I was excited to read Jade Sharma’s debut novel, PROBLEMS, once I heard it was a heroin book. Heroin books are, for whatever reason, a genre that has always appealed to me. From Junky to Requiem for a Dream to Jesus’ Son and Trainspotting, the heroin book is something of an institution, loitering alluringly at the fringes of literature, a gateway drug of sorts to character-driven fiction for the alienated, surly, and canon-oblivious. The stripped-down life of an addict (whose marginalization is often reflected in the idiosyncratic prose that animates him) provides the perfect stage for a morality play about the ways in which we work against our own interests, killing ourselves in the pursuit of the sublime (or something like that). The heroin novel is more or less timeless, and yet the best of the genre manage to reflect the cultures of their moment: the who and why of that particular epidemic. I’ve read books of Beats and hippies and punks doing heroin, and I’ve been waiting for my generation’s heroin book. A Millennial heroin book.
PROBLEMS is a Millennial heroin book. The Millennial aspect is relevant because, like many Millennials, its protagonist does not wear labels easily. Maya is an addict, yes. But that’s only an aspect of what she is. Sharma’s portrait of Maya does a startling job of showing how easily heroin use can fit into a fairly ordinary life. Maya owns an apartment. She works at a bookstore. She has a husband. She watches Netflix. She goes to her in-laws for Thanksgiving. Her heroin addiction isn’t necessarily her worst habit or her most poisonous relationship. It is, in fact, normalized by her many other preoccupations and activities, which reinforce and perpetuate each other via a network of cause and effect that feels completely standard in our modern, chaotic, interdependent world.
The novel was released in July, the first book born of the new partnership between Coffee House Press and Emily Books (the variegated literary enterprise curated by Emily Gould and Ruth Curry). It has already garnered much attention and praise due to Sharma’s voice, which is simultaneously distinctive and neighbor-down-the-hall familiar. Sharma was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via email regarding her writing process, the development of the manuscript, and the necessity of allowing characters to have lives of their own.
Early in the novel, the protagonist, Maya, who is a functional heroin addict, is watching two less functional addicts frantically searching for some missing drugs. She observes: "There is this powder people snort or shoot into their bodies that makes them feel good, but they end up turning into zombies, lying around, wasting their lives, getting older, and doing nothing....It is a bad sci-fi movie, and you've seen it how many times?" Like Maya, we, as a culture, have seen depictions of junkies like these many times. And yet we, as a culture, are living through a moment in which heroin addiction has undergone such a dramatic renaissance that a novel like this seems less of a bit of literary tourism than a disturbingly relevant exploration of the Millennial experience. Why do you think that so many people, particularly young people, are doing heroin?
I have heard there are, like, all these epidemics of heroin use in upper class communities. Some of all teenagers everywhere experiment with drug use. I don’t know why heroin more than, like, meth or coke or whatever. It’s true that heroin is, like, culturally a drug that is a known evil but, at the same time, while knowledge of a drug can grow and awareness can spread, some things never change. Like, 1) people want to feel good/escape their bad feelings, or 2) undiagnosed mental illness can lead to self-medicating, or 3) people who are going through some shit can become self-destructive.
People do things they know are bad for them all the time. Like eating a pint of ice cream instead of a plate of vegetables. Or smoking cigarettes, or fucking just, like, everyone, or people who go to the bar every night. Like especially drinking in the city. Like, it just seems like so many people drink in an unhealthy way and it’s socially acceptable and people make jokes about having hangovers. Like, I don’t really get it. I hate alcohol and I don’t drink, so. It just doesn’t work with me so maybe that’s why it seems so extreme to me. But my point is, it’s all bad. And we all know it. So I don't know. Some people exercise or, like, work constantly to cope with difficult feelings in different ways.
Exercise is fucking awesome. Like, it really is.
Is writing coping? There are a lot writers who are recovering (or practicing) addicts, or who have struggled with mental illness, or who have gone through some shit. What does writing do for you? Especially if you’re already exercising?
I don’t write about personal details of my life for cathartic release. I’m frankly sick of my own problems, and so is my shrink at this point. I invent a character with different problems, and it’s like a form of escapism: seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and pushing them further into shit to see what will happen. I like having the filter/comfort of a character that I can see the world through.
