The Fiction Issue 2015

Akhil Sharma and Aleksandar Hemon Discuss Poverty, Happiness and Publishing

What do two writers talk about when you sit them down with each other and a tape recorder?

by VICE Staff
10 June 2015, 12:00am

Illustrations by Matt Rota

This article appears in the June 2015 Fiction Issue of VICE Magazine.

In 2006, we were working on our first-ever fiction issue. I wanted to publish fiction by Aleksandar Hemon. He wrote back, saying that he didn't have any stories available. The same thing happened with Akhil Sharma. They were both very polite. They were two of my favorite writers, and they were among hundreds of writers whom I wrote. You see, I had a secret weapon. A friend at a prestigious magazine had given me a list of writers' emails. I just wrote to him with their names, and he sent me back a spreadsheet with their emails. In the course of unprofessionally harassing Hemon and Sharma, I learned that they would be in Paris on the same night, and I asked them to go to dinner on VICE and bring a tape recorder. They agreed!

And after all that, we killed the piece. But I can remember parts of it. I remember that as the night got long, Sharma said, "Now I have to go to the bathroom, but while I'm gone I want you to pick a nice wine so we can spend up all their money, because I don't like being taken advantage of."

Hemon, sounding sleepy, said, "Wha...?"

"Think about it."

I mourned the loss of that conversation from Paris. In the eight years since, Sharma published Family Life, which won the 2015 Folio Prize for fiction. Hemon published The Lazarus Project, a novel, and The Book of My Lives, an essay collection, both of which were finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. And with a little begging and bribery, we persuaded them to do it again, at Le Bernardin in New York. Here is their conversation, edited for length.

Amie Barrodale, VICE fiction editor

Akhil Sharma: I don't know if your experience of being a writer is like mine, where it's hard to earn a living.

Aleksandar Hemon: Yeah, it is.

Sharma: So it's weird to go to a very fancy restaurant and order cavalierly. It's sort of a strange experience.

Hemon: I was recently in a five-star hotel with a Michelin-star restaurant, and I still feel they can see through all my good manners and see that my poverty is genetic and has been running in my family for millennia. I can't treat it coolly and objectively the way people who are used to it can. I was in a theme park of wealth. I just happened to be there, but I'm really a low-wage worker.

Sharma: I grew up not well off, and I worked really hard to not be near my relatives. It seems like working hard was to, like, avoid being with my cousin who steals shit. I experience the same thing feeling like people can see through me. But I don't have a desire to be in that world.

Hemon: That hotel was beautifully designed and there's a collection of art, and even though all the individual pieces of art aren't worthless, they're not art—they're decoration. You cannot get around that they hang on the walls of a fancy hotel. And decorative art is nothing that I care about.

Sharma: I see the logic of what you're saying. I find myself very touched and excited when I see something well made, a jacket or a shirt or something like that. I can get a lot of pleasure from that. If it's really nice carpeting in the hallway, I'll say, "Let me enjoy this, this is what I've got."

Hemon: I guess this genetically inscribed sense of poverty is part of my family history, or the history of the region where I'm from. And it is a survivalist mode of living, like jumping from island to island as the sharks are swimming. But because of that, there are all these enjoyable things, one at a time. Nearly everyone I know from my world, my family and my friends, thinks in terms of instability and occasionally pleasure and whatever goodness there is. Good things can all pass like that. The carpet is great, but it can go like this. It should be appreciated and enjoyed, but...

Possessing such things is meaningless. You can have all this stuff, and then it's gone.

Sharma: But don't things become more valuable? When I think about price, I think, when I'm on my deathbed, I'm going to look back and say, "Everything was fine. Why weren't you happier?"

Hemon: My goal is to be happy too, but it's a matter of what it is that makes you happy. So I realize that pleasure is not the same thing as happiness, nor is happiness constant exposure to pleasure. It's just pleasure. I enjoy this greatly, but it doesn't make me happy in this substantial way. This is what I've learned from my life.

Sharma: I am full of gratitude, sitting here, eating this delicious thing.

Hemon: Gratitude is different from happiness. I like this life in which I can be exposed to new experiences...

I ski, and an in-flight magazine called my agent asking for writers who ski, and I volunteered. So I was skiing at Gstaad, but Gstaad is not just a ski resort. I skied, but I also spent time at a couple of hotels to write about them. It hasn't been published yet. As they say, "Where you drop me, there I land." So I landed in Gstaad.

Sharma: How often are you going to Bosnia?

