is by telling myself that whatever I am writing does not have to be very good. All it has to be is something which, if I squint my eyes, will look sort of like a story. This is how I get through the first few drafts of a new project.
Who are some writers that continue to inspire you to become even better about your craft?
Nabakov is someone that I am trying to learn from these days. Henry Fielding is another one, as is Evelyn Waugh. But there are many writers who matter to me. Hemingway, Chekhov, Hardy.
Your academic resume is extremely impressive: Princeton, Harvard Law School etc. How do you think these hallowed learning institutions have informed your writing?
First of all they taught me that smart people can look through my BS and so I should not even try to lie. The second thing they taught me was to read very closely, to not think that the surface of a book is enough. Finally, they taught me to respect many writers whom I think I would not have paid enough respect to because their style is so different from my own.
As a writer, what do you like the most about living in NYC?
I love the fact that New York City is so diverse in every way. This makes me feel at home. I like the fact that it is not a one industry town and that the best people from every field are here. I love the museums and crowds. Even the other great cities of the world, London or Hong Kong, feel somewhat simple compared to New York.
Do you think you would ever want to write any screenplays (for film/TV/theater) in the future?
I am willing to try anything.
Lastly, can you tell us about any other projects we can expect from you in the near future?
I am working on a collection of essays and short stories. I hope the collection comes out next year.
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