I definitely think I developed humor as a way of coping. Like, it’s not so much a talent as it is a coping mechanism. Like, I got funny because I had to find a way to gain acceptance and validation and make friends. It’s not so much a talent as a skill one learns to either get their emotional needs met or to cope with the world. Like, you can either cry or make a joke. You learn to make a joke because it’s more attractive.
I agree with that, about jokes. Both in life and in books. It sometimes feels like humor is an undervalued quality in literary fiction. The books I most respond to are normally pretty funny. But I recognize that humor can also have a sort of distancing effect, because it can read as emotional detachment. Like, if a character (or the author) is making a lot of jokes, they can start to act as a wall between the reader and the emotional core of the story. Maya actually navigates that balance pretty well: she’s funny, and she’s definitely attempting to hold the reader at arm’s length sometimes (downplaying the seriousness of various situations), and yet there’s enough sincerity shining through that the reader can form a legitimate emotional connection to her. Was it difficult finding the right balance for her voice, the right combination of attractive and unattractive qualities? She tests the reader, sometimes, almost like she wants the reader to walk away, but she always manages to pull us back in. What was the formation process like, for her?
I TOTALLY think that humor is completely undervalued in fiction or film. Like, there’s this idea that if something is funny it means it can’t be deep or something. The best is when a piece of work is multifaceted. Like, it’s dramatic and funny. If it’s just funny or just dramatic it can be flat because life itself is everything. It’s not just one genre.
I never thought about the distancing effect, but now that you say that it makes sense. If you do make a joke about something you are deflecting. Like, that’s why it is an effective coping mechanism. Maya has no pretense. She is constantly dumping her feelings and emotions on the reader, and when she makes jokes it’s either observational or because she herself needs to step back.
I don’t like books/films/tv that aren’t funny. There are probably some exceptions but it’s largely true. I think at certain points it would have been easier to have Maya just be serious, but then I would revise and be like, how can I make this funny? It’s not as though I think of humor as a way to make the medicine go down but it’s just a) something I have in my arsenal, so why not use it?, and b) it can be used as a relief, like how a shadow can be to your eyeball when you’re staring at the sun, and c) as an artist I feel like it’s my job to take all this shit — like, grim reality that I created — and make it into something funny or poignant at times.
Yes, I definitely think Maya does test the reader. I felt that teenager part of her, like: so I fucked up again, so are you going to walk away now? I’ll just fuck up even worse. Like, it is testing the reader. I guess it was me doing the testing. Like, I wasn’t attempting to make her so awful you don’t want to look at her, but she’s not easy to love. Like, she is self-aware and intelligent enough to realize how much she is fucking up and she does it anyway, which is extremely frustrating for the reader. But I didn’t do it as a way to test my writing chops so much as I thought this was who my character was. When I had parts of the book workshopped, one student wrote ‘self-absorbed bitch’ and I was told how unlikable she was. I guess for some people I didn’t strike that balance. I can’t, like, tell you how I knew what made the right combination, I just knew what felt right for her. And it was hard for me, as the writer, to watch her suffer or see her slip up, but I knew that was her process. Also, we’re using our own standards of progress or whatever. Like, when she is in the darkest places there are moments of light, and when she starts out in the beginning when things are “good” with Peter, things really aren’t that great.
You can’t really have the audience in your head to that degree when you’re writing. Like, it just is too hard. I had to, at times, write alone in my room at two in the morning with the illusion that no one would ever read it.
The formation process for Maya or for any of my characters is I start hearing their voice in my mind, like the way a certain type of person would perceive things. Obviously, since it’s invented in my head and I can do it, it’s CLOSE to me or a certain element of myself that gets exaggerated. So then I just start, like, narrating the world through my character’s eyes. And then I start trying to nail that character down on a page, and the hardest part for me is figuring out in the beginning, like, how to start. But then she gets going and then I revise and cut out the parts that drag and write and revise and write and keep doing that. It takes forever to write like this, but it’s fun because you don’t know what’s going to happen either.
So did you come up with the character of Maya and then tease her predicament into a novel, or had you already decided to write a novel? What’s the point of origin for this story?
