How We Write the Dead: A Conversation with Vikram Paralkar


Vikram Paralkar’s debut novel Night Theater came out from Catapult last month, and is already out in the UK from Serpent’s Tail and in India from HarperCollins India (under the title The Wounds of the Dead). Publishers Weekly calls it “[g]rotesque, strange, and hopeful in turns.” Kirkus Review calls it “beguiling and unforgettable.” It’s the story of a family who’s been murdered, but, after a strange stay in the afterlife, they’re given a remarkable second chance. They’re sent to a remote clinic, and if the surgeon there can fix their wounds by morning, they can live again.

The novel takes place almost entirely over this one night in the surgical theater (if, in its shambles, you can call it that). The result is a focused, tension-filled, hard-to-put-down story. The world is magical from the start, with its undead walking and talking, but it is also so grounded in the medical workings of these surgeries. The novel has created a beautiful contradictory space where the possibilities of life and death can be explored more accurately, more attuned to the known and the unknown.

Paralkar was born and raised in Mumbai. He is a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, where he treats patients with acute and chronic leukemia and researches the disease. It’s no surprise then that his medical imagery is spot-on. The description of the bodies is crisp and detailed and compassionate. His first book The Afflictions, a collection of microfictions, came out in the US in 2014, featuring a world full of new and bizarre diseases detailed in the Central Library’s Encyclopedia of Medicine. It has since been translated into Spanish and Italian.

This winter I had the pleasure of interviewing Vikram Paralkar about Night Theater, which remains one of my favorite reads of recent years.


The Rumpus: I’d love to hear you talk about the structure and timeline of the book. It’s so intricate. As I was reading, it felt like clicking pieces of a puzzle into place.

Vikram Paralkar: The idea at the core of Night Theater—that a surgeon would have one night to operate, and attempt to restore to life, a dead family—came to me almost fully formed. The idea also brought with it an obvious challenge: the clock’s inexorable ticking, and the need for me, as the author, to have a firm grip on the timeline of events that would unfold. As a result, the first thing I did was to sit down and plot the entire novel hour-by-hour, forcing me to calculate the time that every surgery, every conversation, every conflict would require. These were meant to be purely behind-the-scenes machinations, of course, with no expectation that the reader should notice them, but I’m so glad you appreciated the structure that resulted. I personally enjoy intricate plots, especially ones that force readers to reassess the rules of the game, the stakes, the morality of the characters, at late points in the narrative.

Also, from an authorial perspective, there’s a sort of intellectual satisfaction in laying out a set of premises and thinking through their implications and possibilities (like theorems spinning out from simple geometric axioms). And with a contained cast (about six or so characters), a contained spatial setting (a four-room clinic), a contained time frame (one night), and a premise ripe with possibility (a surgeon operating on the dead), I found that I largely just had to shepherd the possibilities along as opposed to actively concocting them.

Rumpus: I love that simile of the axioms because it does sound very much like an approach to a proof. Have you thought about this now that you’re on the other side of the drafting and editing process—has the book proved something? Did it spin back on itself in some way and now you can write QED at the end?

Paralkar: It’s interesting how, when one returns to one’s own work after a period of time away (in this case, while the manuscript was undergoing the wizardry of typesetting and cover design), certain aspects of the writing tend to pop out. I suppose the one thing that struck me in my re-reading of Night Theater was how completely I had stripped my protagonist, the surgeon, of any established moral foothold on which he could base his actions. As the plot evolved, as the stakes rose, as the surgeries proceeded, and the surgeon became aware of revelations that threatened his own welfare, I could also see that I had progressively removed any safety nets from beneath him. In essence, the axioms I had set up could lead to only one possible conclusion: The surgeon had to act alone, with nothing but his own moral judgments to guide him, and with no community or revelation that could rescue him with a list of commandments. You can decide whether this is a theorem worth extending broadly to the human condition. If so, then QED!

Rumpus: As we talk about morality, perhaps we can detour for a moment to talk about the morality of authors. I’m always curious about the ethics of violence and what responsibilities we have as writers when we feel our stories must portray violence. When you realized the crux of your story was a family murdered in quite a gruesome way, what considerations did you make?

