Thursday, March 31, 2011

Interview With YA Fantasy Author Mahtab Narsimhan

I am delighted to have fantasy author Mahtab Narsimhan join me today in a chat about writing, inspiration, transformation and fantasy! 

Mahtab is a fellow Canadian and her latest novel is The Deadly Conch, the conclusion to the Tara Trilogy (Dundurn Press). I was so thrilled to find another South Asian woman writing fantasy YA when I met Mahtab in Toronto last year, and I immediately knew I wanted to learn more about her. 

Please join me in welcoming Mahtab!

NM: Please tell us about your publishing journey. Did you go the traditional route - getting an agent, then querying publishers?

MN: The road to publication of The Third Eye had quite a few pot holes. It took me about a year and a half to write it. I tried to get an agent and thought I was very fortunate when I landed one at a very reputable agency in Toronto. Unluckily she was not at all right for me or my manuscript. Rejections poured in. She gave up on me after eight months of trying to sell the manuscript. I was quite devastated at the time and ready to give up. But I had invested so much time, effort and sweat in this story that I was compelled to see it through. Also, this was a tribute to my dad. I told myself; I would give up on this manuscript only when every publisher in the world had rejected it.

I joined a critique group called Kidcrit, started by writer, Marsha Skrypuch. Fellow writers who are now close friends helped me streamline the manuscript – “sleekification” in kidcritter terminology! 

At an OLA conference in Jan 2007 I got my first break. Marsha introduced me to the Barry Jowett, the editorial director at Dundurn. He asked to see my manuscript and I sent it to him expecting yet another rejection. Two years of rejection had primed me too well to hope for anything else. To my shock and utter amazement, he said. He wanted to publish my book. What followed was a week of walking on air, a few months of agony as the contract was finalized and signed, and the joy of holding my first book in my hands, knowing that it was born out of countless hours of writing and rewriting but above all, not giving up.

NM: What an inspiring story!! I love tales about people not giving up on something they really believe in. I'm so glad you didn't give up.

So many South Asians writing in English seem to be writing contemporary realistic novels. Why did you choose to go the fantasy route?

MN: I love fantasy as a genre, always have, and always will. I started out reading a lot of Enid Blyton as a child and my favourite then used to be the Faraway Tree series. It was about the adventures of three siblings who discovered a magic tree in the forest which bordered their backyard. Every week, an exciting world floated to the top of the tree. Sometime it was fun, like the land of birthdays or the land of chocolate. Sometimes the world had dangerous goblins or wizards who captured the children as slaves.

Since then, numerous series have caught my interest. Noteworthy are The Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Also love Philip Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go. Life is tedious enough without having to dwell on it even when I am writing. Fantasy fiction allows me the freedom to veer away from the routine to the totally unpredictable, the fun, and the unimaginable. 

I realized that Asian protagonists were under-represented in children’s literature. I find Indian mythology quite fascinating and thought it would be great to bring it to the world in an interesting and palatable form.

NM: Speaking of palatable forms, I recently wrote a guest post on the dearth of genre stories available for young readers - for example, there are very few romances or mysteries or humour books featuring South Asians in YA. And YA author Y.S. Lee wrote a post called "Antidotes to Earnestness" where she writes that so many Asian-American books tend be "Earnest and Moralistic". Do you have any thoughts on this, and what would the teen Mahtab have liked to read?

MN: Loved your post, Neesha, and look forward to reading Jazz in Love. To answer your question, I believe literature subconsciously reflects the beliefs prevalent at a particular time or of a particular people. I think Asians were brought up this way. This is our culture and our way of life, or at least it used to be when I was growing up. Education and study took precedence over fun and frivolity. Education was the ticket to freedom from poverty for most average Asians, and they were driven to be academic over-achievers by their parents.

In a country where a billion people are struggling to survive, the situation is not in the least amusing and it’s no wonder that so many books written by authors who must now be in their fifties are serious and dealing with the problems of the time. A classic example is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. A poignant and brilliant book, but not in the least light-hearted. I honestly cannot recall what I read as I teen but a couple of books that come to mind are Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. And you will notice, both are very serious books. I would have loved something light and funny but I’m not even sure what the teen me would have liked. I used to be quite serious then.

