Technology and Religion Share the Power of Destruction

Anjali Sachdeva, author of the collection “All the Names They Used for God,” talks about the forces that rule her writing

I n great short story collections, the stories work both in tandem and against one another. Across their separate worlds, characters speak to one another; sometimes themes and motifs emerge, other times contrast illuminates subtleties. In other words, the best collections are much more than an accumulation of work; they are completed puzzles.

Anjali Sachdeva’s nine-story collection, All the Names They Used for God, is filled with surreal stories grounded in reality. A comparison is Black Mirror, the TV sci-fi anthology show that explores the dangers of technology when it’s too deeply integrated into our lives. Similar to the show, Sachdeva is fascinated with exploring how large-scale movements like technology and religion impact our humanity. She sets her stories all over countries and eras, from a pioneer prairie farm to modern day Africa, and occasionally casts her reader into the future. The stories usually begin under the premise of normalcy, but slowly and deftly, Sachdeva weaves in something other.

I spoke with the author about her fascination with the danger and thrill of religion and technology, and how that fascination has affected her writing, and her life.

Adam Vitcavage: When exactly did you start writing this collection?

Anjali Sachdeva: A couple of the stories were written between 2004 and 2006 when I was at Iowa. The rest span from then until now. The most recent one, the title story, was finished a few months before I sent it out to try to find a publisher.

I wrote other stories over the same stretch of time and picked these ones because I felt they had some thematic connection. I’m an obsessive editor and go through eight to ten drafts of everything. There was nothing in there that I hadn’t read through many, many times already. It’s kind of a different experience to think of them as a group.

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AV: When new collections come out, I feel the publicity engines and review publications often assign buzzwords that can be disingenuous. How do you describe your collection?

AS: All of the stories in the collection are dealing with larger forces that affect our lives. Technology, religion, nature. I was really thinking about how those things could be both terrifying and wonderful. What is appealing about them, and why we like to interact with them, is that there is that touch of something being bigger than you and that’s thrilling. But for the exact same reasons those things could be really destructive.

A long time ago people were more conscious about that. People thought more about how something larger than you could benefit you or destroy you in some way. These days, people think they can be separated from those forces, that they are autonomous, but I don’t think that’s true.

People think they can be separated from the forces that destroy, but I don’t think that’s true.

All of the stories approach that, but in very different ways. They all have some surreal element because that’s how I like to think about the world and work through problems.

AV: You open the collection with “The World by Night.” Why was that the first story you wanted readers to consume?

AS: I picked it in part because it is a story about entering another mysterious world. It felt like a good gateway into the collection as a whole. The main character Sadie is trapped in this confined environment and she discovers an underground cave system. That becomes her escape from the constraints of the real world. I hoped this book as a whole would provide a world for readers and I felt like this story was a good place to start.

AV: There’s a lot of strong realism mixed with almost supernatural elements. How did you end up with such a wide variety of scope?

AS: It comes in part from my own reading. I’m an opportunistic reader. I don’t set out to read somebody’s whole set of books or focus on one genre. I tend to read whatever looks interesting to me. Along the same lines, I will often come along an idea or a piece of information that is fascinating to me and the story builds out words from there. With most of these, there was some piece of information that caught my imagination and I couldn’t let go of it. Because I read such a wide range of stuff — like with “The Glass Lung” I was reading about fulgurites, which are these objects when lightning hits sand. That idea was so fascinating to me and the story really built out from there.

Once I got interested in that idea I came across all of this information about deserts and living desert glass, which is found in various parts of the Sahara. People think that a meteor struck the sand because there is a lot of it. So topics like that will chain together in my head and I try to figure out how that becomes a story.

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AV: The story “Logging Lake” is set in a real place, Glacier National Park. Can you talk about the park’s role in inspiring your story?

AS: I love to hike. I love backcountry hiking. A friend and I were at Glacier National Park and we thought we were going to cut a hike short. We ended up at a campsite that had a sign saying it was closed because it became inhabited by wolves. In the stories the characters go to the campsite anyway; in real life we did not.

Years later, I went back to that memory and started thinking about the story. That hiking trip was when I was in college. But I’m currently in a couple of writing groups — I find them to be really great emotional support, but also a great place to get feedback and have deadlines. It was one of those weeks where I had something due but I didn’t have anything to turn in. I was sitting at my desk thinking what could I write about. I ended up thinking about this hiking trip from undergrad. It was the first trip I had planned on my own and my first time heading out into the wilderness of my own accord, so I drew from that.

My first drafts are always a hot mess so I just revise and revise and revise.

AV: When you’re drafting, are you okay with throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks?

AS: My first drafts are always a hot mess so I just revise and revise and revise. I know some people really love writing first drafts and that it’s exciting to get the words down on paper. I hate writing first drafts. I find it painful. I really love the editing and revising process. The first draft is just something I have to push myself through so I can get to that next phase that I love doing.

“All the Names of God” had about six or seven drafts. Some of them had huge changes while some of them were more refined to start. At one point I felt that story was finished and I sent it to my agent to look at it. She noted how there was so much implied violence in the story but how the reader never sees what happens. There wasn’t a push to have sensational or gratuitous violence but there were glimpses of what the women in the story have gone through.

In one scene, the women are kidnapped at an encampment; there’s no attack described, but people come to rescue them and there is this bloody encounter. That scene wasn’t in there up until close to the end.

I know some people talk about writing by committee and question if you’re writing your own story if you’re getting advice from people, but to me it’s just that I want to hear what reaction people had. I run that through my own filter and think about which of it makes sense to me as a writer.

AV: Do you prefer working in the short story form to the novel?

AS: I love short stories. A lot of my reading from high school onward was short stories. Not just contemporary, but also old-fashioned short stories. And I do love reading sci-fi and fantasy. To me, the golden age of sci-fi was when all of these stories were being published in pulp magazines. There is a wealth of short stories in those genres. There are now many speculative fiction novels being published, but not as many collections.

It’s harder for me to write a novel. I’ve done drafts and find them much more difficult to write. What I love about short stories is that you have this ability to really dig into one idea through one event or closely related series of events. Because I get enchanted by very different topics, writing short stories allows me to explore all those ideas. I couldn’t have a novel where you have modern day Nigeria and also 19th century frontier land or a futuristic setting. It gives me that freedom.

But I am working on a novel now. Fingers crossed that it will work out better this time — I’d like to think that I’ve learned some things as a writer over the past ten years since I’ve been out of grad school.

I love about short stories because you have the ability to really dig into one idea through one event or closely related series of events.

AV: And I know no one likes to talk too much about the novel they may or may not be working on, but is yours in that speculative fiction wheelhouse?

AS: It is. If you’ll forgive me, I have this superstitious fear of talking about it. I don’t want to hex myself.

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