Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything - Tea and a Chat with Uma Krishnaswami

Starred Reviews from Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly
Cover Art and Interior Illustrations by Abigail Halpin
Today I have the wonderful Uma Krishnaswami with me to talk about her new middle-grade novel, THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING. But first, let me say that upon finishing it, this is the mood I was in:


Reading THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING is a little like listening to music that just won't let you sit still - you realize you're tapping your foot, you start to sing along, you want to get up and dance. And the dance is going to be a pure Bollywood grand-finale-with-a-happy-ending dance.

Here's an edited version of the publisher's description of the story: Eleven-year old Dini loves movies—watching them, reading about them, trying to write her own—especially Bollywood movies. But when her mother tells her some big news, it does not at all jive with the script of her life she has in mind. Her family is moving to India…and, not even to Bombay, which is the center of the Bollywood universe and home to Dini’s all-time most favorite star, Dolly. No, Dini is moving to a teeny, tiny village she can’t even find on a map. Swapnagiri....So now, Dini is hard at work on a new script, the script in which she gets to meet the amazing Dolly. But, life is often more unpredictable than the movies and when Dini starts plotting her story things get a little out of control. This is a joyful, lively Bollywood inspired story is full of colorful details, delicious confections and the wondrous, magical powers of coincidence. Uma Krishnaswami will have you smiling from ear to ear. 

That's a fine basic description - Uma did have me smiling from ear to ear! - but you have to read the book to find the rose-petal chocolates at Dreamycakes Bakery, the out-of-control monkeys, the madcap taxi driver, the sweet Bombay postal carrier, the film star, the film star's producer, the girl who can chirp like a bird, her forlorn uncle, Dini's loyal friend back in the States, the look-look listen-listen, the push-pull....and that's not to mention the hilarious (and wise) writing advice Dini delivers as she goes, nor the whole idea of kismet (destiny - but with a definite Swapnagiri flair....) 

Uma and I both teach in the MFA-Writing for Children and Young Adults program at The Vermont School of Fine Arts.  When I finished the book, there was nothing I wanted more than to invite her to sit down with me and just chat about it. So that's exactly what I proposed to Uma -   and she graciously accepted.

A CHAT ACROSS THE VIRTUAL KITCHEN TABLE WITH UMA KRISHNASWAMI

Julie: Here goes (imagine the table, a pot of tea, two teacups, maybe your cat lounging in the sunshine of the dining room window - or my cockatiel chirping away in the background.....)
Imagine Uma and I sitting at the table, talking about her book....

Uma: Julie how nice to be at this composite virtual kitchen table. Let's just be sure we keep my four cats well away from your cockatiel! And could I have a little milk and sugar in my tea, please? (stirs) Oh, that's perfect.

Uma would be looking at me just like this.
Julie: How lovely to have you here all the way from New Mexico, but with no jet lag - imagine! It's hard to have friends who live far away, isn't it? Dini and Maddie in THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING know all about that. Such a push-pull thing.

I have a few questions about THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING.....

In a novel, when the main character's voice comes through loud and clear, I usually assume that the writer, too, heard the voice very early in the creative process, and that staying true to that voice is one of the goals all the way through the revision process, when many other aspects of the story are changing. But since I haven't ever written a novel, that assumption might be wrong - it might just be an outsider's view of things. Dini's voice is one of those distinctive voices I'm talking about. So how did it work for you?  Did you "hear" Dini's voice from the get-go, or did the way she talks (her thought process, her way of expressing herself, her personality) come into focus slowly for you, over time?

Uma: Oh, my characters always seem to run away from me as fast as they can. I know that sounds crazy but that's how it feels to me, like trying to chase them through a labyrinth hoping they'll let me eavesdrop and knowing they'll shut up if they realize I'm listening. In early drafts they often feel a bit wooden, as if they're trying out for the part and it's not quite a fit yet. Dini was no exception. Her way of thinking too, all that "life-as-movie" stuff, crept in gradually.

Julie: It's a tribute to your writing skills that Dini comes across as so engaging, with that quirky way of looking at her life as if it were a movie she could script and direct herself. You've created someone who feels fully formed and real - and charming.  Any tips for beginning writers about how to develop an ear for the difference between "wooden" and "real"? Especially for writers of children's books - what do you suggest to writing students to help them crawl back inside the head of a child and hear a voice that sounds as natural - not forced - as Dini's?

UmaThank you, Julie! I think there are a few ways to do this, and I forget them and remember them in turn as I write. It's amazing how often I can forget the same things over and over again, but here they are--maybe now I'll remember them more reliably!

The biggest tip of all--READ. Read lots of great prose, whether or not it's anything like the kind you mean to write. Read poetry, whether or not you think of yourself as a poet, or even as "getting" poetry. Just read so that the best of all possible words can leave their imprint on your mind. When you read fiction, pay attention to how the consciousness of great characters makes itself felt on the page. 

