This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Neel Patel, whose first novel, Tell Me How to Be, is out today from Flatiron Books. From its very first sentences, Tell Me How to Be signals the strained dynamic between its main characters: “My mother always told me to be a good boy. I suspect she knew that I wasn’t.” Akash, who at twenty-eight is still closeted to his family, travels from L.A. to Illinois for the puja one year after his father’s death and to help his mother, Renu, pack up the house in preparation for her move to London. Alternating between Akash and Renu’s perspectives, Patel renders how both mother and son are weighed down by secrets and memories. Captivating and heartrending, Tell Me How to Be is a moving portrait of the difficulty of learning how to live with the past and truly face the present. “A soulful and seductive love song of a book, Tell Me How to Be is a keen and sharply hilarious celebration of the universal messiness of desire and the necessity of coming clean first with ourselves,” writes Nancy Jooyoun Kim. Neel Patel is a first-generation Indian American who grew up in Champaign, Illinois. His debut story collection, If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi (Flatiron Books, 2018), was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and was longlisted for the Story Prize and the Aspen Words Literary Prize. He lives in Los Angeles.
1. How long did it take you to write Tell Me How to Be?
In reality it took me a little less than a year to write it, but in many ways, this was the book I was meant to write my whole life.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
The most challenging thing was encompassing two characters’ past and present experiences, spanning continents and generations, while making the book feel light and propulsive. The real work was in layering the story, figuring out what went where.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I usually write from my apartment in downtown L.A. I need quiet, but just the right amount of noise: too much and I can’t concentrate, too little and I’ll end up scrolling through Instagram. I typically write in the mornings and afternoons, when my mind is still clear, and I try to write every day—though I often take breaks to binge-watch TV and nurse hangovers.
4. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins. I want to write a suspense thriller, so I’m reading all the thrillers I can find!
5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
All of them? I think authors don’t often get the recognition they deserve. It takes a lot of work to write a book. I will say one book I think deserved way more attention than it got was Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala—that was such an important and beautiful book.
6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
My social life. I like to go out. I like to party. It’s hard to reconcile the part of me that wants to drop it low at the club with the part that needs to be sitting at a desk with my “thoughts.”
7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
“You’re past your deadline.” Ha. There were so many little tidbits of advice or notes, it’s hard to choose just one.
8. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
I’d like to see more people having fun. Some writers take themselves too seriously.
9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
My editor. She understands where I’m trying to go with something, even at its earliest stage, and is able to nudge me in the right direction.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
“Don’t do it.” Because that just made me want to do it even more.