blog, Interviews

Absorbing Voices: An Interview with Uma Krishnaswami

Update: this is a repost of an interview I did for my shuttered blog, The Chained Library.

This is part 3 of a series of interviews with New Mexico children’s writers for the state centennial in 2012.

grand-planUma Krishnaswami’s The Grand Plan to Fix Everything (Atheneum, 2011) was one of my favorite books of 2011, and if I were compiling a list of children’s books that read as master classes in setting, characterization, plot, and all-around niftiness, it would be on that one, too.

When Dini’s family moves from Maryland to India, she has to leave her best friend behind, but there’s one bright spot: maybe, with a little detective work and some Bollywood-style luck, she can discover what in the world is going on with her favorite movie star, Dolly Singh.

First question: I loved The Grand Plan to Fix Everything! Okay,uma krishnaswami that’s not really a question. First real question: There are so many threads in TGPTFE; what came to you first? How do you work out a plot structure like that without driving yourself to distraction?

Dini and her family came first. Then Dolly, and finally the details of the place. My deep, dark secret is that I do in fact drive (write) myself to distraction, adding more and more until I can practically feel the kitchen sink in my hands, ready to fling onto the heap. At that point, I set the sink down, calm myself, and force myself to look at what I have on the page. That helps me decide what really belongs and what was just a distraction. Distractions can often be lovely and alluring. Oh, look! A diamond ring! A cell phone! I should put them in.

Hmm. Then I have to decide which one needs to play a central role, and which one can be an aside, part of an event that is part of the story but need not be onstage.

I had a few other elements in earlier versions—bags of noodle soups, a garden statue, a brother. Oh, yes, some of the scraps in that kitchen sink needed to go right into a compost pile.

If all that sounds messy, it is. Writing is not a tidy task. If a story falls into place too easily, I know that I simply haven’t worked hard enough at it.

I’m always interested in what writers have to say about creating voice. I’ve heard you talk about the voice in TGPTFE, which is, to my mind, one of the most memorable voices in a work for middle grade fiction this year, and one of my favorite elements of the book. Can you say something about how that voice manifested itself to you (or however you might like to put it!)

It sounds cliched, but that voice, and most of chapter 4, came to me in my sleep. (C.L.–Does that mean I should spend more time sleeping?) I’d gone to bed with a rather tangled storyline emerging in my mind and no idea how I was going to bring it to any kind of conclusion. Dini and her parents, Maddie and Dolly, were all part of this tangle. I woke up early in the morning—definitely past midnight—with that very brief chapter resonating in my mind. I wrote it down at once, as fast as I could. A few words changed, but all that text remained pretty much as it showed up. That does not happen very often to me, so I knew it was a gift from the universe of story, and I needed to accept it without question.

Some of the most memorable characters are adults—I’m thinking of Lal, poor Chickoo Dev, Dad with the nifty sayings, and of course Dolly herself. How do you approach writing adult characters for a young audience?

I didn’t even think of that in early drafts. I just wrote them as they showed up. In revision, I knew I’d need to pull Dini’s story to the foreground. As she inched slowly into a central role in the story of her own life, the adult characters assumed their own roles. Some of them were absurd, some were eccentric in a loving kind of way. There are no villains in this book, something else I was conscious of as I wrote. It wasn’t intentional—it just happened that way.

Now that you say that, I think it’s pretty refreshing to have a compelling story, one that feels like it has high stakes, without having a villain. After all, we don’t encounter villains every day, but we all have plotlines we want to see through.

In part 2 of your conversation with Joanne Rocklin (1), you say that when you get stuck with writing, you read and absorb the voices of characters and the narrative choices of the writer. What are some books that you’ve absorbed in this way? Who are some of your favorite writers to read when you’re looking for that kind of inspiration?

In general when I get stuck I try to read work that is different from anything I’m writing. I read poetry, or essays, or any kind of writing in which the words matter. A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman, for example, is a book that can stir my words back to life when they feel sluggish. For The Grand Plan to Fix Everything I found myself wanting to go back to the books that made me first want to write, years and years ago. I revisited P.G.Wodehouse’s marvelously crafted escapades in the idealized England of his books, and R.K. Narayan’s utterly brilliant Malgudi Days, in which the writer turns a sort of fiercely loving eye onto a tiny, idiosyncratic fictional rural community in India. These are not of course written for children, but they gave me ways to position myself as I wrote my book. They gave me the confidence to create the kind of closed world I was after for my story. They helped me to get a running start again, at times when I felt myself flagging.

