Rahul Mehta on Pushing Through Writer’s Block and Exploring Pain Through Fiction
Author: Brian Centrone
April 16, 2017
“I realized that growing up brown and queer in white West Virginia and the resulting scars were absolutely and deeply connected to what made me become a writer.”
The first time I met Rahul Mehta was at the 24th Lambda Literary Awards. Arriving near the end of the opening reception, Rahul slipped through the crowd alone. He was wearing a Panama hat and a saffron-colored scarf–in June! I knew him immediately. In our interaction that night, Rahul was kind, encouraging, and humble. He inscribed my copy of his nominated short story collection, Quarantine (which I carried with me that night in case I got the chance to meet him), in gold ink, the message full of well-wishes for the future publication of my own book. Rahul would go on to win the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Debut Fiction that night, though I never got the chance to congratulate him in person.
The next time I met Rahul was six years later. I was coming out of the book fair at this year’s AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference and he, once again, was slipping his way through the crowd, this time sans hat, but wearing a pastel-toned scarf. It was one of those rare moments when you are deeply pleased to see someone you have not seen for a very long time. Though we were both on our way to events, we arranged to meet up. In some stolen moments out of two busy conference schedules, Rahul and I talked mostly about writing and teaching, and of course, I finally got the chance to congratulate him in person for winning that Lambda, and also on the release of his debut novel, No Other World.
No Other World is a coming-of-age novel split between Western New York and Western India. It follows Kiran Shah, a young, gay, Indian-American boy caught between two cultures, two worlds. Mehta skillfully balances past, present, and future, and the role time plays in shaping and transforming Kiran’s life and the lives of those around him.
Though we didn’t have the time that afternoon, I knew I had to talk more to Rahul about the beginning of his career, his compelling, complex, and captivating first novel, and why there was no other writer who could have written No Other World.
In 2012, you won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Debut Fiction for your short story collection, Quarantine. What was that moment like?
Winning a Lammy was such a powerful, important moment for me. Among other things, it gave me the opportunity to stand on stage and deliver a speech in front of Armistead Maupin about how I discovered Tales of the City when I was in college and it changed my life. So many of the writers, past and present, who have been most important to me are queer writers, so it was such an honor to feel recognized and validated by my community. I am truly so grateful to the Lambda Literary Foundation for all it does to champion the work of LGBTQ writers. And given our current political climate, their work feels more important now than ever.
Quarantine is an incredible collection of short stories, some of which I have taught in literature classes. Did you always envision collecting them into a book?
Thank you for those kind words. To answer your question, I had no idea what I was doing in terms of the big picture. Short story collections are difficult to sell—more difficult than novels—so I never assumed I’d be able to publish a collection. I wasn’t very strategic about how I approached my career. I tried my best to write what my heart wanted to write and hoped those pieces would somehow find their way into the world.
I’ve often heard that Rakesh Satyal, who also won a Lammy for Gay Debut Fiction, “discovered” you. How did that come to be?
Rakesh bought my first short story collection when he was an editor at HarperCollins. I wouldn’t say he discovered me exactly, because the book had already sold to Random House India and was a couple months away from coming out there, but I will say he took a risk on my work and gave me an opportunity where other editors at the big five publishers might have been more reluctant. He “got” my work partly because we come from similar backgrounds—both gay, both Indian-American, both from semi-rural America (he from Ohio, I from West Virginia)—and so he was a passionate advocate. It’s a good example of why diversity in the publishing industry matters.
Rakesh ended up leaving HarperCollins, so I worked with a different editor for No Other World (the amazing Terry Karten), but I am forever grateful to him. Plus I’m a fan. He has a new novel coming out in May that I can’t wait to read.
Also, this is a little tangential, and I don’t know if even Rakesh knows this story, but before I decided to go with HarperCollins for the first book, I had a phone meeting with him. Afterwards, I remember feeling a little intimidated. He’s so smart! He went to Princeton! I worried that we may not click. The writer-editor relationship can be very intimate, and I wasn’t sure it was going to be the right fit. But then I stumbled on a YouTube video of him singing Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” at a cabaret and I was like, Yup, that’s my editor!
