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Bestselling author Thrity Umrigar discusses her latest novel, Honor, including her inspiration, the research process, being a part of Reese’s Book Club, and promoting the novel during the pandemic. Umrigar also discusses persistence, how she flirted with the idea of giving up writing, her conception of what “success” means for authors, her love of libraries, and the importance of doing the work above all else.
Thrity Umrigar is the author of the novels Bombay Time, The Space Between Us, If Today Be Sweet, The Weight of Heaven, The World We Found, The Story Hour, Everybody’s Son and The Secrets Between Us. Her new novel, Honor, is an Indie Next List Pick for January 2022. Umrigar is also the author of the memoir, First Darling of the Morning and three children’s picture books, When I Carried You in My Belly, Sugar in Milk and Binny’s Diwali. Her books have been translated into several languages and published in over fifteen countries. She is a Distinguished University Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Laura Maylene Walter (00:02): Welcome to Page Count presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates, and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. Laura Maylene Walter (00:28): Today, we're speaking with Thrity Umrigar, the bestselling author of nine novels, a memoir, and three children's books. Her latest novel is HONOR, which was an Indie Next and Reese's Book Club pick in January 2022. She is a Distinguished University Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Thrity, welcome to the podcast, and thank you so much for being here today, Thrity Umrigar (00:50): Laura, it's such a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. Laura Maylene Walter (00:53): Congratulations on all your well deserved success for your new novel , HONOR. This novel surrounds Smita, an Indian-American journalist who travels to India to help cover a story about Meena, a Hindu woman who experiences violence at the hands of her own family after she marries a Muslim man. I thought we could start to talk about this story actually, by going back in time a bit to 1993 and something that your father witnessed in India, you were already in the US at the time and how that story might have served as somewhat of a catalyst for your novel, even if at the time it wasn't direct literary inspiration. Can you share that story with us and how it influenced HONOR? Thrity Umrigar (01:36): Yeah, it's a great question. And I'll start by saying that since this book deals with the shoe of honor killings, you know, which is where a family member feels that an act of violence is justified in order to save the family's, uh, reputation in the larger community. And usually the victim of such an attack is a woman. You know, then people who have said, why come up with the title of HONOR because what would be more apt is Dishonor? And it is in that context that I have told the story that you are alluding to, which is a personal family story, which I think indicates what honorable behavior can look like even in extreme circumstances. And so, as you mentioned, I was living in the US by then, but in the early 1990s, there was an event that came to be known as the Bombay riots. Thrity Umrigar (02:33): And this was a case of religious violence where Hindus and Muslims were battling each other, like even on the streets. You know, it's not as if we were unfamiliar with these sporadic rioting and acts of violence that would happen between these two communities, but usually they were someplace else. Bombay is widely considered to be the most Western and cosmopolitan city in India. So we had always prided ourselves for somehow being immune or removed from these acts. They happened in the rest of India, but not in our beloved city. And of course those illusions, uh, were shattered in 1993 when indeed this violence came not just to Bombay, but there were incidents on the street where I grew up and my family is neither Hindu or Muslims. So we occupied this weird, no man's land kind of space. And I don't think my family was at risk in any way, but we had Muslim neighbors. Thrity Umrigar (03:38): And at point they decided that it would be safer for them to leave town and wait this out elsewhere. And so they knocked on the door one evening and when my father opened the door, they came with all the family jewelry and maybe cash, I don't know, in a bag. And they asked him to keep it for them as safekeeping, instead of just taking it from them and promising them that he would take care of it. My father let them into the apartment and opened up his safe, removed the contents of his own belongings in the safe and, you know, watched as he asked them to put the satchel or the bag in themselves. And then he locked it and he gave the key of the safe to them to say, you know, whenever you're ready to come back, it'll all be here. And you don't have to fear any kind of theft because apparently there were instances in the city at that time where people would return home to find half of the contents gone, you know, neighbors still from neighbors, that kind of stuff. Thrity Umrigar (04:43): And my father just very casually at that time, I think weekly phone conversations mentioned