The Cleveland Heights resident and acclaimed author is visiting the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library branch as part of her book tour, which includes stops in California, Washington, Colorado and Florida. The event is free, but registration is required.
Below are excerpts from an interview with Umrigar.
Cleveland Heights Patch: Tell me about your career in journalism and what inspired you to start writing novels.
Thrity Umrigar: I always tried to infuse my journalism with a 'literary' flavor. I gravitated toward narrative journalism, with a focus on human interest stories. But after years and years of telling other people's stories, I was ready to write stories in my own voice, that expressed my ideas and beliefs. And so I started the novel that became Bombay Time. But when I was writing it, I was also working full-time and working on a Ph.D. from Kent State. So it all got (to be) too much, and I put it aside. Then, I won a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard in 1999, and I began to work on the novel again. It was published in 2001.
CHP: How has and how do your life experiences influence the subject matter and characters in your novels? In this latest novel?
TU: Nothing is ever wasted in a writer's life — not a joke you may have heard, a conversation you may have overheard, an interaction with a child, a fight with your spouse. Everything is stored away somewhere. And then, when you need it, you can suddenly access it. It's a mysterious process, more at the subconscious level than anything else.
But my new novel, The World We Found, consciously explores a time in my life that was important to me — my college years in India in the late 1970s. Although all the events in the book are fictional, I did try and capture the heady spirit of the times. And I see a little bit of myself in each of the four female characters.
CHP: What do you hope people take away from The World We Found?
I hope people can see their own lives reflected in the lives of my four characters. One of my core beliefs is that the lives of the middle-class around the world are astonishingly similar. The World We Found is the story of idealism, disillusionment and asks the question, "Were the political battles of the 1960s and 1970s worth it? Did they have any lasting impact?" I think American readers will see that the experiences and beliefs of my characters are not so different than their own.
Another thing I've tried to do in this novel is to trace the journey of a man who begins as a secular, carefree student activist and ends up as a severe fundamentalist Muslim. But my goal is to treat his evolution with sympathy and insight and to shy away from the stereotypes that surround conservative Muslims. Iqbal is not a terrorist or any such thing — he is simply a man who civil society has failed.
CHP: Out of all the novels you've written, do you have a favorite?
I don't really have a favorite. I've loved working on all of them. I especially loved writing The Weight of Heaven because it was a good time in my life and I enjoyed writing it. But readers clearly have a favorite, and that's The Space Between Us. People really respond to that novel, so I guess I have a soft corner in my heart for it because of this.
CHP: When did you move to Cleveland Heights? What attracted you to this community, and what keeps you here?
TU: I moved to Cleveland Heights in 2002, after I was hired at Case (Western Reserve University.) I suppose I could've chosen to live anywhere in the area, but for me, living in Cleveland Heights was a no-brainer. I'm still delighted by its eclectic, diverse, cultured vibe. Any town that can boast of a is great in my book.
CHP: You haven't lived in India since you were 21, but India is the focus of your novels.
TU: I guess it's a culture that I understand well. But more importantly, India is such a fascinating subject for a novelist because everything is so extreme there. People really live on the edge, and with such passion and courage. It's the resilience and generosity of people who have so little and yet live so bravely and fully, that attracts me.
CHP: What do you most look forward to during your book tour?
TU: Oh, definitely the interactions with readers. It's such a rare privilege to get to meet with the people who read your work, to learn from them what they liked and disliked. Readers often make me see my work with different eyes because they make connections that I may have failed to make. I love this aspect of the tour.
CHP: Are you working on another novel now? What's it about?
TU: I am working on a novel called I Begins. It is the story of an immigrant Indian woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage and the African-American therapist who befriends her. The novel is about friendship, secrets, betrayals.