Pia Padukone knows she has been extraordinarily lucky: Despite being near the the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, sheescaped all three unscathed. In her debut novel, Where Earth Meets Water, she uses these experiences as inspiration for protagonist Karom, who journeys to India in search of answers about his own close brushes with tragedy. Once there, he meets Kamini, an older woman whose unexpectedly powerful story will help him make sense of his own life. Throughout the book, Padukone meditates on survivor’s guilt and weaves an engrossing tale about fate, family, and self-discovery. Here, she chats with Bookish about her inspiration for the novel, her next project, and the dishes she’d recommend for readers of Where Earth Meets Water.
Bookish: One of the major themes in your book is survivor’s guilt. Karom has barely escaped two major, fatal disasters—what made you decide to explore the guilt associated with surviving a tragedy?
Pia Padukone: Karom experiences multiple near-death misses and is plagued by the idea of fate. But, like all emotions, the relief and gratitude associated with survival are rarely black and white, cut and dry. These responses are multi-faceted; they build in layers that can be peeled back like an onion.
Immediately after 9/11, people that could have been in the towers were grateful, praying and thanking the powers that be that they had overslept or missed their trains. But then the next wave of grief swept through many–including me. We experienced an innate sense of guilt that we had survived while others hadn’t, that others had suffered as we had watched, mortified. I remember similar stories emerging shortly after other tragedies, including the murders at Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown. As the theme for Where Earth Meets Water percolated within me, I read books by other writers, including Lionel Shriver and Sonali Deraniyagala, that explored the ideas of the guilt that come with outliving your family after a crisis.
Bookish: Your novel also explores the question of fate. You’ve had a few near misses in your own life—did writing this book help you to explore your own feelings on the role of fate?
PP: Absolutely. From 9/11 to the  tsunami to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, these near misses certainly made me question why or how I was spared while others were not so fortunate. Perhaps subconsciously, I wrote this book as a kind of catharsis, but I think my ultimate thesis after all the soul searching is that the world is truly just that random. It’s coincidental, it’s jarring, and it’s alarming. I believe that we will likely be repeatedly shaken to our cores, but that living with love and honesty is the only way to survive.
Bookish: Gita’s grandmother, Kamini, is revealed to the reader in layers. It seems like her gradual character development is central to Karom’s journey in the book. How did you go about weaving their storylines together?
PP: On many levels, the respite that Kamini seeks throughout her life is echoed by Karom’s desire for answers after he experiences the many tragedies that mark his. Ghosts haunt her as well, though they are of a different nature than the ones that follow Karom, and she ekes out an existence to support herself and her daughter.
I wanted to align their journeys for the same reason that I love intertwined stories: You never know who might be your savior. For much of the story, it’s Gita that seeks to provide Karom with what he needs in order to overcome his battles; ultimately, she leads him to her own grandmother who provides the solace—and some of the answers—that Karom has been seeking.
Bookish: Your descriptions of settings feel very real, particularly those of NYC. Besides inspiring you to write incredible descriptions of city life, how has being a New Yorker affected you as a writer?
PP: Thank you! Being a New Yorker has afforded me so very many things, not least of all being access to culture and the arts. In fact, it was at an exhibit of personal diaries at the Morgan Librarythat I had the idea to write Mohan and Rana Seth’s chapter in an epistolary style.
But most of all, a quote that has been attributed to Pablo Picasso sums up the reason I love New York so much as a writer: “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Where else but in a city like New York, with people from such differing backgrounds and identities, can you overhear such descriptive, nuanced conversations on the subway and claim them for your own? These interactions make me think about the people behind them; while I receive only a snippet of these lives on the 2 train, I glean intimate details about human behavior, and these allow my imagination to run wild.
Bookish: You have a background as a journalist, and worked for the Associated Press. How have your experiences in journalism shaped the way you approach writing fiction?
PP: Everything we say or think or do is a story. The way we live our lives is a story. I was a journalist for a brief amount of time, but every assignment I received had the idea of story in common. Whether I was interviewing firefighters on the brink of strike or meeting British Iraq War protesters as they marched down the Strand, each person had a narrative, a background, a reason for being.
This approach helped a lot during the past ten years that I spent working in pharmaceutical advertising. As a copywriter, I was charged with convincing physicians that they should choose a certain drug to treat a specific condition. But it was nearly impossible to accomplish that without ultimately understanding both where patients and physicians were coming from: what made each of them tick, whether they were dealing with cancer, HIV/AIDS, or migraines. While it’s a slightly different art form, I relied a lot on this training to write my novel, really delving into each character’s backstories and understanding their motivations in order to understand where they would ultimately have to go at the end of the tale.
Bookish: On your blog, Two Admirable Pleasures, you write posts that pair a book with a recipe. How do you go about matching the two up?
PP: Two Admirable Pleasures is a partnership that melds two major loves: reading and cooking/eating. It’s a labor of love that my husband and I create together. The food pairings are inspired by what I am reading, whether it’s the food described within a book’s pages or a dish I crave because of the emotions I feel. Sometimes a particular scene in a book sparks my desire for something, or I simply tell Rohit how the book made me feel and he suggests a dish to pair with my demeanor.
Bookish: What dish or recipe would you suggest readers enjoy with your novel?
PP: For Where Earth Meets Water, because the story is so redolent of creating your own definition of family and because Kamini is so reminiscent of both my grandmothers, I’d have to have a smorgasbord of my favorite recipes from each of them. I’d want my Ajji’s (mother’s mother) batata saung, which is a Konkani dish made with potatoes, tomatoes, asafoetida, tamarind paste, and chillies. It’s tangy and incredibly spicy; only the truly skilled can balance the proportion of fiery and palatable. I’d scoop that up with her chapatis, a round whole-wheat flatbread that somehow only she can make perfectly—I request a packet of them when I fly back from India to eat on the plane. I’d also crave my Annama’s (paternal grandmother) dosas. She was a perfectionist when it came to the South Indian savory crepes, refusing to serve any that weren’t perfectly crispy on the edges and soft in the middle. She’d deliver them piping hot on my plate, and I’d help myself to a dollop of her homemade malachite-green coriander chutney along with a warm spoonful of fresh ghee (melted clarified butter).
Bookish: You tweeted in early April that you were headed to Estonia to conduct research for your second novel. What can you tell us about that?
PP: I’m currently in Tallinn, where I have been traipsing about the city, speaking with locals, and invoking ghosts of Soviet past in order to better understand the city and its history. My second novel is about two families that meet through a student exchange program [and] become inextricably intertwined, remaining in one another’s lives past the program’s end. The trip has been essential in helping me unearth some of the idiosyncrasies that make Estonians unique: They have historically been continually overtaken and governed by neighboring powers, but are finally beginning to create an identity of their own.
Bookish: Do you have a favorite indie bookstore?
PP: This is a tough one, but I would have to go with Housing Works Used Bookstore and Café. It’s a gorgeous space in Soho that provides support and services to New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS. I can and have spent hours there—trolling their shelves and finding great bargains on everything from classics to cookbooks to contemporary fiction. They also have an expansive online presence for which I’m a volunteer, helping to pull orders and pack them for customers all around the world.