"I need to kind of trick myself into thinking I’m not writing about myself," said Nell Freudenberger, author of the short-story collection "Lucky Girls" and the novel "The Dissident." Both works dealt with foreign countries and cultures, and her new book, "The Newlyweds" -- about a Bangladeshi woman and an American man who meet on a dating site -- continues that pattern. "This was the way I had found to write about my American experience," Freudenberger said. She spoke with HuffPost Women about the woman who inspired the story and what she's learned as a writer over the past decade.
This story was inspired by a woman you met on a plane. How did that conversation begin, and why did it continue after the flight?
Her name is Farah, and we were both on a flight from New York City to Rochester. My grandmother is from Rochester, and she had just passed away. I was sitting next to Farah and her husband, and at that time they were engaged. And I was also engaged. I don’t usually talk to people on airplanes, but she asked me about the book I was reading, Amitav Ghosh’s "The Hungry Tide." It takes place in Sundarbans in Bangladesh. She said, “Oh, I was born there." We talked about that and about her grandmother, who still lived there. She took my email address, but often when you are traveling in India, people, especially young girls, will ask for your contact information to write in a little book, and it’s more like a souvenir. So I thought it was that kind of thing, although I was really curious about her because she told me she and her husband had met on this marriage website. And then she did email me about Rochester, and it was amazing to hear her first impressions. To hear her effusively talking about how wonderful it was, especially right after my grandmother died, and I had no reason to ever go back there, this place was kind of opening up for me again.
At what point did you realize this could be a book?
It was pretty soon -- I actually had the thought when I was on the flight. From the beginning, she started telling me stories, almost as if she knew what I was doing. Then, finally, once I had written a few pages in her voice, I asked her whether she would mind if I did something like this, and she said of course she didn’t mind. She just wanted to make sure I would get all the details about Islam correct. I had her vet it, obviously, before it was published.
You mentioned that you were also engaged at the time. Did that affect your writing at all?
That’s part of where my curiosity came from. They had emailed for nine months or something, and then he came and met her, and they got engaged in the few days while he was there. And when I think about all the long conversations my husband and I had about the meaning of marriage and whether we really needed to be married at all, the years of dating and living together and traveling before we finally decided, yes, we wanted to have an actual wedding and be married -- our two courtships couldn’t have been more different.
You ended up taking a trip to Bangladesh with Farah.
Yeah, I did. We even kind of joked about that on the plane [to Rochester]. She said to me, “Oh, you’re interested in the Sundarbans. Now we are going to where your grandmother used to live. Next time we’ll go to see my grandmother.” We laughed about that, and then we ended up doing it a year later.
What was the most surprising thing you learned from the experience?
It’s not necessarily a surprise, but I think the way an extended family works there -- I knew that people in other parts of the world stay enmeshed in their extended families in a way that we don’t necessarily here. But when I went to the village and saw the giant beds, it was like everyone had a California King. It’s because cousins and grandmothers and aunts and everyone piled into these beds. When I got there, one of Farah’s cousins said to me, “I’ll sleep with you tonight,” and Farah said, “No, no, no, she is going to sleep by herself,” and everybody just thought that was hilarious. Why on earth would I sleep by myself in this giant bed? So I think, maybe as a specific image, that sort of family bed was the most surprising thing to me -- and what it said about the strength of these connections.
In the book, George and Amina's relationship starts out as a practical arrangement -- he’s looking for a wife, she wants to come to America -- but he does say he’s falling in love with her in an email before they even meet. Do you feel they really are in love? Or get to that point?
I think the reader needs to decide. In my mind, yeah, there are times when they are in love, definitely, but it’s sort of not one thing or another all the way through.
There's been a lot of talk lately about “women’s fiction” and whether a focus on marriage and family puts a book in that category. A novel called “The Newlyweds” seems especially relevant to that discussion. Do you think about those things? Do you care how your book is categorized?
I don’t care how my book is categorized, but I think all the time about how we write about women’s lives. Some of my favorite short-story writers, like Alice Munro and Grace Paley, have been engaged in that for their whole careers, that question about how we write about women. I’m fascinated by it, especially as I’m different from when I was in my 20s and really didn’t see any difference between myself and the male writers I was friends with. We were all reading the same books, and we were trying to write good fiction. And now I’m still writing fiction, those guys are still writing fiction, but our lives are so different. I have two children, and I work at home, and there’s no separating those two parts of my life anymore.
Has becoming a mom has affected what you’re interested in writing?
Not so much what I’m interested in writing, but I'm interested in the ways women's lives are different than they once were, and the ways they've stayed the same. My Rochester grandmother, for instance, was passionate about her calling as a Latin teacher and, in many ways, more comfortable in the classroom than she was at home. She waited until her late 30s to have a child -- very late for someone born in 1909 -- resisting, I think, because she was so reluctant to give up her vocation. And I know many women my age who would prefer not to work outside the home. What I mean is that this question of how to work and have a family persists for women. I would love someday to write something that reproduces the texture of motherhood -- that weird combination of magic and dullness that Grace Paley gets so perfectly in stories like "Faith in a Tree" and "Two Short Sad Stories From a Long and Happy Life."
It’s been more than 10 years since your story “Lucky Girls” was published in the New Yorker. A lot of controversy followed, focusing on your connection to that magazine and your looks. How did the backlash affect you going forward? Did it shape the way you approached your career at all?
Maybe it was a good motivator. If somebody says your story is only published because you look nice in the photo, that maybe spurs you on to write. I always wanted to do this, so I think now that I was probably lucky to get that attention, even if it’s negative attention -- whatever lets you keep doing what you like and make a living doing it, you probably shouldn’t complain too much about it.
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