Perfect short story collections are not unlike perfect albums. Just as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors or Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, varied in style though their tracks may be, cohere to express a certain sentiment (if not a narrative), so too do the stories in the perfect collection buttress each other so that the whole is more than the sum. And, as rare as a perfect album may be, perhaps the perfect short story collection is even rarer.
What’s most common are the authorial career omnibuses, the equivalent of some bargain bin “Best Of” collection, or those genre-, nationality-, movement-, year-spanning anthologies where details of biography, location, or time period do the curating more than anything else. Yet every so often, a single-author short story collection is published that’s the equivalent of Kind of Blue or Graceland, a narrative tone poem where the assembled stories in their diversity and difference serve to tell an overreaching story in that mysterious and subtle way that only a perfect assemblage can.
Such is the case with Anjali Sachdeva’s brilliant debut collection, All the Names They Used for God (Spiegel & Grau, February 2018). Sachdeva’s stories break down barriers between genres, from magical realism, to American gothic, to science fiction. Themes are explored playfully across genre in stories like the science fiction (or even body-horror) of “Manus” and “Pleiades,” to the disturbing true crime feel of “Logging Lake,” the steam-punk magical realism of “Glass-Lung,” and the western-mobster-romance “Anything You Might Want.”
Sachdeva is the sort of fabulist who rejects the simplicities of allegory; her characters have a bit of the mythic about them but are never simply symbols, even the fantastic titular creature from “Robert Greenman and the Mermaid,” or the angel in “Killer of Kings.” That sense of significance through mystery makes the stories feels intoxicated with faith, but a very idiosyncratic, cracked kind of faith. Such empathy and imagination manifest itself in a shockingly wide range of locations to be explored, from the evocation of a Victorian prairie in “The World by Night,” Gilded Age Pennsylvania and Egypt in “Glass-Lung,” the Nigeria of the tile story, or the parlor of 17th-century poet John Milton in “Killer of King” and the dystopian road-trip romance of “Pleiades.” Some writers have their little corner of the world; Sachdeva has the entire world.
Sachdeva, whose work has been published in a variety of journals and anthologies, including The Yale Review, lives in Pittsburgh and teaches at both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. Last month, she and I corresponded about the political utility of empathy in fiction, the Pittsburgh literary community, and the logic of fairy tales.
The Rumpus: Similar to Carmen Maria Machado’s collection Her Body and Other Parties, your stories seem to defy generic expectations. What’s your philosophy towards genre, and how do you think of your own place within those categories?
Anjali Sachdeva: I read a lot of speculative fiction, but also a lot of traditional literary fiction, and both things have a trickle-down effect on what I write. But I sometimes feel uncomfortable calling my writing speculative fiction, because that umbrella contains some people who are writing things that are so incredibly imaginative or weird that my work doesn’t compare in that regard. I read that kind of fiction and I’m in awe of its sheer creativity. But I think I bring other things to the table, and my enjoyment as a writer comes more in considering the psychological and moral and practical consequences of slight variations on reality, things that feel as though they might happen any day now. I don’t consciously set out to write stories that fit with any particular genre, but I rarely find myself writing purely realistic fiction, and when I do I think it often doesn’t turn out to be as good as my magical and surreal work.
Rumpus: The stories in All the Names They Used for God seemed to draw freely from a kind of fairy tale logic. What a narrative “meant” always felt present, but beneath the surface, as in a dream. Do “meanings” impact how you approach the crafting of a story?
Sachdeva: I don’t ever think about meanings when I write the first draft of something. But I do go back and look at the story as I revise and think about what it’s trying to say. So much of that rests in the ending of the story—a different ending can give a story an entirely different meaning, and I often change my endings a great deal in revision. But in terms of the fairy tale logic, that is partly instinctive. I love reading fairy tales, and I think they have shaped a lot of my narrative impulses. I used to write stories that people would read and say, “This sounds like a fairy tale,” even when the events of the story were purely realistic. At the time it was baffling to me, but at some point I just decided to run with it. Now, looking back, I can identify some particular technical aspects that made the stories sound like fairy tales, and I still use some of those narrative conventions in a more intentional way.
