Bloggers Recommend talks to novelist Thrity Umrigar about her latest book, The Story Hour.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let our readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
I have been writing for as long as I can remember. In fact, my earliest memories of myself are of sitting on the balcony of my Bombay apartment as a young child, scribbling poems in my notebook. I think I must’ve worn out the rocking chair where I wrote. In my teenage years I switched to writing short stories. I think I was 15 when my first short story was published in a national women’s magazine. No future success, not even publishing my first novel, came close to my joy and excitement at seeing my name in that magazine.
I began writing my first novel, Bombay Time, when I was working full-time as a journalist and going to school part-time to work on a PhD in English. Reading those great books inspired me to try my hand at novel writing. But working a job and going to school became very demanding and I set the novel aside. A couple of years later, I applied for the Nieman fellowship to Harvard, in the hopes that it would allow me the time to pick up the novel again. I threw away most of the old draft and rewrote the novel in about four months. And then I got absurdly lucky and found an agent and a publisher in quick unison.
That first novel allowed me to change careers and I now teach creative writing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. As a writer, the most important thing to me is that the novel must have integrity. That is, it should be emotionally honest. I think readers can see through books that are lazy, that pander to their audience, that take shortcuts, or wrap up things too neatly at the end. My first allegiance as a writer is to my characters, to the novel itself.
I am also not interested in language for language’s sake. That is to say, I am not too interested in puns and wordplay and being clever in my books. I love elegant, breathtakingly beautiful language, but I think that language should be put to good use—to develop memorable characters, to advance plot, to illuminate the human condition. I want my books to stand for something, to make a point, to touch someone’s heart, to make them see a situation or an issue in a whole new light. This is the expectation with which I come to books as a reader and as a writer.
Can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
I spent 17 years as a print journalist and the discipline that it fostered was invaluable. What this means that I can pretty much write in any situation or place. I have a pretty good capacity for blocking out all external noise. Because I have a pretty demanding job and family responsibilities, my erstwhile routine of writing at 5 AM every morning has been disrupted. So, I now write at work, in my home office, in coffee shops, at airports, in airplanes. A lot of the composing of my novels happens when I am on long walks or in the shower. For me, sitting at the computer is the mechanical act of typing. Most of the true writing of a novel goes on inside my head and since I carry my head with me wherever I go, I can write pretty much anywhere.
What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
I wrote The Story Hour because I was intrigued by two questions that in some ways, they may seem like contradictory impulses or assumptions. One was that therapy is primarily a white, middle-class concept, one that is alien to people in many cultures—in Third World countries, for instance, where talking about your problems to a stranger may seem not only counter intuitive and indulgent but also futile because poverty, illiteracy etc. are not going to be cured by talking about them. But it is also true in subcultures within Western society—immigrant communities, blue-collar and working class communities.
But at the same time, I understood that talk therapy was simply a form of storytelling—that is, you are telling the story of your life to another person. By doing so, you are shaping a narrative of your life and this act itself can lead to personal growth and transformation. And that’s why it’s called The Story Hour—that hour a week that Lakshmi and Maggie spend in therapy together is when Lakshmi is allowed to “speak her truth,” tell her own story. It allows her to first, reflect on her past, and then get beyond it.
I’m not sure that writing The Story Hour changed me but as always happens when you read literature, it may have humanized me a bit more, made me understand how flawed all human beings are, often in ways and for reasons we never fully understand. It also showed me the power of forgiveness and more importantly, the power that comes from seeking forgiveness, in apologizing. People always talk about how liberating it is to forgive; but even saying, “I’m sorry,” has its own power.