Author chat: Writer illuminates relationships amid rich cultural backdrops

Thrity Umrigar is a writer who usually takes us to her native India in her books, but the terrain that she really explores in her writings is more about the mysteries of the heart and less about a country.

Relationships are Ms. Umrigar's specialty. She is a bestselling author who skillfully weaves stories about mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and others in four novels that have been widely praised and frequently discussed in book clubs. So much so that I think her memoir, First Darling of the Morning, has gone almost ignored.

Memoir writing is a tricky business. Writers must recapture times past in their lives with an eye out for good stories while also remaining true to actual events and feelings. Ms. Umrigar does both, rendering a portrait of a privileged yet emotionally trying childhood in Bombay, a city she paints as one of great disparities and ironies, and one that ultimately becomes a character itself in the hands of this writer.

First Darling of the Morning is a compelling tale of how Ms. Umrigar found her way in the world, pushing past her insecurities to pursue a life beyond that prescribed by the insular Indian community that forms the backdrop of her childhood and adolescence.

Ms. Umrigar joins us today for our latest author chat:

Photo courtesy Thrity Umrigar

Your memoir was about breaking free from constraints, both societal and self-imposed, to help you become the writer and person you are today. Did you find that revisiting your childhood and adolescence in writing this memoir was an easy process, or was it painful even after all these years?

It was painful only to the extent that I had to rely on not a regular "thought" or imaginative process but instead "feel" those thoughts, try and recall the outrage and powerlessness of a child. So it wasn't the memories that were necessarily painful but the process of putting myself inside a child's shoes.

In one of your writings, you mention that there is a "terrible giving up" of identity, language, family, etc. for immigrants. What did you lose in leaving Bombay for Ohio? Are you still friends with Jesse (childhood friend)?

Yes, I'm still friends with Jesse. But I've lost touch with many other friends. And I've lived apart from family -- although we're still emotionally close -- for many years, which means you miss out on the inevitable aspects of life: children growing up, parents growing old etc. And to a certain aspect, you stop being the person that you once were and grow a new identity in a new land. which is not necessarily bad but is a kind of loss.

I read that your memoir was first published in India. When or how was a decision made that this book would also find a receptive audience in the United States?

I kept getting e-mails from American readers of my other novels saying they'd heard about the memoir but couldn't find copies. I mentioned this to my agent who mentioned it to my publisher...

What is your fondest memory of readers' reaction to your memoir?

When people who bear no obvious resemblance to me -- in terms of upbringing, nationality, life experience -- tell me that I've told their life story. Or described some aspect of their emotional life that they've never revealed to anyone. That's a thrill.

Photo courtesy Thrity Umrigar

We no longer have just Salman Rushdie to rely on for a dose of modern Indian culture and writing. Who are some writers you would recommend for accurate depictions of life in India or the Indian community in the United States?

Gosh, there are so many great Indian/Pakistani writers. It's hard to know where to begin. Here are a few books I've loved in the last few years: Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid, Karma and Other Stories by Rishi Reddi.

I imagine you found it liberating to break away from journalism writing to writing fiction, but what are the challenges for you in writing fiction?

To write a book that's emotionally true and has integrity. To never make compromises in plot or character development. I dislike books that rely too heavily on coincidence or other cheap tricks to move the plot ahead.

Photo courtesy Rob Muller, who took the photo for the Cleveland Arts Prize, which awarded Ms. Umrigar a mid-career artist award this year

What inspires your writing, not just other authors, but life in general? How do you break away from the dreaded writer's block?

I think the best solution to writer's block is to write when you feel like writing and to write when you don't. Everybody goes through periods of "I have nothing left to say." But then you hear a bell ring or a bird chirp or a child cry and you find that the world is full of stories and your job is simply to "find" a story that's already there and tell it as elegantly as you can.

I think writers have to walk a fine line. On the one hand, we should be completely involved in the world -- we should follow the news, be involved politically if we are so inclined, go to parties, be absorbed in family life, etc. But on the other, we should live in our heads, live in an imaginary world populated with ghosts. It's a kind of double vision.

I'm currently in Chicago for a book festival and last night I was walking near the riverfront and taking in the beauty of those old bridges etc., but all that time I was also imagining two young people walking on that same street, who may or may not be the protagonists of my next novel. It was like having two imaginary friends, like walking inside a day dream.

Flickr: cfcheever

What is typically your writing routine? How do you incorporate it into academic life?

I find that -- as much as I hate the hours -- waking up really early and writing in the morning works best for me.

What other writing are you working on now? How do you continue to challenge yourself as a writer?

I am working on another novel about four women who were young political activists in their college days and who are now reunited because of a tragedy. I challenge myself by trying to write novels that deal with a different set of preoccupations in each one.

Published in April 2009

To read more about Ms. Umrigar, go to her website here. To listen to a podcast interview of her, go to Off the Shelf here (can be downloaded onto an mp3 or iTunes).

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