Rumpus: All the Names They Used for God felt incredibly vital and timely—obviously in the title story about the Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria, but in a more general sense as well. What is the role of fiction in speaking to issues of politics and society, and more specifically, how do you understand your own work as taking part in that conversation?
Sachdeva: With the exception of that title story, none of the stories address specific real-world political events, and before I put the collection together, I didn’t think of it as being very political. But in looking back over it once I had assembled the stories, I realized that a number of them were discussing social justice or political dissent in a more oblique way.
So bear with me for a slight detour: many people are familiar with the Milgram experiment conducted at Yale in the 1960s, in which the test subjects were placed in a room with a machine that (supposedly) delivered electric shocks to someone in another room, and were asked to shock the other person at increasingly high levels of strength if that person answered questions incorrectly. The person being shocked was an actor who was part of the experiment, but the people pushing the button never knew that. Most people who have heard of this experiment remember the outcome of the first iteration, which found that 65% of people were willing to deliver the highest level of shock when instructed to do so by the experimenter, even if the person being shocked was screaming or begging them to stop. It’s usually interpreted as proof of the power of authority figures to elicit compliance. But what many people don’t know is that Milgram did a whole series of these experiments to test how variations in the setup affected compliance. People were less compliant if they could see the person being shocked, for instance. And the thing that caused the highest level of noncompliance was if other people in the room refused to give the shocks. Those other people were demonstrating, essentially, “You don’t always have to do what they say.”
In a nutshell, I think that’s what good fiction does for politics and anything else: it models. It models noncompliance with an unjust state. It models compassion. It models different lives that you’re not living but someone else is, and allows you to understand them. I don’t think that kind of fiction is the same as writing that directly addresses specific political situations, which is essential to have, but I do still think it’s important.
Rumpus: I mentioned earlier the diversity in genre across your stories, but that diversity most spectacularly manifests itself in the sheer preponderance of settings. As a writer who seems so grounded in place, could you elaborate on what it is about a particular setting which strikes you as fertile terrain for your fiction?
Sachdeva: When I use a specific physical setting it’s almost always one I’ve been to and have therefore experienced in a very tactile way. “The World by Night,” for instance, is set largely in a cave, and those scenes were based on a trip I took to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Some of it also takes place on the prairie, and that was definitely inspired by the time I spent in Iowa as a graduate student; the first year I lived there I was in a farmhouse in the middle of a cornfield just outside the city limits, and I loved to watch the storms come in across the land. I don’t usually sit down and say, “I’m going to write about this place,” but I think my own experiences of places like that affect me deeply, and so then when I need somewhere for my characters to go or a landscape for them to interact with, I’m likely to reach for one that I feel connected to.
Rumpus: Your author bio states that your current home of Pittsburgh “is pretty wonderful as far as places in this universe go.” As a born-and-bred Pittsburgher and fierce partisan of the city, that endorsement was delightful to me! In what ways has the city influenced you? And could you speak to what you think “Pittsburgh literature” might be?
Sachdeva: I have lived in Pittsburgh most of my life, and my mother’s family goes back for a few generations in the city, so I may be just a little biased—I love this city. First and foremost, I love that even though it has great theater and food and parks and all the classy development you could want, including a thriving literary scene, it also has so many strange little back-street places that you can live here for years and never know about. And when you stumble on them it’s like magic. So Oakland is Pittsburgh’s university neighborhood, and a lot of it is bars and fast food and student housing. But if you take the right street—including a set of city steps, these “streets” that run all over Pittsburgh that are just staircases up and down the hills—you end up in this little hillside grotto to the Virgin Mary that someone built into their backyard. It overlooks the highway but you’d never know it was there from two streets away. That kind of stuff is everywhere, and it does fill the place with this marvelous sense of possibility (although of course the Internet makes it hard for anything to be truly secret these days). And beyond that, in a purely practical sense, Pittsburgh is still an affordable place to live, at least for a little while longer. Which, when you’re a writer, is frankly essential.
