How did you become a writer?
Through bad poetry and a love of dissonant music. My interest in prose is primarily musical. I have a failed musician’s attitude toward my art. In high school in India, tilting on a wave of Agatha Christies and PG Wodehouses, I wrote rhythmic, rhyming poetry. The milieu in Delhi encouraged flowery writing.
All of that fell away in the US in college. I took a fiction-writing workshop, discovered I was bad at telling stories, experienced a massive competitive urge, spent the next summer in Delhi writing stories, and came back and became addicted to fiction.
Reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in college—it is sort of the Indian Augie March—played a freeing role. Naipaul’s Half A Life had a huge impact on me, particularly its folktale-ish aspects and surging but compact storyline that spans several continents. Later came the genius Jewish writers: Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I was reading the other day in Zia Haider Rahman’s novel that the true influencers are those who give you permission to do certain things you would have considered taboo. In this sense, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, VS Naipaul, and Cynthia Ozick were formative. Tonally I have an affinity for RK Narayan and Saul Bellow; I might be closest to them in worldview. I read The Corrections as a young man, and seeing my bourgeois background reflected in Franzen’s was tonic.
When and where do you write?
I write in a sort of a manufactured chaos. I try to go to a coffee shop first thing in the morning—not to write, but to establish my presence as a human being in a city. Then, with the Americano still fuming in my hands, I head back to my living room and scribble in a notebook. I get frustrated and tired after the writing ends, around eleven. I’m inconsolable after that, bored. The only solution I’ve found is to drink more coffee—which makes me more inconsolable and bored—or to write non-fiction or to read. I write best in the presence of friends. A lot of my second novel was written on the sofa of a friend in Austin, who was also very disciplined with her work. We wouldn’t talk to each other except at lunch and we’d work in the same room. When I hit a block I would discuss it with her. She’s a screenwriter, and therefore sensible and no-nonsense about events in a novel. She’s moved to LA, alas.
In India, I write either in my childhood bedroom at night, or in a lobby area that has been turned into a makeshift study for my father. The country of my writing is really my laptop and my moleskine. I find it easy to fall into the fictional universe in those pages.
What are you working on now?
A third novel. With each novel I’ve been zooming closer and closer to the place I grew up in and I think I’m going to smash right through it.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Yes, though the thing about a block is that you don’t actually recognize it as such. For four years, while writing The Association of Small Bombs (then called Contempt), I was revising furiously. I had many sections, written independently, with independent characters, connected by the idea of “terror,” but not even in the same universe of tone. Every few months I’d try to jam these people and sections together. I’d go back and cut and paste and rewrite. I ended up with 1,400 files in my “Novel 2” folder. No one could have said I was “blocked.” In fact I was. A blockage is a failure to move forward, that’s it. It’s a failure of the ego, as Norman Mailer said. To avoid being blocked you have to write badly for a while. You have to accept that there will be languors in the prose, as in life. As long as you are building honestly toward something, readers will stay with you. We don’t live antic lives; prose shouldn’t strive to ingratiate itself, but rather to convey people forward, slowly, toward a destination they couldn’t have foreseen when they waded into the river of your thoughts.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Be kind to other writers. I was very judgmental as a young writer; this judgment inevitably turned on myself. Nothing was good enough.
I would also say that it is dangerous, emotionally, to become a writer. There’s a lot of despair and disappointment involved. It takes courage to get through it. The courage doesn’t guarantee money or fame or anything. Perhaps the best way to think of it is as a sort of religious act. You have to believe you’ll achieve something from you writing beyond pure aesthetics. Even if this is not true, even if this is hubris, it is important to believe. At the core, you have to believe writing is noble.
Karan Mahajan was born in 1984 and grew up in New Delhi, India. His first novel, Family Planning, was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize and was published in nine countries. His second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, was published by Viking in March 2016. Karan's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR's All Things Considered, The New Yorker online, The Believer, n+1, and other venues. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.