Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland -- the lyrically written, heartbreaking tale of two very different brothers and their very different fates -- was our spotlight pick of September and one of our favorite novels in quite a while. It’s both accessible and profound, which may be why it also made the long for the National Book Award this year.
I spoke with Pulitzer Prizewinning author, who is as famously private as she is publicly lauded.
Sara Nelson: You are one of the few fiction writers who seems to write both collections of stories and full length novels; you have produced two of each. Did you always know that The Lowland would be a full length work?
Jhumpa Lahiri: When this idea first came to me, I was still very much just getting my bearings as a writer in general. The stories in Interpreter of Maladies were just still in a manuscript without any particular destination. And so I was just thinking across the board what might be a story and what might be a novel. This was 1997, I had written many of the stories in Interpreter, but not all of them. I didn't know Interpreter was going to become a collection and published and so forth. I did have this idea [for the story behind The Lowland] fairly early on. I knew, or I sensed, rather that it would be a novel, that it would have to be a novel But I didn't really know how to do it at the time. I don't think I was capable as a writer, just in terms of what the scope of the project was, and the challenges of it. So though I was drawn to the idea, it was beyond me at the time.
SN: At the center of the story is a political movement in which one of the brothers dies. Where did the idea for that come from?
JL: There was an execution that took place in Calcutta, very close to my paternal grandparents' home. I think I first learned about it when I was a teenager. I was deeply affected by it. As a young child I was aware of the political movement in a vague way: it was something my parents would talk about with their friends and I would hear mentions of it. When I was in Calcutta people would talk about that period and what was going on in the city and people they knew who'd been involved and so on and so forth This information was always in the atmosphere, but I never really understood it
Still, I kept thinking about the execution on and off as I started writing, as I grew serious about writing fiction in my twenties, when I was asking myself "What are some of the things I want to try to write about?" When I was 30 I asked my father to explain to me what he knew about this execution. He told me what he had heard about it and I went from there, and I started reading about the movement and talking to people and so on. What I learned eventually was there were two brothers who had been involved in the movement and both had been killed in front of their parents and other family members. So it was sort of the juxtaposition of the political and the familial that I found so haunting and so brutal. My idea became to look at this violence in the context of a family and relationships.
SN: You were in your early thirties, when your first book, Interpreter of Maladies, won a Pulitzer Prize. You've been a fulltime writer ever since. Did you always know you would be a writer?
JL: I wrote little things when I was little, I enjoyed writing from a young age, but I didn't dream that I would ever become a writer or anything. That wasn't something I was determined to do or aspired to, really. I felt that that was something other people did and I was grateful to those who did it. I think my connection was always as a reader and it's only eventually that I crossed over to become a writer as well. I think a writer is nothing but a reader who... I love that line of Saul Bellow's: "A writer is nothing but a reader moved to emulation." I really do believe that.
SN: So do you have a particular reader -- or a particular type of reader -- in mind when you write?
JL: No. For so much of the process, writing is just a dialogue with myself. Something is incomprehensible to me and I'm trying to make something I don't understand clear to me. Later, there are some more formal concerns. Is the story clear? Are all the pieces there? Are there things that don't need to be there? Are there things that are missing? Is it involving the reader?I don't picture any type of reader in terms of age, nationality, gender, or background. I think of reading, of literature, as its own world, its own nation, the one nation that I feel I belong to fully. I've always felt that way: My allegiance is with books and the idea of literature. There is a reader out there, and that reader can be from any place and can be anyone who, like me, and like so many of us, believe in the power of literature and the importance of literature and the beauty of stories and the need for them. And so that's what I'm aspiring to, if anything, to connect to that ideal. What I find so overwhelming is that when a book does go out into the world and I begin talking to people about it, there are so many people who believe as I do. And that's just an incredible feeling. It gives me so much hope.
SN: It's no secret that you're often uncomfortable having to go out and promote your books. Why is that?
JL: I think I'm an idealist, and perhaps a romantic in this sense. I want a book to speak for itself; I think that is my job as a writer. It's not unlike my goal as a mother. I think any parent's ultimate goal is to give a child what he or she needs to survive independently. You give a child a life and you teach the child to walk and then you teach the child to walk away. Because you have to. I approach my writing in a similar way, or at least I try to: I try to give the book everything I can give it and then, it's either going to stand or falter or whatever it's going to do, it's going to do. That's the whole point of it.