When I found out your debut novel, No Other World, was coming out, I practically leapt out of my seat with joy. I have been waiting six years for this book. I’m not going to ask you what took so long, but rather, what has the journey between the releases been like?
I went through some dark times between these books and struggled with writer’s block for the first time in my life. I didn’t believe in writer’s block until it hit me. What I came to realize is that what was blocking me was fear and doubt, a crisis of faith in myself as a writer. Two things helped me during this period. One was The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I’d known about it for a while but didn’t really think it was for me. But I was at this point where I’d tried everything and I was really desperate. So I made a deal with myself that I was going to read the book and do the program with as much openness and humility and beginner’s-mind as possible: no eye-rolling, no too-cool-for-school posturing. It ended up being an amazing experience. It broke open so many things in me and made a way for this novel to come into being. And I still do Morning Pages, which is one of the key practices of the program.
The second thing that helped me were these writing dates I started doing over the phone with a dear friend who lives in another part of the country who was also working on a novel. Once or twice a week we would have writing dates that lasted for an hour or so. We would start our phone calls by chatting a little about where we were in our projects, how we were feeling this week, what was going well, what we were struggling with. Then one of us would offer a writing prompt—an exercise, an image, a line of poetry that might stimulate something—which we could each choose to use or not to use as we wished.
We’d hang up, write for 30-45 minutes, and then call each other back, read what we wrote, and give each other very brief, positive feedback. We did these dates for maybe a little over a year. They helped me tremendously. I felt less alone in this huge task of writing a novel that I had undertaken and that I had no idea if I could actually pull off. I knew someone else had my back and that I had hers and that we were responsible for lifting each other up and making sure the other didn’t drown.
No Other World is very much a memory book, dealing with secrets and shadows. The omniscient narrator takes the reader through the story in a nonlinear fashion. What were the challenges you faced in structuring the novel this way? How did you keep track of all the dots that needed to eventually be connected?
I spent some time—maybe a couple of years—just investigating the characters, playing around with material, and doing so in a nonlinear way. At that point, I didn’t know what the story was or what the plot might be; I just had the characters and the setting and some of the scenes. Maybe a couple of years into the process I figured out how things were starting to fit together and what the overarching narrative might be.
Around that time the butcher paper went up on the wall in my study and stayed up there for another two years. I used that to sketch out the narrative and outline it and keep track of things. I also put pictures up there—photographs I’d taken or cut out of magazines of landscapes or images that were resonant with the book: a Western New York winter scene, an open window, a murder of crows, a picture of Princess Diana in a turquoise salwar kameez during a visit to India.
Though the protagonist of your novel is Kiran Shah, a gay Indian-American boy trying to find his place between two cultures, your novel features an ensemble of characters and multiple points of view. Do you feel your work with the short story form helped you when creating the individual story arcs for these characters?
Maybe it would have been smart to have thought of each character’s arc as a short story, but that’s not how it was for me. If anything, I found that my training in the short story in many ways hindered my early attempts at the novel. When I was trying to figure out how to write a novel after having worked on short stories for so many years, my impulse was to think that a novel was just a long short story, but that model didn’t work for me. For me, the novel form felt fundamentally different. I found I had to try to let go of a lot of what I thought I knew about narrative and craft in order to write this book.
Speaking of characters, Kiran’s mother, Shanti, dominates a large portion of the first part of the book. Kiran’s uncle Prabhu, his cousin Bharat, and Pooja, a hijra (a member of India’s sacred transgender community), all vie for significant space in this novel. Why were their stories important to tell alongside and/or in connection with Kiran’s journey?
It was never my intention to have such a large cast of main characters or to spend so much space exploring each of them. But I work very instinctually, and this is where the material and the characters led me. The same goes for the point of view. If you had told me when I first started working on this novel that I was going to end up writing it in omniscient narration I would have said no way.
But there are common threads running through all of these characters. And I’ve always loved juxtaposition as a literary technique. I hope that placing their stories next to each other brings to light aspects of each of their journeys we wouldn’t be able to see otherwise, and also demonstrates how these characters who seem so different are actually quite similar.
Your novel also thematizes duality: two cultures, two lives, two realities, two Dianas (Princess and Hayden), and even two birds, to point out a few. Yet the title, No Other World (from the last line in Jane Hirshfield’s poem, “Within this Tree”) suggests singularity. How do the two ideas reconcile?
