The fourteen stories in Farah Ali’s debut story collection, PEOPLE WANT TO LIVE (out now from McSweeney’s), detail the flawed and nuanced lives of everyday people in Pakistan. Characters full of anticipation—for a steady job, for a husband or child, for air conditioning, for proof of fate, for forgiveness—and discovering that, often, desire and need can be the same thing. Farah Ali is from Pakistan. Her work has been published in various literary journals and received the Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction and a Pushcart Prize. Recently, Farah was kind enough to talk about her brilliant collection, finding the “emotional center of a story” in the first few lines, and writing about home when you don’t live there anymore. This conversation took place over email and has been edited for clarity and concision.
APRIL SOPKIN: Your debut collection, PEOPLE WANT TO LIVE, came out in October 2021 from McSweeney’s. Now that you’re several months on the other side of publishing your first book, how has your relationship to the collection shifted? I’ve had friends say there’s a sense that the work no longer belongs to you, in that it’s now an object for consumers, and that can be strange after so many years of feeling like the work only exists within you. What was your experience with that transition?
FARAH ALI: I just counted that eight months have passed since publication, and in regular human time that is not long but in book time a few months can sometimes feel as if the book happened half a decade ago. At the beginning, I didn’t know how I felt about my work being out there in this form. Some of the stories were written about eight years ago, and the collection itself had to wait a while before publication. I think the process of moving away from an aspect of the self that had written the stories actually started before they became a book on a shelf. I say “aspect” because I can’t say I’m a whole different person now—I think so much of what I write moves in wide swaths around the same ideas—but that fever, that urge that had gotten those words out subsided when those paragraphs were done. I read a writer who said that our writing is like a document of what we were like at that time, and that rings very true to me. In terms of belonging, I don’t feel as if this book doesn’t belong to me.
How has your relationship with writing changed from the early days to now, a published author, and did you always have hopes of publishing a book?
I wouldn’t call it hope, I would say it’s always felt like a need. The need to write and the need to see that work in the form of a book, a form which, to me, has always seemed as an extremely potent form of communication or explaining or pinning down some details. I was, very simply, a kid who was always reading and writing. The two could not be separated. When I was very young, maybe six, I’d written and illustrated a book. There were two cats in the story. I’d stapled the pages and fully expected to see this creation in a bookstore. So maybe the urgency goes as far back as then.
McSweeney’s is one of the more prestigious small presses. What was your experience in working with them?
McSweeney’s, for me, was an amazing press to work with. Sincerely involved with everything to do with the publishing of the book, responsive, no games, all heart. I felt taken care of. [Publisher] Amanda Uhle was brilliant—she got Amy Sumerton on board to do the editing. Amy got the themes in the collection and made critical edits, with some of the stories as well as their order. [Art Director] Sunra Thompson did the cover, and it was an experience seeing options that had had so much thoughtfulness put into them. For promoting the book, McSweeney’s worked with [publicist] Raj Tawney. He brought so much enthusiasm and energy and belief into the book launch, which was essential for this debut author’s nerves. Together, we worked out where I could go with the book—bookstores, universities, etc. I don’t remember him or Amanda ever saying, no this is crazy, we can’t do this. It was great getting to know everyone at McSweeney’s.
Related to that promotional cycle after publication, what’s been your relationship to external validation? As writers, we’re putting the work out there and wondering about the response, and often that can cloud our instincts or skew our feelings about the accomplishment of completing and publishing a book. Can you talk a bit about that? Do you have a writing community that you lean on for support?
As a writer, I fluctuate between the state of believing in my work and thinking it’s useless. And in writing every step forward feels like validation; the acceptance of a story, the nomination of it for a prize, the acceptance of a book, and so on. I am not completely detached from the need for the work to be seen but I’ve quickly had to learn to draw a line between obsessing over that and letting it go. There are so many elements at work in what happens to a book after it’s published; none are really in my control, and I don’t mean that in a defeatist way, I mean that in a kismet way. I know I’m not going to stop writing no matter how a book performs, it’s taken me a long enough time to see how important the act of writing is to me. I have a very solid writing group that I met some years ago; that, plus a couple of other friends who are writers help keep my head in a good space.
In your stories, the first lines tend to strike the reader with emotional clarity (“What I remember most from when I was a child is a time when my father did not come home one day, and not the next day, or the day after”) and your last lines tend to linger with heartbreaking resonance (“I tell this to her in a whisper so that she doesn’t wake up. She is less angry with me when she’s sleeping”). How do you find the beginnings and endings of your stories? What’s your process for finding those essential lines?
I take so long to get into the rhythm of a story because I take so long with my first lines. What you said about emotional clarity is spot on—I need the first few sentences to be as close as possible to the emotional center of the story, of the main character. If I am able to do that, then I have matched the words with the tone of the story I am carrying in my head. And for a while after that the writing happens in a flow (until it doesn’t). It can sometimes take me as long as a few weeks to find that combination of words to open a story with. As much as I strive to do the same with my endings, I am not always able to. Often, it’s been the eye of an editor that has helped me find the right words for that last line.
You have a particular talent for sympathetic first-person narrators who are full of pointblank hope, a belief that they will find a way forward from their current circumstances. In particular, I’m thinking about “Bulletproof Bus” and “Beautiful.” In many ways, these narrators have a desire to achieve basic human needs—steadiness, security, belonging (for one, a steady job driving the new tourist bus; for another, a marriage that will take her away from the orphanage that has been her whole life)—and these basic human needs take on an almost mythical quality. The reader senses the limitations of the narrator’s world before the narrator does, and there’s such tension in this irony. You also have two stories using a combination of second-person and direct address. What do POV considerations look like in your drafting process?