I don’t know that there’s a particular style that I’d term “Pittsburgh literature”—how can you group Michael Chabon and August Wilson and Willa Cather into any one category?—but in the past year or two I have been delighted to find that some other surreal/sci-fi writers whose work I really love are living here, and I never knew it! Just within the past year, I got to meet Clare Beams (We Show What We Have Learned) and Tom Sweterlitsch (Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Gone World), both of whom have written wonderful books that I enjoyed before ever knowing that they were Pittsburghers.
Rumpus: Is there any sense in which you see yourself as a writer who has concerns with religion, and how so?
Sachdeva: I don’t actually think that I have concerns with religion per se, but the stories in the collection have a lot to do with the sublime and the otherworldly, and most of them are exploring what people often put their faith in instead of religion: science, nature, even the inertia of the status quo.
Rumpus: I was incredibly moved by your depiction of Milton in “Killer of Kings.” What struck you about Milton as being worth exploring? For that matter, what was the impetus for the stories that were most important to you?
Sachdeva: The story is dedicated to Leslie Brisman, with whom I took a Milton class (and a number of other classes) as a college student. Leslie has an incredible depth and breadth of knowledge about his areas of expertise, so he could not only tell you biographical information about Milton but also explain the way that Milton’s mastery of Latin influenced his writing in English, and how his work changed over the course of his life, and so on. We read a wide variety of Milton’s work, including some of his political writing. I’ve seldom been as intellectually happy as I was in those classes, where piecing together the connections between Milton’s personal beliefs and his political milieu and his writing felt like some kind of NCIS-style drama. Like there were all these beautiful mysteries there waiting to be uncovered if you could just bring the right information to bear and find the right connections. And that’s to say nothing of the brilliance of Milton’s words themselves. So really, that has stuck with me all these years. Then somewhere I read that Milton and Galileo met once, and I thought I’d try to write about that, and when I did all that other long-ago information came pouring back. But other stories had very different origins. “Logging Lake” and “The World by Night” were both strongly influenced by trips to national parks. “Anything You Might Want” was inspired by a Polish fairy tale. “Killer of Kings” was, I think, the only story where I started with a character; more often I tend to begin with a single image or place or scientific fact and construct a story around it.
Rumpus: What’s your process look like? When do you write, how long do you write, how do you write? Is there any particular approach to process that is inviolate for you?
Sachdeva: Goodness, for the most part I would not recommend my process to anyone. I teach full time and I have two small kids, and so even though my husband is a stay-at-home parent and that’s a help, I usually can only write for an hour here or there. Or for half an hour, or before I go to bed when I’m half-asleep. It’s certainly not ideal, and it often feels kind of desperate in the moment. Maybe if I had developed better habits before my kids were born I could have carried them through, but at this stage it’s just grab-what-you-can. But the one thing I’ve done right—for my particular needs—is become part of two writing groups. That means that at least once every six weeks I’m obligated to submit something to the group—a complete story or substantial revision of a story. And there’s nothing like a deadline to put a fire under me. When I know that story has to be done by Friday I will skip social engagements and cut back on sleep and generally just do whatever it takes to get it done, because there’s really no other choice. You can’t email seven other people and say, “Hey sorry, I know we’re supposed to meet up this week but I just didn’t get around to it.” Often that means I’m sharing work that I’m not very happy with, but it does force me to finish each story, and that in turn allows me to start revising. I actually much prefer revision to writing first drafts, and I think it’s easier to do in small bites. I always write first drafts on my laptop, almost always in bed, but I revise on paper. Once I have that stack of printed pages and I can start the fiddling and restructuring and crossing out, I really begin to enjoy myself.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Sachdeva: I’m currently working on a novel, but I love short stories and don’t expect I will ever stop writing them. Even now, when I need a break from the novel, I work on a story. I also write personal essays, and would love to do a nonfiction book in the future, when my life is a bit different and I have more freedom to travel and do research.