We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had, in the dreary years of routine and of sin, with souls that made our souls wiser; that spoke what we thought; that told us what we knew; that gave us leave to be what we inly were.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Divinity School Address,” 1838
We’re in conversation with the writer that so many other writers are talking about, the Indian-born New Yorker, Akhil Sharma. His novel is Family Life, a faithful recounting in fiction of a horrific swimming-pool accident that did catastrophic brain damage to his gifted older brother and smashed his family’s immigrant adventure. But our conversation, like the book itself, is also about how writers are made, how agony becomes art, how memory wants be nudged forward.
Akhil Sharma is telling us he chiseled 7,000 pages in draft to barely 200 pages in hardcover. It was a project, he says, that was full of love more than sadness, that was designed to be useful to his parents and others, and to move like a rocket. The conversation jumped from writing to life and back again, from Hemingway to Chekhov and Proust and the devices of storytelling and fiction. And we found that we were high on each other almost before we began.
The Open Source Questionnaire
What’s the state of the art in writing these days? It’s the same as always: mostly very bad writers and some extraordinary writers.
Who’s doing your kind of work, the work of your spirit, in an entirely different medium? Gerhard Richter, the German painter.
What’s the key note of your personality as a writer? Tenderness.
Who’s your favorite character in fiction? Father Karamazov. I can relate to him, that sort of crazy behavior. That’s my family.
What’s your idea of perfect happiness? Talking to someone smart and interesting who likes me.
What would you call the most overrated virtue? Honor. I believe the first commitment should always be to happiness. That necessarily means being truthful and honorable, but nothing should get in the way of choosing to be happy.
When you walk down the street, what do people see? That guy walking down the street, looking at his coupons. I love to collect coupons and I love to cash them in.
What do you like most about your appearance, and what do you dislike most? I dislike most things about my appearance, but I like that largely I can blend in.
On what occasions do you lie? When it avoids pain for others.
If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be? A child in an ideal family.
- Akhil Sharma, “A Novel Like a Rocket,” New Yorker