Q&A with Jade Sharma, author of the edgy debut ‘Problems’
Jade Sharma is trying to break rules. Her debut novel, “Problems,” begins with all-consuming monotony: “Somewhere along the way there stopped being new days.” Maya, the narrator, is addicted to heroin, in a loveless marriage, having an affair with a guy who isn’t really interested in her and struggling with an eating disorder, among other things. Her problems could fill a book — and in fact, they do, in a brisk, mordantly funny, fragmented narrative that is refreshingly honest, despite the fact that Maya is a liar. An Army brat who grew up in Germany, Delaware and Tokyo, Sharma, 36, lives in New York City. We spoke in her apartment on the Lower East Side; this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you end up becoming a writer?
I wasn’t much of a reader growing up. I mean, as a kid I liked Dr. Seuss like most kids do, but I thought books were super boring and only dorky people read them and they were about things that weren’t real.
I loved music. I was obsessed with Nirvana and hip-hop music and country music and super into Merle Haggard and Steve Earle. And they’re storytellers. And Bob Dylan. They’re telling stories. And I wanted to sing so bad. I can’t sing at all. So I started writing poetry or spoken word. And then I started saying the words out loud and I was good at it and I was good in front of people and I liked hearing them laugh [Sharma was part of the Nuyorican Slam poetry team that went to the national competition in 2001]. But then it was like this is so predictable. Like I just do one trick and that’s it. So I needed a challenge. I needed something that was going to give me that mystery back.
Then somebody gave me a copy of “Fear of Flying” and I [thought]. “Oh my God, here’s a female narrator I can relate to because she’s smart, she’s funny, and she likes being smacked on the butt. She likes men.” I didn’t know that existed, where you could be a full feminist and like men. I was just like this is so true.… Then I read “Jernigan” by David Gates and I had never read a book before where characters do things like that, pick up a book and read half a sentence and put it down. They watch the same block of reruns every night. I was just like that’s real and I don’t know why but I didn’t know you could do that. This isn’t literature. He’s just like this dude. So I started writing stories to impress David Gates…. I went into an MFA program at the New School and that’s where my book was written.
You write “It is an art to make yourself so unlovable.” Are you drawn to characters who aren’t traditionally considered likable?
My ex, he did a lot of the editing in my book when it was a baby. I used to secretly tape our fights and then transcribe them and then make him edit them and he obviously got really mad. He said, “Why would you even write that? It’s embarrassing and humiliating.” Like for both of us. I said, “Because that’s what’s interesting.” You don’t want to read about a couple who is happy and communicates well and their stocks are doing good. You know what I mean?
The main character, Maya, has a drug addiction, an affair that’s fizzling out and a marriage that leaves her wanting. What is her biggest problem of all?
This is kind of cynical but I think that there’s a line in it where she [says] “Give me new problems.” That’s the best she can wish for. And I think what’s implicit in that is that her biggest problem is herself. And you can self-medicate it or you can go to therapy or you can exercise or whatever. But I think that it’s her personality. They’re symptoms of a bigger problem: the drug addiction, the affair, the marriage. I don’t think she can get enough love or get enough anything.
Do you think some of Maya’s internal conflicts also come from the disconnected but overly connected society that we live in?
I mean I personally just hate Facebook. You should have to wonder what happened to these people, not see their 10th baby. I think with Maya, she’s so real. And even though she’s a liar, it’s kind of a Holden Caulfield type situation. He’s like a liar who hates falsehoods. She lies constantly. She leads a double life. But at the same time she’s so honest all the time. So I think for her that’s what’s alienating. And social media definitely makes people more fake. You don’t live in a TV show, you know what I mean? Everybody’s branding who they are and that’s very lonely.
Why do you think Maya feels so alone in the world?
She does say she has a mental illness and she’s in the psych ward. But I think it’s also an age thing, and she talks about this too. When you’re married and you stop seeing the person, when you see them every day, you just stop recognizing that they are a person and they exist. And I think you reach that age in your 30s. It’s so weird because you never see it coming. In your 20s you’re like “We’re all going to be best friends forever and it’s going to be awesome.” And everybody’s got big dreams, you know? And in my circle the first girl who left our circle was like, “I think I want to have a kid.” And then all of a sudden everybody else starts doing stuff like that.
There are no chapter numbers and the book is written in fragments. How did you decide on the structure?
That came naturally. That was like the first thing that happened. I was just like I think that’s cool. I don’t know where I saw it. I’m sure I didn’t invent it. But I really like digressions, and so I wanted to be able to write like dialogue. She goes into the bookstore and has a dialogue with somebody and then all of a sudden there’s a break so you don’t expect continuity. The reader isn’t expecting like that ... because it’s messy and your mind goes everywhere.
You write, “The thing you didn’t realize when you were fourteen and thought Kurt Cobain was God was that not every weirdo with an ironic tee from Urban Outfitters makes it.” This book is definitely about disillusionment. Do you ever feel the same way as your character?
I’ve definitely gone through periods. I was super ambitious when I had a lot to rebel against growing up. Nobody in my family was supportive about being creative. So when I had something to fight for, I was like “I’m going to do it. I’m going to go out there.” So I did it with everything I had. That’s always been my biggest drive, is to compete. And then at the New School, I was competing against the other students. I wanted to show them up. But there’s been disillusionment, I think, in terms of money. And when you choose to do something different you slowly begin to realize that even the most liberal people equate money and a job that sounds fancy with intelligence. So that’s where my disillusionment comes from, is society and family.
Filgate is a writer, contributing editor at Literary Hub and board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
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