One of the delights of this book is the way you present India, from its speedy India Post to its Dreamycakes Bakery and, of course, monkeys in the water tank. Much of this is based on the Bollywood conception of India. How do you go about creating such a vibrant setting for a primarily American audience?

Let me be very clear. The town of Swapnagiri does not exist.  But the Nilgiris (Blue Mountains) do, and so do the flowers for which they’re named. The monkeys, the hill roads, the mists, the tea gardens are all drawn from places I know in India with a sort of cinematic shimmer added to them. The shimmer comes from Bollywood of course, but the places, including Sunny Villa, are straight from my very early childhood.

Can I ask the same question you asked a group of writers: Who was your audience when you wrote this book?

I suppose my first audience in early drafts was my younger self, the 10- or 11-year-old self who still exists in my mind. Then  my wonderful writing group was my audience. They interrogated the work fairly thoroughly. (Vaunda Nelson and Katherine Hauth are both members—I imagine you might talk to them as well about their new books (2).) Much later in the process, I became more aware of a kind of hypothetical young reader. I’d test iffy passages against the perceptions of this imaginary person, who was fairly critical and wouldn’t put up with any self-indulgence. I trust my reader, however, to stick with me even when I’m not connecting all the dots. That way lies tedium. And in the end, I think that worked, judging from letters I’ve received so far from real young readers who have read and enjoyed the book.

The writing life: that phrase conjures images not just of writing, but of talking about writing, teaching writing, writing about writing. You do all of those! It seems to me like there must be a kind of feedback loop going on. How do all of these different activities influence one another in your experience?

 They keep the writing conversation alive for me. Talking to students, to my writing group, to colleagues, and writing about writing all allow me to consider my own work even when I’m taking a break from it. They keep the work in my mind but in an indirect way. When you look at something directly for too long, you can’t always see the patterns in it. Looking away and talking about the craft in a conceptual, even theoretical way, allows me to see my own work anew when I return to it.

Here’s something that’s funny and humbling all at once. I’ve often had the experience of writing  a critique letter to a student and feeling satisfied. Feeling as if I’ve given the manuscript my best and closest attention. I’ve found the strengths. I’ve identified work that needs to be done. Then I go back to my own work in progress, and wham! Every single point I made about that student’s work is right there, staring me in the face, only I couldn’t see it before. I am convinced that the act of teaching makes me a better writer.

On your website, you list “20 writing tips I wish I’d heard 20 years ago.” If it’s not too much to ask, is there a 21st?

 Yes. Here it is:

You don’t have to put everything on the page. Leave room for the reader to create meaning.

That’s a whole conversation in itself–how readers create meaning. It’s especially interesting when the readers are children. I remember hearing Catherynne Valente say, in response to criticisms that The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland was too complicated for children, that kids are used to living in a world in which so much of what the encounter is slightly beyond them, and they’re very adept at putting together what they do understand into a personal comprehensible whole.

This is part of a series on New Mexico children’s writers to celebrate the centennial. Have you ever thought about writing a book set in New Mexico? What are some of your favorite NM books, children’s or adult?

I’m growing a story set in New Mexico, but I can’t say much more than that. It’s a novel, and it’s half-written at this time. Talking about it may make the poor thing evaporate, so I won’t, other than to say it takes me a long time to work a setting into my system sufficiently that I feel I can write it with any confidence. If I live long enough I hope someday I can do a New Mexican setting justice.

Favorite NM books—oh there are so many. Of course Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, but also Willa Cather’s work, and N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, just for starters. Among children’s books, I love Luci Tapahanso’s deceptively simple Songs of Shiprock Fair with its wonderful illustrations by Anthony Chee Emerson. More recently, I’ve enjoyed reading Diane Stanley’s middle grade novel, Saving Sky.

That’s two votes for Willa Cather, not that it’s a contest. But I’ll add mine to that, as well as to Songs of Shiprock Fair. Thank you, Uma!

1. You can read Part One and Part Two on Uma’s blog.

2. I did indeed interview Vaunda! And here it is. Watch for an interview with Katherine Hauth in the near future.

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