Akhil Sharma’s long-awaited second novel Family Life tells the story of an Indian immigrant family’s arrival in America – a mother, father and two sons: 8-year-old Ajay and the older Birju – and the terrible tragedy that befalls them when Birju hits his head on the bottom of a swimming pool, where he lies unconscious for three minutes and suffers irreversible brain damage. Narrated by the younger child, the novel is a portrait of a family pushed to the brink, their lives revolving around rejected insurance claims, 24-hour care, and grief and misery that both unites and tears them apart. The event is tragic enough in the realm of fiction, but almost unbearably so when you learn that Sharma is writing from his own experience – Ajay is his fictional alter ego, and Birju that of his brother Anup. Sharma’s loosely autobiographical novelisation of his family’s experiences is a powerhouse of a book. Profoundly moving and stylistically innovative, it screams Man Booker but, as he tells me when I meet him in London, writing it was a uniquely torturous and drawn-out process, the relatively slim final volume taking him a staggering twelve-and-a-half years to complete.
LS: Given that you’ve been working on this novel for so long did you feel bereft when it was finally finished?
AS: I know people who have felt like that – almost like a mother who has given birth and her hormones go out of whack – but that hasn’t been my experience. I was ready for this thing to end years ago. I emailed it to my editor on, I think, a Thursday, and then on the Friday I began writing a short story, I was just so happy to be out of it.
I also thought the book was going to be a disaster. I didn’t really have a sense as to whether it was good or bad. I felt that whatever happened, it had definitely not been worth the time I’d spent on it, so I just wanted to move on very quickly.
In The New Yorker you used a story about a man you knew who’d ended up nursing a woman he’d only just started dating through a final illness as an analogy for writing Family Life. You explain that he told you that although he was glad someone was with her through it all, he didn’t think it should have been him, and that’s how you feel about this book, you’re glad it’s written, but you sort of wish you hadn’t had to be the one to see it through to the bitter end: “This book does everything I would want a book to do. I just wish twelve-and-a-half years of my life hadn’t gone into creating it.” Could you expand on this?
At the very end I thought the book was working and that my publishers wouldn’t kill it. I’d written various drafts – one draft was good, that is they would have published it. The other drafts were not good. The draft that they would have published would have felt like a specialist book, a writer’s book. It was so bleak. You know how when you read Céline, Journey to the End of the Night is very funny and very interesting, and then Death on the Installment Plan feels too dark, the tone is off, it’s too bleak. That was the same thing with the previous draft. It was a book that works as a work of art, but is not attractive to the general reader. And I wanted the book to be attractive to the general reader. I wanted it to be useful to people. By that I mean, look, my family went through a lot of shit, and something good has to come out of it, and one element of that potential good is that here is a book that people can read and then say, “Oh, other people go through this as well,” or, “Oh, I’m going through this and feeling badly.”
At one of my readings I met a lady whose husband had died of brain cancer, and she said that at a certain point, when he was really incapacitated, she was talking to his doctor, and in front of her husband she lost it. She began to say, “When will this end, when will he die?” And that kind of craziness, that kind of cruelty, which the family in my book exhibits, and which is a very human thing, I wanted to capture that so people could forgive themselves for their own behaviour.
To some extent, if you don’t have a book that welcomes the reader, a book that is not humorous, that is not interesting, that doesn’t do all these things, that isn’t sort of full of light, it’ll drive away the ordinary reader. It’ll become just a specialist book. And I didn’t want that, the subject matter felt too valuable for that.
Am I right in thinking that one of the early drafts you wrote was narrated by the father? Ajay wasn’t always your focal pint?
I also wrote one from the point of view of the mother. I’m just glad the family wasn’t bigger!
I thought of all the characters, the father is perhaps the most complex, the most tortured of them all. He’s a man who works hard to bring his family to America, so for such a tragedy to befall them in the country he’s long dreamed will make them great is such a cruel blow, one that in the most part is too much to bear, and he sinks into the stupors of alcoholism. I felt his tragedy incredibly strongly.
It’s funny that you say that because I did an interview this morning and the interviewer was saying that the father is so unattractive. I thought that was so strange – it’s the first time I’ve heard someone say that. It makes you realise that people approach books in such odd ways, they want characters to be a little bit more idealised. Even sophisticated people feel that flawed people are unattractive.
A flawed person that I care about, right, I will love them for their flaws; random flaws in someone I don’t know well, I’ll think, “This is what it means to be a human being.” It’s funny how people have experienced discomfort with that. You can’t just love the lovable, that’s the easy thing to do. You have to love everyone.
The novel is very bleak in parts, but I also found it an incredibly moving account of the fortitude and strength of love – parental love for their children, of course, but also marital love.