Hemon: Once or twice a year. I used to go more before having kids, but last year was twice. This year I haven't gone yet. But I'm always in touch with people there. I turned in a column in Bosnian yesterday, and I wrote a movie script with a Bosnian director, mainly by way of Skype. For a movie called Love Island. The first two drafts were in Bosnian, and then we switched to English. Much of it is in English now. I can do this these days, on Skype. My parents, who live in Canada, they go to Bosnia once a year for a couple months. They just move there once a year because they are sick of the Canadian winter. My sister, who lives in London, she comes down to see them with her family. When I go, no one is surprised to see me. I don't have to do any catching up. I report about my life in various ways, and my friends always know what I'm up to. There's a fascinating absence in the United States of the full understanding of what is going on with immigration. Not just Republicans. And it's not just denial—it's naïveté.

"There's this weird fantasy of becoming American as an embodiment of human potential."

Sharma: The myth of the immigrant is so strange—somebody who is out of place.

Hemon: The Ellis Island trope whereby you enter and become someone else, become an American. Your transformation started at Ellis Island. You'd become a new person, and once you did well here you'd return to the old land, the myth goes, 40 or 50 years later, and not recognize anything. There's this weird fantasy of becoming American as an embodiment of human potential.

Sharma: When you go to Bosnia, how long do you stay?

Hemon: Sometimes I'm in Europe and just go over for a few days to see friends. It's hard to stay, because I don't want to leave my kids for too long. I maintain contact with Bosnia by writing, but I also talk to people and am politically involved and all that. I don't have this burning nostalgia to go to Bosnia; it's been eliminated. When I go to Bosnia, I don't go to remember my youth. I go there to visit people who live there now and because I miss my friends, the same way I miss my friends in New York.

Sharma: Now, if you go to India, there's sort of a perpetual haze. At night, it never really gets fully dark because there's so much light and the sky is just covered with pollution, so the light is always in the back. What I miss is being in the center of the city and seeing stars. When I think about India in terms of nostalgia, I realize that nostalgia is mostly physical. And it was a different world physically, because plastic was more valuable and not as common. You wouldn't find stuff on the side of the road, even as early as 2000. You didn't see trash anywhere. I feel a nostalgia about that.

Hemon: I don't think nostalgia is the word for that really. It's more "I wish I could experience my youth, but with this mind." I would appreciate it more but also be more conscious of all that. Because I can see it now from this distance, and there were good things happening and important things that I was too invested in it to fully see the totality of it. When I think back, I wish I had paid more attention. It might be a writer's malady to always long for more consciousness.

Sharma: How old are your children?

Hemon: Three and seven. We lost a child between those two. The older one had a sister who died. My younger daughter has something called Prader-Willi syndrome. It's a spectrum disorder, which means it can be really bad and then not that bad. So she's on the good end of the spectrum. But it does require care, so my wife has carried the burden, and when I'm home we share the duties. But when I'm not, she has to handle it. So she's returning to a place where she can begin to work again, because the three-year-old has started going to kindergarten.

Sharma: You know, my wife and I decided not to have kids right before we got married, in part because I didn't think I would be a good father. My childhood was so miserable that I think you almost need a miracle to raise a good child. We've been married now for 13 years, and I think it'd be nice to have a kid, but it's too late.

"The older I get, the more compassion I find I have, and the more compassion I have, the harder it is for me to avoid my parents."

Hemon: That's a decision everyone has to make, but you can't know what kind of father you'll be because it changes you. It expands you, but what areas of yourself you expand into is hard to tell. Some things become better, and some things become worse. Some people just see themselves with more space inside. There's no way of knowing. People don't want to make a leap into the unknown. I don't feel that I've lost anything for having kids—it's all worth it. The kids are beautiful.

Sharma: My parents were difficult people. They were mean, and they became worse after my brother's accident. The older I get, the more compassion I find I have, and the more compassion I have, the harder it is for me to avoid my parents. I've talked to my mother recently, but I basically avoid her, and my father as well. Yet it's hard to maintain that boundary, which is sort of self-preservation. Have you ever been to India?

Hemon: No, but people have been telling me to go for years. I haven't wanted to leave my family. But now I have a book out and could go do some work there.

Hemon: One of my pieces from my previous book, about my friend's war experience, is being published as an e-single. He will be here at the Apple Store SoHo event with me with a video work.

Sharma: I've always wanted to be invited to this Paris Review thing but never was. I was once invited to the PEN Gala at the Museum of Natural History, and I was invited at the last moment because this guy canceled. Someone emailed me immediately asking if I had a tuxedo and then said, "OK, if you want to come, you can come." It's just so wonderful to be allowed into this silly thing. It's good to get to come and see them and see what's going on.