Most of the people in this book are driven with a motive to complete themselves somehow, or at least achieve a better state of existence, whatever that means for them. As the person telling their story I am not 100% sure where and how they will end up, and I greatly prefer that not-knowing. However, I also kind of nudge along their choices, see what they would do next, because I know they are bound by their basic characteristics. It’s like what you said—I sense their limitations but that doesn’t stop me from learning about what they’ve chosen to do in the story. Because of all this knowing and not-knowing, it can take me a long time to find the words to translate that story-voice that I am hearing in my head. Rabih Alameddine, in a talk with David Naimon on the Between the Covers podcast, said for him it’s like finding the Goldilocks Distance, that perfect space between the narrator (himself) and the protagonist. The direct-address stories you mention ended up that way via different processes. “Tourism” was a third-person narrative, very different in tone and subject. Then repeated drafts brought me closer to the story of a traveler who feels alienated from everyone, so he goes to this not-very-populated place in Pakistan. The POV had to change to reflect the turn his mind makes as he is visiting that place. “Foreigners” was an anomaly for me in terms of how fast I wrote it—I was in the middle of finishing another story when this one kept turning up in my head. So I paused that one and wrote “Foreigners,” probably in under two weeks. For me that is quick. I had probably settled upon the POV pretty quickly. One thing I have to tell myself to do is get out of the protagonist’s head. I have a tendency to spend long stretches of time just looking out at the world through their eyes while they’re doing everything alone. Maybe one day I’ll indulge in that, but for these stories I made conscious efforts to have these people interact a little with the world.
Can you talk about your revision process? How many drafts (or months, years) does it usually take for you? Which of these stories changed the most from first draft to final draft? And how do you know when to walk away from a story, either that you’ve done all you can, or that you need to “give up” on it?
There are things that I have written that when I revisit out of curiosity I am so grateful they didn’t get published. I guess those are the ones I had finished, submitted, then decided soon enough to give up on. Besides this, I don’t think I lose interest in a story so much as I see, eventually, that I have been looking at it from the wrong angle. I am still interested in the idea but the protagonist or something else is wrong. So I’ll stop working on it and move onto something else, and maybe in a roundabout way I would have found a way back to it. From the collection, definitely “What’s Fair” changed the most drastically in every way. The original version was wildly different from what it looks like now.
The characters in your collection are tremendously nuanced, careful in their characterizations, and the reader holds such hope for them. And setting matters a great deal, with the stories mostly taking place in Karachi or other areas of Pakistan. You are from Karachi originally but now live in Dubai. How did it feel to create so many stories about “home”? Did you have intentions about what aspects of Pakistan you wanted to capture in your work?
Currently I feel as if I’ll forever be writing about home, in particular for me the city of Karachi, where I grew up, even though I never explicitly describe entire neighborhoods or make the city the focal point of a story. And because that part of story-writing is deeply personal to me, I never think that I am doing the job of portraying Pakistan. To me, the first and the last thing is the narration, the progression of a (fictional) life. Aspects of the setting can be made more prominent as the story needs, but I never set out to say to a reader, look, this is where I grew up. I cannot, however, completely escape that South Asian literature lens even though that’s not how I was writing; sometimes people have different reactions to how they think I have shown my country (the power outages, the infrastructural issues). And I completely understand that defensiveness. Part of the need to make Pakistan the larger stage for my work comes from this urgency to pin down details that are important to me. I was a very regular journal-keeper so maybe this need is just an extension of that. I do this knowing that this record-keeping is not going to last forever. This reminds of reading about how the poet Mary Reufle keeps a decaying book in her yard to remind herself that “all literature is vanity”.
In the summer of 2020, #publishingpaidme put in stark numbers the publishing industry’s lack of investment in the stories of people of color and other marginalized groups. Your collection was published by McSweeney’s, and you have a forthcoming novel being published by Dzanc Books. How do you see indie presses, in your experience, doing the work of equity the larger publishing houses have historically resisted?
There is totally a quota for South Asian stories, or Middle East stories, or just stories that are not from a typical kind of writer. If a big publishing house has published work by a person of color, that’s it for that quarter or that year. There is such a narrow set of parameters that make us ”interesting” to them—we have to be bleeding with relevance to the politics of the US. Or we have to always pick at the same wound, and do it artfully—find that angle that will make us irresistible to them. Indie presses definitely operate in a different way; more willing to take risk with different voices, different stories, different angles.
You recently sold your second book, a novel, to Dzanc Books. When can we expect it on bookshelves? Can you give us an idea of what it’s about? And what’s next, another novel or collection?
I am so happy my novel has gone to Dzanc. Having an editor and publisher who believe in your work is a great feeling. We believe it will be out in the autumn of 2023. The novel revolves around a small family. They have never experienced complete water security and the story sees the generational effects this has had on the mother and her family when she was growing up, and now on her son. And after this novel? I don’t know what to call it yet! That project is still struggling to form a shape. But it is getting there.
Interviewed by April Sopkin
April Sopkin lives outside of Richmond, Virginia. Her work has most recently appeared in Joyland and the MIT Technology Review. She was a 2019 Tin House Scholar and her work has won the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, the Patricia Aakhus Award, and the TSR Nonfiction Prize. She is working on a story collection.