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A Conversation with Akhil Sharma

January 1997

Akhil Sharma, author of the short story "Cosmopolitan" (January, 1997, Atlantic), writes about undercurrents of love and friendship with a mellow wisdom that is usually born of age. Sharma, however, is only twenty-five. Originally from India, he's had remarkable success early in his career as a writer: his first story published in The Atlantic, "If You Sing Like That For Me" (May, 1995), subsequently appeared in The Best American Short Stories (1996) and Prize Stories 1996: The O. Henry Awards. The writing of fiction, however, turns out to be only one of the many facets of Sharma's busy life.

Sharma recently spoke with The Atlantic Monthly's Allan Reeder.

Character Sketch

Cambridge, Massachusetts.

B.A. from Princeton in public policy. One year at Stanford in a creative-writing program. One and a half years at Harvard Law School.


First Publication
"A not particularly good one-page story called 'The Blue Umbrella Man,' published in The Quarterly when I was eighteen, I think."

Last Book Read
Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov.

Writing Habits
"I write whenever I have time and wherever I can. Most writing habits, I think, are intended to force discipline on what might be an inchoate day. But when you are so busy that you can't tell what you will be doing at six in the morning or eleven at night, writing 'habits' will only lead to frustration. I don't write every day."

Advice to Writers
"When I was younger I would have said, 'Be confident in yourself and your vision.' But I have met so many bad writers who are confident that I would now advise that you should be humble. Read Chekhov and think about why you will probably never be as good as he was. Do this with enough writers and you will begin to get the picture. Also write a lot. Greatness almost never comes with the first draft. If it ever comes, that is."

Q: You've been a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford and a screenwriter for Steven Spielberg. Now you're a student at Harvard Law School. What do you plan to do from here?

AS: Try to lead an interesting life, most probably as a lawyer. Law attracts me because you have to speak normatively as a lawyer. Arguments are generally couched in terms of the public good, and I find that comforting.

Q: As a boy, what did you imagine you would do as an adult?

AS: I really never planned that far ahead. I was ambitious, but my ambitions were limited to getting into a good school and then doing well. I might have imagined myself smoking cigarettes as the Marlboro man, but I never wanted to be a policeman or doctor. I did want to have money and be respected, but these were not very specific desires and might have been substitutes for wanting a pretty girlfriend. Even when I went to college I had no particular image of myself in a profession. I've never had a particularly instrumental view of my efforts.

Q: At the end of your story "If You Sing Like That for Me" (May, 1995, Atlantic), Rajinder, the brutally honest husband, speaks revealingly about his ambitions as a younger man, remarking that, "Other people got caught up in love and friendship." Judging from the two stories you've published in The Atlantic, one could argue that you, as a fiction-writer, are caught up in love and friendship. Can you comment on this, and on other themes that motivate you as a writer?

AS: Even people who cry while watching television commercials are caught up in love and friendship, so I certainly am. My characters are motivated by a desire to improve themselves. I think this notion -- that one can really conquer all -- represents a very "immigrant" hopefulness.

Q: So, where do you start when you begin writing a story -- with a character, an incident, a sentence that strikes you as particularly intriguing?

AS: When I was younger I started with the ending and would work up to that. Now I start with an incident that could be anywhere in the story. The difficulty of starting this way is that the story is no longer plot-driven. You have to keep your reader hooked through urgency or interest in the way you tell the story instead of through the promise of a payoff.

Q: You have written beautifully and very convincingly in a woman's voice. At the same time you have chosen to make your protagonists Indian and of a culture familiar to you. How do you react to the statement that fiction writers should stick to writing about what they know? What limits do you see to how much a writer can depend on imagination?

AS: Fiction writers should write about what they know but they should be educated enough to know a lot. Reading about people who are different from you, I think, is more interesting than reading about people who are similar to you; the journey takes you further. Over Christmas I read Thackeray's Vanity Fair. I started reading Fagles's translation of the Iliad today. I am relatively poorly read. I have for instance read almost none of Thomas Mann. I have read almost no poetry in my life. Because I have so little time I choose the books I read primarily to fill in my vast ignorance -- and fortunately most of the classics are enormously entertaining. Relying on your imagination limits you to what you are capable of imagining, though, and without some knowledge of history we are not capable of imagining that much.

Q: You've said that the narrator of "If You Sing Like That for Me" was, in early drafts, Jewish rather than Indian. Was this change in the character a result of a need to expand what you could imagine about her?

AS: Yes. When I wrote the story my knowledge of America was much less than my knowledge of India. It was easier therefore for me to believe I was being truthful when I described Indian characters. Also, only in the last few years have I made friends with non-Indians; I was not particularly confident that I could make the story's language sound "American."

Q: Was your decision to go to law school in part a reaction to any distaste for the writing life?

AS: It was primarily from a distaste of not being able to get soup with my entrée. I lived off my writing only in the sense that I lived off writing fellowships. I did not try to live off selling stories. I do find that I liked the other Stegner fellows more than I like my fellow law students. They were more passionate. Very few law students talk eagerly about cases or even about ideas, while all the "Stegners" loved talking about sentences.

Q: How did you like your experience working as a screenwriter for Spielberg? What do you think of Hollywood?

AS: I liked Hollywood -- I only wish they had liked me as much as I liked them. Movies are the dominant art form of the twentieth century. In many ways they can do all the things that the written word can. But Hollywood is an industry only slightly different from the sneaker industry, and you should not try to force it to be anything beyond that.

Q: What writing are you working on now?

AS: An essay, a play, a novel. I have a very hard time fitting them into my schedule.

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