Faith, Family, Fiction: Ayad Akhtar and Maria Semple in Conversation

Dear Reader,

Ayad Akhtar’s American Dervish and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette may seem wildly different on the surface, but take a second look —  both are ambitious novels about finding one’s place in the world, narratives that crackle with sharp dialogue and pointed detail – yet remain full of compassion for their characters. 

They’re both also 2012 selections of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program. (Spring ’12 Discover pick, American Dervish, is available now in hardcover or NOOK formats, and out in paperback on 9/4. Summer ’12 Discover pick, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is out now.)

A few days ago, Ayad and Maria spoke with one another for Discover Great New Writers and the BN Review about the joys (and limitations) of family, what writing novels demands, and keeping perspective, among other things:

Maria Semple: Ayad, when we met a few months ago at a party, you said something that has really stuck with me. You spoke of your long, uninterrupted writing days, which immediately led me to complain about how being a wife and mother leaves me very little time to write. But you remarked that I was lucky to have so much grist for my writing. Upon reflection, it’s true: Where’d You Go, Bernadetteis about a woman who gets totally derailed by motherhood. That’s probably what my next book will be about, and the one after that, too. Still, I’m intrigued by your situation. You’re much younger than I am, and free of family obligations. Talk about that.

Ayad Akhtar:  I joke that I don’t have a personal life! Which has been partly true for the last couple of years. American Dervish was part of a burst of creativity that has taken over my life. Of course, I feel very fortunate. But all the time spent writing has its costs. I remember reading Cynthia Ozick once saying about the writing life that it was the most psychically toxic activity she knew of. I think there’s some truth to this. And it’s why a writing day has to be balanced with something else. Downtime. Mindless entertainment. Family. In my case, working out and meditation. You need to do something to offset the charge of all the self-excavation that goes into any good piece of work. And I think it’s the only way you can keep perspective on what you’re doing.

Isn’t this one of the fundamental tensions of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? I love so many things about the book, its startling specificity being one of them. Take Bernadette. The portrait of her creative genius is not only rip-roaringly entertaining, but deeply true. Genius is often close to madness, isn’t it? In a way, Bernadette’s condition, her relationship to her startling creativity, brings to mind what Ozick is saying about the toxicity of the creative life. It isn’t easy to create. And that’s kind of Bernadette’s dilemma, isn’t it? Can you say more on this?

MS: A couple of years ago, we moved from L.A. to Seattle, where I felt like I didn’t fit in. Plus, I had just abandoned a novel I had spent two years on. I thought I’d never write again. And yes, I was going crazy. Ironically, that’s where the spark for Where’d You Go, Bernadette came from. 

Sometimes I feel like a mad genius—my mind ignites with ideas for characters and books and funny New Yorker pieces, and what kind of restaurant my neighborhood needs, and hey, that abandoned building over there, we can turn it into a writer’s colony, I know the perfect architect! But then, inevitably, life intrudes. And by life, I mean everyday drudgery. When you become a parent, that’s a whole new level of life intruding. Nobody tells you how boring and time-sucking it’s going to be! Or how the responsibility feels like an airbag going off in your life. 

I had a shrink in L.A.—Phil Stutz, who just cowrote this awesome book The Tools, which is a bestseller and which I highly recommend (yes, that’s a shout-out to my shrink!)—and he used to draw me pictures on note cards. I’ve kept them all, and on one, he wrote “THE GENIUS OF IRRESPONSIBILITY.” I’m not even sure what this means. But I’m guessing it means that you can either be a genius or you can be responsible. It’s when you try to be both that things kind of break down. 

This is the struggle of women . They don’t need to be writers like me, or architects like Bernadette. They can be chefs or secretaries or CEOs or scientists. Doing the thing that you love, apart from your family, somehow makes you feel selfish and irresponsible.

Now, before I ask my next question, let me slip in a quick one: I’m desperately curious, what kind of exercise and meditation do you do?

AA:  Basic light strength training. I have a great friend who is a very prolific and successful Hollywood screenwriter who’s always saying that the stamina for writing, for him, comes from his legs.

MS:  That might be the weirdest, best thing I have ever heard.

