Jhumpa Lahiri’s Awkward New Yorker Festival Moment

She looks nice enough.

The normally decorous atmosphere found at New Yorker Festival events was in somewhat short supply last Friday evening. The Transom attended a panel on “The Writer’s Writer” without any particular loyalties, but at least one guest had come solely to see Jhumpa Lahiri. During the question-and-answer portion of the evening, a twentysomething woman ignored Ms. Lahiri’s co-panelists Nicole Krauss and Jeffrey Eugenides, instead enthusing in Ms. Lahiri’s direction. “I’m your biggest fan. I’ve read each of your books twenty times. My friends at work—” the young woman, here, chuckle-coughed “—joke that I’m going to get a restraining order from you after tonight!”

The question, following the statements of fealty, regarded which of Ms. Lahiri’s own stories was the writer’s favorite. (The fan preferred the interconnected ring of stories that end the collection Unaccustomed Earth.) Ms. Lahiri looked uncomfortable, to the point of being put out. “I don’t… view my stories that way,” she said tersely. “Some writers view their work as their children, but I think of them, once they are finished, as my dead children.” The audience laughed uncomfortably, but Ms. Lahiri wasn’t joking. “I bid them adieu—and the only thing they show me is how to better position myself for the next one.”

Ms. Lahiri’s (possibly by now ex-) fan, who had remained at the microphone, was indignant. “If I ever write a book,” she said, her voice cracking, “I won’t treat it like a dead baby.”

In fairness, Ms. Lahiri—who otherwise has a reputation as a lovely woman—may have been shaken from an earlier exchange, in which she sparred with Mr. Eugenides over quite how much she works on writing: the Middlesex author said he lived above Ms. Lahiri while she was writing her debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies. Contra Ms. Lahiri’s memories of intense devotion to craft, Mr. Eugenides said “I remember you cooking a lot.”

No one, thankfully, asked Ms. Lahiri just when her new book would come out: in a response to a question about her process, the author said, “I go to dinner parties, and people ask me, when is the next one coming out—and it changes the process.” (The slow-writing Mr. Eugenides, needling Ms. Lahiri once more, mentioned that, happily, “I get to answer that question for two months out of every nine years.”) At least one person may be less interested in Ms. Lahiri’s next book release date: leaving the venue, The Transom heard Ms. Lahiri’s once-devoted interlocutor saying to a friend, over and over and each time more distraught, “I just don’t understand!”

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Awkward New Yorker Festival Moment