Anjali Sachdeva’s first book, All the Names They Used for God, collects nine of her short stories. In addition to their incisive characterization and fluid prose, the stories are united by a bold thematic exploration of the unknown. Anjali and I both attended the Iowa Writers Workshop—slightly out of synch. She graduated the year before I began at the workshop. We met a few times, though, and I remembered her when she contacted me about her first collection. I was excited to read another author who is passionate about writing about politics and marginalization, and her ease with blending genres makes her work distinct as well as excellent.
Rachel Swirsky: Why short stories? What do you love about the form?
Anjali Sachdeva: Growing up, I read a lot of classic short stories on my own time: O. Henry, Guy de Maupassant, Katherine Anne Porter. In those stories there’s something delicious about feeling the momentum shift; those writers are so in control of the tension and pacing that it’s impossible to stop reading partway through, and there’s always some wonderful surprise in how things turn out. I definitely try to bring that to my writing. But I also love to read science fiction and horror, and those are forms that I think really thrive in the short story format because they are often very concept-based. I mean when I read the short stories of Philip K. Dick I can just see him moving quickly through this series of amazing ideas, and those same stories often get turned into great full-length movies because the concepts they’re built around are so rich.
When I get excited about something—for me, often a strange scientific fact or even just an isolated image—I can construct a story around it, and then when I’ve finished that story I can move on to something completely different—in subject matter, in tone, in structure. There’s so much opportunity for experimentation. And you can also hone every word of a story and build in layers of meaning on the sentence level in a way that you really can’t with a novel (or at least, not without taking decades to write it).
From a reading perspective, I also like that you can easily read a short story several times. I’m someone who loves re-reading. That’s partly because I keep finding new connections that I didn’t notice on a first read, but it’s also like re-entering a favorite memory. There are a couple of novels that I’ve re-read multiple times, but there are many, many stories that I’ve returned to, to see what I get out of them this time around.
RS: Do you have any frustrations with short stories as a form?
AS: Honestly, my only frustration with stories is the idea that they’re often seen as some kind of “warm up” to novel writing, like “when you really get serious about writing, you’ll settle down and write a novel.” I spoke to a number of agents over the years who told me that they loved my stories and would I please call them back when I finished a novel. And when my agent, Sarah Levitt, first reached out to me and asked to set up a phone call, I was, I think, a little rude to her because I was expecting that same reaction. I think the first thing I said was, “You know, I don’t have a novel,” or something along those lines. But luckily for me she was completely on board with that, and was also great about helping me place stories with magazines and journals before I sold the book. I feel very fortunate to have her representing me.
RS: What’s your elevator pitch for the collection?
AS: Reality with unsettling complications. There’s some variation from story to story in terms of how far from the bounds of reality the pieces stray. But what I’m aiming for in most of them is a world that feels like the real world up until a point where something uncanny happens. Something that, if you were to read about it in the newspaper, you might think, “That’s wild,” but you wouldn’t necessarily think, “That’s impossible.” And I like exploring what happens after that moment—how we react with terror or excitement or denial when we’re confronted with something strange or awe-inspiring.
RS: You write about a lot of interesting oddities. For instance, “Glass-Lung” features fulgurite, a mineral that forms when lightning strikes sand. The mermaid in “Robert Greenman and the Mermaid” displays features of deep sea fish. How do you discover oddities that draw your interest? Do they usually inspire the stories or do they fall into place as you write?
AS: It’s almost always the case with my stories that I come across one idea or piece of information that gets me excited, and in the process of writing the story I end up researching it and learning about more things that get woven into the story. So “Glass-lung” started with the idea of the glass-coated lungs, which led me to start reading about types of accidents that can create atomized glass. Somewhere along the way I learned about fulgurites, and also about something called Libyan Desert Glass, which is this glass found in the Sahara that some scientists think was formed by a meteorite striking the sand. There was jewelry in Tutankhamen’s tomb made from that glass. All of that just gets my brain percolating, and a lot of my stories are made in a sort of connect-the-dots process: I have this interesting thing, and this interesting thing, and this one, and I try to figure out what story I can tell that brings them all together.
RS: Your stories are rich with feminist themes. Has this always been one of your preoccupations?
AS: I come from a family with a lot of strong women in it, and my high school was a former girls’ school that had recently gone co-ed. A lot of the teachers there were the most wonderful kind of feminists, meaning that they taught history and literature and science and everything else as though women’s contributions and stories were just as important as men’s, and in fact deserving of some extra attention since those stories have historically been underrepresented. All of which is just to say that my early influences presented me with a world where women were intelligent and independent and valued. That carries over into my writing in that I feel more affinity with female characters who push back against the odds, or who take control of their situation in some way. The male characters have their own struggles, but they are a different kind of struggle.
RS: What do you see as the relationship between feminism and your writing?
