Padma, despite her busy schedule around book signing events, has answered a few questions about her novel Climbing the Stairs, and her writing career in general. Padma will also be available to take questions from readers throughout today and if you happen to stop by on Saffron Tree, please don't forget to leave a comment.
Please join me in welcoming Padma Venkatraman to Saffron Tree!
Most of your earlier books were for younger readers as opposed to Climbing The Stairs, which is intended for young adults/adults. Could you share with us your thoughts on the differences/similarities in writing for different age groups- in terms of time, research, and other aspects that you had to be aware of while working on Climbing the Stairs?
A simile I use is that writing a picture book is like sprinting for a 100m dash, while writing a novel is like running a marathon. There are some fundamental differences in the mindset one needs for each type of effort, although both require some fundamentally similar writing skills.
CLIMBING THE STAIRS is set during a period of Indian history that I find incredibly intriguing and interesting – a time when the world was engaged in World War II and Gandhi was leading the nonviolent Indian struggle for independence from the British. I first fell in love with this time period when I was writing a short story for younger children, but realized that there was just so much more to this era than I could fit into a short story for the middle-grade age group. Writing a novel, of course, implied many more years of research, many more months of time in libraries, many more books to read, many more websites to look at, many interviews to conduct with people who experienced India in the 1940’s.
A lot of complex issues are raised in the book (for example, the impact of British colonization on India), and while my characters argue and debate many questions, they don’t arrive at any answers or conclusions, partly because I feel many of the questions they ask are too complex to have one simple categorical answer. Some very serious and very different threads are woven into the fabric of my novel which are, I think, better suited to discussion by young adults and adults: World War II, prejudice (racial, societal, and gender-based), Peace and nonviolence, Indian philosophy, Judaism in India, etc.
This – the subject matter and the way I wanted to deal with it, my desire to show the different complicated facets of each question – made it immediately obvious that the target age group had to be older. I guess what I’m trying to say is that a fundamental difference between writing for kids versus adults (young or old) is the subject matter (or theme) and its treatment (or the approach you want to take).
The language and the metaphors you use are, of course, also very different when you write for different age groups. For instance, even the title of the novel – CLIMBING THE STAIRS – is a metaphor that works on several different levels. Vidya must climb the stairs in secret to reach the forbidden realm that awaits her, but there are other ways to interpret the title. A woman whose book club recently chose to read CLIMBING THE STAIRS told me that one of the questions to discuss is what the title means – the many ways to interpret that phrase.
Do you think your writing has changed or evolved over the years since your first book got published?
CLIMBING THE STAIRS was a quantum leap in my writing career. It is very special to me, and without a doubt my best work thus far, head and shoulders above anything else I’ve ever written. The novel is all consuming and it transported me to a different time and place. It took my blood and sweat – none of my other books was as much work or had such a deep emotional hold over me. So yes, I do think my writing has evolved greatly over the years.
Another difference between CLIMBING THE STAIRS and my previous work was the strong relationship I developed with my editor at Penguin. I respect him totally and completely. He is my very best editor, over and above anyone else I’ve ever worked with. In fact, I respect all the people who’ve helped in various ways with the book at Penguin-Putnam: the publisher, the editorial assistants, the publicity and marketing personnel. The high degree of professionalism and dedication shown by everyone at this publishing house is amazing – it is (hands down) the best publication house I’ve had the honor to interact with – every step of the way. And the success the novel has already enjoyed (the starred review in Booklist, the starred review in Publishers Weekly, the Booksense Notable citation, the nomination for Reading Across Rhode Island, the nomination for one of ALA’s 2009 Best Books lists) is certainly a shared success and the result of a group effort by us all.
What were the challenges you faced getting access to the publishing industry here in the U.S. as a person of Asian origin?
One of the greatest challenges was getting the manuscript accepted for publication. I remember the first day that I had a letter from an agent asking to see the manuscript. Elated, I sent it off. A month later, I heard from her. My writing was beautiful, she said. CLIMBING THE STAIRS was a wonderful story. But, she said, she didn’t think Americans would really find it interesting. Then I heard from a second agent. My hopes soared as I sent the manuscript off a second time. But her response was almost exactly the response of the first agent. She loved CLIMBING THE STAIRS, said many wonderful things about it, but felt no editor would be willing to buy it.
Then three agents asked to see it and the first to complete the reading told me, “I read and re-read CLIMBING THE STAIRS and I cried over it each time I read it.” She signed me on, and she sold it. Ironically, my editor said he accepted my manuscript precisely because it was different, because it told him something new. So that was certainly an interesting twist!
However, one of my challenges now in the United States is: How do I get people to see CLIMBING THE STAIRS as a book that happens to be multicultural rather than as “yet another multicultural book”? We’ve had so many wonderful women writers who are of South Asian origin but it’s sad that sometimes we are seen first as South Asian and then as writers, rather than the other way around.
I fear sometimes that CLIMBING THE STAIRS will be stereotyped as yet another book about India, rather than appreciated for the different threads that are woven into it. The multiple facets of my book could provide fuel for passionate discussion in classrooms at schools and universities, and at book clubs such as: Gandhian and Kingian nonviolence, the contributions of colonies to the WWII effort, Judaism in India, Indian philosophers, the inner realities of faith. Some of the fundamental questions in the book are: is war sometimes inevitable, what does violence mean, does nonviolence work, how does colonialism impact cultures, what is common among different types of prejudice. Those are issues and questions that transcend culture and are fundamental to us all. The reason my book speaks to people here is because human beings everywhere are essentially the same.
