Note to the readers – This interview was originally conducted in January 2019. You can check out our January 2019 Issue here.
- How did the journey from working on Odd Jobs like babysitting, store clerk etc.turn towards writing? Was it a passion?
I think immigration made me into a writer. It opened up so many experiences (because for the first time I was working at all these jobs and also just struggling to survive financially and living away from my family). Writing helped me deal with these experiences and also to make sense of immigrant life. It also helped me to put into words what (from halfway across the world) India meant to me.
2. Your novels are based on multiple genres like realistic fiction, historical fiction, myth, and fantasy, etc. Do you feel that readers are fascinated by the real-life more or somewhat imagination/fantasy also is a motivation to read?
I think there are both kinds of readers. For instance, one of my very popular books is Sister of My Heart—that is completely realistic, beginning in 1970s India and moving to the US as one of the main characters gets married and settles there. On the other hand, The Palace of Illusions is probably my most popular book so far, and that is set in mythic times. So I think what matters most is that the characters need to come to life so that readers can relate to them.
3. You also co-founded a helpline for South Asian women battling domestic abuse. Was any real incident/case behind the initiative?
Yes, indeed. There were a couple of cases in the San Francisco area, where I lived at that time, of women in really bad situations of abuse and despair with nowhere to turn. One of them tried to commit suicide. It really shocked me when I met her afterward. I got together with a group of my women friends and we decided something needed to be done. There needed to be an organization that women in distress or despair could reach out to. Thus we founded Maitri. Now Maitri has grown immensely and helps many women start new lives each year. In Houston, I am on the Advisory Board of a similar organization called Daya.
4. Tell us about the book ‘The Forest of Enchantments’.
It is the retelling of the Ramayan in Sita’s voice, her point of view. In it, I show Sitaat different stages of her life: when she is a girl and falls deeply in love with Ram at first sight when she insists on leaving Ayodhya and going with him to the forest, her darkest times after being abducted by Ravan, her happiness when she is finally queen of Ayodhya, her ultimate banishment to the forest by Ram, and her strength as she brings up her sons on her own. I have tried to imagine her thoughts and feelings, her happiness, and her pain, her relationship with the other women in the Ramayan, and how the world appears through her eyes. I have tried to show that the age-old patriarchal evaluation of her character as meek and mild and a silent sufferer isn’t really correct. It is a project very much like The Palace of Illusions, where I retold the Mahabharat from Draupadi’s viewpoint.
5. What kind of research have you been doing while authoring your books? Or your real-life observations/experience led you to write the books?
Both real-life observations and library research are part of my writing process. Even in writing The Forest of Enchantments, I used both kinds. I read up on many different versions of the Ramayan and delved into whatever scholarly material is available about life in those times. But I also listened to popular folk songs about Sita and asked many people for their opinion of Sita’s character.
6. Do you think few people may differ with you regarding some events or subplots that you have written? How do you deal with such situations/criticism?
Almost every event in The Forest of Enchantments is taken directly from Valmiki, Krittibas, the Kamba Ramayan, or the Adbhuta Ramayan. It is only my interpretation of the characters and their motivation that is unique. And if people disagree with that interpretation, that is of course their right, as long as they have a good reason. I always listen to criticism and check carefully to see if there is something for me to learn so I can become a better writer. But if it is only someone’s opinion not based on any fact (or sometimes–sadly–opinions of people who haven’t even read the book), then I don’t take it too seriously.
7. In any of your books, is there any true-life story of any person(s)?
I have sometimes been inspired by true-life stories, but I always change key elements carefully so that the characters become fictional. I don’t really want to make use of any specific person’s life—or trauma—to create my books. Of course, I have used powerful historical events, such as the post-Godhra violence in India, and the post 9/11 violence in American in novels like Oleander Girl and Queen of Dreams. And right now I am writing a historical novel with real-life characters.
8. What is the biggest surprise that you experienced after becoming a writer?
That is a tough question. Maybe it was that story ideas kept appearing. I had seriously been afraid, after writing my first novel, Mistress of Spices, that I’d run out of things to say that would interest readers! I am thankful that Goddess Saraswati has blessed me to continue writing. It is one of my greatest joys.
9. Words of wisdom for your readers and followers!
Reading is a wonderful activity—it opens up our worlds and our lives. It gives us empathy for those who are unlike us. It makes us deeply human. I love reading. I have to read a little bit every day. I tell everyone I know that they must keep reading so their minds and hearts can expand. I have a great deal of love and admiration for my readers.
The other side of the coin is, that without readers, there would be no writers. We’re in this together! So I’m deeply thankful to all my readers who keep me motivated to write by often asking me “what’s next?”
10. In what ways do you promote your books? Do you feel they add or detract your working time?
I have a website and some social media presence: Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram. I like interacting with my readers, so it’s quite enjoyable. I do keep a strict limit on the time I spend doing this—because it all comes out of writing time. And of course, when a new book is published, I do a tour. I am a somewhat nervous traveler, so I hope many readers will come to the events for The Forest of Enchantments and give me encouragement and support.
11. Other books you working on at present?
I am working on a historical novel, but I don’t want to give away the subject!
12. What do your future projects look like? Any plans for converting those books to movies?
I’m talking to several producers about the possibility of books being turned into movies or maybe Netflix serials. But I’m not allowed to divulge information at this point. All I can say to my readers is, keep your fingers crossed for me!
13. How do you feel about eBooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?
I have actually become quite fond of e-books. They are so helpful when I travel, and more earth-friendly as well. But I must say when I held a copy of The Forest of Enchantments in my hands, it was a very special feeling. I feel one should try conventional publishing first. You get so much help. For instance, my wonderful editor Diya Kar at HarperCollins gave me so much helpful feedback. But alternative publishing is becoming very strong now, because of small presses, Amazon, etc. Certainly, something to be considered.
14. For those interested in exploring the subject or theme of your book, where should they start?
I invite everyone to my website, www.chitradivakaruni.com. There is quite a bit of information about all my books there.
15. Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
I have been inspired by stalwarts such as Tolstoy and Tagore, and strong women writers such as Mahasweta Devi, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood. They have all taught me the importance of writing about things I care deeply about, even if those are disturbing truths.
16. What is the most important thing that people DON’T know about your subject/genre, which they need to know?
One of the most important things people don’t know about the epics, particularly the Ramayan, is that it has existed in so many versions down the ages. So if we take up a fanatical attitude and say, no one should write their own version of the epics, or, no one should change what we think of Ram and Sita (which is actually based more on popular retellings and films than the original Valmiki) then we are going against the spirit of great writers like Tulsidas, Krittibas, Kamban and Chandravati who felt inspired to bring these characters to life in their own way.
17. What were your goals and intentions in the book ‘The Forest of Enchantments’, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
My goal in The Forest of Enchantments is to make people really think about Sita’s character and to have them admire her for the right reasons: because she was courageous, not meek. Because she was resilient, not long-suffering. Because at the most important moments of her life, she stood up for what she believed in, no matter what she had to give up for it.
18. What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?
Most useful: following a strict writing routine and reading a lot so I could learn from great books. Least useful: thinking that there is only 1 way to write a story. Or trying to copy popular novel structures or scenes. You have to come up with your own!
(As told to Pria)