the story to me and I was just so taken by it because I just thought that's a really cool thing to do. It wasn't like it was well thought out. I mean, he acted on the spur of the moment and he did the right thing. He did the honorable thing, but for years I only thought of it as a kind of private family story. I never thought of it as anything that would worm its way into a book someday. But then when I was telling this rather bleak and sad story, and I wanted a kind of counterpart to that story to demonstrate that even in the midst of all this dishonor and violence, there are these moments of light, you know, where people act well behave. Well, I thought of this story and it served as a kind of inspiration for the behavior of some of the other characters in the book. Laura Maylene Walter (05:41): Yeah. And I like your description of how that story unexpectedly wormed its way into your, your inspiration as a novelist, which is often how I think these ideas and, and moments can come to be in our fiction. Speaking of inspiration, I know Ellen Barry, the New York times journalist also her work inspired parts of this book and some of its themes. Can you talk a bit about that? How and when did you encounter her work and in what ways did it influence you as you worked on HONOR? Thrity Umrigar (06:10): Yeah. So I would say that Ellen Barry's journalistic pieces and the times describe being conditions in small-town India describing life in the villages was the direct inspiration for Meena's story. I probably first encountered her work. I don't know, maybe 2015 or 16 or somewhere. And one story in particular really captured my imagination. And this was a story she did about women in this small isolated village daring to and deciding to seek employment outside their home. And this was a pretty patriarchal kind of society. And the village elders basically decided that this had never been before. And that the women who refuse to give up their jobs should be penalized for this. And even though what happens to the women is nowhere near as extreme as what happens in my novel, I was just blown away by the fact that in the 21st century, such customs and such beliefs was still prevalent. Thrity Umrigar (07:19): Ellen Barry is such a beautiful writer. She's such a vivid writer that while reading these stories, I remember thinking, God, this would make a great movie. You know, somebody should take her stories and, and adapt them into a screenplay. And of course I had no dog in that fight if you will. At that time, I didn't for a moment, think that this pertained to me in any way, but over the next year or so, I found myself just thinking about those stories. And somehow the character of Meena started appearing before me. And that's how I got the book. Laura Maylene Walter (07:55): The novel is largely told in Smita's point of view, she is the Indian-American woman who travels to India. She has a very fraught and complicated relationship with India. I would say, especially at the beginning of the book. And Meena of course is a far more vulnerable character who is trying to gain some independence through work. I wondered if you could talk about the structure of the book, because while it is largely in Smita's point of view, we do receive Meena's point of view in italicized first person sections, which I thought was a really fascinating choice. Can you talk about that and how and why it was so important to include Meena's direct voice Thrity Umrigar (08:36): For the simple reason that Meena had spent a lifetime around people who actively suppressed her voice for being poor for being a woman, for being uneducated Meena throughout her life has never enjoyed what so many of us take for granted, which is the ability to tell our own stories, to speak our own truths, to voice our own opinions, these things that we just think of as everyday life in certain societies or certain classes might actually be luxuries. I just felt that if I told Meena's story in the same omniscient, third-person way, as I tell Smita's story, I would be doing her a disservice and I would be actively sort of contributing to this lack of agency. This voicelessness that she has. And frankly, I myself was intrigued. Just see what Meena would sound like if she could speak for herself. You know, I grappled with those sections. Thrity Umrigar (09:41): It was hard to write about somebody whose life circumstances was so different than mine, but I knew I had to make that effort just to honor her in some ways. And I was also interested in hearing her own voice, her love story, because that's what it is. You know, there's this very tenuous, timid courtship between her and Abdul, the Muslim man who ultimately becomes her husband. They're both petrified. They both know that they'll be breaking a lot of taboos if they fallen of much less Mary and yet something drives Meena on. And that was the other thing I was interested in exploring, which was along with this meek timid personality that she has, there is also this spine of steel in her. There's this determination to make choices for herself. And I found that very intriguing and also very inspiring. Laura Maylene Walter (10:44): Yes. And having the joy of the early part of their relationship was also a pleasure to read without