For immigrants, that feeling of duality is something that is very familiar to us. It’s probably true for those of us who are queer and grew up in a homophobic culture. There are public selves and private selves. We have to master the art of code-switching.
For a lot of my life, I’ve been obsessed with the other Rahul, the Rahul whose father stayed in India. I think of that Rahul. I can sometimes hear him or feel him. When I visit India, I look for him.
Jane Hirshfield is a long-practicing Buddhist—I also study Buddhism—and I guess part of the way I read those final lines of her poem—“…there is no other body / … / there is no other world”—is as a reference to the idea of nonduality which is at the core of Buddhist philosophy. Essentially it means that even though we perceive a separation between ourselves and someone else, between ourselves and that cat, between ourselves and that tree or that mountain or that stream, there is no separation. We are actually the same. Not figuratively, but literally. We are literally one.
It’s a concept that I have found very difficult to understand on the level of logic. Sometimes, during meditation practice, I might get a glimpse of clarity about it, and I feel it on a body level, on a cellular level. I don’t know exactly how this idea plays out in the novel, but it was something I was very much thinking about as I was crafting and shaping this book. I discovered the Hirshfield poem maybe halfway through my process of writing, and when I found it, it quickly went up on the butcher paper on my wall, so it very much shaped how I thought about this material and these characters and the world they inhabit.
There are some dark moments in the novel that deal with sexual abuse, which you handle with such complexity. Can you talk about creating these moments and their impact on the characters and the novel?
Both siblings in this novel—Preeti and Kiran—experience sexual abuse, and in both cases I had no idea that this was going to happen to them until it happened on the page during the writing process, and in both cases I was very surprised.
With Preeti, I was drawing from an incident that had happened in my neighborhood when I was a kid. There was a girl who was taken by a boy and tied up in the woods, and all of us kids in the neighborhood knew it was happening and yet it took a few hours before any of us reported it to an adult. It’s something that has always haunted me—Why did it take us so long to tell anyone?—and I guess, like things that haunt writers, it showed itself in this novel.
As for Kiran, I think practically every gay man I know tells stories about childhood sexual experiences with older (sometimes significantly older) boys. Whether we think of that as sexual abuse or not is complicated, and I wanted to explore that complexity in the novel.
Moving on to a lighter subject, I made an observation that I am hoping you can confirm. The name of the evangelical ministry in your novel is Ray of Light, and Kiran’s mother, who has connections to this ministry, is named Shanti. Both names are titles of songs on Madonna’s 1998, Grammy-Award winning album, Ray of Light. Have I uncovered some Madonna-fan Easter eggs here?!
Oh, wow, I wish that I had thought to create a Madonna Easter egg hunt. But I didn’t plant any song titles, not consciously anyway. But I am a fan. When I was a freshman in college, my outgoing answering machine message was that bit from “Justify My Love” that goes “Talk to me / tell me your dreams / am I in them?” And this was before I was even out!
You recently joined Twitter (@rmehtawriter). This time I am going to ask, what took you so long?! What has been your experience being on Twitter so far?
Yeah, I joined Twitter four months ago. It’s my first time engaging in social media. I wasn’t on Facebook or Instagram or anything, so this whole world is completely new to me. I think I’m like a lot of people in saying that I have a love-hate relationship with it. One thing I love about Twitter is it allows you to connect with individuals in a really direct way, and I have relationships that have developed through Twitter. Ours is a good example. We knew each other a tiny bit before, but our friendship has really blossomed through Twitter and I’ve had that experience with a few other folks as well.
Also, the wordsmith in me loves the puzzle involved in crafting a 140-character thing. And it’s such a potent platform for giving shout-outs to work that you love, which is honestly one of my favorite things in the world to do.
As for my complaints about Twitter, they’re probably pretty similar to everyone else’s; I’m not sure I’m saying anything new here. But I do worry about what it’s doing in the long-term to our attention spans and our ability to engage in deep, meaningful dialogue with one another. One reads and writes so differently on Twitter. Does that then begin to bleed into how we read and write off Twitter? I worry about that.
