Fiction In Conversation
New Routes in Fiction: NEEL PATEL with Alec Niedenthal
Neel Patel’s debut collection of stories, If You See me, Don’t Say Hi, is an extraordinary look into many kinds of Indian-American lives: particularly the thwarted dreams and frustrated desires of the young and semi-young. From failed med school exams to mental illness, Patel’s stories have a wide sweep—and a great eye for the complex, the ambiguous, the still-undefined. Many of the stories are woeful little comedies, sad in essence but humorous in their execution. Through it all, I need to mention, his plotting is immaculate. He seems to have some sort of super-sense for how plots fit together, snug and excellent, like machine parts. Each piece is like a tiny Chekhovian sigh, each story a well-structured one-act seen from above and below. The drama sings; laughter rings out; characters obsess over Facebook photos. We feel like we know these people. What a wonderful book.
I spoke to Neel Patel on the phone.
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): Many of the successful story collections I read seem to have one element that’s consistent across every story—one thing the writer is interested in. I think your book has that too, and I’m wondering: what do you start with? Do you start with an image? A word?
Neel Patel: I generally start with a voice. Each one of these stories came to me by way of a particular voice, and sometimes that voice is a man; sometimes it’s a woman. Sometimes it’s someone straight, someone queer. I write through that voice. Generally most of the stories start as a sentence. I think the story “Just a Friend”—that sentence came to me. I can’t even remember the sentence now, but it came to me when I was in the shower, and I got out of the shower and immediately started writing.
Rail: So it’s one of those things where the sentence will pop into your head. It’s interesting—the voices are all your voice, but there are differences in tone, character, situation. And you do have such a facility in the first person. What does it sound like when you work in the third person? Is it different for you?
Patel: It is, and that’s interesting because I was working on a novel and I wrote the first 50 pages in the third person, and it just didn’t feel like it was me; I was trying to be someone else. The tone felt more formal. Maybe that’s because the kind of work I’ve read. And I feel like something happens when I write in first person. I’m more easily able to tap into a voice and into my experience in a deeper way.
Rail: How do you account for that? What is it about the “I” that gives you that connection?
Patel: The intimacy of it. It feels immediate and I am able to connect to that character more.
Rail: And there’s a sense of confession. The narrator has an occasion to tell you this story.
Patel: Yes, an urgency to it.
Rail: So how do these plots come together? They are so intricate. The stories are extraordinarily well plotted. What’s your process for that?
Patel: I think the process is me not knowing what I’m doing for a while. And then I slowly figure it out. I feel like writing a story is kind of like creating a puzzle and solving it. You’re making the pieces, but you’re also figuring out how they fit together. A lot of that comes with the work of revising. I think these stories had at least one or two different endings before I arrived at the final one. When you write a short story, the end is so important. The end is what gives the story its meaning. So with these stories it was sort of like feeling around in the dark until you find your way.
Rail: So what do you accomplish in first drafts? What does a first draft give you?
Patel: It establishes who the character is and what his or her crisis is. I tend to add things to my work: I don’t usually have to cut. I usually have to fill it out. My drafts start very skeletal. And I move around very fast, so sometimes I have to pause and fill a scene out to make it feel more significant.
Rail: I talked to another writer a few months ago, Keith Gessen, who said something similar about his novel—and his first-person voice does remind me a bit of yours. He said the first draft of his novel was just unreadable, because it was just events. One event after another. And so how do you know when a story is done? How do you read that off the text?
Patel: For me a story is done when I can read it and not cringe. When I’m revising a story, I focus on what’s not working. I usually set something aside for a little bit, and if I come back to it and feel that it’s complete, I trust that sense. You kind of know.
Rail: Not to get too nuts-and-bolts, but once you finish a first draft, do you move onto something else?
Patel: I’ll go back to it. It’s hard for me not to. But ultimately, I’ll get so frustrated I do set it aside. This is all before I had an editor. It’s amazing when you have an editor: it makes the process so much quicker. My editor is able to identify very quickly what isn’t working, but she also knows where I’m going, so she nudges me in the right direction.
Rail: So you’re working on a novel. How do you find that to be different from the short form?
Patel: The major difference I think is not really knowing how to get to the end I have in mind. Because it’s a longer piece, it’s more involved. I’m writing the kind of novel where it’s told through the perspectives of four characters. I was really struggling until I realized I had to write each character individually. And write their complete stories and weave it all together in the end.
Rail: How did you realize that?
Patel: The frustration of dealing with so many characters I didn’t know yet. So I’m starting with the most familiar to me—the character is in adolescence, is gay. I thought, I know this kind of story, so I’ll start there.
Rail: Is the payoff different for a longer piece? Is there a different satisfaction in getting things right?
