I published my first novel in 2001, a year after I completed my Nieman fellowship. In fact, I wrote the novel, "Bombay Time," during my time at Harvard. To be honest, I applied for the fellowship in part because I was hoping it would allow me time to write my book. And write it I did, even when it meant waking up at 4:30 on cold Cambridge mornings so that I could write for a few hours before starting my day as a Nieman Fellow.
But to start at the beginning: Once upon a time, not too long ago, there lived a journalist who wanted to be a novelist.
After almost 15 years of reporting on other people’s words, thoughts and ideas, of never revealing her own opinions, feelings or beliefs, the journalist was ready to explore the interior life—to express what she believed and felt and held sacred. To tell the stories that she wanted to tell, and not the ones her editors thought were newsworthy.
And so, in 1999, I applied for and was awarded a Nieman fellowship. My apartment in Cambridge was so cold I wore light leather gloves while I typed on the HP desktop I had lugged all the way from Ohio. The ridiculous good luck that had gotten me the fellowship in the first place lingered by my side a little longer, and I found an agent and then a publisher while I was still at Harvard. Some of this stuff you can’t make up.
But that’s not what this story is about. It’s about how the worlds of journalism and fiction writing are not as unimaginably different as one might think. About how, in the end, there are only two kinds of writing—good writing and the mediocre kind. The transition from one genre to another is not as difficult as some people think.
When I was a reporter, the artificial hierarchy that people drew between journalism and literature used to make me mad. Talk about journalism being a poor cousin to literature made me bristle. In order to blur these artificial lines, I tried to infuse my journalism articles with as much literary flavor as I could get away with. Years before someone coined the term "narrative journalism," I was drawn to longer, magazine-length stories—stories about human beings, not sources; stories that could be told with nuance and complexity, that illuminated something about the way we lived; stories that had "interiority."
It turned out to be wonderful practice for my current career as a novelist. 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.
So I try not to think too much about genre. What matters to me is the human heart that beats at the center of all great stories. When I look back on my writing life, I see that the vehicles may be different—poems, short stories, news stories, novels—but the passengers are the same. The passengers are always struggling to move from darkness into light; they are often inchoate and inarticulate, but fumbling toward greater human communication; and they are almost always held together by that shaft of grace that we call love.
Thrity Umrigar, a 2000 Nieman Fellow, is the author of a memoir and five novels, including the bestselling "The Space Between Us," published in 2006 by HarperCollins and "The World We Found," to be published by HarperCollins in January 2012. For more about her and her books, go to www.umrigar.com.