Of compelling characters in fewer pages: Indian-American short-story writer Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma
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By Saket Suman

New Delhi–The greatest challenge for a short story writer, says one of the foremost names in the field — who might not be too well known in India but has built up an impressive resume in the US — is to stick to its ideal length, with the writer captivating his readers in a way that they have no desire for more.

“Knowing that a story is only 15 or 20 pages means that you are restricted in how many characters you can have or situations you can entertain. This means that the entry into the story has to be so strong that the reader has no desire for more,” Akhil Sharma told IANS in an email interview from New York.

The writer stressed upon the fact that the ideal length of a short-story is somewhere between 15 to 20 pages. He maintained that once a writer goes beyond this length, the stories begin to take the shape of novellas. But temptation is always lurking around the corner.

Akhil Sharma

“The problem is that characters can be so compelling that one feels the need to follow them,” he quipped.

Delhi-born Sharma, who emigrated to the United States in 1979, is certainly not among the most well-known faces of our literary fraternity but the illustrious career of this prolific author is still a distant dream for many writers.

His stories have been published in the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, and included in “The Best American Short Stories” and “O. Henry Prize Collections”. Sharma’s first book, “An Obedient Father”, won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2001. His second novel, “Family Life” won the Folio Prize in 2015 and the International Dublin Literary Award in 2016.

“I began writing ‘We Didn’t Like Him’ the day after I handed in my novel ‘Family Life’. I began it with the idea that I just wanted a story with a beginning, middle and end. I had the opening line and I had an idea for someone who wants to be a televangelist.

“I then just began describing the character and trying to make him sympathetic. Part of this meant inventing his back story and what would be natural for him as his life progressed. I wrote one ending and it didn’t satisfy me and so I wrote another,” the author said on being asked to throw light on the journey of a short story — from the time of its inception to its fulfilment.

“We Didn’t Like Him”, along with seven others, comprise his latest book. Titled “A Life of Adventure and Delight” (Penguin/Rs 599/190 Pages), the book is a collection of stories that focus on Indians at home and abroad and plunge the reader into what Sharma calls the unpredictable workings of the human heart.

Sharma said that he loves short stories. “They are demanding and fun and there is the sense that unlike a novel, one is not held hostage by them,” he elaborated.

The author further shared that his short stories have become looser with time.

“They cover longer periods. I find that the transition between my paragraphs is not as tight. More and more I think short stories are simply narratives where an event occurs and a character changes or does not change even though we would expect him to,” he contended.

Sharma hoped that short stories are published in newspapers like they used to be in the past, adding that they have a specific place in the world and will always remain relevant. (IANS)


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