Hemon: I live in Chicago because I like Chicago. But one of the reasons why I wouldn't want to live in New York is precisely because of this exposure to the publishing industry and literary culture. It ends up being boring really quickly, I find. My enthusiasm leaves within a day or two. When I come I might go to those things, but I don't long for them ever. They're the Hollywood of the publishing industry.

Sharma: For me, when it's there, I'm happy to enjoy it, and when it's not there, whatever.

I have a friend who was telling me he thinks it would be hard to work in New York City because there are so many distractions. But I think wherever you go, you carry your distractions with you.

"The hierarchies are always fluctuating, and people in New York always have an idea of the relative positioning of everyone in the room, of these hierarchies."

Hemon: Well, there are plenty of distractions in Chicago. But here in New York, they're distractions in that there are people who work in the same business as you and there's this sense of competitiveness. I've been at parties in New York where there's a critical mass of writers and people in the publishing industry and you can feel it. The hierarchies are always fluctuating, and people in New York always have an idea of the relative positioning of everyone in the room, of these hierarchies. And to me, it's not even a moral problem—it's just too exhausting. I don't care, and I don't want to care. I would end up caring because I can't not engage with other people. I couldn't stay away from it. I can't isolate myself. If someone invites me to a party, I'll go. If you want to isolate yourself, New York is a bad place. It's hard work figuring out what's going on, not behind the scenes but in the shuffling. I was talking to someone, a friend, at a party. And—I don't think less of him for this—in the middle of a sentence, I saw a shift on his face, and I knew that someone important had walked in. I didn't even need to look. Just a slight repositioning. And I looked back, and it was Susan Sontag. There's nothing wrong with being fascinated by Susan Sontag, but it's all just too much work. Many writers and people I'm friends with in Chicago, they do similar things as I do, but I have a lot of friends who have no connection with literature or publishing. There's no hierarchy, because there's nothing to gain.

Sharma: How did you find getting into publishing? For me, I feel one of the reasons that the book has done well is that, you know, people can meet me. I can just meet an editor for a coffee. I feel like one of the reasons I've been successful is that I've been proximate. It seems so useful to be in New York. But when I first started publishing, I wasn't living in New York.

Hemon: What makes it the Hollywood of the publishing industry is that you have to be there in order for it to happen. And I don't think that's wrong—it just depends on the sensibility. I can't do it. It worked out well enough, and I lucked out. This was in the late 90s, and I was writing things and placing them in small literary journals, including Ploughshares. This came to the attention of Stuart Dybek, who'd read an earlier story that I had written, and he was on a jury that gave it a small Illinois award. It wasn't small then, it was huge, but he liked the story so much that when he was a guest editor of Ploughshares he asked me to submit to him, so I did. They published the story, and it so happened that my agent's assistant was meeting a friend at a bookstore and she was late, so he took Ploughshares, and my story happened to be the first one in the issue. She was late enough for him to read the story, and then she arrived, but he read it and took it to his boss—now my agent—and said, "You have to read this." And she called me out of the blue. I didn't even have a book on acquiring an agent or anything; I didn't know how it worked. I didn't ask any questions about how it worked; I didn't know what her cut would be. I worried about asking or not. Finally I said, "How does this work? What do you get out of this?" And she said, "I thought you knew; everyone knows." And I didn't know. So she told me, and she's been my agent since. The extent of my self-promotion was just to mail stories to journals. Then they reached a few people, and it went off. These people are friends now, and it's part of my gratitude to Chicago. But I didn't strategize how to get into it.

Sharma: I had written some stories that were good, that I thought were good, and I went to Stanford and had an agent who was pushing some of these things out who did not. I began to get more and more depressed there because I didn't see what the future would be. I began writing a novel, and it wasn't going well. At some point I took my best short story and sent it to five magazines. Normally, when I would send I wouldn't send a self-addressed envelope because I didn't want it back. You can throw it away—I'll just print more [laughs]. This time I felt like I had to be very proper and do everything correctly, so I included some of these envelopes, and I got four rejections within a few days. I'm convinced that the fuckers didn't even read it because they would come back the same way. The fifth one I didn't hear back from, and I thought, Oh, great, the bastards stole my stamps, because I had no money. My fellowship was $11,000 a year in Palo Alto [laughs]. I sent it in February or March, and then in June or July I got a letter from the Atlantic saying that they wanted the story, and then I promptly sent them another story thinking they'd maybe buy it too. I wanted to get into the New Yorker, so I had my agent send it to them. And they said no and asked if it was a mistake and said we'd sent this to them before. Then I sent it to the Atlantic and they did the second one, and then things opened up. I thought my life would be different almost immediately, but it's basically the same thing, just not having money. I'd always thought there would be some way that one could be financially safe.

Hemon: If you know how to do it, let me know, because I don't.