hitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning author and poet. Her themes include women, immigration, the South Asian experience, history, myth, magic, and celebrating diversity. She writes both for adults and children. Her books have been translated into twenty languages, including Dutch, Hebrew, Russian, and Japanese. Two novels, The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart, have been made into films. Her short story collection,
Arranged Marriage, won an American Book Award. Her most current book, which she will discuss with us today, is One Amazing Thing from Hyperion. She teaches creative writing at the University of Houston.
WOW: Welcome to WOW!, Chitra. We are so honored to have you as a guest for our fiction issue since this is your specialty! Your new novel, One Amazing Thing, is the story of nine people who are in a passport and visa office when an earthquake traps them together. How did you come up with this idea?
Chitra: The genesis of this book is deeply rooted in personal experience (though most of my earlier books are not). I wouldn’t even have thought about writing this book if it weren’t for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and a major California earthquake I experienced in 1989.
When I was volunteering with Hurricane Katrina refugees in Houston in 2005, I first started thinking about the whole phenomenon of grace under pressure. Some of the people I worked with were very angry. Some of them were devastated. But others were able to maintain calm or even joke about things. I kept asking myself, Why? Why some and not the others?
A few weeks later I was experiencing a similar situation first hand—Hurricane Rita was coming through Houston, and we were asked to evacuate. As we sat on the freeway late into the night, paralyzed by traffic and wondering what would happen to us, I saw people around me, responding in many different ways. The pressure brought out the worst in some and the best in others. Some were toting guns, snarling at people, getting into fistfights; others were sharing their meager supplies of water and snacks. That’s when I knew I’d have to explore this phenomenon in a book.
“I eavesdrop at parties. That's always a great source.”
WOW: So, One Amazing Thing sounds a little different than other books you’ve written: “The genesis of this book is deeply rooted in personal experience (though most of my earlier books are not).” Where do most of your ideas for books come from then?
Chitra: Although the ultimate inspiration for books and stories remains a mystery to me, I get a lot of kernels from observing the world around me, particularly Indian or Indian American communities. I get ideas from reading, too—magazines and newspapers as well as novels and stories. I eavesdrop at parties. That's always a great source.
WOW: (smiles) Yes! Many writers recommend the eavesdropping method—when working on realistic dialogue, too. Even though One Amazing Thing is a work of fiction, how much research did you have to do? What subjects did you have to research?
Chitra: I spoke to disaster survivors, researched earthquakes, and researched the psychology of survival. Then I had to research the backgrounds of all the characters, particularly those from different ethnicities, such as Cameron, the African-American Vietnam vet. I had to research different time periods especially for the older characters who grew up in the 1950s. I had to research the Muslim religion (when writing Tariq’s sections) and the situation in the U.S. after 9/11 for Muslim-Americans.
WOW: You have nine characters altogether, and each play a large role in this book. What type of character development work did you do to prepare for this novel?
Chitra: In addition to the research, I took notes on the characters. I had different segments of a notebook for each one of them. There I wrote everything I knew or could figure out about the character’s personality, appearance, conflicts, shortcomings, desires, etc.
WOW: I imagine notes were very important for you to keep everything straight. Most of us use notes when we have just one main character! What was the reason for choosing nine extremely different characters to tell the story in One Amazing Thing?
Chitra: Though the background is one of natural disaster, One Amazing Thing is a novel of psychological analysis rather than a novel of physical rescue. It is a novel that primarily examines whether a community can be built and whether true communication is possible, through storytelling, among a group of strangers who have nothing in common (or so they think) except a desire to go to India. To make this truly effective, I had to create characters who were different in terms of race, age, and religion. One Amazing Thing is made up of Indians, Indian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Caucasians, and an African-American. They are Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and agnostic. Their ages range from the 70s to 13. And yet, they are able to connect in unexpected ways as they embark on their emotional journey.
WOW: That is truly the strength of this novel—how the characters connect with one another during the tragedy. How did you come up with the title for this novel?
Chitra: Often, I have to struggle for titles; but this one came to me, all of a sudden, in the voice of Uma, the character who says, in the novel, that in everyone’s life there is at least one amazing thing. And as soon as I heard it, I knew that it was deeply related to the central themes of the novel, which are all mysterious and amazing: Which unexpected events in our life shape us and why? How do we fall in—and out of—love? Why do we feel compassion?
“I try to balance things—some description, some dialogue, some action. But the best thing is when I can make something do double duty.”
WOW: How do you keep the pace of the novel moving while still including plenty of setting and character description?
Chitra: It’s tricky. I try to balance things—some description, some dialogue, some action. But the best thing is when I can make something do double duty. For instance, a character will do something important, which will move the plot along; but at the same time, the action throws light on character motivation and maybe interacts with setting (it takes place in a particular locale, which also sets a mood or tone). Also, at the same time, characters are talking to each other, and this throws further light on their relationship.