Paralkar: As writers and artists, we have to constantly choose which aspects of reality to include in our writing. Violence is one such aspect that shapes and disfigures so much of human society. The events of Night Theater are set into motion by the murder of a family by roadside bandits, but the murderers themselves are never heard from again, and they play no role in the moral questions at the core of the novel. Instead, the questions all revolve around how the dead and the living should respond to this terrible act. The dead have to reckon with their desire to escape the afterlife and return to earth, and decide what (or whom) they are willing to sacrifice for this opportunity. The living must ponder their obligations to these dead patients, who have been dropped at the doorstep of their clinic. They have to decide whether to flee in terror, or plunge into the blind, perilous mission of restoring them to life. This kind of plot wouldn’t have been possible without that initial unjust act of violence, and so I, as the writer, chose to accept the burden and include this ugly aspect of reality in my writing, with the hope that the story that would unfold from it would contain a deeper, richer exploration of human solidarity and moral worth.

Rumpus: I guess this is also a moral question, but I think I’m coming at it more as an author and artist, taking great liberties to create that which we cannot know… Can you talk about coming up with your own version of an afterlife? And about coming up with its sort of hierarchical, dysfunctional-corporate-America-business type structure?

Paralkar: Kafka’s The Trial disquieted me when I first read it almost two decades ago. There was something terribly alien and yet utterly familiar about it, about the way in which bureaucracies grind down individuals and strip them of personhood and worth. I don’t think this quality is specific to corporate America; Kafka lived of course in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and India has a famously byzantine post-colonial bureaucracy (Kafka resonates with every Indian who has ever visited a municipal office). The genius of Kafka was in capturing something that no other author had captured before him—a phenomenon that occurs when human societies become sufficiently large and organized that the individual (and all that makes her an individual) disappears, and what remains is the system itself, with its arbitrary rules and constraints.

I was so struck by the originality and universality of this idea that it was inevitable it would find its way into my own writing. In writing Night Theater, what better place was there to experiment with Kafka than in the afterlife, the supposed antidote that religions have concocted for all of mankind’s ills? The premise of the novel provided a convenient symmetry: my protagonist, a hard-nosed atheist surgeon battling corrupt bureaucrats in his earthly life, is visited by the dead and forced to re-examine his ideas about the supernatural, only to learn that the afterlife is itself run by an endless cosmic bureaucracy!

Rumpus: Putting it like that, I find myself much more heartbroken for the surgeon than I had been when I read the book. And I love seeing the connection between your work and Kafka’s. That makes total sense to me. He, too, does incredible things given a premise that can be quickly and simply laid out. You talked earlier about how the premise of this book came to you fully formed, and how you tackled structuring something so constrained, but I wonder if you could also talk about the effect that had on you as a writer. How do you trust something simple and focused? How do you stare it down?

Paralkar: My first book, The Afflictions, was a collection of microfictions—a series of imaginary diseases from a medieval encyclopedia. It gave me the liberty to use the idea of disease as a kind of highly stylized metaphor, allowing my imagination to run amok in concocting a menagerie of phantasmagorical illnesses. Night Theater, on the other hand, was much simpler and more focused. Writing it was a crash course in discipline. Baggy language, tangential musings, random digressions immediately stuck out, since the timeline of the story imposed some very restrictive parameters. Pinning this tale down, and finding the right grooves through which the flow of the narrative could be smoothly channeled, certainly forced onto my writing a kind of precise economy that actually doesn’t come naturally. I tend to digress… but I digress…

 Rumpus: Did you like it? Would you do it again? What are you working on now? (If you don’t mind sharing!)

Paralkar: I couldn’t imagine not doing it again. I plan to continue writing fiction until I have nothing further worth saying. I’m currently working (as permitted by the time constraints of my physician-scientist “day job”) on a new novel about an eyemaker who makes prosthetic eyes for clients who have lost an eye. In order to craft as realistic a prosthetic as he can, the eyemaker has to stare into the good eyes of his clients for hours on end, replicating every nuance and detail. What his clients do not know is that the eyemaker has the power to look through their eyes into their past and future. For years, the eyemaker has used this ability to spy on the lives of others, taking care never to intervene. Until something happens that forces him into a complicated, morally-dubious entanglement with a client… The intersection of medicine and morality: that’s the node to which my literary interests keep returning.

Rumpus: I love the use of fantastical elements in this book, grounded in the world of medicine and the body. What was it like to imagine how dead blood would behave in an operating room? Was there a reason that it was important to you to bring the fantastical to a realm that we often think of as a kind of hyperrealism?

