An Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: From one author to another

I remember I was just a teenager in Lucknow when I picked up Chitra Banerjee's Mistress of Spices. I was so enamoured by her writing that I devoured all book shops to find everything that she had written. And since then I have been picking up every book of hers. She writes with an incredible flair and depicts her characters and situations with such intricate textures that one is simply mesmerised by the end of the book.

She has won several awards across the world and won many hearts along her journey. She is warm, friendly and very down to earth. When I met her for the first time at the Jaipur Lit Fest, she was sitting with a cup of chai under a tree most willing to give autographs to whoever recognised her and blushing at the praise when many people wanted to take photographs.

Her latest book Oleander Girl will be released in April in India.

I had the pleasure of interviewing my favourite author. This is the first part of the two part series.

The Interview: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
1. You have been in the United States for several decades, yet you write about a deep rooted Indian mentality in your books. Is it easier to write about Indian tales and characters than American ones?
My stories deal with people of various racial backgrounds, but it is true that I am most interested in writing about Indians or Indian Americans. My deepest knowledge is of the Indian psyche. My stories are often set in America, so they often depict Indians in an American landscape.
2. How do you take inspiration from your surroundings while writing?
I actually go into the world of the imagination as I write. I like to write in a quiet space in my study with no outside stimulus.
3. Do you think of a plot first or do character sketches?
Character is always most important to me. In Sister of My Heart, I had to first understand the characters of the two cousins, Sudha and Anju, and the character of the old mansion they live in. In Palace of Illusions, I made copious notes about Draupadi, who is the narrator and heroine of the book.
4. What was the one incident that made you want to write? Did you want to do anything else besides be a writer?
I always wanted to teach, and I do that even now. I teach Creative Writing in the University of Houston. My grandfather’s death made me into a writer because I felt a deep need to preserve my memories of him through writing.
5. Do you prefer writing or teaching? Why?
I love them both. Each one complements the other. Because I write, I can teach writing. Because I teach, I read and analyze important new novels carefully.
6. What are the top 3 things that you would teach your writing class that no one in India knows about?
I teach my students to read widely and read as a writer, taking texts apart, analyzing craft techniques and structure. I tell them to write regularly, show their work to someone knowledgeable, and revise carefully. (Writers in India may already know this!)
7. Between poetry, short stories, novels; fantasy, young adult, magical realism, historical fiction, which one is your favourite? What moves you to write one genre over another?
Novels are my favorite. They are very intricate. You create a whole world when you write a novel. I love that challenge.
8. Do you write one book/ poem/ story at a time or are there many thoughts that you pen down together?
One at a time.
9. Tell us the process of writing a book from an idea to culmination. Do you have a structure, characters in mind or is there what writers call an“organic growth” in the thoughts?
I outline and take notes, but then I allow the organic growth to take over.
10. Do you write everyday? If so, where is your favourite place to write? A desk, a room, café?
I write about 3 days a week (I teach the other days). I write at home in my study where it is quiet.
11. How do you overcome distractions while writing? With family and your involvement with non profit organizations, teaching, etc how do you find time to focus and what tips would you give to others who have a busy life to find time for writing?
One needs to set aside time for writing and organize one’s life so that no other responsibilities need to be handled at that time. This might mean waking up early, or writing till late at night. It also helps if we can simplify our life and cut out unnecessary activities.
12. Did you always write what you wanted and it was published or were you commissioned to write books for a particular market?
I always come up with the ideas for my books on my own.
13. When you started writing The Palace of Illusions which is my favourite book, did you do a lot of research and then take the story forward? Was the history a burden while writing? What was the one thing you wanted to keep in mind while writing the book?
Yes, I did a lot of research. Yes, it was hard to organize the material. I kept in mind that I wanted to show how Draupadi is a very human, very timeless woman.
14. Was it difficult to explain the concepts of India – arranged marriage, Draupadi’s vastraharan, the mysteries of family and relationships in India to a foreign audience or students?
Sometimes when I am reading in the above situations, I have to explain and set up the scene. But overall I find readers are intelligent enough to get the human story under the cultural details.
15. Do you ever have a target audience in mind while writing?
No. It’s important just to write the best book possible.
16. Is marketing an important part of your journey as a writer? Or did you write and the book sales managed themselves? Is it easier to sell copies in USA or India?
Nowadays my publisher requests me to go on book tour to help bring the book to many different audiences. Beyond that, I don’t worry much about book sales since they are not in my hands anyway.


Smita said…
I love her books & am waiting for it to release here in India. APril you said?
Anonymous said…
Its always interesting to see what is an author's favourite book.
What was Chitra's favourite book so far ? I mean from a different author

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