Great writers do this all the time. I recommend analyzing your favorite scenes from books you admire and noticing how the writer juggles all these balls. Tim O'Brien in the story “The Things They Carried” is a master at balancing different elements and surprising us by how unusually he reveals information.
WOW: What a great idea to analyze some of our favorite scenes to figure out pacing and description! When you write a novel, what are you focusing on the most? The plot, characters, or universal themes?
Chitra: I always start with characters and a central conflict. If I don’t understand the characters and feel for them, I can’t write any further.
WOW: You have a short story collection published—Arranged Marriage, which won an American Book Award. Tell us about this short story collection and winning the award.
Chitra: Arranged Marriage was my first book of fiction. It is a collection of stories about immigrant life, mostly Indian-American women, and how immigration transforms our lives in positive and negative ways. I hadn’t expected to win anything at all, so the American Book Award came as a wonderful surprise. I think the prize helped my career a great deal.
“Make the manuscript the best it can be and then find an agent.”
WOW: Congratulations to you! Awards are always a nice surprise. Many short story writers dream of getting collections like Arranged Marriage published, but many publishing houses do not accept these types of submissions. What is your advice for short story writers who aspire to have their own collections published?
Chitra: No matter what kind of book you want to publish, it helps if you get an agent. I’m sure I couldn’t have published Arranged Marriage so easily if my wonderful agent, Sandra Dijkstra, hadn’t taken the first three stories to New York, shown them around, and sold them to Anchor/Doubleday. So, my advice: make the manuscript the best it can be and then find an agent. It also helps if you publish some of the stories in well-reputed magazines.
WOW: Thank you for the tips. When writing short stories, do you do research and character work before writing like you do with novels?
Chitra: Not in such depth, but I still have to understand my characters and their central conflict and what they want.
“I had decided, early on, that the book was my work, but the film was the director’s, so I didn’t mind that the films were different from the books.”
WOW: Characters are the key, it seems, to literature that stays with readers long after they read the last page. Last issue, we focused on books to film. Two of your books have been made into movies. What was this experience like for you?
Chitra: Mistress of Spices was made into a film in the UK and released worldwide. The directing team was Gurinder Chadha and Paul Berges, who made Bend it like Beckham.
Sister of My Heart was made into a Tamil television film in India and went on to win five awards.
Both were positive experiences and brought new readers to the books. I had decided, early on, that the book was my work, but the film was the director’s, so I didn’t mind that the films were different from the books.
WOW: That is the perfect attitude to have, and the same advice a lot of the writers gave in our last issue. Congratulations again to you on your success with your fiction work! What is your writing routine like?
Chitra: I try to write at least four times a week for several hours at a stretch. I write directly on my computer, and I usually write early in the day.
WOW: On your website, you show us a picture of your muse, Juno. Please share with us information about your muse and how he helps your writer’s block.
Chitra: Juno is our hybrid Golden Retriever. She loves to lie on the floor next to me while I write. She has a very positive, patient, and calm presence. When I get writer’s block, I rub her belly. Sometimes, I get down on the floor and lie down next to her or play with her. I think the break gives me perspective and allows my subconscious to kick in.
WOW: What a great way to clear your writer’s block, and I’m sure Juno enjoys it, too! Do you have any writing books you recommend for fiction writers or that you even refer to yourself occasionally?
Chitra: I often tell my students to read these books, which I have found helpful: John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway, and for those starting out, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
WOW: Thank you for those great recommendations. Fill us in—what projects are you currently working on?
Chitra: I am working on a quest novel where a young Indian woman discovers that the father she believed to be dead is actually alive and living somewhere in the U.S. She embarks on a search for him and discovers some crucial things about herself in the process. It is tentatively titled Oleander Girl.
WOW: It sounds great, and we’ll look for it on bookshelves in the future. Thank you, Chitra, for sharing your insight on fiction writing and your newest novel with WOW! readers.
To find out more about Chitra, visit her website:
Margo L. Dill is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher, living in Mahomet, Illinois. Her work has appeared in publications such as Grit, Pockets, True Love, Fun for Kidz, Missouri Life, ByLine Magazine, and The News-Gazette. She is a columnist and contributing editor for WOW! Women On Writing. She is assistant editor for the Sunday Book page in The News-Gazette. Her first book, Finding My Place, a middle-grade historical novel, will be published by White Mane Kids. She writes a blog called, Read These Books and Use Them, for parents, teachers, and librarians.
She owns her own copyediting business, Editor 911. When she's not writing, she loves spending time with her husband, stepson, and two dogs—Chester, a boxer, and Hush Puppy, a basset hound. You can find out more about Margo by visiting her website: www.margodill.com. Find out more about the workshops Margo teaches by visiting WOW’s Classroom Page.