Patel: What I like about this—it’s going to be a much different story, more involved. Before I got my book deal, I was only reading short stories, collections, anthologies. So I spent years studying the short story. I had not read a novel in so long, and it’s a much richer experience, even though I think short story collections are very necessary. So I think finishing it would be a richer experience.
Rail: It’s incredible to me that in so many of your stories you’re able to compress so much time in so few pages. I know a lot of writers struggle with doing that and sounding too breezy, summarizing. You’re able to make time pass in a natural way, which is done perhaps more easily in the novel form. Do you have any specific strategies for getting time to pass on the page? You have ten, twenty years that go by in some of these stories.
Patel: I think a lot of that comes in in the revising. I like things that move quickly. If I pick up a book and I read the first paragraph, and I feel it’s going to drag, I’m not inspired to keep reading. So I’m naturally kind of conscious of pacing in writing. And so when I go through revision, I think, okay, I need to slow down here. So I pick certain points where I feel that the story needs a pause. I think the title story is the one that’s a very long timeline, thirty years. And I was thinking: what are the most important moments in this character’s life? I think much of this happens in revision, spending time with a story and growing to understand it. A story is like a person. The more time you spend with a person, the better you know them. So for a lot of these stories it was about taking the time to understand what I was trying to say.
Rail: I was also struck—you mentioned a story is like a person. They say often that short story writers, especially in a single collection, are telling the same story but with different perspectives on it. I felt that way a bit about this book, but in a good way. The characters and situations that keep resurfacing, medical students, medical exams, wealthy narrators and less-wealthy foils: different structures that keep coming back. Were you ever self-conscious about that when you were putting the collection together? Or did you say, “I’m obviously interested in these things, so I’ll just run with this”?
Patel: More the latter. These were things I was interested in. I wanted to write about my community in a way I hadn’t seen before. These were things I had experienced and observed. Of course you can’t talk about India without talking about medicine, affectation, pressure, social class. Indians are so conscious of social class and status. It was a lot of the same kinds of situations: but there are so many different ways to write about them. There are so many facets to this one community. So in the end I didn’t really care.
Rail: Clearly that aspect is brought to its highest pitch in the final two stories, which are directly talking to each other. Did you know when you were writing those stories they would be the climax of the book?
Patel: I wasn’t consciously aware of it. The last three stories I wrote were the title story and then the final two stories. The original collection we sold did not include the last two stories. My editor thankfully suggested I write two more, or at least one more. So I wrote “World Famous,” but I felt like the story wasn’t done. I wanted to hear it through the other character’s perspective. I think what I was aware of while writing those two stories was—each story brought me closer to the core of who I am as a writer, and what I have to say. I felt the title story did that, and these stories took that further. I had written about characters fighting for or against something, and identity, and family, but I hadn’t addressed the community itself. What it’s like to be in this Indian community. So that’s what I was aware of trying to do.
Rail: It felt so profound at the end of “World Famous,” where Anjali rejects the Indian community. There are Indian characters throughout the book, but there wasn’t much reflection about the community as such. So that was a profound moment of the book ascending to an almost novelistic level, that gesture of rejection, of a character changing on some essential level across time. I wanted to ask—what was it about Anjali that made you want to give her her own story? To write a story from her viewpoint which was separate from “World Famous,” which is from the male character’s point of view?
Patel: I think because she is the kind of person I was curious about. I grew up in a very ideal Indian-American family. My father was a successful doctor… I was aware of this lens on us in the community, and I wanted to turn that around and explore what was on the other side of that. So that’s why I wanted to tell her story.
Rail: When you were writing the other stories in the book and you had to deal with characters like that, how did you deal with characters like that? Were you as interested in them?
Patel: I think so. In the title story, the narrator and his brother grew up in that sort of family. Their family owned a motel. They were more traditional. In this community I grew up in, the majority of Indian families we knew were like that, in the hotel industry and so on. My father at one point was the only doctor in their social circle. I was always aware of how they regarded my dad, and how they regarded me. At that time, we placed doctors and medicine on such a pedestal. Families didn’t even want their children to be in the family business; they wanted them to be doctors. I was always aware of how we were perceived.
Rail: That’s really interesting. I didn’t realize there was a parallel between Indians who were farther down on the social ladder and who are more conservative. And then the farther you ascend on the ladder, the more you can break away from tradition.
Patel: part of it has to do with your exposure. My dad was exposed to all kinds of people because he was a doctor. Many of them were white, and he learned very quickly how to adapt and assimilate. There are many Indian storeowners and so on who don’t have that level of interaction with other professionals. The culture of their household looks different than someone whose father is a doctor or a professor, someone who has chosen to assimilate a little more.
Rail: I was struck by the second-to-last story, where you have this Jewish character, the Bernsteins, which struck me as a Jew—these are the model minority of yesteryear, who have fully assimilated obviously. They’re kind of this emblem for white culture in the story. Were you playing with that at all?
