A conversation with...

Thrity Umrigar, PhD, the Armington Professor of English and a best-selling novelist


Umrigar's books (including Bombay Time, The Space Between Us, If Today Be Sweet) have been published in more than 15 countries. The native of Bombay (now Mumbai), India, moved to the United States—sight unseen—at age 21 and later became an award-winning journalist. She joined the Case Western Reserve faculty in 2002, and teaches an array of courses about fiction, nonfiction, 20th-century American and African-American literature, and, most recently, the cinematic and literary responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

You teach such a variety of courses. Do you have a favorite?

I have to say that the softest corner of my heart is always for the fiction classes, not just because I obviously have a passion for that, but because it's a self-selecting group. So the students who take the course really care about writing. Nobody has to take a creative writing class at Case Western Reserve.

Is creative writing more challenging for students majoring in what may be considered more rigid disciplines?

Intuitively, you would think it would be more difficult for them, but some of my best writers have been students who are computer science majors, who are engineering majors. These are just wicked-smart kids overall, and many have grown up reading. Now, granted, they're not necessarily growing up reading literary fiction, but they're reading fantasy, they're reading science fiction, so they have the basis for how to construct a story. And I try to gently guide them to more human-interest, life-as-we-know-it kind of stories.

You earned an undergraduate degree in business in India. Did you pursue that field reluctantly?

My dad had his own business, and there was great hope that I would take over. I went in there kicking and screaming. I was totally not into it. But it turned out to be one of the greatest lessons in my life about not being a quitter and building literary communities in unlikely places.

How scary was it to move to the United States having never visited before? How worried were your parents? And why this country?

I wasn't the least bit scared because I was young and stupid. My parents, on the other hand, were probably petrified but were good enough to still allow it to happen. And why the United States? Why not? This is going to shock you—I felt like I understood the culture of the United States better than I understood Indian culture, and I'll tell you why: I grew up reading American writers, listening almost exclusively to rock 'n' roll, watching Hollywood movies. And of course, we all read American comic books as kids.

You've said you wound up at Ohio State for a master's degree in journalism because of a Joan Baez song, "Banks of Ohio."

The song came on the stereo while I was looking at a form that listed all the places that offered that degree. I joke that if she had sung about the "Banks of California" or something, my entire life would have been different.

How did you come to pursue a journalism career and then evolve into fiction writing?

I was growing up in a middle-class family of business people in India with no conception of ever being able to write poetry or novels for a living. Journalism, on the other hand, felt like a reachable goal, even for a kid in India. I was a reporter for close to 17 years, and I'm an opinionated person, and in journalism you can't write about your own thoughts. I did a local column for a few years for the Akron Beacon Journal and I loved it. And then somewhere in the 1990s, I just decided to go back to school and get a PhD in English, thinking that that was the right thing to do at that point—change careers. And that led me to write my first novel, Bombay Time.

Where do you come up with your fiction ideas?

They all originate in a different place. The story line for the last two books, which have not been published yet, came to me in the shower, within the span of like 15 seconds.

Your novels touch on various themes, but are there any overriding messages that you hope your readers come away with?

There's no message that I want people to take away, but if there's a feeling of compassion, of empathy, of feeling that, ultimately, we are all in this together … that's the dream. That's what every writer hopes for.