AS: Even though I’ve never identified my writing as feminist writing, I think that magic realism and surrealism provide an avenue to explore the issues of feminism without being heavy-handed. Carmen Machado’s recent collection does a brilliant job of that, and there are a lot of other wonderful writers who’ve taken the same approach over the years. The sci-fi/fantasy author Susan Palwick, for instance, has this incredible werewolf story called “Gestella” that uses the werewolf trope to explore the ways in which women’s physical bodies are often valued above their intellect or talent. The main character starts off as a teenage trophy wife, but because of her werewolfism she ages exceptionally quickly—seven years to each human year. As she does, she goes through an entire journey of maturation and self-discovery, but it’s one that her husband doesn’t appreciate at all; all he can see is that she’s not young anymore. So I love it when I can do something similar: use a speculative environment to shake the reader out of whatever preconceptions they might have about feminism and get them to consider the real issues behind that label.
RS: Many of your characters are disabled in some way—a woman who is albino and cannot see well in the daytime, a man who will die if he breathes too deeply, people who endure forced amputations. Is disability something you’re deliberately playing with?
AS: Disability can be one kind of isolation, and in my writing (as in life) I’m always interested in the lives of people who society tries to isolate. I’m thinking about how that isolation or rejection shapes your experience of the world, and about what the rest of us are missing out on by ignoring the perspectives of those people who are being pushed out.
RS: In addition to more generalizable social themes, your stories also tackle harrowing current events. How do you approach writing fiction with political themes? Do you ever feel pressured to leave them aside?
AS: I wouldn’t say I feel pressured to leave them aside a much as I sometimes feel anxious that I’m going to be judged for approaching them “incorrectly” or for saying something that people find offensive. As much as possible I try to just block those thoughts out. If you think about it too much you can become afraid to write anything at all provocative because you’re painfully aware that someone’s just waiting to eviscerate you on twitter. But when it comes to the point where you turn away from a story because of the fear of how people will react to that story, then you’re really losing something in terms of freedom of thought and freedom of expression. And I also read a lot of science fiction, where political themes are part of the genre, so I’ve never thought of it as something to avoid. What is difficult, though, is working in political themes without creating a story that’s preachy or overly didactic. To deal with that I just remind myself that the characters and the plot have to come first, and any political issues have to be meaningfully attached to them.
RS: One of my writing teachers once told me that good fiction is never inspired by anger. I found this a bit odd as someone who enjoys work by, for example, Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison. I’m guessing some of your fiction is inspired by anger—am I right? How do you channel that?
AS: The title story from this collection was definitely inspired by anger. A year after the Chibok schoolgirls had been kidnapped I read an article in the New York Times that said, basically, “Hey, Americans, we know you’ve probably forgotten about this, but most of these girls are still being held captive.” Which was absolutely the case for me; I’d been appalled by it when it was first reported, and then it had slipped from my consciousness. It made me sad to realize how easy it is to forget about things like this. And it made me start thinking about what it would be like to be one of those girls, or the mother of one of those girls. If that was your daughter, what would you want for her? Of course, above all else, I think you’d want to have her home again. But if it were me, beyond that, I’d want revenge. All the pain those young women endured and are still enduring—kidnapping, abuse, rape, isolation, all the rest of it—there should be a price paid for that by someone other than them and their families. And I just thought, well, let me write about it so that exists somewhere, even if it’s only in a fictional world. I can’t say it’s the noblest motivation and maybe it’s a very American way to respond, but that was my reaction.
RS: You’ve written a book that invokes God and gods, but contains very few stories which concern religion directly. Your introduction implies that your rendering of gods broadens to a more general preoccupation with how humans strive to understand the fundamentals of the world. Did you always see that as a uniting theme for the book?
AS: I spend a lot of time thinking about the places where everyday life gives way to magic, where science and psychology and history spill over into the inexplicable. But I definitely didn’t set out to write the book with that theme in mind. These stories have been written over the course of more than 10 years, and there are other stories I’ve written that aren’t in the book, but when I was ready to put the collection together I picked the stories I thought were best and then looked at them to try to figure out what connected them. I wrote an introduction (which isn’t included in the final version of the book) on the recommendation of my agent, and it was incredibly helpful in not only getting me to think about what tied the stories together, but in giving me the tools to explain it to other people. And what I saw in all the stories was the idea of grappling with larger forces, of people wanting to put their faith in something—sometimes religion, but also biology or romance or technology. Or even just the comfort of the status quo. And in every instance, that’s a risky endeavor.
RS: You and I both went to the Iowa Writers Workshop for our MFAs. What was your experience there?