giving anything away the scenes where they take a walk together. And of course the mangoes that are present on the book cover were really lovely, well done, and Meena to get to see that side of her and hear that love story told in her own voice, even in a book where a lot of, I mean, unspeakable things happened to her in her world. So I think that was a lovely moment in the book. Well, you did mention, of course, Meena had a completely different story and background from you. And so I was curious about research. I know in the past, your novels have been set in cities in India. And so this is a departure for you writing about rural India and villages. Can you talk a bit about that? How did you approach that and how did you approach the research process? Thrity Umrigar (11:34): You're absolutely right. That even my novels that are set in India mostly are set in urban settings, which I'm much more familiar with. So some of the research, just in terms of layout of houses, what these villages would look like came from either conversations with friends in India who do travel to the villages who have a good sense of that and could paint a very dynamic picture for me. Some of it was just plain library research using Google, looking at images, figuring out what the location of these villages would be. That kind of stuff. I also was not familiar with the court system and the criminal justice systems in India. And since that is a major part of the book, I had to get that right. And I was lucky enough that a friend here actually introduced me to a man who's a lawyer there. And I interviewed him several times and literally had him walk me through it. Step by step, you know, a crime occurs, what is the first thing that then happens? You know, how do the wheels of justice begin to spin? He was very patient with me and took me through all of that. So there was definitely more research involved in this book than some others. Laura Maylene Walter (12:54): This novel definitely has some dark subject matter and perhaps some more physical violence than some of your other novels. So I'm wondering if you could talk a bit about that. Your perspective on writing is quote-unquote darker subject matter, which is something I've also explored as a writer, how you approach the writing of it, how you face that emotionally, how you face it on the page and what that experience is like for you as an author. Thrity Umrigar (13:20): I guess I would say that I'm not a stranger to writing about dark material. I had an earlier book called The Weight of Heaven where there's actually a contract killing and you're right in that the killing happens sort of backstage, so to speak. We don't actually see it happening as clearly. So the violence is definitely more center stage, more explicit in HONOR, than in say The Weight of Heaven. But I feel like I have tackled this issue of systemic injustice. You know, whether it's from the patriarchy or from class differences, feel like I've tackled those issues over and over again. In a lot of my novels, I have this novel called Everybody's Son that's set in America. That's about race and if not overt racism, it's definitely about privilege and how privilege is used, how power is, how it's wielded against those who don't have any. Thrity Umrigar (14:19): So these are issues that fascinate me. I have to confess that writing, especially that one scene where you actually see the violence happening was very difficult. It was most certainly difficult from a emotional point of view. It was disturbing like to end the work day and then try and carry on with normal life. When, you know, you have to go back to the computer the next day to continue that scene. It was hard in that sense, but it was also hard in a technical way because a lot of the, I would say last third of the book hinges on that scene. So that scene could not be static. I had to use that scene to drive the rest of the novel forward. You know, so the people who are witnessing that act of cruelty and violence, you know, I had it right as to how they would react and what they would do next. Thrity Umrigar (15:14): So some part of my brain is engaged in just plot and the technical aspect of writing. I have thankfully so far in my life, I have not been a victim of violence and I have not been a perpetrator of violence. I understand that perhaps both these things come from some measure of privilege and I'm thankful for that, but since I don't have personal experience with it, I don't know what it feels like to kick another human being. So where does that come from? I mean, that's not something you can go to Google and say, you know, you don't type in those words and get a result. So that's when you probe very, very deep into your own consciousness, into your own psyche and pull out something that you hope when you put it on the page. Sounds accurate. Sounds realistic. So there was a lot of that kind of internal struggle, I think. Laura Maylene Walter (16:14): Absolutely. The work of the imagination, even in the dark moments is so powerful. Well, I would love to change gears a bit and talk about what these last few months and before that even have been like for you, you've had such success with this book, this is your ninth novel, which is amazing. So I was