”I don’t think about the prize. Ever.”
The prize is the Pulitzer; the speaker is Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri, whose 1999 debut story collection, ”Interpreter of Maladies,” made her, at 32, one of the youngest writers to win one for fiction. Three and a half years later, undeterred by the pressure of producing a follow-up to a historic first effort, she is ready with ”The Namesake,” a novel that intimately tracks 32 years in the life of a Boston-born son of Bengali immigrants named, to his lifelong chagrin, Gogol.
It’s receiving sensational reviews, including an EW grade A, which further distinguishes Lahiri from some of the most prominent recent literary sophomores (Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Donna Tartt), whose second books weren’t greeted as warmly by buzz makers. Early this summer, in fact, things looked dicey for Lahiri. After her first public appearances for ”The Namesake” — at L.A.’s Book Expo in May — most of the talk was not about the book, but about how nervous and overwhelmed Lahiri seemed by the crowds she drew.
”Is that what people said?” she asks, hugging herself defensively, perched on the very edge of the chaise longue in her Brooklyn living room. ”I didn’t know that was what people said!” Sideswiped, she laughs. ”But that’s who I am. I don’t crave the limelight. Never have. I feel appreciative and really humbled by this attention, but I feel like I’m at my best when I’m in a room, alone with a page. That’s my medium.”
In other words, says Janet Silver, her editor at Houghton Mifflin, Lahiri is not interested in the celebrity pomp of ”being a writer” — she’s simply interested in writing. ”Anyone who’s won a big prize like that for a first book is under special scrutiny, and that’s going to be hard,” Silver says. ”But I think because her focus is really on flexing her creative muscles and stretching herself in terms of craft, that’s what she’s been able to concentrate on.”
Not that there haven’t been distractions. Lahiri’s 2001 Calcutta wedding to Greek-Guatemalan journalist Alberto Vourvoulias sparked a Brad-and-Jennifer-style frenzy, paparazzi and all, in the Indian media; even CNN.com ran a pic dubbing her the ”Pulitzer Prize Bride.” (”So strange, so surreal, so disturbing” is how she describes the nuptials.) Much more disruptive to her writing than the Pulitzer, she insists, was the birth of her son, Octavio, 15 months ago. And publishers are constantly asking ”prizewinning Jhumpa Lahiri” to please blurb this book or that, but she’s not comfortable about it. ”Prizes are strange things because they signify a mastery, I think, that doesn’t always correspond to reality — at least in my case,” she says, laughing again. ”I still feel like my career is young, or green.”
Given that, Lahiri is grateful for all the accolades and interest but a little eager to tune them out as well. She says she has noticed how hard the publishing world has been on the sophomore efforts of other hit debut writers, and it leaves her ”perplexed and annoyed,” because she thinks artists need room to experiment, and even fail, over several books, not just one. That’s what she wants to continue to do — to go in different directions and attempt to write books both major and minor — and she hopes readers and publishers will want to follow an arc instead of expect a new splash. ”When I think about the writers I admire — the painters, the musicians, the composers — it’s seldom the first work that I think of,” says Lahiri. ”There are just so many examples of the case to be made for the mature work of any creative mind.”
She is, however, mum on new projects. Look around her spare living room for clues, and the only thing that jumps out is a reminder that Lahiri has other, even more important things to think about: She’s got only one book on her coffee table, and it’s Octavio’s copy of a cute little storybook called ”Froggy Goes to Bed.”