Hope and disappointment often take the same form in Oindrila Mukherjee’s ambitious debut novel, The Dream Builders.
Written from the perspectives of 10 different characters, Mukherjee formed an intense relationship with each character as their lives became intertwined in ways she didn’t always expect.
The Dream Builders explores class divisions, gender roles and survival within an increasingly Americanized India. For this week’s PEN Ten, she spoke to Literary Awards Assistant Lili Stern. (Amazon, Bookshop)

1. The Dream Builders is your debut novel and a recent publication (January 10, 2023). Congratulations! How did you prepare in the months/weeks leading up to sharing this with the world?
It was a whirlwind. The time when I signed the contract with Tin House to publication day was a little over nine months. They tell you that publishing a book is like having a baby, and my timeline certainly suggests that parallel. Last summer and fall I went through my manuscript several times over the course of a few months, first for a few rounds of edits, and then for copy edits and proofreading. It was a team effort as we (my editor, copy editor and proofreader) made every effort to get the manuscript in perfect shape. In terms of production, Tin House consulted with me on everything — the cover design and layout, blurbs, promotional materials. Every detail that a reader sees on the book as a finished product is the result of careful deliberation and collaboration. I had to write the acknowledgements and draft a personal email to prospective readers as part of a pre-order campaign. I am a college professor; throughout the fall semester, I was juggling my teaching and service commitments with all these tasks. In the last two months of 2022, I prepared for publicity and promotion and planned my upcoming book tour, with a different conversation partner at every event. Fortunately, I have an excellent publicist who guided everything, but [it took] a lot of coordination and many emails. I also researched and wrote a few pieces related to the novel. I made a playlist for one publication, and a list of books on a specific theme for another. And of course, there was a lot of activity on social media, which is especially important for a debut author. Emotionally, I am not sure I prepared at all. I just did one thing after another, without much time to process any of it. Some day in the future, I am sure I will look back on this period and wonder how I managed to get it all done.

2. Were there any pieces of literature that influenced you when writing this piece?
I was thinking a lot about structure as I was writing The Dream Builders. The story is told from the perspective of ten characters. Unlike most other books that do this, the perspective does not rotate so that you get everyone only once (with one exception.) The challenge was to make [the story] flow organically like a novel and not read like linked stories. I sought out other novels with multiple perspectives to try and figure out how to do this right. Of course, there were the classic examples like A Visit from the Goon Squad, Olive Kitteridge, and Winesburg, Ohio. But these really are linked stories, and in a sense they taught me what not to do if I wanted to create a central and much longer narrative arc. I also wanted to read books by POC writers and those set outside the Western world. Some of the books I read for the first time and learned a great deal from are Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld, There, There by Tommy Orange, Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz and Transparent City by the Angolan writer Ondjaki. I also read some nonfiction such as Capital, Rana Dasgupta’s book on Delhi. I intentionally avoided fiction by contemporary Indian authors because I didn’t want those books to influence mine.

“Even when someone’s wishes are fulfilled, that can come at a cost – if not to them then to someone else. One person’s dream can be someone else’s nightmare. The consequences of an individual’s success for the larger community are not always benign.”

3. There are a lot of phases to publishing a book that not everybody knows about. Which would you say was the most challenging for you?
Everything that happened after I got the offer of publication was a cakewalk compared to the psychological challenges of writing alone for years, when I had no agent to consult with and no track record. It was a long and lonely period during which I did not know if this novel would ever see the light of day. Once the manuscript was finished, querying agents in the hope that someone would fall in love with my manuscript and offer to represent me was hard because there was so much riding on it, and because the process typically can be very slow.

Following the book deal, I would say all the social media and promotion I’ve been doing has been one of the aspects I’ve enjoyed the least. I’m not an extrovert, and the idea of putting myself out there through tweets, podcasts, and interviews that will remain online for eternity, is daunting. The interactions with so many people can also be exhausting. Now I’m going on a book tour to five different cities across the US in between my classes and department meetings. Juggling the writing and publishing with the regular demands of my university role has been extremely challenging. But I recognize that everything I’m experiencing right now is a privilege. And I am extremely grateful to everyone who has responded kindly to the book as well as the publicity surrounding it. 

I’ve learned a lot over the last year about what it takes to produce a book. The work doesn’t end once you sign the contract or even once you send the final manuscript off to the publisher–it increases.

