Thrity Umrigar, a 2000 Nieman Fellow, and the author of the bestselling The Space Between Us and World We Found, explores how the worlds of journalism and fiction writing are not as unimaginably different as one might think.
First of all, journalism imposed a certain discipline, a work ethic, a workmanlike attitude toward making art, which I appreciated. There is nothing precious or coy or airy-fairy about journalism. With modesty, it bills itself as a craft and not as art. I try to bring that same muscular, proletarian attitude toward novel writing—it’s my job, it’s my calling, I try to do it as well as I know how. Saying this in no way diminishes the mystical, subconscious, almost sacred aspect of storytelling, those days when you can hear the angels singing to you and through you. But when I catch myself sounding pretentious about what I do for a living, when I hear myself use terms like “narrative structure,” “story arc,” and “archetypal characters” too often, I remind myself—all I do all day is spin yarns. The drunk at the bar down the street from my house probably does it better. Better yet, I imagine my former colleagues in the newsroom rolling their eyes at me. It works like a charm every time.
I believe that every life has a theme. When I was 6 years old, I began to write poems. These poems were usually addressed to my parents and took on the aggrieved tone of a child who had been refused something. It was my way of taking on the power structure, of trying to right a perceived injustice. Years later, my journalism took a similar path—whether I was writing about homelessness or AIDS or class and gender disparities, I was actually writing about power—who in our society has it, how it is used against those who don’t, and what the strategies of resistance are.
My novels have similar concerns. I have written about the power that a rich family in Bombay has over the illiterate domestic servant who works for them, about an American couple living in India who assumes that the rules don’t apply to them, about how adults abuse their authority over powerless children. Most recently, I have tackled the issue of Islamic fundamentalism, but from a non-American, non-9/11 perspective.
I guess you could say, this is my life’s theme—the exploration of how power corrupts human relationships, the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the endless struggle for happiness that human beings engage in.