I had been doing spoken word and I got burnt out. Like, I lost that feeling of getting a rush. I had done really well and had a lot of fun but wanted more of a challenge, so then I put on a play with my friends, which was crazy. And then I read Jernigan by David Gates and I was like, “Whoa. I didn’t know you could write a book like that.” Just, like, the way the character inhabits the book (like he watches the same block of reruns every night), like, I didn’t know you could write like that. I came to reading late in my life. Anyway, I wrote three short stories that my boss gave to a woman friend at his kid’s soccer game, and she met with me and was like, “Do you want to write a book?” I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, but I felt like I had to because it was this great opportunity. The first two attempts were pure garbage. I knew they were. I just couldn’t figure out how to find my way in. I kept mimicking whatever writer I was reading, like: John Updike (which was the worst, cause I suck at descriptions), or Lorrie Moore, or Samuel Beckett (which was terrible unless you’re Samuel Beckett). And then I went to the New School and out of sheer, like, competitiveness and a desire to show off I just, like, kept at it till I found a way in, and that was the voice. But that’s all I had. That first paragraph was the first paragraph of the book I wrote. Like, I didn’t know what it was or where it was going but I knew who Maya was. Like, her voice was the first thing. And then the rest I would, like, write in all different directions till I felt I hit on the right one, and then revise, and then do it again. It was like the longest, hardest way to write a book in the history of the world. But I knew it was going to be a short book, because I like short books. And I like the feeling of being able to read a book all at once. By the time the book was done I didn’t have an agent. Like, she had referred me to someone else, and then that fell through, and then I was sending it out, and then Ruth contacted me and asked to see it, and she and Emily agreed it would be a good first book for them, and I found that very flattering, and it meant they would do everything they could for the book because it was their company’s first book. It was like a special situation I didn’t think was common. So I crossed my fingers that getting an agent and everything else would come along.
I, too, have come to really appreciate short novels in the last few years. Maybe it’s because I started writing book reviews. Or maybe it’s because the big publishers have been forcing so many giant books onto us lately. But so many of the most exciting novels from the last few years — Faces In The Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh, Binary Star by Sarah Gerard — have been under 200 pages. Short but stunning. Maybe it’s that the shortness actually lowers your expectations as a reader. Like, with a 180 page book, you’re not expecting a historical epic or an intergenerational family saga. You don’t really know what to expect. It can be anything. And if you’re reading it in one or two sittings, the book can just inhabit you that much more fully. It can really knock you around. What are some of the short books that you’ve really enjoyed?
I’m not a huge fan of Philip Roth, and he confuses honesty for ugliness (like in Portnoy’s Complaint, how he refers to the woman as “monkey”), like women are cut-outs of vaginas, but I do have to say Everyman was a beautiful book. Like Life by Lorrie Moore was a really enjoyable afternoon. Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay. Tom Perrotta is good at making his books the right length.
It’s a hard thing to do, because one of the first things that you lose when you are working on something for a super long time is the pacing, like you can’t tell anymore where it lags and where it is going too fast, so you have to depend on readers to tell you. Also, it’s hard to let go. Like one day you are working on a novel, and then it’s over, and there was a mourning period for me, like this thing I had lived with and this character I cared about and I used all my energy to make her world real was suddenly gone and I was left with just these days that suddenly seemed to have no use. So it was exciting that the world was getting my book but it was a loss. David Gates, my mentor, told me “the best thing to do is forget about the one out in the world and get right back to work.” And I could see why that’s the best advice. I’ve been working on a second book since I finished the first one, but I’m still figuring out the voice. But I have a lot of good material. Tom Waits has this great quote where he was like, “you don’t want to be knocking on the world’s shoulder and it turns around and you have nothing to say,” so if Problems is the vehicle that lets me publish my next book, I want it to be really fucking good.
That’s a good quote. So there is a second book, then. I was going to ask: you said you were doing spoken word, then short fiction, then you wrote Problems. Is the second book also a novel, or are you moving on to a new genre?