curious if you could talk about success, your conception of success in a literary career. I think we all know that this is a really tough business, even in the best of cases in a long and fruitful career. It requires patience and persistence and a thick skin, even though most writers I know are some of the most sensitive to people in my life. <laugh>. But can you talk about that? How do you perceive success in this career? Thrity Umrigar (16:59): You know, I think success to me simply means, are you going to be lucky enough or perhaps are you going to be successful enough that somebody is going to be interested in publishing your next work? And I know perhaps from looking in from the outside, that might sound ridiculous, especially to people who don't understand how crazy this business is, but as you well know, Laura, you know, past success is no real guarantee or measure for whether a publisher's interested in your next work. You are only as good as your last book and how well it's done it really in many ways is just a numbers game, you know, book sales, that kind of stuff. So even after nine books, I don't feel like I have any guarantee or even breathing room to think, oh yeah, I've made it. And now, you know, it's going to be smooth sailing from this point on, of course they'll want my next book. Thrity Umrigar (18:00): There's none of that. There's always this sense of, oh my God, am I good enough? You know, will somebody be interested in reading and then buying my next book and publishing it? So I know that this book has done well in large measure. I think it's sort of done well because the Reese Book Club picked it as one of their picks for the year. And, you know, I'm deeply, deeply grateful for that, but because of the pandemic, because there was no in-person book tour or anything like that, I'm just sitting at home. I don't have a very clear sense of whether the book has done as well as people seem to think it has. You know, I don't, and that's the honest truth,. Laura Maylene Walter (18:45): You know, that is a really good point. I don't think I've ever spoken with an author who has felt that they've made it quote-unquote made it no matter how successful they seem from the outside. It is just a tough part of the industry. And I think you're right, as someone who put out a book during the pandemic and mostly was sitting at home in front of screens or just alone with my own writing, it is in some ways a reminder that what we really have at the of the day is our own work and our own time in the writing chair. Thrity Umrigar (19:14): Exactly. And if we are lucky enough to be able to do that for X number of years, that to me is success. I mean, I can tell you that a few years ago, I seriously contemplated just ending my writing career. You know, I'm like enough to have a day job. And I just thought, I'll focus on that and who needs this? Who wants this? I don't wanna do this anymore. You know, because there are setbacks and there are humiliations. And as you said, if you don't have that thick skin, it's very, very hard sometimes to sustain those disappointments. And I came very close to just throwing in the towel and then I read those Ellen Berry stories and they kept honing me. So Laura Maylene Walter (19:59): Is that the main factor in what encouraged you to keep going? Thrity Umrigar (20:03): You know, I don't know, even while I was sort of flirting with the idea of calling it quits, I don't know serious. That was because I've never been the kind of writer who thinks very hard in terms of publishing and positioning myself in a certain way. I write a book because I'm helpless. That's all I wanna do with my life at that time is tell that particular story. But it is tempting once in a while to just say, I'm done, you know. <Laugh> Laura Maylene Walter (20:34): Yeah. I imagine most, if not all writers have maybe gone through that same thought process, because it is so difficult, but I love what you're saying about feeling helpless to write the book where that is, what it comes down to. I don't know if any of us would be doing this if we were doing it for the, I don't know the reviews or the events even that can sometimes be wonderful when it works out well, but it's a completely different thing in my experience. It's just not what writing is. It's not the process of writing and revising. Thrity Umrigar (21:04): No, it really isn't. You know, you figure if we had been born a hundred years ago and if we were writers, then you know, we would most likely just be focused on the writing end of things. We would not be expected to do everything that we are now expected to do in terms of promotion and book tours and all that stuff that, you know, social media, all that stuff. And I think most of us are fundamentally introspective and shy people. And the comfort level is mostly in front of the computer as opposed to in front of audiences. You know, I like meeting people. I love meeting fellow writers. That's one of the perks of the job. But at the end of the day, it's just you and that blank screen Laura Maylene Walter (21:51): A hundred percent. Well, you did mention Reese's Book Club. Can you share a bit about what it was like to be a part of Reese's Book Club? Did you hear from Reese herself? How did that