Akhil Sharma | “I feel you can’t be as truthful in memoir as you can in fiction. I don’t want to lie if I’m writing a memoir”

Akhil Sharma | “I feel you can’t be as truthful in memoir as you can in fiction. I don’t want to lie if I’m writing a memoir”

"I’ve been working on this novel for 12 and a half years and a part of me still has this weird horrible feeling that I’ll be forced to work on it again,” says Akhil Sharma of his second novel Family Life (Faber, May).

Narrated by eight-year-old Ajay Family Life tells the story of the Mishra family’s emigration from late-1970s Delhi to Queens, New York. The India Ajay leaves behind is a place where children play cricket in streets empty of traffic and his frugal mother saves the cotton that comes in pill bottles to make wicks. In contrast New York, even a one-bedroom apartment in working-class Queens, offers undreamt of luxuries like hot water flowing from the tap and television shows running from morning until night.

When Ajay starts school he is bullied whereas older brother Birju, the apple of his parents’ eyes, assimilates with ease. Like all immigrants seeking a better life, the parents have ambitions for their children, chief among which is that Birju gains a place at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, which he does. But then there’s a catastrophic accident. Birju dives into a swimming pool, hits his head on the cement floor and lies unconscious underwater for three minutes which leaves him brain damaged, and the family shattered.

As an eight-year-old child Ajay’s comprehension of the accident is limited, at first he is concerned that being in hospital means Birju will receive treats from their mother. But gradually it dawns on Ajay that what is happening is not going to end. It’s a coming-of-age story about growing up in the shadow of a family tragedy that manages to be very funny, painfully honest and ultimately deeply movin

The novel draws heavily on real events in Sharma’s own life. He too emigrated from India to the US as a child and had an elder brother who was severely brain damaged after an accident and who spent time in hospital. Ajay’s eight-year-old voice is pitch-perfect, aided by Sharma’s recollections of that time: “It was such a traumatic period that it became burned in to me. When you are going through a real crisis, the days are endless and so it’s very easy for me to conjure that world up. There are certain TV shows that I watched as a child during that period in the hospital, that if I see them I’m just all shaken up . . . I can’t watch, it feels unbearable, there’s so much pain for me.”

Family Life may be based on real events but Sharma was never interested in writing a memoir: “I feel you can’t be as truthful in memoir as you can in fiction,” he says. “I don’t want to lie if I’m writing a memoir. My opinion is I would not feel comfortable using dialogue in a memoir because I can’t remember what people said exactly.”

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable collapsing time because if I’m collapsing time then I’m taking things out of context. I would feel ashamed lying about anything related to my family. I would feel not only that I can’t do certain things, but that I would need to include things that I don’t want to include. For example, much of my experience involved boredom. I don’t want to write about boredom. It’s not something that intrinsically interests me and it’s not serving what I would like this book to do.”

Rather Sharma was interested in giving readers a “high-velocity” story, “something irresistible” that did not rely solely on the emotional subject matter. “What I want to generate for the reader is as if the reader is on a moped, not insulated from the experience but is living these experiences” he explains.

Family Life first began life as a one-act play which then became the short story “Surrounded by Sleep” which was published in the New Yorker and it was an editor there who suggested it might work as a novel. Sharma wrote draft after draft of Family Life during its lengthy gestation period and says he must have written 7,000 pages over the 12 years with some chapters rewritten 30 or 40 times. The finished novel is relatively short, 216pp of spare, finely crafted prose. Even though he spent such a long time on it, the writing never feels overworked—it’s fresh and immediate.

A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School and a former investment banker (he quit the week he turned 30 after his first novel An Obedient Father was published) Sharma took a methodical approach to the writing. Sitting down at his desk with the goal of writing for five hours each day, he had a stopwatch. Whenever he took a phone call or replied to an email, he would press stop and then continue afterwards to make sure he was actually spending the time writing.

Painful Past

But mining his own memories proved painful: “When I was writing this book I would get so depressed. I would be cheerful while my wife was at home and then she would leave. I would work for about an hour then about 10.30 a.m. I would lie down on the sofa and go to sleep. I literally could not bear to be conscious.”

Drawing from life to make art had other challenges, notably that his sense of the characters kept changing: “I would look back on things that my parents did and some days I would feel angry and some days I would feel enormous love and compassion. So it was hard to hold a consistent tone, it was hard to know what the truth was.” In the novel Ajay’s parents are portrayed honestly with all their foibles and weaknesses. After the accident Ajay’s mother decides to believe Birju is in a coma rather than brain-damaged, and invites various odd people to the house who perform strange rituals which they say will “cure” Birju. Ajay’s father turns to drink to cope. It sounds very dark perhaps, but Sharma finds the black humour and the light in nearly every scene.

Neither of Sharma’s own parents have read Family Life and he doesn’t particularly want them to. “I told my mother I was going to write it and she said ‘Akhil, just make me look good.’ And when I told my father, and asked if he wanted to read it, he said ‘Why? I was there!’”

But for those who do read the book, Sharma has a simple hope: “I believe that all books are enormous comforts. That you can read any book and be taken into this other world and learn how this person experiences things and think, oh that’s me too. Part of my motivation was to say that things are okay. That you can endure things, and be okay.”


Metadata

Publication: 1st may 2014
format: £14.99 hb/£9.99 e-book
ISBN: 9780571314263/621
Editor: Lee Brackstone, Faber
Agent: Bill Clegg, William Morris Endeavor Entertainment

CV

1971: Born in Delhi, india
1979: Emigrated to the USA with his family
1998: Graduated from Harvard law School after an AB in English and Public Policy from Princeton University
2001: Publication of début novel An Obedient Father. Quit his job as an investment banker at the same time
2007: Named as one of Granta’s ‘Best of Young american novelists’