Your debut novel, "Atlas of Unknowns," which is due out in April 2009, deals with similar themes as "Miss and Mrs. November" -- the pressures of cultural expectations played out in family life. Your characters in both pieces have connections to Kerala, India. Is it your own background that you draw on for those themes?
Yeah, my parents were born in Kerala, a state in southern India. About half my novel is set in a town called Kumarakom -- it definitely is a place with a character all its own. It's a place on the banks of the Meenachil River, and I visit every couple of years because my parents still have family there. During childhood it was just kind of an idyllic place -- we just kind of felt like we were in a sort of pleasant bubble. I didn't really interact with anyone beyond my family circle. The last time I went to India, I went with my father. I was asking him for more stories about him growing up and about his family life. He showed me the different places where he'd been and where he'd grown up, the old house. So the last couple times I went, I was looking at his village with a different kind of attention to detail that I hadn't before.
What are the tensions or conflicts in family and cultural life that interest you most?
One of the main tensions is what the characters in my novel expect of America and the mythological idea of America and what the actuality of it is. There are two sisters; one of them gets a scholarship to go to America, and she assumes that she will become the sort of bread winner savior of the family and make a lot of money, and what happens is very different. So she experiences all these family pressures and pressures from the community to succeed.
Another tension that comes up in your story for us is the pressure from family to get married.
That tension is in both the story and the novel. The character Sheela and the character Linno, who's the oldest sister in my novel, both arrive at a certain age when they feel this sort of vague urge to get married. It's a societal expectation, which is not so different from societal expectations here. In the novel, Linno struggles with the idea that marriage might be a sort of end to her life, rather than a continuation of the life she wants to lead.
You grew up in Louisville. Has the city influenced your writing in any way?
Yeah, I wrote a collection of stories when I was a grad student -- that's actually going to be my next book. Quite a few stories were set there. I was living in New York at the time, and I definitely enjoyed setting things in Southern Indiana or Kentucky or Chicago, places I'd grown up in, and writing about these isolated Indian communities that I remembered when I was growing up.
Is there any one book or author that changed the way you see the world or the way you write?
I always return to "A House for Mr. Biswas" by V.S. Naipaul. It's a novel about an ambitious guy who just can't manage to bring any of his dreams to fruition, and it's tragic and hilarious. Up until I read it, I hadn't read anything in which humor and discomfort and tragedy existed in such close proximity. And for all its humor, the writing always treats Mr. Biswas with a kind of humanity, which I really admire so much. I continue to re-read it from time to time.