Akhil Sharma’s debut novel, The Obedient Father (FSG), published in 2000, won him a PEN/Hemingway Award, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and a reputation as a new voice in fiction. Fourteen years later, he’s back with a second novel, Family Life (Norton), due out in April.
Over lunch at Devi, an Indian restaurant in New York City, Sharma, 42, says of his new novel, “It was a horror. It took 12 and a half years to write. It was difficult to write because the content is so close to home: it’s based on my family, and it’s difficult to revisit these things.” Sharma is soft-spoken, polite, soulful, present, and mindful. He orders for us. Extremely attentive, he serves me my food when it arrives.
Family Life follows the Mishras, an Indian family who immigrates to Queens, N.Y., in 1979. Not long after they arrive, the eldest (and favorite) son, Birju, suffers a tragic accident in a swimming pool, throwing the family into despair. It’s a heart-wrenching work, as difficult to read as the author claims it was to write, yet the book is impossible to put down. Like the character of Birju, Sharma’s own older brother, Anup (his only sibling, who died in February), was severely brain damaged due to an accident when he was 14. Sharma was 10 at the time, and he grew up in a family full of sorrow, whose focus was his injured brother.
Sharma’s family immigrated to the U.S. from India when he was eight. He says he began writing largely because “I was lonely and I wanted to express my emotions.” But when asked if leaving India was terrible, he says, “I thought it was quite wonderful coming to America. I think immigration is a very difficult thing, but America is a very wonderful place. I think immigrants, when they’re stressed, think that there’s something wrong with America, when it’s really just difficult to leave a country and all that you know.”
Sharma’s new novel mirrors his own life, but he chose to tell his story through fiction rather than as memoir. “When you’re making things up, you can just stop. But when it’s real life and it’s based on yourself, you keep revisiting it and the situation keeps expanding and getting more complicated.”
Sharma says that writing about subject matter so personal is problematic: “All your instincts get thrown off, it’s like airplanes—when they’re flying very close, their radars stop working. You’re not creating a reality, you’re trying to copy one.” Creatively, Sharma says, the biggest hurdle to overcome with Family Life was that it’s a narrative without a plot. An incident occurs and the reader sees the wake of it. Sharma worried about keeping the reader engaged. “The technical solution that I came up with was that I emptied out the sensorium. There are very few sounds; there is dialogue, but no texture, no temperature in the description. So when we are reading, we are reading swiftly.”
Sharma refers to what Nabokov said of Chekhov’s prose—that there is an even gray light to it, there is so little visual description. Speaking of Family Life, he adds: “I feel like with my book there’s an even white light, it’s something painted on Ivory so you can see the background.” He says he wrote “thousands and thousands” of pages before he figured out how to make the story work.
Sharma’s first novel, An Obedient Father, took close to nine years to write. He had graduated from Princeton, got his M.F.A. at Stanford as a Stegner Fellow, worked as a screenwriter, and went on to get a law degree from Harvard. He worked in banking for three years, writing in his free time. Money had been a huge issue for Sharma growing up, and he desperately wanted to be financially stable. But when An Obedient Father was published to critical acclaim in 2000 (Sharma was then age 29), he said to himself, “Let me get out of here, I only have one life.” He adds, “Writing seemed like the only important thing.” In that first book, the main character is an extremely flawed man who is a child molester. The book, Sharma says, came from his own feelings of “guilt and shame”—his bad conscience over “being okay” while his brother was so broken.
Growing up, Sharma explains, he wanted to minimize his accomplishments because his brother never had the opportunity to fulfill his early promise. “Family Life is a blueprint of my life,” Sharma says. “It was horrible, and physically gruesome in a way the book doesn’t attempt to capture. It was emotionally very bleak.” He adds that his childhood had a deep impact on him. “It made me want to be very generous and kind. It’s hard for me not to think that I’m very fortunate. It’s easy when you grow up in fear to act out of fear. I don’t want to embrace that fear, I prefer to be kind.” Sharma acknowledges that his life “has gotten better and better.” The ending of Family Life, he insists, is hopeful. “I played such a large role as caretaker in my family, I find it easy to put other people’s interests above my own—but you can ruin your life taking care of people.”
“It is very true that I am an immigrant writer,” Sharma says. “I’m proud of it and I love my community. I don’t have any issues with that. I think the things that I write about and the things that other literary writers write about are things that are true now and have always been true.” Who does he write for? “I write for an audience who barely reads—like my mother. I think what I’m writing is so lucid and simple that even people who don’t read will not find it challenging. So it is one of my goals to reach those people.”
At the same time, Sharma wishes to represent the world in a way that is as complicated as the way he sees it—as “a world that is true and dense with bad behavior.” Change, he believes, is possible. “People change either due to pain or due to happiness. I want to move toward happiness. Some people want to avoid unhappiness, but feeling pain teaches you compassion.” Currently Sharma is working on a story about Abraham Lincoln. Ultimately it all comes back to his own life: “I found myself emotionally responding to Lincoln, the difficulties of his childhood. And I thought I could engage in that and make him come alive.”