‘Family Life’ author to teach at Summer Words

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Novelist Akhil Sharma is in Aspen this week teaching a workshop at Aspen Summer Words. He will speak on public panels Monday and Tuesday.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘The Creative Life’ at Aspen Summer Words

Who: Panelists Dani Shapiro and Akhil Sharma

Where: The Gant

When: Monday, June 22, 4 p.m.

Cost: $20

Tickets and more info:

What: ‘Writing Home’ at Aspen Summer Words

Who: Panelists Richard Russo, Akhil Sharma, Hannah Tinti

Where: Paepcke Auditorium

When: Tuesday, June 23, 6 p.m.

Cost: $20

Tickets and more info:

After 12 frustrating years and thousands of excised pages, Akhil Sharma finished his second novel, “Family Life,” two years ago. It became one of the most acclaimed books of 2014, winning the Folio Prize and earning a spot on The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of the Year list.

But Sharma, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark who is in town this week teaching a fiction workshop at Aspen Summer Words, tries not to think about the book and the grueling process of writing it.

“I try to live my life as if I had not endured that,” he said. “I do my best to never even think about it. … I still find it hard to believe the book is done. This morning I woke up and thought, ‘Wow, I’m not feeling crushed anymore.’”

During the slog through “Family Life,” Sharma recalled, he would watch the cable reality-TV program “House Hunters International” as a daily escape.

“I would fantasize about being a different person, about living elsewhere,” he said. “It’s strange how completely it controlled me, that book. And thank goodness it’s done.”

Sharma wrote 7,000-plus pages of “Family Life” and distilled it into a 218-page novel filled with prose that’s as pure and clear as a diamond.

The book tells the story of an Indian family that emigrates to the U.S. in the late 1970s and is soon devastated by tragedy. One of the family’s two sons, Birju, suffers catastrophic brain damage when he dives into a shallow pool. He’s left without the ability to see, eat, speak or walk. The novel is narrated by Birju’s younger brother, Ajay, who is 10 at the time of the accident and in college at novel’s end. Ajay struggles to mature in the shadow of his parents’ grief as the family is torn apart by the difficulty of caring for Birju and as his father descends into alcoholism.

The story mirrors Sharma’s own coming of age, which included the family leaving Delhi for New Jersey and his brother suffering a traumatic brain injury in a pool.

Fictionalizing his life, Sharma said, freed him from journalistic exactitude and from including all the nuances of his actual family life.

“Writing it as fiction, I felt like I could only include a couple of the emotions that existed versus conveying accurately all of the things that occurred,” he said.

Were he writing a factual account of his brother’s accident, for example, he would have felt duty bound to include physical details, such as the way his brother’s arms and torso had fused.

“That physical horror was a large part of what occurred,” he said. “Considering all the things I wanted to communicate, if I had put in things like that, it would have made less bright the other things I wanted to put in.”

Searing as “Family Life” is, it’s written with an unexpected sense of humor amid the domestic wreckage. When young Ajay prays, it’s to a God who looks like Superman. When he discovers the social capital of sympathy and victimhood in grade school, Ajay begins oversharing about Birju’s medical needs and comically overstating his pre-accident virtues (“My brother was a very fast runner. Once, he threw a ball straight ahead of him, and he chased it and caught it before it hit the ground”).

There isn’t a superfluous word or forced transition in the book. It hits you almost like a single thought.

“The way that happens is that you’re trying to make the novel something that you can’t put down, that you can’t stop reading,” Sharma said.

He was trimming up to the end of the editing process, cutting a whole chapter just before galleys of “Family Life” were printed.

Difficult as completing “Family Life” was, Sharma found it improved him as a writer. As soon as he sent off the manuscript, he turned to short stories (two appeared in the New Yorker during the period after he finished “Family Life” and before it was published in April 2014 — he is currently working on a story collection).

“I found I was able to do things that I had been unable to do before,” he said. “Everything I had done before was built very closely around a bigger character. It was very character-driven, which means that you’re kind of held hostage by the character. What I found, with all of the techniques that I learned, is that I can move around through many different characters within a short story and cover an enormous amount of time in a short story.”

When he teaches workshops like the one this week in Aspen, he doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties of writing well or his harrowing experience on his most recent book.

“I try to focus on the fact that it’s very hard to do anything, to write something good,” he said. “So I try to show them how closely you need to read and how carefully you need to write in order to convey all the emotions that you feel.”

He brings selections from a few novels for students to read closely and dissect — the opening paragraphs of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” among them. And he offers to continue working with students after the weeklong workshop is completed.

“Everyone feels this clock ticking, and I want to remove that tension,” he said. “The first thing is to remove fear.”