There’s that scene when Ajay says to his father, “I’m so unhappy,” and his father says, “You’re unhappy, I want to hang myself every day.” With a book like this to some extent you have to make it spare otherwise things begin to overwhelm the reader. It’s partly a funny line – you can’t hang yourself every day. The child comes to the father and the father is overwhelmed and he wants to shove him away, but he realises that he can’t. So he’s shoving him away but not too hard. It’s like someone becoming so angry that they hit you, and realising as they hit you that this is wrong, and them trying to avert the blow. The father is punching the kid then trying to stop his own fist. By using something that is almost funny, I’m trying to capture these complications.
How close to the truth is the story?
My father was not an alcoholic. There were things I was doing to make elements more lucid, more legible, and making my father an alcoholic seemed a clear way to show his suffering. Otherwise, it’s very close, indeed there were many times when I could have used a fictional detail, but I used something from my own life because I wanted to memorialise what happened.
I need fiction for certain reasons. I need fiction to generate the intensity that I want, but I also don’t want what has occurred to be lost. So by capturing the details of it, like the scene where the mother puts on American jeans for the first time, all of that occurred, including the brother making fun of her. I don’t want these memories lost.
When you say that you need fiction for “certain reasons” do you mean that as a fiction writer this is the only way you know how to tell your story? The fact that you invented the father’s alcoholism as a signifier, for example, suggests that there’s something about the fictional form that is your preferredmethod of expression. You could easily have written a very similar story and presented it as straightforward memoir?
I only know how to deal with the world in certain ways. And so, for me, the relationships that I can form with my reader, I know how to form them in fiction, I don’t really know how to form them in memoir.
I want to be loved, and I also want to be loved for the right reasons, and so by putting my experience into fiction, I can say, “Don’t judge it the way you would a true story,” because sometimes when we know something is true we offer it a lot more sympathy. I would rather be judged harshly. A lot of this stuff has to do with my own issues, like if I were a really mentally healthy person, I would say, “Oh, thank you for your sympathy, that’s a very kind thing for you to offer,” but because of who I am I want to attract you, I want your admiration, but I want your admiration on the terms that I set. Lincoln said that he didn’t wish to be admired, he wished to be deserving of admiration, and I sort of have a similar issue. I want to be admired for the right reasons; for my intelligence, and for the care that I take. If it were to be judged as a memoir, people would pat me on the head and say, “Oh aren’t you sweet, move along.”
Do you think your need for the right kind of admiration and praise is something that can be traced back to how the relationships of your childhood played out? Do you think it’s an aspect of your character forged at the bedside of your brother in a household in which all the energy, mental and physical, was taken up with looking after him and dealing with the ongoing aftermath of the accident? Definitely in the novel there’s little room for Ajay’s achievements or happiness, and praise is hard earned, not effortlessly won.
I remember when I was ranked first in my class, and I came home and told my mother this, and she said, “OK,” and then she continued talking to my brother. And I remember thinking that this was really the right attitude: who cares, why is this a big deal? There are thousands of high schools; there are thousands of kids who are ranked first in their class. And even if it’s a big deal, what the hell good is it because it doesn’t deal with the major issue, which is this poor sick boy, so yes, it comes from that.
Again, the mentally healthy person would say, “Look, let’s take joy in what we have, why try to make it a difficult thing,” and so it does come from there, and this desire to be impeccable. It’s not the healthiest way to live one’s life, like when I talk to dear friends and somebody tells me about some fucked-up shit they’ve done, I say, “Ah man, who doesn’t do fucked-up shit? We have one life, are we going to spend it beating up on ourselves?” but it’s harder to have that same attitude towards myself; the same acceptance and sympathy that I offer to others.
I want to ask you about the writing itself. Your prose is stark, raw and completely stripped down, and Ajay’s emotional reality is given precedence over a more traditional sensory-heavy rendering of setting and atmosphere. Could you take me through your thought process behind this style?
I was reading Chekhov and I noticed that he was using certain elements of the sensorium – you have smell, you have sight, you have touch, you can have taste – and that certain of these elements are sticky, really sticky. You’ll find that very few writers use sound because, especially if you are willing to frame it, if you separate it out, it slows down time tremendously. Chekhov uses these stickier elements to do that, to slow down time, and so the reality is a very visceral, present-tense reality. The problem for me was that he’s willing to compress time in a particular way, in a way that I didn’t want to do, because I think the way he does it reduces legibility. I had different aims. So I was seeing what he was doing, and I knew the problems I was having, that is I was using a very traditional sort of dramatised reality – a man walks into a room so you establish the physical space very quickly – and I thought, “What happens if I change the type of reality I have? If I strip out these parts of the sensorium, the parts that everybody uses, and restrict myself almost completely to visuals, then we’ll move much more quickly, because it’ll be a very thin reality, a very frictionless reality.”
