Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Ayad Akhtar

"My origin story as an artist has to do with wanting to become a writer and then spending a long time struggling with that because I didn’t have anything really to write about other than my desire to be a writer." -- Ayad Akhtar

Thanks to a dedicated English teacher, Ayad Akhtar has known he wanted to be a writer since high school. What took a little longer, however, was figuring out what to write about. Needless to say, the accomplished novelist, screenwriter, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright no longer has that problem. In works like the play Disgraced and the novel American Dervish, Akhtar explores the roles and consequences of faith in contemporary culture. Though Disgraced was just his first play, the drama--which the Associated Press called "breathtaking, raw, and blistering"--garnered Akhtar the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Since then, he's penned the plays The Who & The What and The Invisible Hand, earning himself the title of the most produced playwright for the 2015/2016 season according to American Theatre magazine. We chatted with Akhtar by telephone in advance of the opening of Disgraced at Washington, DC's Arena Stage. Read on to hear from Akhtar on finding his subject as a writer, what he thinks about failure and success, and what he's trying to get better at as a writer.

NEA: What’s your origin story as an artist?

AYAD AKHTAR: I had a high school teacher who made me want to become a writer. She really changed my life. She taught literature, and I had her my junior year in high school…. She was a real passionate reader of European modernism, and she made me read everything on the shelves in her office. I read a lot of stuff--very, very obscure stuff, that comp lit majors coming out of Brown, when I was graduating from Brown, had never gotten to themselves. So it was quite an inculcation, quite a baptism. I’ve never wanted to do anything else other than be a writer after having her as a teacher.

I think the whole notion of becoming a writer is not just wanting to write, but it’s also having something to write about. The pre-professional route toward becoming a writer is not often or not always the best route to becoming a writer. Because you learn a lot about writing, but what does that really matter, unless a making of work is really just the speaking of a particular language to a particular group of people. If you’re really trying to convey something about the human experience, then you probably have to go out there and live a little without the intervening filter of trying to turn it into something.

I remember John Ford, the great film director, talking about the directors of his generation and how they had all worked in the coal mines and they’d worked on fishing boats and they’d served in the Second World War and they’d done a lot of things before they became film directors. He was bemoaning the generation of filmmakers--like Scorsese and Coppola and George Lucas--who all they knew was film school.

So my origin story as an artist has to do with wanting to become a writer and then spending a long time struggling with that because I didn’t have anything really to write about other than my desire to be a writer. And my desire to ape the writers I admired. And that was a very long, long journey of shifting out of that consciousness or that approach.

NEA: When did you find your subject?

AKHTAR: It’s a good question. I often say that I’ve been through a couple of major crossings in my life. One of them was the recognition that as a younger artist I wished to express myself and in expressing myself I wished to announce my singularity, my uniqueness. I wished to be seen. I think as I got older and as I experienced more hardship in the business and as I came into a greater understanding of what it meant to be a person, I started to feel that the making of work or the process of writing was less about self-expression and more about creative engagement with the world. I began to be less interested in my own pain and I began to be more interested in others. And less interested in observing myself and more interested in observing others. So I think that was the central crossing that shifted me away from wishing to ape those I admired so that I could receive the admiration that I had for them, in turn, from others and into something that was much more about a kind of communion with creation, if you will. That started to happen in my early thirties, but it took a few years for that sort of transformation to really take root. It was mostly hardship that created these, you know, recognitions in me.

NEA: What would you say that your mission statement is as an artist?

AKHTAR: To absorb audiences as richly as possible for the time that they spend in my work, and to leave them with an experience that is rife with pleasure and dissonance and that they can’t release the memory of that work or the engagement of that work with ease.

NEA: You were a novelist and a screenwriter before taking on playwriting? What was the spark for writing Disgraced, which was your first play?

AKHTAR: I’ve always felt like I would write a play. It just took me a long time to get to it. In part I think the frustration of writing for the movies and writing so many stories that never got made, eventually I think I just came back to a thing that I always knew I would do. It was in my late thirties that I finally sat down and said, “Okay. I’m going to write a play. I’ve always known my whole life I would write a play, but I haven’t done it yet. So here we go.” 

a man and a woman sit at a modern looking dining table while another man and another woman stand near them and all are in conversation

(l-tor) Joe Isenberg as Isaac, Nehal Joshi as Amir, Ivy Vahanian as Emily, and Felicia Curry as Jory in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

NEA: Can you talk about how your work as a novelist informed your work as a playwright, and if you find now that you’ve written a play, if that in turn informs how you think about being a novelist or the work of a novelist?

