A teenage Praveen Krishna slips library books down from shelves and flips them over. He looks at the pictures of authors on back covers and reads the blurbs about them. They are all writers that no one has heard of. It’s depressing.
“In the seventh grade — that’s when I really discovered I liked writing,” Krishna, now 40, says. “I was figuring stuff out in the real world that I hadn’t experienced myself.” But was being a writer the kind of career he wanted — to go unrecognized after a lifetime of honing one’s craft? The mental and financial struggles didn’t make sense. Writing, Krishna says, “just felt like a phase young people go through.”
What he really wanted to do was get into Harvard University. And so he did, though in hindsight, he admits that it may not have been the best choice for him. All the students doing musicals had perfect pitch, and he didn’t have the freedom to try out such things as a major in applied government and political philosophy. From Harvard he went to Yale Law School, and that’s when he finally realized that being an attorney “wasn’t going to be enough,” he says.
So he sat down, wrote a novel, and, in 2006, submitted it to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. In response, he got notice that he was a semi-finalist for a fellowship. “It basically went to my head, and made me feel like I was much better than I really was,” Krishna says.
He tried to sell the novel, during an ill-fitting stint as a corporate lawyer in New York City, to no avail. A job offer brought him back to his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., working as a federal prosecutor. The book got put aside, and Krishna started writing “for the love of doing it.” Things eventually started falling into place. “I thought it was going nowhere,” he says, but he got published (one of his stories, “Efficient Breaches: A Romance,” appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of VQR) and got the fellowship to FAWC, and next Thursday, Jan. 17, he will give a reading there of his work, along with another fellow, Austin Segrest.
Krishna’s life has changed in Provincetown. He’s on hiatus from being a prosecutor, and is no longer filing briefs and sometimes going to court. Instead of developing arguments that defend convictions, he’s developing stories about lives that are not his own.
“Efficient Breaches” is about a Bengali man who is married but has a relationship on the down-low with an American man. The story cuts back and forth in time, and that, coupled with touches of magical realism, give the reader a true sense of the man’s conflicted life. Krishna’s use of language is stunning. Here he describes the experience of a caged tiger in the cargo hold of an airborne plane:
“The pilots decided to fly over the storm, but it was too late. As the plane climbed, so did the difference in air pressure between inside and out. The differential grew until the plane became a bomb: With its lock compromised, the cargo door blew open and the cage exploded out of the hull.
“The fall triggered an adrenaline response in the sedated tiger. When it woke up, it had never felt so cold in its life. Icy drifts roved along its fur. The air was moving too fast for it to breathe; its ears were filling with wind, its eyes turning numb, crystalline. … Once the shock of its predicament wore off, the tiger managed to bend its neck down, pushing its head against the gale, and what it saw was something marvelous. The entire world was rising up to meet it, a world that turned bigger with every second, and that seemed utterly new — one that was flat and boundless, cleansed of prey and shadow and anything else familiar, except the sylvan glimmer of the Ganges.”
Krishna says the idea for the tiger came to him while he was listening to jazz pianist Art Tatum’s rumbling piano keys. “It’s like the worst cliché,” he says of putting a tiger into a Bengali story. “It seemed the opposite of what I should do, but I was, like, ‘Why should that stop me?’ ”
Nothing stops him. He writes in all sorts of forms — novels, short stories, poetry — and though his words flow from the page, and his stories are compelling, it’s not an effortless endeavor.
“I find it all really difficult,” Krishna says. “I love poetry, and I love language, and I have a real problem developing narrative arcs. I’m aware of it in the background.” What he appears to enjoy most is exploring consciousness — how people think. “I like stories that have a little bit of everything,” he says.
As he writes through the winter here, working on a new novel, his job in Birmingham is being held for him. Krishna says that his boss there, Michael Billingsley, was adamant that the office work out a way for him to leave, write and return.
“If I could just write…” Krishna trails off. He almost wants to say that he wants a writer’s life. Almost. But he likes the routine of going to his office in the morning, and decides that in an ideal world, he’d work as a federal prosecutor part-time.
“Writing is such a dense or concentrated way of thinking,” he says. “It makes you crazy to get into it.”