At 22, Nell Freudenberger -- arguably the summer's hottest young writer -- turned down a job at Random House. Smart move. She went to Bangkok instead, teaching English to 15-year-olds, and then spent the following summers exploring India. Her exotic travels, and the inevitable loneliness a foreigner feels in a borrowed country, shape the five stories in her eagerly awaited debut collection, ''Lucky Girls.''
New York-born, Los Angeles-bred, and Harvard-educated, Freudenberger was no Stateside slouch. In between her far-flung adventures, she picked up an MFA from New York University and an editorial assistant job at The New Yorker, where word of her early-morning writing routine soon got around. ''Lucky Girls,'' the tale of a young American woman in Bombay reeling from the death of her older Indian lover, was published in the magazine's 2001 Summer Fiction issue. Agents and publishers quickly descended. While a $500,000 check was reportedly waved in her face, she sold ''Lucky Girls'' for a much smaller amount and better editorial chemistry at Ecco, an artsy division of HarperCollins. (''The [winning] offer was really, really generous,'' says Freudenberger, now 28. ''But I definitely have thought, Oh, my God, am I crazy?!'')
Such good fortune can make a girl nervous. ''Of course it was wonderful to get a book deal,'' she says, ''but that [period] was so full of anxiety it was hard for me to enjoy.'' Faced with the sudden pressure to produce an actual book, she headed back to Bombay, computer in tow, renting rooms in a boardinghouse and with a local family. ''Once I got there -- I think this always happens when you travel -- but whatever you're worried about suddenly doesn't seem like such a big deal.''