Don't even try to get into the character's "head". That leads to a cerebral way of being that character. Don't try to "see through her eyes." That can lead to a simplistic camera angle. It can come off as a series of static observations. That kind of portrayal is usually not in skin-to-air contact with the setting. Instead try to get under the character's skin. Try to feel what it's like to live and breathe and be that kid you're placing at the heart of your story. Write many scenes off the page. Take the character to some common place--the grocery store, the shopping mall, a park. Feel that place through the character's experience and be sure to pull the place in as well. None of us exists in a vacuum, so our characters can't either.

Finally, don't beat yourself up if this doesn't happen all at once. Learn to read your own work carefully so you can spot the places where you do get it. Then try to pull that sensibility through the work, every time that character shows up. 

There's more to it, of course--motivation ranks high, so do the interactions among characters. But that holistic imagining is the best starting place I know.

Julie: Good, good advice for writers who spend way too much time inside their own heads and in the heads of their characters. Reconnect with the body! Get under the skin. Feel all the senses. 

Here, Uma, have a little sweet biscuit to soak up the last of that tea. And I'll put the kettle on for another pot. 

Uma: Mmm, nice biscuits, these. A hint of ginger, I think, and was that..? No kidding! Rose-petals?

Julie: Yes! Rose petals - Dolly's favorite, though no chocolate. Here is the way I imagine Dolly....and the way I imagine Filmi Kumpnee, the fan magazine Dini and Maddie read:

Aishwarya Rai looking the way I imagine Dolly.....
Uma: Seriously...Yes, that's Filmfare, the magazine of which Filmi Kumpnee's a spoof. Look at Ash! She could be Dolly's cousin.

Julie: While the tea water comes to a boil, here's another question, one I'm sure you've answered for other people asking you about the book. When/how did you decide to include those wonderful moments when suddenly we are in someone else's world - the world of sweet Lal and the Indian Postal Service, for example, or the world of a goatherd who comes back at the end of the book. It's a risky thing to do, but it works perfectly.

Uma: Risky, maybe, but why else write? The thing is, it wasn't a conscious decision. I had Dini and Maddie taking shape at the time, and Dolly. I had Dini write her letter to Dolly, sort of the way I once wrote a letter to P.G. Wodehouse! Same general idea, a fan letter. (He did reply to me, by the way.) So then I was stuck; I didn't know which foot came next. I slept on it, and woke up early with this narrative voice in my head that went "The Blue Mountains rise unexpectedly out of the hot land of south India." I got up and wrote that whole passage, which stayed mostly unchanged, beyond a little tinkering.

Once that voice had meandered on about mountains and roads, it really did feel as if it could go anywhere. That single passage opened up the story for me. I felt vastly empowered, being able to flit around wherever I wanted to in the story, which then became this larger web of story with Dini and Maddie's friendship at the center. It's a good thing I did it all incrementally and in small chunks. If I'd stopped to  think about what I was after, I'd probably have quit in a panic.

Julie: I do think reaching for that  "larger web"' (as you do) is so important. Good stories reach for something large and lasting - a  "Grand Plan," so to speak.

Uma: I suppose so, although in story construction as in life (real lives or fictional ones) the plan you think you have often disintegrates and needs revision. Is it Tim Wynne-Jones who says he never knows the themes of his stories until the reviewers point them out? When you're in the story forest you can't see its contours.  

Julie: I wonder if your understanding of a bigger picture, though, is a result of your world travels, speaking two different languages and having home exist for you in two places on opposite sides of the globe - India and the United States.

Uma: Maybe so. Or maybe it came from listening to people who had an instinctive grasp of narrative. My mother is quite a wonderful raconteur. The anecdotes she tells (from her youth, mine, family lore) get better with each telling, and they have a real sense of timing and direction). So I think I had many of those through-lines absorbed and digested quite early in my life without knowing it.   

Julie: Can you talk a little about whether going between the two expands your sense of belonging or restricts it - that is, do you feel completely at ease in both cultures, or do you feel like you never quite belong in either? Do you always long for one or the other, experiencing what Dini describes as the "push-pull " of wanting both places at once? Has any of that affected what you choose to write about?

Uma: It's like living in a perpetual state of contradiction, where things work differently depending on where you are. I find my accent changing, for one thing, which may seem like an affectation, but it's not, it just comes from a sense of needing to be understood in two very different contexts. I used to be  self-conscious about that but now I just accept that I can slip on the voice I need, where I am. It's a kind of chameleon quality that serves a fiction writer reasonably, perhaps. And yes, if we keep writing the same story over and over, mine has to be about living with contradiction and merging geographies.

Julie: How about telling me just a bit about your cats?

Uma: Oh our feline four! There's Yoda the senior, who's slowing down now, but has great dignity and resolve. Muon, Mu for short, is named for a physics particle (she's small and fast). And Frodo and Sam, the twins who showed up in the yard one summer with their mother, were orphaned in a dreadful plot twist by a passing truck, and now consider poor Mu to be their mother. She resists this role with great vigor but occasionally gives in and condescends to be nice to them. Stop me, stop me! I could go on about them. They're alien souls, no question, from some other dimension.

