Rakesh Satyal: How I Write

"In all my work, the things I’m invested in are empathy and compassion and trying to put human experiences on the page that I haven’t read before."

Rakesh Satyal
Rakesh Satyal. Photo by Melisa Melling

With his second novel, No One Can Pronounce My Name, Rakesh Satyal has once again written a deeply affecting narrative, as he did with his debut novel (and Lamda award winner), Blue Boy. Both stories have an impressive blend of heart and humor – and both deal with issues related to the immigrant experience, culture, sexuality, love, and emotional pain. Satyal has worked in the publishing industry for years and is currently a senior editor at Atria Books.

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Character and story development

With my first book, Blue Boy, I had a firm idea about the main character and what would happen over the course of the book. With No One Can Pronounce My Name, it was different. It began with a middle-age queer character that I hadn’t read before. At first, I thought it might be a short story, but then the character Ranjana popped into my mind, and as things took shape, I realized the story would be an intersection of the two of them.

I don’t usually outline, and I’m not great at it. I find an excitement in not having an outline. To me, it makes it feel more authentic –because when too much is planned, you’re not able to surprise yourself as much. I really try to get into the mind of my characters in order to craft as legitimate depiction as possible.

Separating the editor from the writer

When I’m writing, I try not to actively focus on the particulars of editing, because I don’t want them to hem me in. Since I’ve worked in publishing a long time, I’m aware of what’s happening in the industry and what topics are important to people. So I try to write what will be resonant and relevant.

Writing about the human condition

They say to write the book you’d like to read. In all my work, the things I’m invested in are empathy and compassion and trying to put human experiences on the page that I haven’t read before.

Interjecting humor into fiction

I think levity and humor can be used to tackle larger themes that are darker. Loneliness can be damaging, but when you’re feeling lonely, you do some of your most productive thinking. I wanted to show the idea of loneliness in that light – that humor works in tandem with the joy to be found in self-examination.

Publishing advice

I think for aspiring writers, the important thing is to focus on the quality of writing; to write the best book you possibly can. I suggest looking at it on a sentence level during the revision process. Editors read manuscripts as long as they hold our interest, so as a writer, it’s important that your work reflects that kind of forward momentum.

Finding writing time

I have a tough time keeping my work as an editor and a writer both in my head because the amount of editorial work is so great. I wrote my first book mostly on weekends. I would go to the same coffee shop and write. With this one, I took some time off where I was able to treat writing as a 9-5 job. I would write from 9:00 in the morning until lunch and then write the rest of the day. Working in large bouts of productivity, I was able to generate a lot of material.

 

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.