George Saunders referred to your book as “magical.” I would have to agree. In many ways, it reminded me of what I found magical about Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Culturally and historically, would you say there was a magicalness to Indian narratives that lends itself to the creation of great pieces of literature?
Those two books you mentioned are two of my all-time favorite books, so it doesn’t surprise me that there are echoes of them in my own novel. And I’m honored to be even mentioned in the same breath as these two authors. Still, I never imagined that I would write a novel with elements of magical realism; that’s not who I thought I was as a writer. Yet I found myself pulled in that direction, particularly for the sections that are set in India. I resisted that a little bit; I asked myself, Why am I comfortable with magical elements when the setting is India but not when it’s America? Am I engaging in a form of exoticization? I still don’t know the answer to that. But as someone who was raised Hindu, I grew up with the epic stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. I also grew up with the larger-than-life tradition of Bollywood storytelling. Right or wrong, I do, as a storyteller, have magical associations with Indian landscapes.
In your acknowledgements, you recognize George Saunders as a mentor. What other authors have been mentors, either through the reading of their work, or through personal and professional engagement?
I studied with George at Syracuse University in the early 2000s and he’s continued to be mentor to me over the years, re-entering my life, almost magically, at times when I really need him. He’s truly one of the kindest, most generous individuals I’ve ever encountered. Some writers whose works have mentored me include Michael Cunningham, Arundhati Roy, and Mary Gaitskill.
Then there is my holy trinity of guides when it comes to creativity and inspiration: Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. All three of those books have had profound effects on the way I approach creative process, and I dip back into them when necessary, which is often.
Oh, and then there is Lynda Barry. I was lucky enough to take one of her Writing the Unthinkable workshops several years ago, and I use her creative generative techniques regularly. Her books What It Is and Syllabus are scripture to me.
You teach creative writing at the University of the Arts. What do you think is the most important advice you have given to your writing students?
A couple of years after Fantasia Barrino won American Idol, she came back and performed, and Ryan Seacrest asked her what advice she had for the current crop of contestants. “Get ugly,” she said. I love that! Should I be embarrassed that I’m quoting American Idol? For me it connects to something a choreographer friend likes to say (and she may have gotten it from somewhere else)—“Pretty is the enemy of beautiful.”
I think so much of what I do with my students is trying to get them to let their guards down, to stop pretending, to take off the mask, to stop worrying about looking good or trying to be the writer they think they’re supposed to be or they think people want them to be. I sometimes teach a class around the question, “What can writers learn from drag queens?” The short answer is EVERYTHING. Really good drag queens know the art—and the importance!—of getting ugly. They forgo the lure of prettiness and opt instead for beauty.
What has teaching writing taught you about writing?
Lynda Barry talks about the importance of fun and play in creative process. In What It Is, she asks, “When [did] making pictures and stories turn into something I called ‘my work’?” I’m certainly guilty of this.
But my students teach me about fun almost every day. I don’t know if it’s because most of the are still closer chronologically to childhood, or because they have not yet faced the struggle of trying to get published or to “make it” in the world as a writer, but writing—creating—is still very much fun for them. For the most part, they’re so excited about what they’re working on.
I teach in a BFA creative writing program. Many of my students are hoping for careers as writers or in writing-related fields. So I do have to teach them about discipline; if you’re going to be successful you have to put in your hours, even when things aren’t flowing. But they teach me about fun.
Finally, one last question about No Other World and writing. Why do you think you were the writer to tell this story? What experience, awareness, divinity, haunting, drive, etc. brought you to this book?
In graduate school, I took a memoir class with Mary Karr and she asked us the following question, which is an adaptation of a line from a W.H. Auden poem: What hurt you into writing? I had an instant, body-level response to the question. I had never thought of my trajectory of becoming a writer in that way. It was the first time I realized that growing up brown and queer in white West Virginia and the resulting scars were absolutely and deeply connected to what made me become a writer. I think I wanted to explore that hurt in this novel, and to look at it from various angles and with various characters, all of whom feel like outsiders in one way or another, all of whom hurt and have to fight to be seen and to be accepted for who they truly are.
Rahul, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. You have always been so giving and gracious. I can’t wait until we meet again.
Thank you. This was an absolute pleasure.