Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.
We’re closing out the year with a wonderful response from Jade Sharma, whose novel Problems was the first original work published by Coffee House Books’ Emily Books imprint. “A novel about a heroin addict shouldn’t be this much fun to read,” wrote the Time’s Lauren Holmes. Sharma talks to us about all the writers she thinks are overrated — as well as why she’s suspicious of people typing away industriously at Starbucks.
What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?
It’s about this girl and she’s self-aware like her a43 eyes wide open and still she walk off a cliff. It’s honest and sexually frank and funny but like dark funny, not silly funny. It’s sexually honest and deals wtih drugs and body issues but really, there’s heart, It’s short book and it reads with ease so it’s like a good beach book (I’m assuming — I always end up falling asleep when I try to read a book at the beach because of the wind and the sand and the sun and it’s exhausting) or a good airplane book that will keep your attention. It’s structured in these short passages with spaces in between, so if you get bored you can just skim down to another block. There isn’t a family tree to memorize or historical events and it’s not Russian so not every character has two names. You don’t have to know about historical events or what’s happening in the news. You should. I try to, but it’s just so depressing so I watch documentaries.
What you tell your relatives it’s about?
My mother kept asking to read it but I didn’t want to show her because it grossed me out to think of her reading all the sex stuff even though she’s like “I’m an old woman. You think I haven’t seen worse?” When she finished it she said: ‘It’s good like I couldn’t stop reading it. But why do you have to use THAT word so much.” She meant ‘fuck.”
One day my bro texted: “Wow! It’s on Amazon. I’m going to post the link on F.B.!” This is after five years of me talking about writing a novel so I’m retroactively pissed at him for not believing I was writing a book and it also explained why he never ever asked me about it. Guess he thought I was watching daytime TV. Five minutes later he texted back: “How could you let me post that? Now people in my office will feel obligated to buy it and it will be so awkward for me.” “Take down the F.B post,” I texted back. And then he texted: “But then who will buy it?” And that’s it: He had zero confidence I was writing a novel and he had zero confidence anyone who wasn’t buying it out of a sense of obligation didn’t exist.
NOTHING from my aunts, uncles, and cousins. They viewed my writing less as a talent and more like a symptom that I had no clue of how the world worked — like I was an invalid who found a yo-yo I could do tricks on. They live in a world where intelligence is equated with money. The content was beyond the point because they will NEVER read it.They don’t understand why you’d spend time on something that doesn’t make you money. They think I’m crazy. There is a freedom there though because I didn’t have them in my mind so I could write whatever I felt like it but it was heartbreaking when you achieve something and nobody cares. They would have been more proud if I was a bank teller.
How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?
I had an agent 5 years and I spent 3 years writing a book of stillborn stories. I abandoned the stories and knew I had to write this book or I would regret it. So I got into the New School MFA program and it took more 2 years to create Problems and my agent had some personal issues so I had a finished novel and no one to show it to. I worked so fucking hard on it. I had zero faith it would see the light of day. I had this feeling: I knew when I looked at new debut fiction I was better, like I had raw talent. And I was being honest instead of trying to write like some writer they liked about mundane shit like how they got high at camp or some boring white shit, but my arrogance was swirled with a deflated narccisim: Nothing good will ever happen because everyone can sense I my defect, like they will sense I am dark and uneasy and it’s OK if you’re a dude, but if you’re a girl I couldn’t pretend to smile and I was incapable of small talk.
When people said: “It’s so much warmer today” I would respond: “I wouldn’t know I haven’t slept in days and haven’t left my house because I have bipolar and I was terrified that there would be a terrorist attack.” Anyways, Ruth, who I went to The New School with, sent me an email asking if I ever finished my book. She said that it would perfect for this new imprint where they would publish original writing, so I gave her the novel with the stipulation my novel would be the first one published so after Emily Gould read it she agreed. I thought if it was their first book they would put everything into it. My fate and the success of the novel would be just as important to them and to Coffee House Press as their imprint would also be on my cover. So I traded money for publicity. I didn’t have an agent when Problems was published.
Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.
1. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (a boy named ‘Father Time” who hangs himself? SO BAD. Can he be anymore heavy-handed with the notes “we are too many” like it’s a bad horror movie with the bulk being a guy who society just demolishes. I’m not trying to brag but having a shitty life one of the few things you realize early on: it’s not so hard to make people feel bad. What the real feat is to take that pain and make it into something someone can relate to and laugh like showing Jude, young and hopeful, slowly be drained of his ambition and is stripped of his optimisism because society dumps on him. Like I could write that book a few times. But what good is spreading your pain. Real art is making it into someone wants to look at or laugh at like then it wasn’t for nothing. That’s why I write: for the catharsis and the attention.
2- Hemingway is so heavy-handed. He writes stuff like (this is a fake line because I have none memorized): “I saw the man die in front of me. I would not think of him when snow fell heavy on my coat.” Like it’s this “be a man” and suck in your pain with silence and keep it down with a bottle of scotch. He also isn’t funny. But what I learned that sparseness is what is refereed to as Heminway-esque. I equate good writing with sparseness. One guy from forever ago that I have zero interest in influenced so many writers and your brain can’t do a neat trick like re-arrange the way styles were introduced like you do with your Netflix queue.
3. If Henry James was less flowery he would be Edith Wharton. I hate long descriptions like as soon as I read “The horizon’ I fall into a coma. I hate equating difficulty with intelligence. fuck that noise. Joyce doesn’t have heart, like it’s all references — and the reference book is as big as his book like if your art needs to be explained then you didn’t make art: you made a puzzle. And dudes love to have the biggest hard-on for him. But it can’t transcend past a certain class of people. Tolstoy transcends his work by finding those universal quirks we all have like did like in the beginning of Anna Karenina, the main dude’s wife is pissed at him and she’s going off and out of nowhere he laughs and he wakes up the next day like: WHY THE FUCK DID I LAUGH?
I don’t think Jane Austen is overrated but she has been miscategorized as ‘chick-lit.’ Stop printing her books with the covers that look like tampon wrappers. She isn’t about riding on her horse down her estate to declare her true love for a man. She realizes that picking a man purely for love is foolish at at time when women couldn’t work. The un-romantic truth was that a nailing down a dude who could also take care you of is the goal — and to play your cards close to your chest is to be powerful.
What’s a book you’ve read more than two times?
Autobiography of a Face, and I often will pick up one of Updike’s book and read passages because I always find gems even in his lesser novels he will make a beautiful turn of phrase like: ‘The moon was three days of short.” . And I have a huge Robert Lowell volume of poetry I will flip around in random.
Is there a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project.
Music like the stream of conscious of Lil Wayne (Lookin’ for divine and a little intervention” or my favorite “she be switching subjects quicker than you can switch lanes”). Joanna Newsom’s little girl almost haunting mood and poetic lyrics spark inspiration. Alice Bowman is so stunning. Also shows like Jessica Jones were you live and see this character who is not your most lovable victim of abuse. For books: ‘Glory goes and gets some”: about a junkie running around the l.e.s. back in the 80’s but what struck me was how you got a real feel for who she was like the biting and the fierceness juxtaposed with the prison of addiction. Beckett influenced me as he always referring to the human body. Like your body can always out-rank your mind with its. Like if you have to pee you can’t think. Or when you’re so sick and you want to get up and you do but your body is like “Nope, not ready.” You’re helpless to your body and every now and then it puts you in a check like, “Bitch, I run this.”
Your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing.
Ugly Americans, The Thick of It (BBC), Enlightened, Parks and Rec., Pulling (BBC), Deadbeat, Bojack, Gilmore Girls, X-files, House, Dreamland, Rake, iZombie, Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Silcone Valley, Veep, Six Feet Under, Spy (BBC), Him & Her (BBC), Scream Queens, Peep Show (BBC) and Crazyhead
Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?
