Elena Seibert
Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize winner.

"It takes so much courage to even want to be a writer," said Jhumpa Lahiri, during a phone interview from her hotel room in Ann Arbor, Mich.

She wasn't confident enough to try writing until after she finished graduate school. "I'm a self-doubter," she said.

As it turned out, her doubts were misplaced. "Interpreter of Maladies," Lahiri's first collection of short stories, won a Pulitzer Prize. Her novel, "Namesake," also won awards. Her new book, a collection of short stories, is "Unaccustomed Earth."

So far, Lahiri said, her writing has described the immigrant experience. She focused on a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when her parents' generation was arriving from India. She herself was born in London and has been raised in the United States since she was 2 years old.

But Lahiri said this latest collection is less about bridging two worlds than it is about family relationships. "I feel I am just writing stories about the human predicament.

"The characters happen to have a certain cultural background and specific identities, but in the stories in 'Unaccustomed Earth,' I was not thinking so much about culture as about generational conflicts common to us all."

She described her path to writing as being piecemeal. Whatever was holding her back just gradually gave way, she said.

"I took one or two creative writing courses when I was in college. Very much on the sideline of my normal studies." She enjoyed the classes, she said, but they seemed to have nothing to do with the important courses, which would eventually lead her to a doctorate in Renaissance studies.

After college, in the short time she had before going to graduate school, Lahiri took a job as a research assistant. "The job came with a computer," she recalled. "I had a typewriter, and of course there is always pen and paper, but for the first time I was sitting at a desk with a computer, at a job where I was not always fully occupied.

"I secretly started to write things on it. Scenes. Descriptions.

"That slowly led to having a friend who was also interested in writing. She and I started to meet to talk about writing and exchange pages. That led to a creative writing program, nine months at Boston University."

For the first time she had the support of other writers.

But still she thought of herself as an academic. And even when she decided she did not want to be a professor, she still did not tell herself, "I want to be a writer," Lahiri said. She taught a little bit and wrote a little bit — and eventually published a book.

Lahiri lives with her husband and two children in Brooklyn. Her life, she said, consists of trying to find a balance, day by day.

"On a typical day my baby sitter comes and gives me the better part of the day to sort of organize as I wish. For my own writing. Or just to cook meals for my kids. Or pick one of them up from school if I need to."

She has had the same baby sitter for nearly six years, since her oldest son was tiny. "Having her in our lives has really been essential," Lahiri said. "Without her, I wouldn't have written one word of the book."

Lahiri is beginning work on a new novel now.

"It is hard and disappointing when you realize something you thought was going in a certain direction is actually the wrong direction. But that is the nature of writing and the creative process.

"You have to discover what you can do to the inspiration and just follow it until it either rewards you in work that is whole and complete — or maybe you have to set it aside."

And if you set it aside, there is nothing to prevent you from picking it up again later, she said. "Unaccustomed Earth" is full of stories that Lahiri had set aside, some for as many as 10 years, before picking them up again and allowing them to unfold in a new way.


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