NM: Yes, the serious literature is important and necessary, without a doubt. My issue, personally, is with the fact that for the longest time, that is all we seemed to see. Things are changing at a snail's pace, but it is happening. Hooray for more diverse stories featuring the full gamut of experiences of people of colour!

What are your thoughts on some of the changes happening in publishing, with the explosion of e-readers and digital technology? Are you enthusiastic, or worried?

MN: With the way technology is moving, it was inevitable. As long as our publishers change and adapt to keep up with the times, and we authors continue to get a fair deal for our work, I think we will continue to produce books which will be read by an even greater audience, especially those who would never pick up a book but can read a ton of material on their iPhones or iPads.

There are pros and cons to every situation. We just have to figure out the pros and learn how to use them to the best of everyone’s advantage.

NM: Definitely. Having more options is always a good thing :). You've mentioned that you are a working writer. How do you manage your time between promoting books, blogging, social media, writing, and working? Give us a snapshot of your typical day.

MN: I have a set time, a set place and a goal every day. Every morning from about 6 am to 8 am I devote to writing and I have to churn out 1500 words a day. This includes Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. And yes, even on my birthday!

An interesting fact I discovered is that most habits, good or bad, take about two weeks to form. I have followed this routine, i.e. writing early in the morning in my basement office and giving myself a daily quota, for the last six years. It’s a deeply ingrained habit and allows me to complete the first draft of a novel in about four to six months. In fact, now, if I have not finished my “homework” on a daily basis, I feel terribly guilty and even cranky.

I work with my husband at his office from about 9 am to about 6pm. Evenings are for research, social media and other activities.

I’ve learned over the years that no task is herculean if you break it down into little chunks and attack it every day. That hold true even for writing a novel.

NM: I envy your discipline! Something I keep trying to work on (grin). Will have to try that two week trick...

What is the best fan feedback you've ever received?

MN: I read your book within a day because I just could not put it down.

This was for The Third Eye and I was so pleased! To have your fans devour a book that took you years to write, in a few hours means I accomplished what I set out to do. I knew then, all that trouble, heartache and frustration was worth it!

NM: And I'm sure that reader spoke for dozens of others who are too shy to get in touch!

Tell us your favourite part of writing your trilogy, besides seeing it published :).

MN: For me, writing is a process of self-discovery. I didn’t realize it when I was writing the trilogy but seven years later when I wrote the synopsis for all three novels and the over-arching theme, I realized it was all about believing in yourself and not letting fear stop you from doing what you have to do. Fear of change and of the unknown have always been a huge source of anxiety for me and in writing this story I worked through it along with my feisty heroine,Tara.

Since 2009 when I finished the trilogy, I have embraced a philosophy of change and of constantly challenging myself. I’m surprised and proud to realize that I can meet anything head on without the numbing paralysis that used to overwhelm me at one time.

I quit my full-time, well paying job of twelve years to help my husband, thereby starting a fifth career (I have worked as a Front Office manager, a credit card sales executive, a recruiter, and a VP Operations previously). I learned how to do school presentations, starting with an audience of seventy-five students and working my way up to three thousand. Public speaking no longer terrifies me.

And now whenever I am presented with an opportunity that scares me, I make sure my answer is yes. I’ve never regretted it to date.

NM: I love bold, brave and daring women! I wish you much success with your books, Mahtab, and thank you, again, for taking the time to graciously answer all my questions.

EVERYONE, go buy Mahtab's books here and visit her (very cool) website here!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What's Going On

I've been meaning to post updates on my recent signing/reading events, but there is too much going on and I've allowed myself to become buried. But here are a few quick updates until I find time to do longer and more, um, picturesque (?) posts . . .

The Queens reading was absolutely lovely. Meeting teen readers is always a joy, but I've wanted to read in Queens, especially, since it has one of the largest immigrant populations in NYC. The class of pre-GED students we met with was one hundred percent teens of colour. Seriously. Every last one of them.

And the panel of readers? All white - and me. I couldn't help but wonder how many times a day those students see people who look nothing like them with a platform to freely express their opinions, values, ideas, and creative vision. I know what it was like for me as a teen, and then how powerful it was to finally see women of color speaking their truth boldly and without fear--and provided with a space to do so. Melina Marchetta was reading next to me and spoke beautifully, not just as an ally, but as a woman who could relate to the feeling of being "other" in a place you call home.