AKHTAR: You know, they’re very different forms. They have very little in common. Being a novelist, it’s a process of husbanding the reader. You are drawing the reader into a kind of intimacy that is absolute. In the theater there’s complete exteriority. There’s no interiority in the theater. The audience is completely outside the interior of the experience of those characters. Those characters are being observed from the outside, and we only know those characters because of either what they say or what they do. Sometimes what they say and what they do is contrary to who they really are. In a novel, you are offered a rich, eloquent interiority, and in a theatrical experience you’re offered a kind of pure exteriority. So they have very different narrative demands.You tell the story in very different ways.

There are certain commonalities, of course. I think withholding information in both forms can be helpful. But the way that you do that is, of course, very different. So I don’t know that each has helped the other. I think I’ve just been working in both forms, and I think the theatrical form comes more naturally to me than the novel form. I don’t know why that is. I think it’s in a facility with rhetoric and with articulation of emotion or ideas, the sensitivity to the way that language can operate between people when it is spoken.

NEA: You’ve talked about things you’ve written that haven’t worked, and we know that every artist has to come to terms with that idea of failure and at the same time also figure out what exactly success means. Can you please talk about both of those terms, what they mean to you, how you measure success?

AKHTAR: At the end of the day success is about being able to continue to do it, really. I think anybody who’s an artist knows that the only thing that matters is that you can keep doing it. So just to be able to pay your rent or just to be able to have enough input from the world that you can sustain and feed the work you’re doing, that’s success on one level. Reaching the world in a more expansive way, having an audience and all of that, that’s success at another level. I think I just want to keep trying to become a better artist. I want to become a richer and more agile storyteller. I want to engage audiences and learn how to engage them more and more deeply. That’s my goal. You can measure the success of that in different ways, but ultimately just to be able to continue to do it is the most important determiner of success for me.

NEA: How do you judge something as a failure? Do you just feel it’s not working? Is there really no such thing as failure?

AKHTAR: I feel like a lot of times you think something is working and then you discover that it’s not. And then sometimes you know something is working and then you realize that you were right. I think becoming a better artist is a combination of learning how to understand when something is working and continuing to expand that definition so that you don’t become settled in one way of creating work that works. I think that pushing yourself in a way is inherent to growing, but by the same token, you want to be able to do it in a way that allows you to continue to make work that works. So taking chances sometimes means that you don’t know if something is going to work. It’s a moving target. Sometimes you’re more certain and sometimes you’re less certain. And sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re not. It’s contingent on all kinds of things. There’s expectations of the audience. You know, when you win a Pulitzer there’s a certain kind of expectation that comes in. There are expectations around the subject matter that you work in and so there’s all of that external stuff that affects your way of understanding what you do and whether an audience will receive what you do as something that works.

NEA: What do you think your superpower is as an artist?

AKHTAR: The dream is to be inhabited by an imagination of sufficient strength to be able to give form to the complex, wondrous diversity of human experience. And by diversity I don’t mean identity politics. I’m not talking about race and stuff like that. I just mean the diversity of experience itself. The goal is, on the one hand, to be inhabited by that imagination and on the other hand to be possessed of sufficient technique and craft to be able to give form to that imagination. Is my imagination ever strong enough? How could it be? Do I ever have enough technique and craft? Of course not. So I don’t have any way of answering your question honestly except to say I’m trying to get better. I’m trying to grow more. I’m trying to get stronger. I’m trying to become more proficient.

NEA: Finally, why do the arts matter?

AKHTAR: I think it is a very sad state of affairs in a contemporary world that a question like that is even necessary. We are witnessing the transformation of the human species into some kind of simulacrum, a mechanized creature whose inner mysteries are being answered by the industrial imperatives of the economic model. The great peaks and troughs of human experience, the great expansive, rhapsodic raptures and the declivitous, craven lows, are seen as inhuman. They are increasingly medicated out of the system. So that humanity can, it appears, become ever more enslaved to some idea of normality, an idea shaped by the science and technology catechism, a new idea of order we don't see for what it is, an impoverished version of mythic thinking. That’s the world in which the arts have to make a case for themselves…. People are not reading anymore, not deeply, and people are not paying attention to their own experience in quite the same way, and we’re not participating in these momentous transformations of our interiority at the hands of global power. This is the world in which the great activity of art making and art experiencing--that takes us back to our experience of religious awe at the wonder and terror of creation, the inevitability of death, the great paradoxes of love--has to make a case for itself. Too often that case becomes about advocacy. We’re going to advocate on the part of an unrepresented margin of the larger population. We’re going to illuminate some unspoken quarter of the great democratic body. We’re going to make you see that--and then you can insert your identity referent there--are humans too. What an impoverished vision of the artistic heritage. It saddens me and it enrages me that the humanities, the arts, are not seen in their rightful human-making capacity. They are seen as leisurely activities that must take their seat at the back of the bus--or get off the bus entirely--while science and technology and the market economy, the dominance of finance, are seen as the rightful inheritors of our contemporary civilization. I didn’t answer your question. I just expressed bafflement and anger that such a question is even necessary.

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