4. How do you find a sense of community within the “writer world”? 
I was lucky to go to two graduate programs for creative writing which can give you an inbuilt community. I had a small writers’ group, all friends and alumni from the University of Houston’s creative writing program, that met on Skype periodically to share our manuscripts or stories and provide some feedback. I also have a few writer colleagues in the Writing Department at GVSU to talk to, which has been very helpful over the years. Attending the annual AWP conference most years allowed me to catch up with many of my writer friends and acquaintances. These are partly the advantages of being associated with a university and academia. For those who may not have these inbuilt communities, I recommend applying to writers’ conferences or workshops or residencies if possible. Even one or two short stints of a couple weeks can help you meet others who are navigating similar challenges. Some of my best writer friends are people I met at the Sewanee Writers Festival one year. Sometimes authors offer workshops one can sign up for and thereby meet other writers. Nowadays, the virtual options may make these easier, especially for people who can’t travel, or who have young children. The process of writing a book and the journey towards publication can be extremely isolating. It’s not just helpful but, in my view, essential to have at least a couple of friends who are also doing the same thing as you.

5. At first glance, it seems like Maneka is the protagonist that ties all of these characters’ stories together by disrupting their routines with her return to India, almost like a chain reaction across their lives. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that the characters are also linked by their unmet aspirations–love, children, wealth, an apartment, a collection of essays–which is what makes this book so tragic. What drew you to the topic of potential and unfulfilled dreams?
Maneka was never really meant to be the connecting thread when I started writing this book. The city of Hrishipur was supposed to play that role. And then the physical and symbolic presence of Trump Towers, the new luxury condos that appear in every chapter, is something that connects the characters. It is, of course, an extension of the city. 

I love your idea of unmet aspirations uniting all the characters. At a societal level, I think in a novel that examines the role of capitalism in our lives, that is almost inevitable. Even when someone’s wishes are fulfilled, that can come at a cost – if not to them then to someone else. One person’s dream can be someone else’s nightmare. The consequences of an individuals’ success for the larger community are not always benign. 

On an individual level – and ultimately, the novel is about individual characters – I am very drawn to the idea of disappointment in writing. Of all the emotions, this one to me is perhaps the most poignant. It implies a sort of buildup – of desire, anticipation, excitement, hope. And then comes the anti-climax. That thing you had hoped for, and were perhaps even certain about, that doesn’t come to fruition. It might be someone who had a terrific first date but does not hear back for a second one, or a child who ran to a store to buy a toy only to discover they’ve sold out of it, or a parent who is looking forward to their child’s visit home only to be told at the last minute that they canceled the trip. Even small disappointments can be extremely moving to witness. Imagine the look on someone’s face – which we have all seen at one time or another – where you realize that it is not just about this moment. It might be about months or years of longing and expectation. It’s often about being let down by others. Our lives are filled with these moments. If you magnify these small aspirations into the larger ones that define who we were, what we value most, what we build our lives around, then of course the stakes rise exponentially, and the fulfillment – or lack thereof – can have catastrophic consequences.

However, I believe however that while there are many tragic moments in the novel, ultimately, there is also redemption. There is hope, at least, of renewal.

“I knew even as I was writing that the romantic relationships in the novel would either be inherently messy or would become complicated by circumstances. But that does not mean that they are never meaningful. Like the characters themselves, their romantic (and sexual) relationships are not one-dimensional or predictable, but complex.”

6. There were some instances of characters experiencing desire and attraction for members of the same gender but they were unable to express and act on it. I would love to hear about how you chose to navigate queerness (or not) in this novel.

I don’t think you can really write about a city or community without anyone ever experiencing any same sex attraction. Hrishipur is diverse in every way as people from various backgrounds have traveled from all over the country to converge there. There are two characters in the novel who are attracted to someone of the same gender. For the first one, I am not sure that they are unable to act on that attraction. That may have been the case when they were growing up and attending a strict convent school. But as an adult, when we meet her, she is not someone who follows social conventions. In fact, one might even say that she revels in flouting them. Besides, she moves in fairly liberal circles where same sex relationships would hardly be considered an aberration. For this particular character, this aspect is almost a backdrop to her extremely complicated life. She is pining for a man after all, and that is what preoccupies her, not this passing attraction at a party. For the second character, the homosexuality is a much more significant aspect of his life, as it adds to his overall sense of isolation. It makes him even more of an outsider than he already is, at least in his own mind. It increases his sense of self-loathing. Of course, there are pronounced differences between the social milieu of these two characters. 

What I wanted to do was add layers to the characters, complicating their stories. I confess that I didn’t start out thinking of these situations. As a straight, cisgender person myself, I gravitated towards heteronormative relationships early on. Somewhere as I was writing, the homoerotic elements inserted themselves into the narrative. This was one instance where I can honestly say the characters took over the story from me.

