Thrity Umrigar on her latest novel, and living in chilly Ohio

Who is Cleveland’s most prominent writer? Kevin Keating seems like a rising star. Paula McLain found success with The Paris Wife. Mystery writers would likely mention Les Roberts. Science fiction fans let Maureen McHugh slip away to a warmer climate in LA, but we’ve managed to hang on to genre-spanning Mary Doria Russell, Geoffrey Landis and others.

Article by Tom Jackson

thrity_photoPerhaps our best-regarded local writer is Thrity Umrigar. She’s a journalist, critic and college professor, but for readers, she’s most of all a novelist, the author of seven novels, including 2014’s well-reviewed “The Story Hour.”

It’s probably not a surprise that “The Story Hour” got a good review in the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” (“thoughtful and moving”), but she also got good reviews from “Library Journal,” “Kirkus Reviews” and the “Boston Globe” (“a taut, suspenseful page-turner with depth, heart, and psychological credibility.”)

Umrigar grew up in Bombay, in India, as she explained in an interview: “The Bombay that I grew up in was a very cosmopolitan, secular place. For instance, I was a Parsi kid who went to a Catholic school, in a pre-dominantly Hindu city. My classmates were Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Catholics. It never once occurred to us to even question each other’s religion, and to their credit, none of our parents seemed to make an issue out of it.” Asked in another interview about the writers she admires, she said, “I love Virginia Woolf for combining two difficult tasks-creating psychologically complicated characters and then writing about them in beautiful, lyrical language. I love Toni Morrison for the same reason. I love some of [Salman] Rushdie’s earlier novels for their sheer insanity, the pliable use of language.”

How she wound up in Ohio is an amusing story. “I was sitting in my living room in Bombay, checking off a list of American universities that offered a M.A. in journalism, when my eyes fell on ‘Ohio State University.’ There was a Joan Baez record playing on the turntable and right then, her song, Banks of the Ohio, came on. I looked up and thought, ‘It’s a sign,’ and decided to apply there.

As you can see, I could not resist asking about that when she agreed to take a few questions from me:

Sandusky Register: I thought “The Story Hour” was a really good book. Is it your favorite novel so far?

Thrity Umrigar: I think my favorite novel is always the one I’m currently writing.  And since I never have the nerve to re-read my books once they are published, it’s hard to know how I’d rate them.  But The Story Hour sure seems to be a reader favorite–the letters and emails I’m getting from readers seem to indicate this.  And I’m so grateful.

Sandusky Register: Many aspects of “The Story Hour” reminded me of one of my favorite novels, “Pride and Prejudice.” Lakshmi is the wise older sister, not as good looking as the younger ones, who looks out for everyone else; Laskshi’s husband is the “Darcy” figure who seems very unlikable at first, the reader wants to know if the couple that has been kept apart will come together, etc. Did you have Jane Austen in mind at all, or is that off the wall?

Thrity Umrigar: One of my deepest beliefs is that readers are smarter than writers.  And you just proved that.  I wish I could tell you that this is exactly what I was trying to do — rewrite P&P with a modern, multi-ethnic twist.  But that would be a lie.  But I do think it’s a brilliant observation on your part.

Sandusky Register: When you’ve finished another Ohio winter, do you ever curse Joan Baez, or wish she had sung a song about “the California” ? [That’s how Umrigar’s main character in “The Story Hour'” refers to California. See the intro if my question seems obscure — Tom.]

Thrity Umrigar: I could never curse Joan Baez, who I still love and admire.  But I do curse fate.  I mean, how hard would it have been to make “California Dreamin’ ” play on my stereo instead of “Banks of the Ohio”?  No, seriously, despite this last winter, Ohio has been very good to me.  It has given me a home, a family, great friends, a good job.  And California is going to run out of water pretty soon whereas we are sitting on a Great Lake. . .

Sandusky Register: Was it really a good idea to allow “The Story Hour” to be made into an audiobook? I’m not sure it’s safe for people to drive when they are crying. I thought it was a really emotional book.

Thrity Umrigar: Ha. Maybe they should’ve pasted a warning: Listen at your own risk.  Seriously, I thought the actress that they hired to read the novel was brilliant.  And she avoided the caricature of the sing-song Indian accent that so many people think is the way in which all Indians talk.  She didn’t take that cheap way out, for which I am grateful. [The book is read by Sneha Mathan — Tom].

Sandusky Register: What is your next novel going to be about?

Thrity Umrigar: I’m writing a novel about a young African-American boy who is adopted by a white politician after he is locked up in his apartment by his mom who is a drug addict.  The story plays with our notions of morality, and deals with issues of racial appropriation.  It is a story about competing claims of love, betrayal and forgiveness.

Other author interviews also are available.