Karan Mahajan is the author of two novels, Family Planning and The Association of Small Bombs. His second novel drew me into his work through its unusual structure, in which the story radiated from the center and expanded outwards just like a bomb. When I read a novel and think “how did he/she do that?” it means the writing and story challenge me — making me a fan for life. Mahajan doesn’t only write fiction; he’s also delved into non-fiction writing, traveling to various countries on journalistic projects, including my country of Zimbabwe, where he reported on the aftermath of the 2017 coup that saw Robert Mugabe removed after nearly 40 years in power.
We spoke about becoming a writer, his writing group and future projects.
Can you tell us about when you knew you were a writer? And when you decided to fully commit to being a writer
I grew up in India, and cricket is a national obsession, so when my brother and I were about 14 and 12, we started a cricket website dedicated to the Indian team. The site became popular over time in the way things did back then in the wild west of the internet and I got in the habit of writing regularly for an audience. It was really terrible, cliché strewn, florid prose but from that point on it branched into other directions: poetry, at first, and then, in college, writing fiction as opposed to just being a big reader of it. I realized what an enormous mental challenge writing fiction can be and I really got hooked. So it was probably in college I decided to try my hand at being a fiction writer.
What was your path?
I held several jobs before I finished my MFA. Some of it was out of a desire to be in the real world after college, and some of it was the guilt people like you and me feel coming from third world countries (for lack of a better word)—writing can feel so self-indulgent. So I worked for a small publishing house in San Francisco; then for the New York City government doing long term urban planning; and finally as a researcher traveling around India for a couple of years interviewing entrepreneurs about their life stories. I took on all these jobs with the expectation that they would give me time to write—and they did do that. But at the end of it I realized that, since a system existed in the US where you could get two years of time to write—sometimes funded—there was no reason not to take it. It turned out to be a good decision. I was able to confront all my fears about declaring myself a writer, and to process all these experiences I had gathered in a compressed time frame.
How did your parents and family react when you told them you wanted to be a writer and later, when you were published?
My parents are wonderful people and both of them were very supportive when I started writing (the cricket website, my stabs at poetry, writing fiction in college), but I think they did worry a great deal when I made it clear that I wanted writing to be my primary identity, that my goal was eventually to not have other jobs. Their reaction was to encourage me to pursue something alongside writing. But even if they hadn’t suggested this, I had imbibed that ethos anyway, and I had to work it out of my system. Some of it does involve coming to an understanding of why one writes. Initially, when you start, it can be because you find language beautiful, or you find it challenging. But when you seriously commit to a vocation—one that requires discarding other traditional modes of living—you have to have a deeper moral purpose. I felt that I could to use my powers to etch a kind of living history of things that would not be noticed or described by others, especially about parts of India, parts of Delhi, parts of India’s history, and even other parts of the world that reminded me of India. To think of myself as a historian of a present.
You write about India while in America, what does the distance do to your writing?
Distance makes you interested in the place that you have left behind. When I am in India, my impulse is to write about America and when I am in America, my impulse is to write about India. You want to recreate the worlds that you no longer have with you—I usually don’t want to describe the world I am in. The other thing distance does is create an anxiety; you do feel that you have to be careful; you have to be in touch with what’s going on. Also there are certain periods of Indian history that I know very intimately—the periods in which I was growing up in India—and generally my fiction is not set after those periods. (I haven’t lived continuously in India for a decade, but rather go there for a few months at a time.)
Distance also gives an interesting angle on things that you might not develop if you were part of the daily national conversation happening in a place. You can write about the place from your own very particular point of view.
Where do your ideas come from?
It’s tough to answer because that’s a very large question. I think my best ideas come in airplanes, when I am in the actual conduit between places, where I can see myself transforming, and I have the memory of the place I just left, and I have the sort of gathering forces of the place I am going to. Sometimes novels begin very simply – for my second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, the image of the bombing that happened in 1996 in a market in Delhi just kept coming back to me as more and more terrorist attacks were happening in India and in the US. I honored that image and that instinct and went deeper and deeper into it and found that it gave me an entire universe to write about.
What is your process of writing? And how long does it take for you to write a book?
In my first drafts I find that I am usually more focused on the setting than I am the characters—I don’t know the characters well and am simply finding my way through space. Then, by the second draft I know the people and am deeply engaged with them and the setting might fall away or become less important—mental wallpaper I can see, but that I don’t necessarily lay down on the page. I find, also, that you don’t know where the story is going until you actually sit down and risk writing into complete darkness. Sometimes you can take meanders and turns that throw you off and then you come back and power through anyway. I have never had an idea that arrived fully formed—it’s always been a struggle—but I do find the daily aspect of sitting down and writing pleasurable even if it is scary.
The New York Times published a piece in December on writing groups and yours was featured, can you tell us about your group and what you gain from it, when it started and why does it keep going?
Most of the people in that group I met in college as a sophomore or junior at Stanford. Many of them—interestingly—were second generation Asian-Americans; I was the only immigrant but I found a kinship with them, because they had similar family structures, similar struggles with declaring themselves writers, similar angles to the culture. We were all excited to encounter each other. Those friends of mine are really some of my closest friends—they are the most supportive people when you have success, which is really sweet because it’s rare to have people like that in your life. It carries on into the way we critique each other. It can be harsh or it can be constructive, but in the end, it’s always in the service of wanting each other to succeed.
Are you working on a new book and can you tell us a bit about it?
My third novel is not entirely set in India—it is set partly in the US. It is about the mental state of the immigrant, the state of suspension, how you imagine you will go back home even if it’s not true, and what happens if you do honor that impulse. I won’t say too much about it because I don’t want to dispel the magic of the story. The novel considers a lot of people who are circling this one neighborhood in Delhi. The neighborhood is what gives the title to the novel, which is Colony—because in Delhi neighborhoods are called colonies.
A magazine contacted me and asked if I would be interested in going to Zimbabwe to write about the next election and Grace Mugabe’s possible elevation in the government. I said, “yes,” because it was such a fantastic opportunity to learn about Zimbabwe. I went to the UN General Assembly in New York and watched Mugabe give a speech there. Then the coup happened and it was kind of dicey and questionable whether I should go because no one knew what was going to happen.
But I decided to go anyway and it was a wonderful experience. It’s strange to say ‘wonderful,’ but what I mean is that, as an Indian who grew up in a former British colony, I felt an enormous kinship with Zimbabweans, and in some ways could enter the place. (Obviously I’ll always be an outsider—but less of an outsider than, say, someone who grew up in Sweden might be.)
While I was in Zimbabwe, the Gupta story was big in Africa, and I ended up going to South Africa a year later to write about the scandal. And recently I have become interested in Indians in Africa and wrote a piece on Indians in Madagascar. What I like about this mode of writing is that, though, in some ways, I might have lost India (as I live in the US now), I feel India gives me access to these other worlds that are familiar.
What advice would you give your younger self about pursuing writing as a career?
I would say that you have to write with the right intentions, because everything else can be taken away from you. Your book might not be a success; it might not come out as well as you wanted it to; it might receive a different reaction from what you imagined; but if you knew you did it for the right reasons, that will stay with you and allow you to grow as a writer.
This interview has been edited and condensed.