7. What role do you think love and romance plays as a whole in The Dream Builders?
Romantic love takes so many different forms in our lives: same sex and opposite sex, within a marriage and extramarital, monogamous and open, summer fling and committed relationship, scandalous secret and flaunted union, unrequited and reciprocal. I wasn’t consciously thinking about each type of romance when I started writing. I just wanted every character to have their own story. Of course the stories were bound to be different because the people and their circumstances were varied. The one thing I was certain about, at the onset, was that the India I wanted to write about was not confined to arranged marriages. Historically, stories about India have often been reduced to repressed desires, and a lack of choice and agency, especially for women. In metropolitan India today, many women are sexually liberated, and have been for a while. A lot of people live relatively bohemian lives. And yet, of course, for many, things have changed little or not at all. Patriarchy is very much still present at multiple levels. What I am interested in is not the single story, but the contradictions present in the larger picture. You can see some of these at play in the book. I knew even as I was writing that the romantic relationships in the novel would either be inherently messy or would become complicated by circumstances. But that does not mean that they are never meaningful. Like the characters themselves, their romantic (and sexual) relationships are not one-dimensional or predictable, but complex.

8. Can you tell me more about the Americanization of Hrishipur, the city where this all takes place, and how it acts as a character of its own throughout the novel?
I intended for Hrishipur, rather than any one of the individual characters, to be the protagonist in this novel. This is the story of a society, and maybe even a country. The story of post-liberalization India, where the American economy and culture have played an increasingly influential role over the last three decades. At the present time, through social media and more international travel opportunities, middle class and upper-middle class Indians who are based in large cities (and even beyond) enjoy far more exposure to American culture than I did when I was growing up in India. 

The Americanization of Hrishipur is physically manifested through the presence of brands – restaurants, retail chains, corporations. On the surface, this seems to impact those who are directly associated with it, such as the people who choose to dine at a Ruby Tuesday or travel overseas or work for multinationals or watch Hollywood movies and so on. But really, it’s everyone who is impacted. Those who make the sandwiches at KFC or serve customers at Baskin-Robbins. Those whose small businesses or products are forced to compete with imported brands. We see some of this through the construction of the American luxury condos. Everyone has a different relationship with this project depending on whether they think they will benefit from it or be harmed by it. Hrishipur is a city of aspirations, and the Americanization reflects some of those aspirations. Ironically though, many of the characters are not drawn to the Midwestern town where Maneka lives. This is a person who actually lives and works in America, but her version of the country does not fit with the other people’s imagined version of America. Heathersfield is not what anyone aspires to. Therefore, even the Americanization is a superficial, cosmetic, materialistic phenomenon. Because like India, America is not a monolith.

“I hope that when people read The Dream Builders, the characters and their stories resonate with them, and that they recognize that no society and no place is a monolith. That life is complicated, and that there are no easy answers. Invisible threads bind us just as they bind the characters in my novel.

9. The set of working class characters retain a sense of disillusionment towards the transformations of Indian cities despite holding out hope for a better future. On the other hand, the wealthier characters are unable to confront the ways in which the world is broken until the end when catastrophe strikes. There is an almost modernist disconnect between these groups. Was this deliberate or was it something that happened over the course of your writing?
This disconnect was always inevitable. The chasm on the ground in India between the classes is enormous. There is little to no social interaction between members of the working class and the middle class in India beyond the purely functional. The different residents of Hrishipur, depending on their resources, naturally hold different world views. But, again, poverty too is something that has easily become a stereotype in the depiction of India in popular culture. The portrayal of this relationship between rich and poor can become reductive. Good vs bad, oppressor vs oppressed. In an artistic sense, this predictability bothers me. I wanted to make sure that all characters are humanized, whether they are rich, poor or in between. Everyone is complex and vulnerable, even when they do monstrous things. Everyone has agency in the end.

What happened as I kept revising my manuscript is that the lives of the different characters became more and more intertwined. They became fully realized and complex individual characters and not just representatives of their profession, gender, or class. As individuals, they are capable of empathy and understanding, even towards those unlike themselves. Each of them must undergo a journey–they don’t end up in the same place where they started. The book is not about the binary distinctions between two classes. There are people within the two who are not always nice to each other. And there are instances when wealthier characters and working-class characters do manage to connect, at least for a moment, as human beings.

10. Why do you think we need stories? What do you wish for this story to bring to your readers?

We’ve just come through a pandemic – a period of tremendous isolation for most, but also a time when we were forced to reckon with how much our lives are intertwined across the world. An outbreak somewhere else impacts your life here. A crumbling economy here impacts life somewhere far away. For better or worse, in the era of globalization, our lives are more connected than many of us realize.

Stories for me are about people. Bertolt Brecht said, “In the dark times Will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times.” It is the song that continues to imbue meaning in our lives even in the most desolate of times. But the stories don’t have to always be tragic. In the very act of telling, and sharing them, we are connecting with each other. I hope that when people read The Dream Builders, the characters and their stories resonate with them, and that they recognize that no society and no place is a monolith. That life is complicated, and that there are no easy answers. Invisible threads bind us just as they bind the characters in my novel. No matter where you live or where you grew up or where you were issued a passport, in the end we all experience the same emotions. My wish for this story is that readers recognize, across the globe, our shared humanity.

Oindrila Mukherjee grew up in India and now lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she teaches creative writing at Grand Valley State University. The Dream Builders (Tin House) is her debut novel.