But if a reader does not move beyond the fact that the book is set in India featuring a strong female protagonist, there is the very real possibility that it will be viewed (or even dismissed) as a book about India and Women’s rights. That would be a great pity. Because although these are both extremely important aspects of the book, it has more to offer. Kitta is a really important character in the book, and his struggles are as fundamental to the plot as Vidya’s.
I’d like to end, though, by saying I’m very encouraged by the fact that the book has been nominated for Reading Across Rhode Island. One of the criteria for this nomination is that a book should speak to men as well as women and should have crossover appeal for adults, teenagers, and senior citizens. It’s very heartening to know that some readers feel convinced this is the case, enough to nominate my title. I’m also thrilled to say that some booksellers have been selling my book on adult as well as young adult sections of their store, which indicates their belief that it appeals to a wide audience.
I’ve already had a number of adults including senior citizens write me emails demanding “Why is CLIMBING THE STAIRS categorized as young adult? It should be for all adults.” My answer is this: books for adults are sometimes inappropriate for young adults, but books for young adults often should be read by everyone, young or old. I wanted the book to be accessible and appropriate for young adults because I feel they have the power to change the world – teens are idealistic – they aren’t jaded the way many grown-ups can be. But it is wonderful to hear from adults who enjoy the book as well, and I’m certainly delighted to know that adults are appreciating it.
Labels and categories shouldn’t keep people from enjoying a book for what it is – a novel is a novel, regardless of the labels applied to it.
What are your hopes for Climbing the Stairs?
I hope readers will see that some of the questions the characters struggle with are still highly relevant, as relevant in America today as they were in India in 1941. What does it mean to be a colonial or occupying power? Is war inevitable during certain circumstances? What is violence and how do we internalize it? My characters don’t provide answers in the book to any of those questions – partly because I feel there is no one correct solution to the issues raised, partly because my scientific training has dinned it into me that a good question is often far more important than any answer. Those issues are of current interest – and the book could serve as a vehicle for readers to discuss these issues with a certain level of objectivity and distance, given the historical perspective.
Any advice for the wannabe-writers - children, young adults and grown-ups like me?
Be patient. Writing well takes time and effort as does everything else. Wait, let it happen, and believe in yourself.
Networking with agents, publishers and bookstores - could you share with us your experiences on this front ?
I don’t think I consciously tried to network with them, ever. However, I would advise aspiring writers for children to join SCBWI – it is a very useful organization. Writers for adults – look around, ask around and visit a reputable organization that specializes in your area of writing – they usually have conferences and publications that may be useful to you. Those looking for agents should definitely do all they can to research the agents background, educate themselves about avoiding scams, and ensure that they are familiar with the AAR (association of author representatives). And please remember that reputable agents and reputable publishers NEVER ask you to pay them any money. In my opinion, agents should make money purely off what they sell, and publishers should pay you (not the other way around).
What can we look forward to from Padma Venkatraman? I presume there's another book of yours coming out next year? Could you tell us a little bit about your next book?
Last summer, my agent sold my second novel to my editor at Penguin. It’s called Island’s End. It’s written in two voices – which is a wonderful challenge – and in writing it I drew upon my experiences as a researcher in a remote location.
Thank you for taking your time to answer our questions. We, at Saffron Tree, wish you the very best with your book. From the reviews online, it is nice to learn that Climbing the Stairs has already been climbing the charts!
FYI: Climbing the Stairs is now widely available independent bookstores as well as chains such as Barnes and Noble and online at amazon.com.
Please don't miss Padma's upcoming blogtour stops, which include:
1. Friday, May 23rd. Exploring issues of faith, culture and colonization in CLIMBING THE STAIRS; Gandhi and Martin Luther King at Olugbemisola Perkovich’s blog http://olugbemisola.livejournal.com/ (author of Eight Grade Superzero, coming in 2009).
2. Saturday, May 24th. Travel, living in different Indian cities and different countries, how this has influenced my writing at http://blogpourri.blogspot.com/
3. Sunday, May 25th. Being a writing mom, finding time to write, parenthood and writing at http://desimomzclub.blogspot.com/
4. Monday, May 26th. Where were the British colonies during WWII? A few funky facts I unearthed while doing background research for CLIMBING THE STAIRS at author Laura Purdie Salas’s blog. http://laurasalas.livejournal.com/
5. Tuesday, May 27th. CLIMBING THE STAIRS. The process of writing the novel, weaving together the different threads. http://the5randoms.wordpress.com/
6. Wednesday, May 28th. Oceanography, research and CLIMBING THE STAIRS. Making my schizophrenia work to my advantage. My (at least two) personalities. What it’s like to spend your 21st birthday on a research vessel at author Greg Fishbone’s blog. http://tem2.livejournal.com/
7. Thursday, May 29th. What exactly is that dot on the forehead all about? Arranged marriages, Women in India in the 1940’s, Indian marriages today, gender equality issues in CLIMBING THE STAIRS, anything else you ever wanted to know about India at author Carrie Jones’s blog. http://carriejones.livejournal.com/
Friday, May 30th. The grand finale. Moving to America, Becoming an American, Multicultural writing at author Mitali Perkins’s blog. http://www.mitaliblog.com/