"People typically gasp when they walk into my office and see it"

By Molly McArdle
Updated February 13, 2018
EC: How Novelist Rakesh Satyal Does Breakfast
Credit: Photo courtesy Rakesh Satyal

Lambda Literary Award-winning novelist Rakesh Satyal returns with his second book, No One Can Pronounce My Name. Satyal, whose day job is as a senior editor at Simon and Schuster’s Atria imprint, also doubles as a cabaret performer. (I’ll admit that I first heard of No One Can Pronounce My Name through an endearing book trailer in which he sings book-related lyrics to the tune of Hamilton’s “I’ll Be Back.”) His new novel follows two Indian-Americans in suburban Ohio: one, Harit, a middle-aged salesman struggling to care for his grieving mother; the other, Ranjana, a housewife whose child has left for college, begins to write. Both hunger for a kind of change and both, with effort, find it.

Extra Crispy: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Rakesh Satyal: The only thing I have for breakfast is a large cup of coffee with no milk or sugar from Dunkin' Donuts. People typically gasp when they walk into my office and see it. It's the size of the vat of water into which Ace Ventura topples when looking for Snowflake the Dolphin.

Is that a normal breakfast for you?
Yes, invoking Snowflake the Dolphin from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective while describing my morning repast is "normal" for me.

There’s a moment in the novel where Ranjana is taking stock of her husband, Mohan. One of the most vivid details she includes is his exacting daily breakfast: two hard-boiled eggs, a cup of tea, a grapefruit, and a handful of cashews. (It’s a little like Obama’s seven almonds.) What is it about food that makes it so effective at communicating character?
The ways in which people define what they see as indulgences speak to what they value, what they fear, and how they take stock of themselves. Mohan's typical breakfast speaks to his fastidiousness as well as his need for comforting repetition. Ranjana, on the other hand, is constantly snacking and deciding when her concerns about physical health need to take a backseat to her concerns about mental health. I think that since eating is one of the key processes in our daily lives, we have a tendency to see everything as incidental to it. Have you ever fasted for a day? If so, you probably noticed how much time you seem to have on your hands. So much planning goes into what we're going to eat and how and when, so when you absent that from your day, you immediately see how involved a process it is—and the extent to which your thoughts about it very much define who you are throughout the day.

How has your career in publishing informed your fiction?
Just from a logistical standpoint, it gives me an awareness of what type of fiction is out in the world and how it's published and which stories might subvert customary narrative forms and bring something fresh to the table. But with this book, there are a lot of specific conversations about publishing and writing, and I certainly drew from my industry experience to address those issues—especially issues of representation.