Not anymore. Sometimes Miles Davis or Billie Holiday but nothing too dramatic like Tom Waits. Lyrics are too distracting. With the TV, I choose shows I’ve seen or don’t demand your full attention so I can turn it off and then take a break and look up. But music that inspires me is the music I listen to when I walk around.
Do you prefer working in a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?
Neither. Who are those women who are all put together with their hair in a pony tail just typing away at the coffee shop? Are they getting their shit down or like writing their ex? I am too distracted by the people and in Starbucks the weirdly unexpected good music that comes on. I get cracked up because coffee is no joke and end up wasting hours by creating an Amazon Wishlist with 289 things (that I will buy as soon as I get big-time money by writing the book or screenplay that I am not working on right now but obviously will one day) or downloading music that I just remembered from high school and NEED to own it, rorwriting an email letter describing all the feelings I have for my partner like the love and the things we need to work on and really breaking it all down and then by the time I get home and am crashing from the coffee I cringe when he quotes how in love I am.
Libraries make me sad.
Do you prefer morning writing or late-night writing?
I keep weird hours. I sleep around 11.30-12AM then wake up at 3am and work till 2pm-ish and sleep through the afternoon and wake up around 6pm. It’s a good way for me be/c I write my best when the world is asleep and I so I get that time and then I have the morning to do all the practical life stuff like doc appointments and then I get the time in the evening with my partner.
To you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?
My process is as time-consuming and tedious as possible. I perfect as I go but since I don’t work with an outline I could spend hours perfecting lines that will be cut. Sometimes it feels like the writing comes out of me and clicks right into place like Tetris and it’s a good feeling. Writing is one of the few times you can surpise yourself by making yourself laugh.
How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?
What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?
I don’t do anything else right now. There’s a saying, “if you want something done give it to a busy person.” So believe me, excess time for someone does not assume productivity because the mind thinks: “I can write later. I can shower later.” But slowly that cloud starts head like when you were in college and you had a paper due on Monday so the whole weekend it gnawed at you? It’s like that except the paper is always due. Generally, if I’m actively reading and I drink coffee I will bore and terrify myself to the point of writing out of fear that I will open the laptop and stuff will happen and then I get so into fixing everything it’s like I look up and it’s night time.
Here is this: No one or very few people will give a shit if you stop making art and just get a normal job.
Who is your fashion icon?
I lived in Tokyo and I loved the playfulness of their fashion. The young woman especially would wear punk rock jackets, with bright pink tulle like a ballerina, with stockings and big clod hoppers. It was fun to see someone who obviously was having fun taking things with associate with a specific music genre, or a time (like pocket watches), or a geograpjical location (cowboy boots), and gender roles (ties and men’s shirts) and mix it up. When I got back to America it was so serious and everyone had a uniform: the punk kids all wore the punk stuff, the hip-hop kids wore all the hip hop things, like how was that different then a business man or a prisoner? Why are we so serious? Why are we afraid to play and mix? In our art we think of a unique bold point of view central to making good art. But we don’t make art a part of life: like with our clothes, with our daily objects, like why are we so boring and cling to these status symbols: the Canada Goose Coats? It’s strange how boring and dull we are with our grey cars, and grey sweaters, and grey coats, looking out the window and the grey square buildings. And then spend 100 million dollars to get the grey one that has the eagle or check or whatever mark that means we are one of the normals who is either loved enough to be taken care or functional enough to achieve ‘normality.’
if you could buy a home anywhere in the world just to use for writing, where would it be?
Across from Tompkins so I can take my dog to the dog park everyday. When I write I get into the mind of my character which can be a dark exhausting place like with Maya (the main character in my last book) and then I look at my dog who is wagging his tail and like his silly dopey face that lights up when he finds this grimy ball like he thinks his life is totally serious even though he was bred to basically be a stuffed animal. And I think at the very least I can make life good and happy for this one living thing. It’s enough for me to come up for air and out of my head.