Akhil Sharma, Family Life (with Q&A)

The book [Family Life] was nine years overdue. There was no point writing a book unless it was very good.
— Akhil Sharma
$27.99, Allen & Unwin

Twelve and a half years   7000 pages whittled down to 200 pages  has seen Akhil Sharma finally release his second novel, Family Life. He should stop fretting:  it is not just 'very good' – it is brilliant. 

I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't paid attention to the work of Akhil Sharma. It's not that I've deliberately ignored him ...  more a case of his work not crossing my radar. Mea culpa.

I'm scrambling to catch up  and you should too. If there is a book that should be compulsory reading for books clubs in 2014, make it Family Life

Make sure you scroll down and read his own struggles with how to write a plotless novel and perfecting the child's point of view in the New Yorker.

We also have a candid chat about writing and reading so make sure you read the whole interview. 

Is there a better line you've read this year than in Family Life:

"I used to think my father had been assigned to us by the government."

Heart-wrenching and darkly funny, Family Life is a universal story of a boy torn between duty and his own survival.

Sharma is the first to admit that this is a deeply autobiographical novel. When he was 10, his family moved from India to the USA in search of a better life for themselves and their family. His gifted older brother, the epitome of promise, was 14 when he dived into a pool and was permanently brain damaged. 

What follows is a fictional account of a family coping with trauma and shocking loss with pragmatism, poignancy, extreme tenderness and, in some moments, extreme humour.

Above all, it is a story about how people cope, or not, with trauma.  Resilience.

I caught up with Akhil Sharma at the Locovore dinner at Ubud Writers and Readers Festival to talk to him about his reading and writing. He was very generous with his reading recommendations. (Hot tip for an historical novel: The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, recommended to him by his mate Jonathan Franzen.)

Sharma  came across as thoughtful and discerning, both for his work and that of others. He can agonise for hours over the construction of a single sentence. He will rewrite it many times, in many drafts. No wonder he publishes a novel a decade!

Sharma is equally scrupulous with his reading, saying life is simply too short to read rubbish. I imagine he would be a brilliant teacher as he is extremely considered and kind in person. Very sharp and extremely witty. You have to be on your A-game and pay attention when he is speaking (I mixed up my Russian novelists and he was very generous about it!)  He is, I imagine, an attentive and exacting academic. 

Blurb from Allen & Unwin

Ajay, eight years old, spends his afternoons playing cricket in the streets of Delhi with his brother Birju, four years older. They are about to leave for shiny new life in America. Ajay anticipates, breathlessly, a world of jet-packs and chewing-gum.

This promised land of impossible riches and dazzling new technology is also a land that views Ajay with suspicion and hostility; one where he must rely on his big brother to tackle classroom bullies. Birju, confident, popular, is the repository of the family's hopes, and he spends every waking minute studying for the exams that will mean entry to the Bronx High School of Science, and reflected glory for them all.

When a terrible accident makes a mockery of that dream, the family splinters. The boys' mother restlessly seeks the help of pundits from the temple, while their father retreats into silent despair - and the bottle. Now Ajay must find the strength of character to navigate this brave new American world, and the sorrows at home, on his own terms.

By turns blackly funny, touching, raw and devastating, Family Life is a vivid and wrenching portrait of sibling relationships and the impact of tragedy on one family from a boy's eye view.
Akhil Sharma was born in Delhi in India and emigrated to the USA in 1979. His stories have been published in the New Yorker and in Atlantic Monthly, and have been included in The Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Collections. His first novel, An Obedient Father, won the 2001 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. He was named one of Granta's 'Best of Young American Novelists' in 2007.
My favourite session from Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2014: Akhil Sharma in conversation with lovely Michael Cathcart, broadcast on ABC Radio National's Books and Arts Daily. You must listen to it here

My favourite session from Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2014: Akhil Sharma in conversation with lovely Michael Cathcart, broadcast on ABC Radio National's Books and Arts Daily. You must listen to it here

What are you reading at the moment?

 Basically, right now, I am in between various things, so I am reading Anna Karenina again, but only the Anna Karenina sections, so I am skipping all the lessons stuff. 

Why just Anna Karenina? Why are you reading just her sections? Isn’t she most of the book?

She's not most of the book.  She is 60% of it.  And she is more interesting to me as a character and more complicated and it's just that section is just a better section.  Her section is just better ...  So that's one.  I'm just curious to do it.  But I'm so familiar with it that in some ways, I find it a bit boring, so that ... I don't know if I will continue with that project.

Are you studying Tolstoy’s writing style? 

No, not to study it.  I mean taught Tolstoy so it isn't like this is new stuff.  But just out of curiosity to see what it would be like to read those sections only.  And I'm also reading Under Western Eyes.  Have you read that, Under Western Eyes by Conrad?

Yes.

And I have not read it before.  I read Lord Jim, and Heart of Darkness, and Secret Agent, and some other books by him.  None of them I like.  This one, Under Western Eyes,  I find ...find really wonderful.  Surprisingly wonderful.  And those two things I am reading, and then I'm sort of dipping into various things. 

