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Interview with 2021 Don Belton Prize judge, Anjali Sachdeva

Indiana Review is accepting submissions for the Don Belton Prize until June 15th! In this interview with our editors, 2021 judge Anjali Sachdeva tells us about the her writing process, the unreal in her fiction, and the writers she’s loving right now.

Why short fiction? What appeals to you most about the form, whether as a writer or as a reader?

As both a writer and a reader, I love short fiction’s capacity to distill situations to their essence and deeply explore a single question or facet of life. My favorite collections are those where the stories are each very different; that sense that anything might happen in the next story is exciting to me. And I try to emulate that in my own writing.

There’s a remarkable diversity in your debut collection, All the Names They Used for God, including in the ways your stories draw on different genres. Can you say a little more about the role of the unreal, terror, and genre more broadly in your work?

As mentioned above, I really like having the ability to just tackle whatever idea or question is foremost in my mind when I sit down to begin a new story. When I wrote All the Names They Used for God, I didn’t have any particular theme in mind, and in fact didn’t think there was any connection between the stories; in a way, that was incredibly liberating. But in taking the long view, I was able to see that certain themes–humans’ struggles with the natural world, the search for faith in a greater purpose–did resurface across several stories, and that was exciting. I like writing about the unreal because it in fact feels more real to me than stories that are strictly realistic. I’m not great at turning the events of daily life into moving fiction, as some writers are, and I think it’s because even in my daily life I’m often imagining alternate realities or unusual explanations for the things happening around me. 

In your bio, you mention hiking through the backcountry of Canada, Iceland, Kenya, and Mexico. There’s a long tradition of writers for whom walking, rambling, meandering, hiking, and even running have much importance—from Coleridge and Wordsworth to Murakami and Oates. Does hiking play a role in your creative process?

I don’t get to do as much serious hiking as I used to before my children were born, but outdoor time is still very important to me. In part it’s because it provides a stark contrast with all the responsibilities and objects that make up my daily life. But it’s also because the natural world is so intricate, and all of its elements so interconnected. If you look at a square foot of land in a truly wild area, there are usually more narratives going on there than in an entire story collection–organisms competing, dying, adapting, finding symbiosis.

Which writers and works have most inspired you?

This is always a very hard question to answer. Over the long term I’ve really loved the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Monroe, Anthony Doerr, and Kevin Brockmeier, as well as the work of Octavia Butler, Salman Rushdie, and Philip K. Dick. Lately, I’m immersed in the stories of Catherynne Valente and Rion Amilcar Scott. Both of them spin gorgeous sentences but are also incredibly inventive in a way I deeply admire. And I just read a beautiful, haunting novel coming out in August–David Hoon Kim’s Paris is a Party, Paris is a Ghost.

What’s next for you? Do you have any current or upcoming writing projects you’re excited about?

I am currently working on a novel, and I am excited about it but also in the thorny part of the work. But that’s a part of the writing process I’m intimately familiar with, so at least I have the comfort of knowing that it’s worth keeping going.

Anjali Sachdeva’s short story collection, All the Names They Used for God, is the winner of the 2019 Chautauqua Prize. It was named a Best Book of 2018 by NPR, Refinery 29, and BookRiot, longlisted for the Story Prize, and chosen as the 2018 Fiction Book of the Year by the Reading Women podcast. The New York Times Book Review called the collection “strange and wonderful,” and Roxane Gay called it, “One of the best collections I’ve ever read. Every single story is a stand out.” Sachdeva is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught writing at the University of Iowa, Augustana College, and Carnegie Mellon University. She also worked for six years at the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, where she was Director of Educational Programs. She currently teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the MFA program at Randolph College. She has hiked through the backcountry of Canada, Iceland, Kenya, Mexico, and the United States, and spent much of her childhood reading fantasy novels and waiting to be whisked away to an alternate universe. Instead, she lives in Pittsburgh, which is pretty wonderful as far as places in this universe go.