Lahiri's 1999 collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies (Houghton Mifflin), was a surprise winner of the Pulitzer Prize, forever proving quality fiction can be published as a trade paperback original. Since then, Lahiri has given birth to a baby boy (now one year old) and written her second book, The Namesake.
PW: The traditional method of naming children in India is very specific, which you describe in the book. Why did you choose the topic of naming as a theme for this book?
Jhumpa Lahiri: Everyone can relate to it somehow. Either someone is in a position of having kids of their own and choosing a name, or they have confronted how people deal with their own name.
PW: Are you suggesting our names somehow dictate our destiny? Such as for Gogol in The Namesake?
JL: I think names represent destiny in fiction. Authors can choose names for characters knowing what they want to happen in that person's life. In real life, it's a bit more random—you can fulfill your name in a profound way or it can become an arbitrary label. In the book, Gogol spends most of his life convinced his name is an accident or a random and meaningless misrepresentation of who he is. One of the things I want to have happen for him in the book is for his name to make sense. In his case, it was destined for him to have that name.
PW: The epigraph you chose ["The reader should realize himself that it could not have happened otherwise, and that to give him any other name was quite out of the question" from Nikolay Gogol's "The Overcoat"] seems to indicate that.
JL: I was very happy when I found the epigraph. I'd read the story so many times as I was writing the book. Suddenly, as I was finishing the book, I read [the story again], was stunned and stopped.
PW: Would you advise someone to read Gogol's "The Overcoat" before or after reading your novel? Is there a key to your book in there somewhere?
JL: If you're moved to. I think it's an amazing story and anyone would be better for it. It's powerful and timeless. If the book does generate some new interest in Gogol, that would be great, a wonderful added consequence. I don't think the connection is as explicit. It's not like The Hours, where you should go back and read Mrs. Dalloway. It isn't such a strong presence, but it does inform the book in the same way.
PW: Your stories are somewhat Chekhovian, and this book is clearly influenced by Gogol. How strong is the influence of Russian writers on your work?
JL: I love Russian writing and the richness of classic 19th-century Russian writers. I have a deep affinity and respect for them and try to learn a lot from that tradition.
PW: Will your next novel be a giant Tolstoyan epic?
JL: [Laughs] I wouldn't say that necessarily.
PW: How do you compare writing stories to writing your novel?
JL: I started writing this book in 1997, before Interpreter of Maladies was published. I found working on the novel both more forgiving and more demanding. I felt I could write and write and write—scenes, passages, things that went in or helped me understand the book, or maybe things that were just contributing. It let me move around more among different perspectives, but it was more overwhelming, because for every change I made in the novel, I had 100 pages I would have to toss. It took all of these years to learn to work in that larger form.