You teach writing at Rutgers-Newark University. What's on your standard reading list for students?

Thomas Hardy, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov.  So a lot of the Russians.  

Why the Russians?

Because they have a deep humanity ... 

Do you mix it up on holidays?  Do you have a holiday reading list?

Read casual stuff?

Yeah!  A thriller?  Do you have a cheeky thriller that you hide under your bed that you pull out?

No, I read non-fiction … Yeah, I read non-fiction, as a sort of my cheeky stuff. 

Some memoirs?

No, I read a book on North Korea recently, so I think that's sort of my airplane reads because they are not ... it doesn't matter if it's badly written because … the content is good enough.  If the content is interesting enough you will keep reading it.

Well I'm not sure ... My background is a non-fiction publisher and I think some non-fiction writing is excellent.

Sure … Have you read Random Family? Wonderful book.  You've heard of it? Really wonderful book. Terribly written!

You know what's good, and really well-written nonfiction is Sea Biscuit.  That's really well-written non-fiction.  That's extraordinary work ... Mostly my experience has been that non-fiction is usually wooden or ...

Formularised? {I’m not sure that is even a word?)

The writing is, and partially is because they can't make stuff up so they almost automatically have to be a bit wooden. 

Well, that's the thing because you write essays yourself, so you don't have any sort of desire to write a longer form non-fiction book?

No, not at all. 

  Richard Ford?  What are your thoughts on Richard Ford?

 I've begun Independence Day and I gave up on it.  I began The Sports Writer and I gave up on it.  So that's been my experience.

And why was that? 

 It's been a very long time since I read him.  He feels ... it's one of those writing styles where the plainness is supposed to justify itself.  Like: 'Take me seriously because I am writing cleanly', or 'I am so wounded that I speak cleanly'.  This Hemingway thing.  That was my experience with it but it could be that I was wrong, that I didn't give it much time.

Fair enough.

What is your opinion of Richard Ford?

 I read Canada.  And I thought two-thirds of it was absolutely brilliant and then I read The Sports Writer.  I just found myself really attracted to that era of plain American writing.  I don't know. It's so different ... it's so different from I guess what I've been reading lately and I found it refreshing.  And Jonathan Franzen is another American writer I enjoy.

Who is not plain.

No, complete opposite end of the spectrum. I was listening to you today in your session with Michael Cathcart and you were talking about Hemingway ...

 I did, I did.  Hemingway is not a plain writer.  He's not a plain writer because he writes fiction which is difficult. Right?  So he has sentences which obviously make no sense.  They are so long, no human being would see it this way.  And so it is a style.  It is cleanness.  It's romanticism in drag.

... When you read those articles of his (Hemingway).  They don't read like his fiction.  We have different needs. 

For example, when you read Henry James's non-fiction, his magazine writing.   It's different from when he tried to write for the newspapers, like when ... so he had a contract for Harper's and then he got a contract with some newspaper, and the newspaper saw some of stuff and thought this is not a match made in heaven.  We cannot work with you.  Whereas for a magazine they were much more tolerant of that activity.  I was reading some Henry James last night because it's non-fiction.  

And I thought: 'this is unreadable. It is just unreadable'.  I mean, I could do it, but why?  What do you have to say that I think is going to be that valuable?  And I don't think that there is.

So you are very discerning in your reading?  Do you cut off before you get to the end or do you always give it a certain amount of time before you put to the side?

 I regularly abandon books. 

I feel a great amount of guilt when I do that. 

 Mostly I gave up on books because mostly books are bad and I have a short life, and I am convinced that if your first five pages, or ten pages, are not good, you are not suddenly going to become a genius in writing good things. 

Right? 

It's like I have a hard time believing ... if I read two books by a writer and neither one of them is good, I have a hard time believing this person is suddenly going to become a genius and start making the meaning better than they actually are. 

Although that is not always the case.  I  mean, early, early Faulkner is garbage and late Faulkner is very good.  Yeah.  But I can be convinced otherwise.

So I often abandon things. You know, when I read, I'm reading the thing and I'm also aware of my responses to the sentences.  I'm reading, and I'm watching myself read.  So if I'm reading a sentence, I read the sentence and I'm also feeling my mind touching the words.  There's no stopping of the feared as the dating of the comma.  I am aware of those things.  

I gave up on Umbrella. I gave up on Umbrella, a Will Self novel ...  I gave up on it after a few pages, even though it was recommended to me.  I am sure I will miss good books with my ... the way that I select, but if these books persist then I will go back to them.  If somebody tell me in 20 years, they read Umbrella, then I'll read it then.

 It's not like you're going to run out of good books ...

Exactly!

Extras

An amazing piece by Akhil Sharma in The New Yorker, where he talks about his struggle to write from a child's perspective and how to drive a plotless novel. A must-read for any inspiring writer. 

On writing influences, research and style: Irish Times

Review and Profile: The Guardian

Review and Profile: The Australian

Review: New Statesman

Listen: Live Interview with Michael Cathcart at Ubud Writers and Readers Festival on ABC Radio National, Books and Arts Daily.