Jhumpa Lahiri on Unaccustomed Earth – Guardian book club

The author explains how months or years can elapse between a story's conception and its construction

Many of the stories were abandoned for several years before I returned to them. The first to be conceived, and among the last to be written, was "Once in a Lifetime". I began working with the characters and situation – two families living for a time under the same roof – in 1998, the year before my first collection, Interpreter of Maladies, was published. Initially I thought the ingredients of the story might yield a novel. But after introducing the premise, and establishing a tension between Kaushik and Hema, the two principal characters, I was unable to move forward. The story was narrated in the third person then, and though the characters felt alive and specific to me, the structure was feeble and the narration felt flat, without heat or dimension. I set it aside and went on to draft The Namesake, my first novel.

After The Namesake was published in 2003, I decided to work on short stories again. I didn't touch the pages about Hema and Kaushik. Instead, I struggled to resurrect another half-realised idea, which ultimately became "Hell-Heaven". Some years before, I had set up the situation of the story, only to stall after a handful of pages. The first important change I made was to shift the point of view from the third person to the first.

Once I began to describe the mother's character and predicament through the daughter's eyes, the story began to assume shape and meaning. I spent close to a year reworking it. In the process I learned something about how I write: that a very long time can elapse between the conception of a story and the construction. That in the beginning the story is often intuited but invisible – a presence in a dark room.

The title story had a fraught beginning, but for different reasons. The idea came to me as I was flying from the west coast of America back to New York. At one point I looked out the window and felt that I was the father in "Unaccustomed Earth", and that I had just left a daughter behind in Seattle. This brief but intense flash of inhabiting the father's character generated the rest of the family. But when I tried to write about them there were too many ingredients. Then I discovered a way to break off one aspect of the story – the relationship between the brother and sister – and turn it into "Only Goodness". I learned another thing about my creative process: that characters have infinite potential, and that part of a writer's job is to select and limit what they think and feel and do.

It was around 2005 when I confronted Hema and Kaushik again. They remained flawed, unfinished, confused. And yet, seven years later, I knew what to do with them. Again I changed the point of view, and decided to have Hema narrate the story to Kaushik. After finishing "Once in a Lifetime", I was unable to abandon the characters. For, though the story had a conclusion, it suggested another beginning. "Years End" was written relatively quickly, perhaps because I had known Hema and Kaushik for nearly a decade, and halfway through writing the second story, I knew there would be a third.

After finishing the trilogy and arranging the collection, I was aware of certain common elements: the creation and dissolution of families, the fault lines between parents and children, the confluence of life and death. And though these are not autobiographical stories, they reflect a certain transformative phase of my life, during which I became a mother and experienced, albeit as a daughter-in-law, the loss of parents. I was eight months pregnant when my father-in-law was diagnosed with the illness that would take his life two years later. The first time he saw my son, he was in a hospital bed, recovering from surgery. About six months after he died, my daughter was born, and a month later, as I was home with her, devoting every waking hour to her well-being, I learned about the 2004 South Asian Tsunami, killing so many.

A final word, about how I discovered the title: I was reading and rereading Nathaniel Hawthorne while working on these stories. Part of the reason I set the last story in Rome is because I'd just read The Marble Faun. The phrase "Unaccustomed Earth" comes from the preface to The Scarlet Letter, which I'd first read in high school. Rereading it at nearly 40, I was both startled and unspeakably reassured. I felt that a writer who represents everything that I seemed not to be while growing up – an American, a New Englander, whose work is set in the very terrain in which I was raised and from which I felt always estranged – had articulated, almost two centuries ago, the journey and experience of my family, and had also expressed my project as a writer. The sense of recognition, of connection across space and time, was profound. It was the crossing of a fault line, a handshake in a darkened room.

• Jhumpa Lahiri will be in conversation with John Mullan on 24 September at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1.


Jhumpa Lahiri

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