NOEL KING, HOST:
Ayad Akhtar won a Pulitzer Prize for his play "Disgraced." It's about a conflicted American Muslim man living in New York after 9/11.
His new book is called "Homeland Elegies." It's about a family, their ties to their homeland in Pakistan and the new lives they make for themselves in the United States. It's a tricky book. The narrator's name is also Ayad Akhtar, and it reads like a memoir, but it is, in fact, a novel. And some of the fun lies in trying to tell what's fact and what's fiction.
AYAD AKHTAR: I wanted to find a form that was going to express this confusion between fact and fiction which seems to increasingly become the texture of our reality or unreality.
KING: For example, Akhtar's father was a successful doctor in the U.S. The narrator also has a doctor father who treats and falls under the spell of then-businessman Donald Trump.
The book spends a lot of time on the character of your father, or the narrator's father - for good reason, a fascinating man who in the book is at one point Donald Trump's heart surgeon. I must ask you, was your father Donald Trump's heart surgeon?
AKHTAR: Well, I'm not going to answer that question...
AKHTAR: ...Not just for legal reasons. Obviously, the narrator has my name, so many of the facts of my life - but not all of them but certainly many of them. And yeah, even a cursory Google search of my dad would reveal that he was a heart specialist.
But I wanted to reach a reader today who is addicted to the thrill of breaking news and absorbed in the Instagram scroll feed. That reader, of course, is me - the reader who has lost interest in a way in anything that is not sensational in that way. I wanted to write a philosophical novel, but I wanted it to have the thrill of kind of reality TV serial.
And I had to pilfer from my life. I had to use fact. I had to convince the reader at various times that what I was writing was real. And yet, I'm calling it a novel. All of those contradictions and paradoxes are at the heart of what the book is trying to express, which is a portrait of the country, you know, riven by divides in which finance has taken over, in which capitalism is king and in which the personal success, the American dream cannot redeem all of what's failing in our country. And I felt I had to stage my life and the life of my parents and use that material in order to do this.
KING: You, throughout this book, struggle with your finances.
KING: You depend on your dad for money for quite a while. You're a struggling artist. And then you start to make it, in part because you become successful through your writing and in part because you meet a guy named Riaz, a hedge fund manager.
KING: Tell me about success. Tell me about getting money for the first time.
AKHTAR: One of the sort of deeper stories of the book is, you know, the journey of an artist in America and in this particular instance, the journey of an artist who actually does make it unlike so many of my closest, most talented colleagues who struggle and really never do make it. And I think, in a way, again, to play the game of writing a novel of ideas but that had the addictive thrill of a reality television serial, that rise and that sort of rise to success and the fulfillment of the American dream had to be sexy, and it had to be vivid.
And it turns out, at least for the narrator in the book, that success comes at a cost. And the cost is not only a cost to his fellow citizens, but it's also a cost to his ability to have compassion for others and also his ability to be a meaningful observer of the world and then therefore to report on it in vivid and worthwhile ways. Like everything with the book, it's a paradox.
KING: Talk about how he loses his ability to report on the world in ways that he might have been able to do if he stayed broke.
AKHTAR: Well, I mean, I think he says it at one point. He becomes very enamored with the wealthy and wants to be writing about the wealthy and wants to be writing about their lives and feels that that's a more worthy - spending time with the wealthy and being interested in what they think about is really something that is of value as a proposition artistically. And I think it's up to the reader to decide whether it is. I mean, you know, at the center of the book is this very, very elaborate portrayal of a very moneyed lifestyle of this hedge fund manager. And so many people who have commented to me about reading it tell me how seduced they were by it.
KING: Do you think you would have remained a writer if you had not found financial success ultimately?
AKHTAR: I think that's a great question, and I think it's one I ask a lot. You know, for me, I wasn't really able to - I lived in virtual indigence, really, until my late 30s. And I didn't give up on a number of occasions because I'd fallen so deeply in love with literature when I was 15. I had a high school teacher who changed my life. And since that point, I never wanted to do anything else with my life. I often say I fell in love so deeply with it that it has sustained me through all the difficulty.
And I'd like to think that, you know, 10 years on from then, that I would still be at it if I was struggling, but it's hard to know, especially as we see the country come apart and we see that the safety nets which we already, of course, knew didn't really exist really don't exist. And the great marker of belonging in this country seems to be wealth at the end of the day.
KING: The narrator's father ends up going back to Pakistan. Did your dad ultimately go back to Pakistan?
AKHTAR: So what's interesting - you know, the final section of the book is a very long chapter. It's about a quarter of the book, just one chapter about my father in a court case in western Wisconsin where he was sued for malpractice. And the day that I finished that chapter - literally the day that I finished that chapter - the afternoon that I finished it, about an hour later, I got a call from my brother that my father had fallen and hit his head and he was in ICU.
AKHTAR: And he passed away just a few weeks later. And so before I wrote the coda, you know, my father was gone. And he'd been talking about wanting to go back to Pakistan for so many years. And so in a way, I was able to give him the ending that he never got.
Again, the book is both real and not real. You know, it's real to his dream. And it's also - yes, my father dealt with a malpractice case. And all of the drinking and all of the stuff that ends up happening to him, it's all real. It's also a work of fiction.
KING: Ayad Akhtar, author of the new book "Homeland Elegies."
Thanks so much for being with us. We really appreciate it.
AKHTAR: Thank you, Noel.
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