The problem with that, though, is that when you create a frictionless reality, it begins to feel fake. There’s a reason why writers write in a certain way, there’s a best practices side to it. So I began to figure out other solutions. There’s much more exposition than in my first book, the sections are smaller, all these things are different – hundreds of small adjustments to deal with that change. And I think I said this in the New Yorker piece, Nabokov says there’s an even grey tone to Chekhov, and when I read my finished work I found that there’s an even white tone to it, like you can see through the events to the canvas it’s painted on. And that really surprised me, I realised, “Oh, if you do this thing, you reverse it, you can get the reverse effect.” That I found really cool.
You didn’t notice this while you were writing the novel?
No, when I’m writing I’m just sentence by sentence, word by word.
Was setting yourself this additional technical challenge simply part of your desire for a certain kind of achievement, did you set out to do something radically different stylistically with this novel from the get-go, or was it something that developed more organically as you wrote, revealing itself to be the only or the right way to tell your story?
If I could have written this book easily, I would have written it easily. Trying to honour the subject matter, the hopelessness of it, and the length of it, that created these technical challenges, which required something new.
I do think the prose is new, I have not seen this done before. The challenge was so overwhelming that I came up with this solution, and it was not out of a desire to win this accolade, because I feel in some ways when we seek accolades we’re giving power to the wrong thing, it was simply to try to do this book in the way that generated the series of facts that I wanted. I wanted the book to be something my mother, if she wanted to, could pick up and read. The help that books can offer is help that many people can use, and it’s help that most people don’t get, so why make things harder for people?
The finished novel certainly reads as if every word is considered; it’s very pared down. And the intense interiority makes the reader feel they are very much part of the emotional response to this long drawn-out event. Is your newfound “white tone” technique something you’ll use again do you think?
I’ve been writing some short stories and I’ve been using this technique to cover more time in them, yes. The frictionless of it allows me to cover decades very quickly, and that changes what the nature of the story is. Typically for a story to have power it has to have plot, it has to have scenes, and now if you can cover thirty or forty years in a story, what counts as a story changes.
This is different from what someone like Alice Munro, for example, does. She folds time, she’ll have one scene in a particular period then she’ll go back, and then she’ll go back a little bit more, then she’ll go far into the future. Whereas she’s remaining within scenes within visceral dramatised reality, I’m doing things in a linear way but I’m covering the same length of time. I did a short story in June for the New Yorker that covered thirty-something years in this way and it felt appropriate and effortless.
When I’ve tried to write something in the older way it feels very heavy and pointless. It’s like when you’ve learnt to cook without butter and suddenly you begin thinking, “Do I really need all of that fat? There are so many other things I can do.”
The way I tend to think of these things is, “How can I get to the truth and be helpful,” and the denser way of writing doesn’t seem as reflective of life because our lives are not dense. At the end of any day we don’t know what the important thing was that occurred that day. At the end of today, you and I won’t know what the thing was that was interesting. There’s a guy who serves me breakfast in the hotel and he looks a lot like my father, so it could be some thought about him; it could be some of the thoughts that you’ve raised; we don’t know. So the heavy version doesn’t seem to capture a life, whereas this light version seems more accurate for capturing a particular vision of life, a particular vision of how people live their lives, but that doesn’t mean that these other books are not valid – I wrote a book the other way that I think is very strong. To me now, though, this feels the natural way to think.
In the novel Ajay discovers Hemingway’s writing, reading biographies and criticism before he reads the actual novels, drawn to the promise of his ‘simple’ style – something that obviously resonates with what you’ve achieved with your own style here. But Ajay’s literary discoveries also offer him a way out of reality: “Seeing things as material for writing protected me,” you write. “I began to see my family’s pain as belonging in a story.” Was this experience of detachment from your own life a necessary coping mechanism?
Decisions that are healthy at one point are not necessarily healthy in the long term. So, to learn how to detach is the right thing at a certain point, but then you get into habits of detachment, and that habit of detachment is an awful thing, because the habit of detachment is you watching your life rather than being in your life. And so what this child is experiencing, and what I experienced, is, “OK, these horrible things are occurring, let me make something good out of it. Let me step out of it and watch it.” But I don’t think that in the long run that’s the right way to approach life. So in that sense art for the character was helpful, long-term all of these decisions have severe consequences, though.
Would you describe your experience of writing the novel as at all therapeutic? Was it something you needed to work through in this way to come to terms with?