I’m writing a second novel. I wrote my thesis on Beckett’s novels and one of the themes that kept coming up was how writers are cursed with the impossibility of perfectly communicating what they want, so it’s their failure that keeps them writing, like if they could write the book that fully encapsulated everything the exact way they felt then they would be done. So maybe this is how the rabbit hole starts. Like, I like Problems for what it is but I just keep thinking with everything I learned I want to see what I can do. I guess it still feels like a challenge. Like, I loved performing and I still want to do that but when it stopped feeling mysterious I needed a break. But writing a novel still feels epic, like totally exhausting, frustrating, but sometimes there are these moments where you make yourself laugh and you’re like, “where did that come from?” There are very few times where you get to surprise yourself. The only thing about writing novels that gets to me is the isolation. I would love to teach a few nights a week while I write. That’s like a dream job because I know I’m good at editing and giving feedback. David Gates said when you have a novel coming out, the worst thing is to just ride the wave. Like, you can’t pay attention to the hype or lack of hype, you have to just keep writing on the next thing. At some point I’d like to get into script writing or screenwriting. I wrote a play. And I like writing dialog. So that’s something I want to pursue at some point. Or I could write a script out of the book I wrote. But one thing at a time. And the next thing is: my next novel.
I recently interviewed another writer, who also had a debut book out this year. She’s also interested in screenwriting, also a big fan of dialogue. She’s of the opinion that the best writers today aren’t working in fiction, but are working in film and television. What’s your sense of that? The old argument was that, even if movies and television attracted larger audiences, fiction could at least claim the best writing. Do you think fiction has ceded that now, too? Or do you think it’s unproductive to compare the various media?
There is as much talent in all genres of writing. The fact that television has greatly improved in terms of quality, and other forums like Hulu and Netflix have broadened the horizons of the cookie-cutter crap of network yesteryear, means that a lot of talented writers are actually getting paid.
I remember a teacher of mine saying that the most creative minds of any generation worked in advertising. To be able to work within those constraints and still basically come up with a feeling that sold a product. One example was how if you look at laundry detergent they are always named with one short simple word like “Tide,” “Gain,” or “Whisk,” which unconsciously makes us think doing annoying laundry is quick and easy.
That’s interesting. Did you pick the title of your book? “Problems” is sort of like the anti-“Tide”.
I heard that it was common for publishers to want to change the title, so I picked something I wasn’t attached to. It was kind of a joke. Like, this bitch got ‘problems.’ But everyone was fine with it.
It’s kind of a genius title. Like, it’s a great title for your book in particular, but it also could basically be the title of any novel. When I saw it, I thought, “How has nobody come up with that before?” I felt the same way about Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? It’s like, every novel should be called that, because that’s what every novel is about.
Was the publishing process stressful? Did it go the way you’d imagine it would go?
I was not good at, like, micro-editing and little revisions the editor wanted. I mean to say, I was lazy about doing it. Not that I had problems having those changes made. I just didn’t want to do them. I spent so long revising it on my own that when it got into that stage it was like I loathed and was terrified of re-thinking “well, is that word better or not?”
I had Ruth agree to the floating blocks or paragraphs early on, and that was like the one thing I knew I had to have to have it be MY book. And I also knew I had been looking at those words for so long I had lost perspective. You have to kill your darlings. I killed a million. But I re-read it and was like, “damn, that’s pretty good.” I know everyone who touched it made it better.
What do they say? If you love something you should hold it hostage and make it do what you want out of fear, and if it tries to break free you whine and cry and threaten to hurt yourself? Well, that doesn’t apply to this book.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, now that your book is out?
It’s not original but writing is fucking hard. Like, I worked really hard in a room alone for a long time before I got any good at it. I guess it’s the type of thing where if you can’t imagine NOT doing it then GO FOR IT with everything you have. All writers mimic in the beginning, but at a certain point I realized I could work till the end of time but I would never be John Updike. You read all these amazing books so it seems logical to make your book like their books, but you have to use your talents, like, whatever is in your arsenal. Like, fuck, even if it’s like a text, or something your mom said on the phone that you thought was funny, like, forget the idea of what a novel is and forget being an author like Faulkner and just think about what you think is funny or interesting. Look at your life and find the bits of humor and pain and at some point those pages will turn into something and your character will find legs and then you just don’t fuck with them. You let them suffer and you let them go where they need to go and you just write it and you’re happy and you’re sad and you live with this character and they frustrate the fuck out of you and then they’re gone and you have this book but you miss the fuck out of them and it’s not your ego that gets hurt when someone hates on your character, it’s your heart, because you let them out in the world and you can’t protect them anymore.