Image courtesy of Coffee House Press.

“It is an art to make yourself so unlovable,” says Maya, the young woman at the heart of Jade Sharma’s debut novel Problems. Maya is a casual heroin user who explains, “The trick was you never did it three days in a row.” She’s married to a handsome, thoughtful man named Peter, a casual alcoholic that she resents for both his inherent goodness and for the fact that his vice is more socially acceptable than hers. She’s also cheating on him with her former professor, but she’s cheated on every guy she’s ever been with. Yet, despite it all, she has it “all under control:” her heroin hobby, her husband and her affair, her kind-of job at the bookstore, the thesis she’s putting off finishing for her master’s.

Of course, that kind of house of cards rarely holds up, and Maya’s doesn’t either. But she isn’t the type to just let things happen to her; she keeps trying to find ways to stay in control, to stay afloat, even when she’s aware her decisions are leading her down even darker pathways. Maya’s brutal sense of humor and clarity of self make it impossible to turn away from her. It’s entertaining as hell to stick around: she’s self-deprecating but genuine, honest but only when it serves her. Addiction stories tend to be precious: Problems isn’t. It’s complex and unflinching, but it’s among those messy ruins of her self-made life that I found myself feeling oddly and genuinely uplifted.

I spoke with Sharma about upending the tropes of addiction and prostitution, keeping a tumbling drug user sympathetic, and the light of finding humor everywhere you can.

Kyle Lucia Wu for Guernica Daily

Guernica: Maya is a unique narrator because she’s so self-aware. She says at one point, “I’m not a psychologist, but I could be. It’s not that hard to understand how people got all fucked up.” If Maya knows she’s behaving in all the ways she sometimes wishes she wasn’t, why doesn’t she want to change?

Jade Sharma: I wanted to make a character that was as smart and self aware as I was. Honestly, that made it so much more interesting to write because I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Most people are not idiots. They understand what they need to do, but that’s different than actually fixing the problem. Just because you know it, doesn’t mean it goes away. Maya talks about having daddy issues like it’s a joke, but it’s true for her. She got nothing from her dad so she sees herself trying to get affection/attention from an older man—sometimes our subconscious is pretty heavy handed, you know?

I think she changes in the way she is capable of—she does her best even when she is actively fucking up. It’s her process. She finds comfort in the bottom and the darkness so she dwells there, but she does start to see the world differently towards the end and gets so tired of her shit that she yearns for “new problems.” I think it makes it more interesting for the reader because I didn’t want the reader or even me, the author, to be steps in front of Maya. I wanted it feel organic, the way she progresses and regresses. I didn’t know what was going to happen so I hoped for the best. I was rooting for her but I had to stay true to her the whole way through, which was tough at times. This was a hard character to live with—it was dark.

Guernica: She says at one point, “One of the greatest myths of addiction is that it’s interesting. It’s the most boring thing anyone could ever do.” Why do you think addiction is so glamorized in popular media?

Jade Sharma: Addiction is probably glamorized by popular media because it’s a ‘bad’ thing that ‘cool’ kids have done like musicians, artists, etc. People are voyeuristic and find a sick fascination with the idea of watching someone who has all this talent destroy themselves. I didn’t judge my character or her actions. It was important to me that Maya had her eyes wide-open the entire time she was walking off the edge. She says, “I want to be a junkie.” She makes a conscious decision to do it.

Guernica: Are there any books that you think represent addiction accurately?

Jade Sharma: Every real person’s addiction is its own special severely warped snowflake. Jernigan is a great book about alcohol addiction. It clicked for me like, “Oh, this is why he drinks.” It’s also a funny book — there’s a part where Jernigan is getting the gin is has hidden behind a box of Quaker Oats and he mentions that the man on the Quaker Oats box looks at him non-judgmentally. Emily Goes and Gets Some by Emily Carter is funny and realistic. I tried reading Burroughs’s Junky but I found it boring and I don’t like how even the humor is grim.

Guernica: It’s hard to read this book without thinking “honest” over and over. Have you always written this way, or was there a time where you censored yourself?

Jade Sharma: I came to reading late in my life. I didn’t read much growing up. I thought books were boring, like you open a book and there’s some long passage about the fucking sky or grass, like pastoral passages, and the story is about some woman who can’t marry some man because she’s mad, everyone is poor and there is garbage everywhere—I don’t know, I just thought, “Olden times sound stupid and mean.” I dropped out in the 8th grade and got my GED and then found my way back to college later. I started performing spoken word when I was in college. I got a huge rush out of hearing the laughter; there’s something about [being honest] that makes people laugh.

While I was writing I would think to myself, “Would she really do this?” or “Would she say this?” I tried to keep that balance of being honest without veering to something shocking for shocking sake. This novel has almost zero resemblance to my real life in terms of fact, but the mood of the book and attitude are [representative of] me. I am someone who is honest and I have zero tolerance for bullshit or small talk, it makes me very uncomfortable.

