Last week I had the pleasure of seeing Jhumpa Lahiri at 6th & I Synagogue, where she read from her new novel, THE LOWLAND, and discussed the book with novelist Susan Richards Shreve. Three topics in particular spoke to me as a writer, including Lahiri’s thoughts on research, geography, and getting to know her characters.

Research

THE LOWLAND is set in 1960s Calcutta, during the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty. During that time period, Lahiri was a child, living with her family in Rhode Island.  When asked by Susan Richards Shreve how she researched this time period, Lahiri said she read real-life accounts from the Irish revolution to discover day-to-day living during a period of turmoil, as well as to learn what it was like to live with a family member in an underground movement. Additionally, Lahiri’s husband grew up in Guatemala during a period of high conflict and war, and she talked with him at length about what his experience was like.

It never occurred to me to use research from similar events occurring in other cultures as inspiration or research when writing about an event specific to one group of people.  I find this liberating. It also bolsters the notion that all people, regardless of race or nationality, experience a common humanity that is accessible to the writer.

Geography

Susan Richards Shreve commented that the book is set in both Calcutta and Rhode Island, two very different places – one with an abundance of color and one with an absence of color.  (On behalf of my Rhode Island friends – I am offended for you.)  When asked how she created the beautiful descriptions of place, Lahiri said she looked to one of her favorite writers, Thomas Hardy, to be her guide. She read and reread his novels and the passages of characters walking through landscapes to inform her own writing.

I’ve read Hardy, and – personal opinion – once was enough, thank you.  I can, however, read and reread Lahiri’s beautiful descriptions of place, and study the way she gives time and attention to rich details that make a vibrant and lush novel.

Characters

Lahiri said that motherhood led her to choose two brothers as the focus of the book.  She watches her two children sharing a life, knowing that at some future point their lives will diverge.  Through the novel, she explored what happens when siblings’ lives move in two different directions.

When asked how she first created the characters of the two brothers, Lahiri said that she wished she knew, and that of everything she’s written, she really didn’t know where these two boys came from.  Lahiri explained that every other character from her writing was taken from bits and pieces of people she knew or heard about. These two brothers, however, emerged like the policeman from Chapter Two – out of nowhere. She said they were built from the ground up, by spending time with them and continuously writing them into scenes.

Susan Richards Shreve commented that the brothers were complex, difficult, and complicated, but also sympathetic.  Lahiri said that for a writer to understand a character, there must be a relationship without judgment between the writer and the character.  When there is no judgment, the writer is in the best position to understand as best as possible who the character really is.

 

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