The Penmen Profile: Debut Novelist Hirsh Sawhney

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

Photo Credit: Hemant Sareen

Photo Credit: Hemant Sareen

Author Hirsh Sawhney‘s first novel, “South Haven,” has been named as a Barnes & Noble Summer 2016 Discover Great New Writers selection, and was published in early May.

Sawhney’s writing has been published in many magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement.

He is the editor of “Delhi Noir,” an anthology of original fiction, and is a professor at Wesleyan University. To learn more about him and to read the synopsis of “South Haven,” visit his website.

Have you always written?
In some way or another, yes. Writing became very central to my life when I was around eighteen. I’ve been writing professionally since my early twenties. I try and write a little every day.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
I do a lot of “free writing” and “stream of consciousness” journaling, and characters, plots, images, and moods emerge during the process. Certain elements stay with me for a while, and I start plotting them into a story in my mind. I next try to get a couple of drafts out with a pen and paper. Then I use a simple word processor with no Internet connection to draft a more finite version of a story. I learn more about my characters as the process continues, and they soon tell me how my plot should evolve. They reveal the flaws in my prose and plotting when I remember to listen to them closely.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
Beginning is always hard. Going into a new piece or chapter with only a vague plan and no precise map is intimidating. And yet doing so is essential to my process. I try to remind myself of the process-oriented nature of writing to overcome my nerves-to remind myself to give into the page and my prose without too many expectations of an early, primitive draft. The free writing that Natalie Goldberg describes in her book, “Writing Down the Bones,” has always helped me. Walking and cycling help me write, as does yoga. Waking up early and not checking email helps me write. I believe writers need to be disciplined and focused, and so I have worked hard to cultivate habits that keep me disciplined and focused.

What has the road to publication been like for you?SouthHaven
I have been getting paid to do some form of literary work for almost fifteen years now, and almost every piece I have published has involved some sort of struggle or hustle. Editors at magazines have killed articles that I have worked on for months at a time due to legal issues, or changing fads. Agents have been intrigued by my writing but have felt that the themes and structure of my work would be hard to sell. In other words, the road to publication has been riddled with rejection and frustration–and also isolation, alienation, and self-doubt. I believe that many writers experience these feelings. I am lucky for my wonderful relationship with Akashic Books. They take great care of me and my work, and are willing to take on risky projects. And that’s what writing should be about. Risk. The British writer Hanif Kureishi once wrote: “Each piece of writing should be a risk; it would be worthless otherwise.” I think he’s right about this. And yet those who control the world of mainstream publishing seem to be utterly risk-averse.

How do you market your work?
I rarely turn down opportunities to write and spread the word about my work. But I don’t enjoy actively marketing. I am currently not plugged into any form of social media, because being involved with social media undermines the sense of balance and focus that I need to write. All that being said, now that my novel is coming out, I do send emails to writers and editors who might be interested in my work, and I often work with my publisher to arrange (hopefully) interesting book events.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
The most important part of writing is actually writing–publishing, marketing, and networking will get you nowhere unless you sit down at a table and write. And actually sitting down to write is the most nourishing and sustaining part of the writing process.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
So many authors have opened my eyes and rocked my world. Authors like Borges Julio Cortazar have taught me about the potential of the surreal, and to question modern life. Coetzee and the Urdu author Qurratulain Hyder have taught me about the centrality of historical and political context in fiction writing. Annie Proulx has taught me about line-level precision, and the way in which fiction can grapple with moral and ethical dilemmas. Jack London has taught me about third-person narrators, plot, and arc. Hanif Kureishi made it okay for me to write about the absurdity and raucousness of everyday life without shying away from intellectual issues. Baldwin has taught me how to write lyrically about music, and to poignantly evoke a character’s interior world. He shows us how to write rigorously about race and class.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
Eric Hobsbawm’s “Age of Extremes.” This book reveals so many vital and complex truths about the twentieth century, in which most of my characters were born. It rejects the dualistic approach to history that many people who grew up during the Cold War have been subjected to.

E. Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News.” This book was inspirational as I crafted my own. I learned so much about the interplay of character, plot, and language from it. It showed me how to hold more over the worlds and characters I try to create. It taught me a lot about the connection between metaphor and history.

James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man.” This anthology contains the story “Sonny’s Blues,” one of my favorite stories of all time. “Sonny’s Blues” is one of the few things that I read in school and actually liked, and it becomes more significant to me with each reading.