Guernica: When Maya starts having sex with guys for money, she think it’s not as big a deal as society may think because all women have had bad sexual experiences with men. This is terrible, but probably true. Did you know this would be relatable or did you ever worry it might alienate some readers? Like Maya says at one point, “God, it sounds so much worse than it feels.”

Jade Sharma: It is true that bad sexual experiences are something common for women. I’m not talking about rape or being abused, but all the in-between grey areas where women feel weirdly pressured or powerless afterward. I hoped readers would find it relatable but I was worried, too, they would simplify what she was doing.

What complicates Maya’s experiences is that she is masochist, so if she is getting off on feeling abused or used, then is she really objectively being treated badly? She is aware of what is she is doing. She actively seeks it out. She is getting money for what she is doing and not being forced to. At some point she describes working a minimum-wage job 40 hours a week for next to nothing, so for her it doesn’t seem that obvious that the crappy parts of this are worse than the daily grind of that, except the judgment society and particularly men will bestow upon her. Ultimately she realizes that she lives in a society where her sexual freedom and her body are not hers to do what she wants. She has to deal with people’s ideas and she’s either a ‘victim’ or a ‘whore’ — there isn’t a third option of being a person who decided to have these experiences. I’m not saying drugs don’t play a role in her doing what she does, because that’s why she needs money urgently and this is an easy way to make money, but she isn’t out of it. I was trying to take this cliché idea of a girl turning tricks for money, and then complicating the cliché in every way possible. It’s a conscious decision and she goes about doing it in a cautious way, or as cautious as a person can be. I wanted to illuminate darkest corners and find light, and I wanted to show the darkness in the light, like when she’s married in the beginning. I wanted to find the humor everywhere because that’s the way Maya copes with life.

Guernica: Maya’s incredibly afraid of being alone, but her solitude is what leads her to change in some way.

Jade Sharma: I knew she had to end up alone because that’s what she’s running from the [whole time]. I as women, it’s drilled into us that if we don’t have a man, something is wrong with us in a way that is not true of men. It’s a fear I’ve seen in a lot of the female friends, and I think the cliche of, “You can’t be with someone else until you’re good by yourself’ is bullshit, but it’s more like, “Look you are completely alone, and it’s okay.” That’s all. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine when narratives show romance as the [solution to] everyone’s problems. It was very important to not have a happy ending that included a man who loves dogs or something. She’s so fucked up that if she does progress in who she is, I felt she had to be alone to do it.

Guernica: How were you able to sustain Maya as a sympathetic character despite her lack of will power?

Jade Sharma: Most people go through a period where things go on a little too long before they actually start to truly change. I did worry that people would find her frustrating because you just want to shake her and tell her to stop it and she won’t, and you have to watch it and it hurts. I remember in a passage I workshopped someone wrote “self-absorbed bitch” to describe Maya. I could see why someone would think that about her. I don’t think you need to feel like you want to be a narrator’s best friend to want to know what will happen to her. I felt like her honesty and the voice were the main elements that would keep people reading. I hoped that they would root for her, but either way I wanted them to finish it.

Guernica: How was your experience in graduate school?

Jade Sharma: It was motivating. I had no artistic support growing up. Immigrants come here for a specific American Dream involving their kids going to great colleges to become doctors and lawyers and engineers—like my brother who my mom denies a little too adamantly that she doesn’t love more than —so when their kids want to do something creative it’s [surprising and often upsetting]. So in graduate school I had a captured audience and a great deal of ambition. I thrived on criticism. If someone told me something was wrong with it and they were right, I was so grateful. I was addicted to revision so I made my professors take a lot of their own time to look over my work and they were endlessly encouraging, like Stephen Wright and Dale Peck, and defended me against the students.

People thought I was trying shock with scenes like the one where Maya watches porn and masturbates. I was trying to show the absurdity of porn while maintaining the truth of my character’s sexuality, and the students hated it. Stephen Wright [told me, after the workshop,] “I usually never say this but ‘ignore them’ and keep going. Also, if you were a guy it would have read a lot differently.” I felt some of them were terribly judgmental and they cared so much about characters being likable — [but] what is interesting about a really nice guy who is super nice to his mom? If anything, it made me more “honest and brave,” because I wanted to show them up and I knew the writing had to be stellar so they couldn’t tell me it was poorly written. A lot of the time they would say they didn’t like the character, but I would take, “I hated the girl but it was really funny and I had to finish it to see what would happen” to mean “it was pretty good.”

Jade Sharma is a writer living in New York. She has an MFA from the New School.

Kyle Lucia Wu is a writer living in New York. She is the managing editor of Joyland and has an MFA in creative writing from The New School.

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