Patel: That portrait is based on—not a real person, but I remember in my twenties there was a family my parents knew, who were Jewish. Even though—I know Jews are very similar to Indians in terms of the emphasis on success, and so I remember that the son was working at Bed, Bath & Beyond or something. And the mother very casually said something like, “Oh, he’s working there. He’s home, and he’s happy and that’s all that matters.” All I could think was that my mother could never say that. And she even said that. And yes, I was aware of that when I was writing that story, especially because the narrator never had that freedom to be who he is and be accepted for it.
Rail: That’s interesting. Yes, this depressed kid—the freedom to be depressed—is a kind of emblem for relief. Most Jewish mothers I know are actually quite good at hiding their disappointment in their children. And so you’re working on a television adaptation of this book. What do you find different about the pleasures of scriptwriting versus fiction writing?
Patel: Well, you don’t have to worry about prose, so it’s less frustrating. When you’re writing short stories, every sentence counts. Scripts can be less formal; there’s an immediacy to scripts, because you can just dive into something and get straight to plot. I see why someone, based on how I’ve plotted my stories, would make the connection to TV. A lot of TV episodes are kind of like that.
Rail: When you’re working on fiction—clearly every line is labored over, how do you know how to place extra stress on a sentence?
Patel: It’s all about certain moments in the story. Certain moments require more emphasis. In “Just a Friend,” for instance, he’s asking Ashwin about Uma, and I put “I asked him” twice. I repeated it. I remember getting critiqued in a workshop once about this story, and someone saying I didn’t need to say it twice. But I actually said no, that makes this feel more significant. This narrator is clearly upset. Sometimes that’s what people do when they’re upset: they repeat themselves. So it’s paying attention to certain moments of the story. In writing I feel less is more. In terms of describing something, if you can describe something in two words rather than four or five, all the better.
Rail: I interviewed Akhil Sharma a while ago. He said something similar, that there are moments in the story where life runs faster than language, and language has to pick up speed to catch up with it. What you say reminds me of that, sort of. I also notice you have some beautiful quotidian detail here, which are telling, but not too telling. A moment where a character’s shirt clings to his muscles like film. Then the glass elevators that float upward like balloons. Those are simple and so well done. It’s different from what you just described—especially the image of the glass elevators. That’s a moment which is not emotionally resonant for the narrator, but is nonetheless given that little kick of language. So I also read online that you didn’t attend an MFA program. You trained yourself. Is that right?
Patel: I applied to an MFA program at Irvine and they rejected me. But two years later, I signed a book deal, so it worked out.
Rail: The short story is such a workshop-ready form. Were you ever anxious about not going through an MFA program, or did it fuel you?
Patel: It motivated me, because I thought, “I just have to get this as good as I can get it.” It forced me to go out and seek the knowledge elsewhere. I read as much as I could in terms of short stories. I read a lot of anthologies. Anthologies are great because they collect so many voices and styles. I read Mary Gaitskill, Raymond Carver, Richard Bausch. In addition to Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz. It was a well-rounded education on short stories.
Rail: Were there any vaunted short-story writers who you found to be terribly overrated?
Patel: Honestly, no. I don’t like everything they do, but with the great short story writers, there’s always something they do which I like. I really like TC Boyle. I found an anthology of his earlier collections and really loved it. This one story “Caviar” especially. One story I revisited very often was one of Adam Haslett’s, which was about a high school guy who goes to New York with his mother. He meets some guy from the Internet; he’s gay and coming to terms with that. He leaves his mother in the hotel room to go meet this guy, in New York, and he’s from a small town. That story was a big influence on me.
Rail: What were the other kind of touchstone stories for you? That were models almost?
Patel: “The Other Place” by Mary Gaitskill. It has a very powerful twist. In terms of collections, one of my favorites is Jhumpa Lahiri’s first story from The Interpreter of Maladies. That’s a beautiful story.
Rail: My last question would be—you mentioned a twist in the Mary Gaitskill story. Your stories are full of twists and turns. Is there something you’re aware of which you’re trying to communicate about how life works, in those twists?
Patel: I think sometimes the twists are really about the secrecy of people. How you never really know someone fully. Sometimes things are revealed you couldn’t predict. Other times it’s just that you don’t know where to go. You’re facing a brick wall and you turn in another direction. The big example of that is “Just a Friend.” I think that’s the biggest twist of any of the stories. That was mostly because I didn’t know what to do with the wife character in the background. I didn’t know how to address her. She was there in the background; the narrator was curious about her. It seemed cliché for her to come early and catch her. I thought, and then what? He goes back to the city and that’s it? That’s how that twist came about, to solve that problem. I thought, what if she doesn’t even exist? And none of this is real?