work? Thrity Umrigar (22:02): I actually got the news from my editor several months prior to the January announcement. So I had to basically sit on that news for at least three months. <laugh> As it happened, it was on my birthday. Although of course my publisher didn't know that my editor wrote to me and said, can you get on the phone in the next hour? And my mind just went to, oh my God, she's leaving. And she wants to tell me this and it's my birthday. And I don't want bad news today. So I tried putting her off and saying, well, it's not a good day. Can we do this tomorrow? And she said, no, no, no, I need you to get on. So I realized wasn't really a question. You know, it was like, get on a Zoom call. So I did. And the whole crew was there. Thrity Umrigar (22:47): I mean, there was like maybe six people on that zoom call and they were all beaming and smiling. Okay, this doesn't sound like anybody's quitting. And then they gave me the news and you know, I was taken aback. I was happy. We were all smiling at one another. And I was just so touched because you know, readers don't sometimes realize what a collaborative a book is. And there are all these people who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make a book possible who never get any of the fame and glory. And I was deeply moved and touched by how genuine their enthusiasm and joy seemed to be. And of course, as I was swept up in that and then came the hard part about not being able to tell a soul for several months, I came close to blowing it a couple of times, but luckily they pulled me back in the nick of time. Laura Maylene Walter (23:43): That's one of the difficult parts about being an author. And it's really not in the grand scheme of things a real problem, but good news is so rare sometimes. And it can feel so fleeting that when you do get good news, such as a book deal, but you can't share it immediately. You're just so pent up. Like, I finally have something I want to share and I have to wait three months or how long. So I'm sure that was a very difficult secret to keep. Thrity Umrigar (24:08): Yeah. I mean, I think keeping a book deal secret in some ways is harder. I feel you, I know exactly what you mean by that, because that's what you wanna shout from the rooftops, you know, and, and you can't Laura Maylene Walter (24:20): Well, another thing we can't control in this industry and in this life is reader reactions. So especially with HONOR finding a larger audience through Reese's Book Club, I'm wondering if you could talk to us about that from your experience as an author, when you come across a reader reaction, for whatever reason, just wasn't what you had expected a reader to experience. What is that like for you? Do you have any suggestions or advice for other writers who are surprised in their own way by their reader responses? Thrity Umrigar (24:50): One of my core beliefs is that the day, the minute a book is published, it's no longer your book. It becomes the reader's book, right? Because as you said, everybody's going to come at it from a slightly different slant. We bring our entire life and life experiences to bear on everything that we read. You know, I have a certain voice in my head when I'm writing a character and then you hear somebody else read your work and it sounds completely different. So I really think that a book is a collaboration between a, a reader and a writer. It's a kind of dance that the two entities do and that readers have every right to claim the work as their own because they are invested in it. Also, there hasn't been anything particularly out of the ordinary in terms of reactions from new reader on her website. Thrity Umrigar (25:49): I certainly came across people saying things like, thanks, Reese, this is not usually my cup of tea. You know, it's not a book I would've picked up on my own. So thanks for the recommendation. But in terms of blowback or feedback, it's not been all that unusual. And what you said a minute ago about us having no control over how a book is greeted in the world. Man. I knew that to be true, even when I was a journalist Laura, I would write what I thought was a great story, long complicated story. And we'd get maybe three phone calls and letters to the editor about it. And then I would literally write some that was five inches long and all hell would break loose. So, I mean, there's just no way to predict what happens when you set something free, you know? Laura Maylene Walter (26:38): Absolutely. And sometimes it feels being a writer is this ongoing process of trying to learn to relinquish all forms of control <laugh> because there's, we can't control the industry. We cannot control it. We can't control readers and book sales and anything like that. So it feels sometimes like a spiritual process of trying to, you know, just let go and accept things as they come. But speaking of the publishing industry, because you've been publishing novels over the last few decades, I think you might have a unique perspective on the industry and perhaps how it's changed over the years. Is there anything you'd like to share with us about just your perceptions of how publishing might be different today than it was back when you published your first book? Or do you have any advice for