Julie: Thank you, Uma! As always, you are so generous with your time. I wish our chat-with-tea-and-biscuits had been real. You've written a wonderful book, full of life and full of lovely little bits of wisdom. Here are some of my favorite lines:

Favorite #1: "This is a thing that no one ever needs to do in the movies, but real life can require a good blowing of the nose sometimes. "

Favorite #2, when Dini accidentally spits out a bite of biscuit:  "It is too bad they can't just do this all over. Retakes are a good thing, but life doesn't let you save the bloopers for the archives and try that scene again."

Favorite #3: "Dini wants to tell Chickoo Uncle that if he'd only told her this in the first place, it could have sped things up a bit. But then she thinks, That is just the way it is with plots. Tell too much too soon and it's all over. There's no story left. Besides, while coping with heartbreak, a person cannot hit the pause button to go off and tell other people small details like this. That kind of thing just ruins the fillum."

Notice to the many Hollywood producers who read The Drift Record: This is a natural for a movie!!                            

Illustration by Abigail Halpin

By the way, today (June 8th) is Best Friends Forever today - here's to Dini and Maddie!!!

Here is a link to a video trailer  about the book, with scenes from India, too. And here is a link to Uma's blog, Writing with a Broken Tusk. And there's even a GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING Giveaway! Here are the details:
Bangles and Books for the Giveaway

A Grand Giveaway! Three lucky Grand Prize winners will each receive one copy of THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING along with a starry assortment of bangles and trinkets that Dolly Singh, famous famous Bollywood movie star, would adore! An additional 3 runners-up will receive a copy of THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING. To enter, send an e-mail to GrandPlanGiveaway@gmail.com. In the body of the e-mail, include your name, mailing address, and e-mail address (if you're under 13, submit a parent's name and e-mail address). One entry per person and prizes will only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses. Entries must be received by midnight (PDT) on 6/30/11. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on 7/1/11 and notified via email.

Wow - there's even a downloadable Activity Kit with word searches, sari art, a recipe for Curry Puffs...! You can read more tomorrow at the next stop on the blog tour - Write Now. And to order the book online, try Powell's Books, a lovely independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon.

12 comments:

Sarah Blake Johnson said...

Wonderful to let us eavesdrop your kitchen table conversation. Thank you Julie and Uma for a wonderful interview.

Blessy said...

This interview made me smile and laugh. I imagined myself sitting there, listening and sipping tea with the both of you. Thank you Julie and Uma.

Anonymous said...

Please pass the tea and biscuits, the ones with a hint of ginger. Meanwhile I will log onto Powell's and order "The Grand Plan to Fix Everything." Thank you for inviting us to listen in and to watch the book trailer. That was fun! Nancy Bo Flood

Ginger Johnson said...

Biscuits with a hint of ginger??? So lovely, and so nice to "hear" both your voices again. Best to you both.

Rebeccca Van Slyke said...

Thank you, Julie and Uma, for letting us take tea with you! (I was sipping my very real cup of green chai tea as I read this.)I loved the (much-needed) writing advice, and can't wait to read the book. Love you both!
R~

Margaret Nevinski said...

Margaret Nevinski said...

Uma and Julie, you are so funny. Thanks for the smiles and the tea. My two cats, Max and Zoey, enjoyed the interview, too.

Myra Garces-Bacsal from GatheringBooks said...

Amazing interview! I really enjoyed the 'virtual kitchen' bit - I can taste the cookie crumbs from here in Singapore. This is a timely piece since Uma just won the recent Scholastic Book Prize Award in the recently concluded Asian Festival of Children's Content. I have yet to read this book, but it appears truly engaging. Will remedy that soon.

Ruth said...

What a GREAT interview! I really enjoyed reading it and can't wait to read the book.

Marjorie said...

So lovely to be able to share in your virtual tea-party - a gorgeous interview. While reading your and other posts in Uma's blog tour,it's come up a few times about bringing in the external scenes like the post office - and when I think about it, I realise that it was quite daring, but when I was reading the book, I was so carried along by the story and the delightful characters, that I just lapped it up without thinking. It's a wonderful book and I loved hearing more about it here - and about correspondence with P.G.Wodehouse (Oh my goodness - stars in the eyes) and cats. Thank you!

Marc Boyle and Daphne Kalmar said...

Thanks Uma and Julie. Great interview. I loved The Grand Plan...funny, charming, full of heart, along with a fantastic Bollywoodesque complex plot made invisible by a master storyteller!

Sylvia Ferry Smith said...

This brings me back to your voices sharing wisdom at my first VCFA workshop--it was January and 20 below--you made sure we had a teapot to go along with our kumquats (no not biscuits). Thank you Julie and Uma for this refreshing conversation.