Reality into Fiction: Akhil Sharma on Family Life

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Akhil Sharma, author of Family Life Akhil Sharma, author of Family Life (Photo credit: Bill Miller/Courtesy of the publisher)

In Akhil Sharma’s darkly funny, heart-wrenching second novel, Family Life, the Mishra family leaves Delhi, India, for a better life in America. To eight-year-old Ajay and his older brother Birju, their new home is full of possibility and wonder until an accident at a swimming pool leaves one brother severely injured and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land. Ajay feels the lonely weight of obligation to live up to the promise of his injured brother.

Although the story is about a tragic accident that leaves one son blinded and severely brain damaged and the resulting stress and sadness and fear that envelops the family, Sharma points out that it is also a book with humor and lightness and hope. He explained how he approached combining tragedy with humor and lightness: “I focused very much on the human beings being human beings and not on the situation. People think and do odd things. Part of loving these characters is showing them with their eccentricities.”

The novel is based on his own life, and Sharma said he did consider writing it as a memoir, but when he writes nonfiction he feels that he has to be totally truthful. By fictionalizing the story, he didn’t feel like he had to reproduce exact dialogue and events and facts that he found boring (and that might bore readers). You can still tell a true story in a novel, but there's more flexibility in the narrative.

Family Life took more than 12 years to complete, and Sharma said that it was a struggle to write. But he had high expectations for it. “The difference for me between this book and my first book and this book is that with my first book I wanted to write a really good book,” Sharma said. “With this one I wanted to write a book that would be useful, that would give comfort to people, that would make people think ‘Oh, I’m not alone, some part of me has been understood.’ I sort of feel that everybody is going to go through this experience. Everybody has dealt with the illness of loved ones, or will deal with it, or will be ill themselves. And so I wanted to respond to that need.”

Family Life by Akhil Sharma
Family Life by Akhil Sharma



Akhil Sharma

Comments [6]

Barbara from New York

When does memoir and fiction collide?
The book is heartbreaking. I've liked Sharma since I read a short story of his years ago. Having grown up in the NJ area he writes about it was an immediate hook for me...

Jun. 26 2014 05:54 PM
MG from Manhattan

Is this the same Akhil Sharma who the Wall Street Journal has booted off because he accepted freebies while doing his travel writing, or is that a different Akhil Sharma?

Jun. 26 2014 12:57 PM
Cathy from Hoboken, NJ

I have yet to read your book but want to. It's difficult for me, though, as my sister drowned in a swimming pool and died a day later. I was always glad that she did not survive with the kind of extreme brain damage you describe and I always felt great guilt for feeling that way. Do you think your brother would have suffered less had he died or is that an unanswerable question?

Jun. 26 2014 12:49 PM
Linda Behan from Staten Island

I knew from the start that this was autobiographical! Only a fellow front-seater in this family drama/tragedy would be able to portray the fantasy, shame, parallel-living that happens to children living with chronic illness in a family. I recognize these qualities as soon as I meet a kid in crisis. I was a child of two sick parents. Thank you for laying out the crazy, loving , longing and persevering currents you grew up with. We all have troubles, but no one can guess the burden that children shoulder. Add some alcoholism and it is nothing short of MIRACULOUS that kids like us grow up and succeed in just living!

Jun. 26 2014 10:00 AM
Rhonda Stock from Riverdale in the Bronx

I was wondering why it just says "novel" on the front of the book. I'm glad it did, though, because it would've been much harder to read if I'd known it was an autobiography. I'm so sad for you for all you've been through. However, I really liked the book and read it in one day.
All the Best to you and your parents,
Rhonda Stock

Jun. 17 2014 04:37 PM
Barbara McFadden from NJ

This book will break your heart, and renew your faith in the human spirit. These people are heroic and brave.
I can't wait to hear the author interviewed on June 26. Thank you.

Jun. 05 2014 05:36 PM

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