AS: I loved my time in Iowa, which was a surprise to me. I expected the MFA program to be valuable, of course, or I wouldn’t have gone there. But I also thought I’d find living in a small town in Iowa to be terribly boring, and I expected my classmates in the program to be snobbish and competitive. Neither of those concerns turned out to be valid. Iowa City was, for me, the perfect combination of cosmopolitan and rural. I spent my first year there living in a farmhouse in the middle of a corn field, just outside the city limits. So it was a 5-minute drive to classes and bars and theater and lectures from some of the best writers in the world, but I also spent a lot of time that year walking down dirt roads and railroad tracks and watching terrifying storms blow in across perfectly flat fields. And I made a lot of great friends. It’s not to say that people weren’t competitive. I think it would be hard to get a group of artists in any genre together and not have things get a bit competitive—the resources are always scarce, so someone is going to get them and someone else isn’t. But I never felt that people were nasty about it, or lording it over the other writers. I talked about it at some point with Deb West and Jan Zenisek, the administrative assistants for the program, and they said that each class has its own character—that some years people are very in-your-face about who got the better publication this month and how much was so-and-so’s book deal for. But that wasn’t my experience with the people in my year. I had amazing teachers, I read a ton of great books, I got to drink beer with famous writers, and my writing got so much better. I really couldn’t have asked for anything more.
That being said, I stayed in Iowa City for two years after I completed the program, and then I did begin to feel oppressed by the sense of competition. I don’t think anything actually changed about the people around me; I think it was me. The Iowa program is so selective that getting in feels like a victory, and I think that a lot of people, for the two years they’re there, feel successful just for being part of the Workshop. But once you’re finished, if you haven’t already sold a book—which most people haven’t but some have–it’s easy to very quickly feel like a failure: Why didn’t I finish a book in 2 years? Why wasn’t that agent interested in me? Why don’t I write anything now that I don’t have a deadline every six weeks? And when you’re in that state of mind, hearing about other people’s success—which happens constantly in Iowa City, at the grocery store, at the bar, while you’re trying to buy jeans—just feels like being pushed farther and farther down. I realize that’s a spoiled perspective. You just got all the benefits of this great program—classes and visits from incredible writers, funding, encouragement—and instead of feeling empowered, you’re whining about how hard it is now back in the real world? But I know I’m not the only one who felt that way. There were therapists in Iowa City whose whole specialty was counseling writers.
RS: In your bio, you talk about a childhood waiting to be whisked off into alternate fantasy lands. What kind of fantasy lands did you imagine?
AS: Nothing terribly creative, I must admit. I mostly imagined myself in the worlds of the characters I read about–Meg in A Wrinkle in Time or the Pevensie children in Narnia. But I think what was puzzling to me was that those characters always came back home in the end. It’s not that I didn’t like home. I loved my parents and my sister and I knew that I’d miss my family if I went off to some magical world. It was clear to me that going would be an incredibly difficult decision. But it always seemed to me that once you decided to go, you would never really choose to come back to the regular world. Why would anyone want to leave Narnia to go back to some musty country house in war-torn England, even for a moment? But that idea of escaping to somewhere else was present in so many children’s fantasy books that, at that age it felt like a very tangible possibility. Which, in retrospect, is a bit cruel. Because if you, child reading books, were never whisked away to a magical place, what did that say about you?
RS: What was the first story you ever remember writing? Crayon things count.
AS: When I was in third grade, my English teacher assigned us to write a story every week. I would always procrastinate and end up weeping at the dining room table on Sunday night trying to write my story. My mom says she remembers me saying it was hard to get started because “as soon as I write something, everything else has to fit with it all the way up to the end”—too true, and still one of the challenges of short story writing. But as much as I agonized over those stories I would still get really involved in them. I think there was a word limit of 300 words that for most people in the class was probably irrelevant because the pieces didn’t have to be that long, but I wrote 300 words every time. And I can’t remember what a single one of them was about at this point, but I remember the gut-wrenching excitement of writing them. The teacher who assigned them is named Earl Feigert and I thank him in the acknowledgements to the book.
RS: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you can give?
AS: If you’re too busy to write this year, don’t worry about it; you’ll have more time next year.
RS: What are you up to? New projects? Exciting horizons? Where should readers look to keep up with you and your work?
AS: I’m working on a novel and also still writing stories. I have two daughters who are now one and three years old, so the last year has been a lot of just trying to get back to a state where I’m not perpetually wearing sweatpants and eating bananas for every meal. But as a result I have a backlog of ideas that I’m eager to work on. The best place to keep up to date with me is always my website: anjalisachdeva.com.
All the Names They Used for God is out February 20th, 2018, from Spiegel & Grau.
Anjali Sachdeva’s fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, Yale Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught writing at the University of Iowa, Augustana College, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh. She also worked for six years at the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, where she was Director of Educational Programs. She has hiked through the backcountry of Canada, Iceland, Kenya, Mexico, and the United States, and spent much of her childhood reading fantasy novels and waiting to be whisked away to an alternate universe. Instead, she lives in Pittsburgh, which is pretty wonderful as far as places in this universe go.
Rachel Swirsky has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the Nebula-winning and Hugo-nominated author of “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love,” and “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window.” Her second collection, How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future, came out from Subterranean Press in 2013. Visit her website at rachelswirsky.com.