AA:  Isn’t it? As for meditation, I have been doing it for twenty years, and have practiced all sorts of techniques. At this point, I sort of have my own idiosyncratic sequence that I follow. But basically the goal’s always the same. There’s a passage in the Upanisads that compares the self to two birds in a tree. One bird eating the fruit, the other perched, watching. Meditation is about learning to get that watching part of us to wake up. To observe without judgment. Not self-consciousness, but consciousness of self, if you will. Don’t know if that makes sense…

MS: Yes! I love that, the two birds. OK, that being settled, I want to ask you about your approach. With Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I began with the character of Bernadette, who was deeply personal to me, and I set about putting her through hell in the most plausible and entertaining ways imaginable. Anything deeper—theme, I guess, is what I’m talking about—only became clear to me after I finished the first draft and read it over. With American Dervish, it seems like you headed into that book, eyes open, wanting to tackle big issues. Is this true? 

AA:  I wanted to write a book that grappled with the rapture of faith, but also with the difficult—but necessary—experience of doubt, which I see as innate to faith itself. I knew that such a book would have to draw on my own experiences in some important way. And therefore, I knew it would be set in a context that was not familiar to most American readers. A Muslim context. But as the book setting was the Midwest, and as it was self-consciously an American book, I knew it would nevertheless end up echoing themes and forms that an American audience would recognize. So the goal was to bring these two poles into relationship and make the story work. Have the experience hold together aesthetically, thematically, narratively. If I was successful, form would express the deeper truth, reflect the hybrid nature of the Muslim-American experience. Which is both American and Muslim. As such, Dervish is a kind of mutt: an immigrant tale, a dysfunctional nuclear family story, a conversion narrative in the traditional American sense of conversion as a kind of redemption; but it’s also a challenge to the Sunni Quranic tradition, and a forbidden love story much more in an Eastern register.

I’m intrigued by you saying that you started out with Bernadette and put her through hell. It reminds me of an insight a writing teacher used to share in workshop about life tying you to a rack and tightening the screws to force you to come out with what’s inside you. He used to say that’s what a good story was, a rack on which to tighten the screws on your characters to see what they were made of. Did you find that Bernadette—or any of the characters—surprised you by their reactions to the mayhem you threw their way? Did you discover them to be other than you thought they would be?

MS: Yes. Those discoveries are the fun, the mystery, the most satisfying reward of writing fiction, don’t you think?

AA: Absolutely.

MS: Novels demand a certain complexity of narrative and scope, so it’s necessary for the characters to change. I try to begin with a strong grasp of my characters. Even if it’s schematic, I need it clear in my head who these people are. As I put them in new situations, their deeper selves are revealed. In Where’d You Go, Bernadette, for example, Bernadette has a pretty witchy nemesis, Audrey. As I went along, I gave her a son who was a juvie and a husband who was an alcoholic. So what started out as her look of repressed craziness became something more: the look of a woman who was trying desperately to keep up a façade for the other mothers at school. Another example: when I began, I didn’t realize the character of Bernadette had such an illustrious past as an architect. But as I wrote, her mind became wilder and wilder, and I had to reckon with that. What did she do with her big mind before she moved to Seattle? There’s a section in the middle of book, the Artforum article that gives an oral history of Bernadette’s architecture career, where I attempt to answer that question.

One reason I find all this character growth and narrative swerving so exhilarating is because I never got to do it when I wrote for TV. Our characters needed to remain consistent from week to week. Additionally, we had to end the half-hour story at the same place we started. You’ve written a play, Disgraced, which won raves in Chicago and opens at Lincoln Center (!!!) in October. It’s a stunning, radical piece of theater. I’m wondering if you found the form of a play liberating or confining compared to fiction?

AA:  It’s such a different process. When you write for the theater, nothing really comes alive until actors start working with what you’ve written. In a sense, you’re not really writing to be read, you are writing to inspire/evoke/provoke the creativity of a team of people who are going to bring the work to life. It’s ultimately a very social process. And writing a novel is completely the opposite, entirely solitary.

I am so grateful to have both ways of telling stories in my life, because I don’t think I could do just one or the other. Writing for the theater and writing fiction complete me in different ways, and they also allow me to do different things as an artist. The theater is able to engage ideas more directly than fiction can. The spoken word can have an immediacy and intellectual viability that narrative fiction seems to resist. Strangely enough, I sometimes think that great fiction is about the human experience beyond the level of language. That a great novel walks us up to the edge of what can be said, and propels us into that roiling joyous despairing chasm of the beyond. We want to lose ourselves in a novel. In the theater, we seem to welcome confrontation, analysis, commentary in a different way. The aliveness of the theatrical experience is about dialogue, on stage, with the audience, with ourselves.

Cheers, Miwa

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.