I had been working on my first novel, “An Obedient Father,” for nine years when it was accepted for publication. At that point, I thought I had written an ordinary book, in that it had some good parts and some parts that were not so good. Then a chapter was excerpted in The New Yorker, and the book received very positive reviews, and I started believing that I had written a work of genius. The belief took hold of me to such a degree that, when a fellow-author told me that his mother, who comments on my weight whenever I see her, had liked neither his book nor mine, it made sense to me that she would be dismissive of her son’s work, but the fact that she did not like mine seemed evidence that she was unsophisticated.
The reason that I had published my novel knowing that parts of it weren’t good was that I didn’t know how to fix them. I had asked for help from various friends who were writers, but they hadn’t known what to do, either. And at that point I was twenty-nine and just wanted to put the long nightmare of writing the book behind me. To give a sense of what my life was like back then: I couldn’t afford furniture, so I slip on a strip of foam on the floor; my great luxury was buying day-old pastries from a bakery. Once, I cleaned the house that I shared with several drunks simply so that I could get all the nickels from returning their beer bottles.
The period of believing that I was a genius did not last long. I started a new novel and was soon as lost as I had been with the first one. The second novel was even harder to write, and it took me twelve and a half years instead of nine. During this time I got married and began to live a middle-class life. Whereas with my first novel I had been full of mad ambition, by my second, humility had been beaten into me. In the first novel, paragraphs end by pushing the reader into the next paragraph, and the next paragraph begins by reaching out and grabbing the reader. In the second, the paragraphs follow each other, but they do not push and pull. The difference has to do partly with the subjects of the books and what those subjects require, but it also emerged from my new understanding that the reader needs to do as much work as the author.
During the years that I was working on the second novel, I periodically heard from famous writers about the first book. Once, in year six or seven, John Coetzee wrote to me. I remember the evening that his e-mail popped up on my computer. I was at the end of another awful day of trying to write. At first, I couldn’t believe it. Was this JM Coetzee, the Nobel Prize winner? It was a two-sentence e-mail in which he thanked me for “An Obedient Father” and called it a “tremendous book.” I kept reading it over and over. I felt as if an explosion had gone off. To have an author of such weight and dignity praise me made me feel that there was weight and dignity to my work also. And then, as I sat there staring at my computer screen, it occurred to me that perhaps John Coetzee could help me get a teaching job (and he did later write a letter for me). Other writers also periodically got in touch and once, in a radio interview, an esteemed author said that one of the reasons he didn’t kill himself was the possibility that I’d write another book.
My first novel received so much admiration, I think, because it had a palpable voice. For the most part, books are impressions of their author’s sensibility. Books have subjects, of course, but what they are really about is the author struggling to address the subject through language. William James said this more than a hundred years ago: “The thought itself is the thinker.” This is why great works can also be deeply flawed. Flaubert once said that the “enormous defect” of his novel “Salammbo“was that he had made the pedestal too big for the statue. This is a completely accurate description of the book, but it is a flaw only if you think that the interesting part of the book is not the pedestal—the astonishing mind that can describe how it feels to step on a dead man’s hand or capture the image of smoke from a train dancing on the grass.
My second book came out and it was a great success. The book was reviewed on the cover of the Times Book Review, and I won a prize worth more than a hundred thousand dollars. More important to my long-term peace of mind, I was able to get a tenured job, teaching creative writing at Rutgers University.
Several years later, my wife and I separated, and I moved out of our two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The job at Rutgers didn’t pay enough for me to be able to rent an apartment of my own in New York. I asked a friend who had a large house in Brooklyn if I could stay with him for two weeks. And then, when the two weeks were up, I basically refused to leave. I began asking my friend if I could pay him rent for the room I slip in. I thought this would give me a stronger claim to my bed. At first he refused, knowing that, if he said yes, I would never leave. Finally, because he had to travel a great deal and wanted someone to be in the house while he was away, he agreed to let me stay on a month-to-month basis. In addition to the stress of not having a stable physical home, I was feeling tremendous anxiety at the idea of starting my life over. No part of me wanted to go back into my marriage, but I also didn’t know how to imagine the future. Every night at about two or three, I would wake and have a panic attack. I’d turn on all the lights in my small room and walk back and forth, panting.
Writing is the core of my identity. It is a way of saying to the world “I am here.” But I have a hard time writing anything when I am scared. The noise in my mind becomes so loud that it is impossible to lose myself in the kind of dream state that requires.
Unable to work on anything new, I opened my first novel. I had always felt ashamed that the book wasn’t as good as its characters deserved it to be. I love my characters. I spend so many years in their company that I know their voices, their gestures, their stories. Even if they are not decent people, I do not wish them suffering. Because I had published the book without fixing its problems, I felt as though I had betrayed them.
I began reading the book, and it was strange to encounter these characters again after almost twenty years. It was like seeing friends or relatives after a long time. Even if the people seem exactly as they used to be, you and your sense of the world have changed.
I started to think about how I could make the book good enough for its characters. I knew from the beginning that there was very little chance that a new version of the book would ever be published. I also knew that, even if it was published, I would get zero dollars for my work. After all, what publishers in their right mind would republish a book that had taken years to earn back its small advance? Still, I worked on the book every day. I think this was, in part, a way of assuaging the guilt I felt about my marriage having ended. I could not fix the hurts that the collapse of the marriage had caused, but I could do right by the characters in my novel. I have always viewed writing fiction as moral work, but never before had it felt so urgent. It was as if I were in the grip of a compulsion.
In the first version of “An Obedient Father,” many of the characters had names that started with the same letter: Asha and Anita; Ram and Rajinder. The idea behind this was to force non-Indian readers to read closely to avoid confusion. The book is about a child molester, and it involves many things that are unpleasant. Slowing readers down was a way to make them spend more time with difficult subjects. (This was a trick I came up with while reading Dostoyevsky’s”Demons” and confusing the Russian names.)