writers who might be trying to publish a novel today? Thrity Umrigar (27:27): You know, this might be a question that's above my pay grade, you know, or I can say the usual stuff that most people would hold to be true that Amazon has certainly disrupted the publishing industry. That more consolidations of houses have happened. That the book industry seems to be following more and more the model of Hollywood, which is everybody wants that first new novel. That's going to be a blockbuster. That's sort of the phantom that everybody's chasing, but I'm sitting in my little corner of Cleveland, Ohio, writing away. And I don't really feel equipped to talk about changes in the industry. I don't know if it's any easier to publish a first novel today than it was 20 years ago or harder. I just don't know. Laura Maylene Walter (28:18): You know, I think that's a really good lesson for us all to maybe not worry so much about the industry, which as we said, we cannot control. And to just focus in our little corners, wherever we live and working on our books, Thrity Umrigar (28:31): I have a friend who always says this, you know, whether she says it to people who are searching for houses or spouses or jobs or book deals, she always says, you only need one person to say yes. And I think it's true. I have students who want to talk to me about publishing their first novels. And I say, where's the novel? And they say, well, I haven't quite finished it yet. And it's like, do the work because if you do the work, it's not like it's a guarantee that all will be well, but it's most certainly a guarantee that all will not be well, if you don't do the work, you know, if somebody asks to see a manuscript and you don't have a finished, polished manuscript, then you're setting yourself up for failure. I think everybody wants to be published and maybe 50% of those people want to actually finish a book. Laura Maylene Walter (29:26): Yeah. I would agree with that. Well, we can start to wrap up, but for our final question, since we're recording this during National Library Week, it will air a bit later, but we're recording it during National Library Week. Can you share any stories or memories related to libraries with us? Thrity Umrigar (29:44): Oh, very much. So when I came to this country, I came to go to grad school. I went to Ohio State. I walked into the great big library there to check out a few books and <laugh> I asked the librarian, I said, excuse me, how many books at a time am I allowed to check out? And she looked at me and she said, oh honey, as many as you want. And I said, no, really, come on, tell me the truth. And she said, I am, you know, as many as you want. So I looked at her very dubiously and then I said, okay, well, how many weeks can I keep the books, thinking I would trap her then, you know, she said, well, probably for the entire semester <laugh>. And when I realized that she was not tricking me or playing me for a fool, that this was really how it worked. Thrity Umrigar (30:34): I walked out of there, like walking on clouds. I just thought, my God, I had just landed in heaven. I just can't believe this. And this was at the university library and then pretty soon classmates and other friends on campus told me about the Carnegie libraries and the free libraries. And I really thought I had died and gone to heaven. I couldn't believe that I had landed in a country where books basically were free. And the final thing is I remember somebody, I went to school with saying to me, she was quoting her father. And she said, her dad always used to say that in America, there was no excuse for anyone to be uneducated or ill-informed because we had a free library system. And at that time, and remember I was all of 21 at that time, I thought it was the most fantastical thing I had ever heard anybody say today, being older. Thrity Umrigar (31:36): I understand that to some extent, there were a lot of qualifiers that should have been added to that statement. I mean, you know, if you have a poor education and struggle to read, then all the libraries in the world when you're an adult are not really going to help you. If you don't have an educational foundation, we understand all that now, but I'm still enamored by the boldness and the Americanness of that statement. That there's no excuse, as long as we have free libraries. And it's such a jewel in our civic life because most people grew up with it. I don't think we could quite recognize what a gift public libraries are to us. Laura Maylene Walter (32:19): Yes, but that is an excellent reminder, and libraries as heaven: I think is a perfect note to end on. So Thrity, thank you so much for being here with us today. We really appreciate it. Thrity Umrigar (32:31): It was such a pleasure, and thank you for some brilliant questions. Laura Maylene Walter (32:37): Thanks to our guest ,Thrity Umrigar. Buy her latest novel, HONOR, wherever books are sold, or check it out from the library. Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center of the Book at Cleveland Public Library. Learn more online at ohiocenterforthebook.org. Follow us on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email email@example.com and put podcast in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.