Paralkar: The style of Night Theater has been referred to by some reviewers as “magic realism,” and I myself have been guilty of using (abusing) that term from time to time. While the term itself tends to be a useful label to quickly convey a general sense of the novel’s terrain, it isn’t really an accurate description. “Magic realism,” in my mind, is best applied to a style in which unreality is woven into the fabric of the world, slipping around the characters and their stories without much friction. On the other hand, Night Theater is, as you put it, “hyperrealistic,” and the dead are a grating intrusion into the otherwise mundane world of the living, shocking the protagonists (the surgeon and his pharmacist) almost out of their sanity. And once the surgeon takes upon himself the task of operating on these impossible, deceased patients, he is forced into a corporeal relationship with them, with no choice but to apply his own knowledge of anatomy and physiology to arteries that no longer pulse with blood.

Very early in the writing of Night Theater, it became clear to me that the fantastical elements, if they were to work at all, had to be thought through in detail, and had to cast new light on the trivial wonders of the human form that the cynical, jaded surgeon had taken for granted. What that required was capturing in words my own sense of wonder and perplexity at our bodies, made of fragile, friable tissue, and yet, somehow, miraculously, persisting for decades. In a way, the human body is already a blend of the real and the fantastical. Real because we clearly exist. Fantastical because it’s astounding that we do.

Rumpus: How did you decide how to strike that balance? How did you figure out how much medical detail and imagery to include?

Paralkar: I thought about authors of science fiction. They have been walking this tightrope for ages in decisions about world building and futuristic technology and space travel. Given that the mechanics of the human body are often opaque to most people outside the medical field, I considered my challenge to be similar to theirs. From the outset, it was clear that my surgical scenes would need to have several interwoven threads—the anatomical details, the anxieties and yearnings of the characters, the pressure of the ticking clock, the philosophical and existential implications of the plot’s revelations, and the quality of the language itself. Braiding these threads together in what seemed to me the right proportion required a fair bit of trial and revision.

Rumpus: Your book is beautifully about trust. Can the family trust the doctor? The angel? Each other?… What drew you to writing about trust?

Paralkar: Trust is one of those aspects of human existence that is so deeply embedded within our interpersonal relationships that we don’t think about it until it’s disrupted. It’s actually quite similar to our relationship to our bodies—we inhabit them only dimly aware of the bones and muscles and joints holding us upright, until something cracks or dislocates. In medicine, trust takes on a dimension of its own. I treat patients with leukemia, and I have to make decisions about the kind of chemotherapy to give them. These are highly toxic drugs, with the potential to cause fatal complications. I am always sobered (actually, it feels like a positive weight) by the level of trust that patients place in doctors, pharmacists, nurses. Trusting that the correct chemotherapy will be ordered, that it will be mixed in the right dosage, that it will be administered intravenously at the appropriate drip rate. When I started writing Night Theater, I wasn’t explicitly thinking about trust, but its tentacles quickly infiltrated the narrative. I don’t doubt that my own experiences as a doctor colored it.

Rumpus: I’ve read about the writers who have influenced you in other interviews. What are some of your influences outside of writing/reading?

Paralkar: Music (Bach is the closest I have come to believing in the existence of God), cinema (Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Asghar Farhadi), philosophy (Socrates, Hume). And, of course, science. Although, in the case of science, the influence of relevance to my writing is somewhat paradoxical: science and medicine have taught me about complexity, fragility, infinity, and the impossibility of ultimate knowledge. Ideas that, one could argue, were already familiar to ancient philosophy.

Rumpus: Can you tell us about one of your favorite experiences you’ve had from another artist?

Paralkar: I read Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones on a train from Mumbai to Delhi in my late teens. It was a cool, pleasant evening, and I was on the lower bunk of a cabin with an open window beside me. As we clattered through darkness, I sat under the yellow lamp embedded on the roof of my bunk, and Borges rearranged the neurons in my brain, armed with nothing more than words. The Vikram who left the train the next morning was a different Vikram from the one who had boarded it.


Photograph of Vikram Paralka by Kimberly Kunda.

Sarah Blake's novel Naamah, a retelling of Noah’s ark from the perspective of Noah’s wife, was published by Riverhead Books in 2019 and won the National Jewish Book Award for best debut fiction. Her second novel Clean Air is forthcoming from Algonquin Books in 2021. Blake is also the author of the poetry collections Let’s Not Live on Earth, featuring the epic poem “The Starship,” and Mr. West, an unauthorized lyric biography of Kanye West, both from Wesleyan University Press. In 2013, she was awarded a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She currently lives in the UK. More from this author →