I think in the long run it was therapeutic, but this was due to two things: one simply being time passing and growing older and deciding I wanted to be happy, enough is enough, it was what it was; and then the other was simply revisiting these things and thinking about it over a decade and saying, “OK, my parents behaved badly but many people would have behaved badly.”
Given that writing the novel (and thus reliving your childhood and adolescence in the process) was clearly something of a traumatic experience, coupled with the fact that it literally took you years to work through your memories and complete the novel, it seems to me that the writing process is something of a repetition of the very experience you’re writing about. Did you have this sense of history repeating itself as you wrote?
Unfortunately so. I really felt trapped by my past. I thought I had escaped but I had not. It was only through spending all this time with it that I escaped it. It’s healthier at a certain point to say, “It was what it was, let me get the hell out,” but that doesn’t mean that we don’t carry pieces of it with us, all this shrapnel. In this instance you go through all these things and you pick out the shrapnel. So in that sense it was revisiting it, but it was also a good way to revisit it.
I’m fascinated by Ajay’s assertion, “I began to see my family’s pain as belonging in a story.” Is this the perpetual state of the novelist? Are you always somewhat detached from reality because you’re always seeing things that happen around you as potential starting points for stories?
When I was young I used to think like that but not so much anymore. Lately, I’m writing a story on Abraham Lincoln. I was reading a biography and I began thinking, “What can I do with this material? There’s something important here which has not been really addressed, or it’s not accessible in the way it can be accessible, what is the space that I, as a fiction writer, can fill?” Lincoln, for example, fought a duel, and almost nothing is known about it as he refused to talk about it, so I thought it would be interesting to write a story about it, how he got into it and how he got the hell out of it.
I try to find the voice that will be responsive to the subject matter, and it’s that voice that gives life, so I put down lines and see if they respond to my voice. I think one thing that’s distinctive about my voice is that oftentimes there’s a combination of the physically gross and the beautiful – like when I describe the father brushing his teeth each night until they bleed while standing under the stars at the sink of the rooftop bathroom in Delhi at the beginning of the novel – that thing of bringing things together that should normally not be together seems very much a part of how I write. That’s very much a part of how life is, that sense that everybody is right and everybody is wrong. That’s when I know a book is baked – like a loaf in the oven – and it’s time to take it out.
Do you think there’s a discernible difference in the work you produced before Family Life, and that you’re now writing after?
As I’ve gotten older I fall in love much more easily, I feel tenderness much more easily, so the subjects that are deserving of sympathy become much larger, the universe of worthwhile things to write about gets larger. And so what I write about is different. Having spent all these years learning to feel sympathy for these characters, feeling sympathy so broadly, is a very helpful thing.
Which form are you most comfortable with, short stories or novels?
I would say I feel more comfortable with stories but largely because you can abandon things more easily. They don’t intimidate me the way novels do.
So can I assume you have no plans to write a third novel just yet?
At the moment, no! I’m just happy to have escaped that misery. I’m not saying this out of exaggeration or self-pity, but it was a bad decision to write this book. I really wouldn’t have written it if I’d known it would take so long. I’m glad it came out OK, I’m glad the book is doing well, but it was a bad decision.
You really don’t take any comfort in believing it was something you had to get out of your system, as it were?
It wasn’t something that I had to do, no, but it’s certainly true that I gained a lot from doing it. First I gained a lot as a person, as a human being, and that’s the most important thing; but the second thing is, I have friends who write books every three or four years and nobody reads them, and what’s the value of that? Honestly, the most important thing is that it has given comfort to people. I think of this whole book stuff as a stool – there’s me, there’s the book, and there’s the reader. As a writer I would like to win prizes and sell copies, but really I no longer matter because the project is done. The thing that really matters is the book and the reader, and the only fair thing that you can want from the book is that it serves the reader. What has mattered to me is how many people are responding personally to it. Now that I am largely out of the picture, that is the relationship that’s important. To some extent, the book doesn’t have to be that good to matter to a reader; the fact that the subject matter reflects them is sufficient. In the long term it matters if the book is good because it needs to matter to people who can’t relate that way. But for that we will have to wait and see over time. I think it stands a good chance of it.
Akhil Sharma published his first short stories to critical acclaim in the late 1990s. His debut novel, An Obedient Father, won the PEN/Hemmingway Award in 2001, and he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American writers in 2007. Family Life is published by Faber & Faber. Read more.
Lucy Scholes is contributing editor at Bookanista and a literary critic and book reviewer for publications including the Daily Beast, the Independent, the Observer, BBC Culture and the TLS. She also teaches courses at Tate Modern and Tate Britain.
Follow Lucy on Twitter: @LucyScholes