Here we are, above, at the Cupcake Cafe which adjoins Books of Wonder.

Speaking of which, I apologize to anyone who showed up at Books of Wonder and couldn't find copies of Jazz in Love. I'm not sure what the snafu was there, but for some reason my books did not arrive.  I will be there again on May 14th for the Diversity in YA tour, so please stop by then!

In non-writerly news, the whole Chris Brown/Rihanna thing has been really upsetting for me. Even more so than the Charlie Sheen thing. Maybe it's because my girls and so, so many teen girls of colour are hooked in to popular culture and idolize these icons. And my girls, in particular, have many questions I'm always flailing to answer in a way that makes sense to them. Or maybe it's because the dynamics of that relationship are so familiar to me. I don't know.

But things like this help - if you haven't read Daniel Jose Older's piece on Racialicious about men's violence against women, do so now. He also had some great tweets about the topic yesterday - one of which was, "Batterers control anger by not lashing out at judges, cops, their homies, etc. They control it & direct it at their spouses," and the following one, "So u can do all the anger management classes u want but ur just feeding the problem until u instill a foundation of respect towards women."

Chris Brown's recent actions highlight violence against women in our society in stark relief, and are a reminder of the way the Creative Life Force has so brutally been taken hostage in our world. I have to keep telling myself that the fight is raging strong. That more and more people are waking up. Hard to tell sometimes, but I think it's true.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Interview With Sarah Jamila Stevenson

Today, I am thrilled to host Sarah Jamila Stevenson, author of The Latte Rebellion. I was looking forward to reading this book since I first heard about it and was delighted by the plot turns and the Created Normal of the world in the pages. In other words, the "normal" of this book is PoC, in varying shades and hues, all described in latte terms :D. So, without further rambling from me, here's Sarah, in her own words!

NM: I love that Asha doesn't really have any angst about being a latte - she embraces it and kind of sees it as the norm (and in the world of your story, it IS the norm). What was your own journey to self-acceptance like? Was it long like mine (that body image thing is a pain)? Or was it easy and more of a non-issue?

SJS: I think the key word there is "journey." I feel like the challenges of
journeying toward self-acceptance have changed for me over time, and I
guess I could say that the journey doesn't seem like it's over! As a
latte myself, I felt a lot more caught between cultures when I was
growing up than Asha does in THE LATTE REBELLION. I wanted to be--felt
like--a regular mainstream American teenager, but the Pakistani side
of my family didn't always understand that. I wanted to respect my
Pakistani half without it being the entirety of who I am, but it was
really hard to explain that to my family or my friends or my
classmates. Every once in a while I'd have a big argument with my dad
about, say, why I wanted to go to a school dance--he'd talk about how
unseemly and immodest it was, and admonish me not to dance while I was
there, and while I didn't want to upset him, I also wanted to go and
dance and have fun with my friends. Or we'd argue over why I didn't
want to go to Islamic Sunday school. It made me feel like a terrible
and selfish daughter, but it also infuriated me because I felt like my
views should be respected, too. So I had some anger and frustration
about my identity, until I was able to move away for college and
figure out who I was on my own.

Really, most of the time it was a non-issue. Usually, it wouldn't even
come up unless someone asked me "what are you?" and I'd have to sigh
and give them this long and complicated answer with 7 or 8
nationalities in it. I grew up in a pretty diverse area, so I didn't
feel like I was too unusual.

NM: As I was reading your book, I kept thinking, "Asha needs to hang out with
Sam and Jazz." If you could plan a hang-out date with the three of them, how
do you think it would go? What would they talk about? What would Asha

SJS: Hee! I love this question. I bet there would be a lot of commiserating
and eye-rolling over strict parents on the part of Asha and Jazz, who
would envy Sam because of her cool, with-it mom. Asha would get the
appropriate amount of sympathy and outrage over the towel-head
incident. She would bring the lattes. :) And, of course, she'd wear a
Latte Rebellion t-shirt and bring shirts for Jazz and Sam!

NM: You mention above that your father is Pakistani. Yet, in your
book it is Asha's mother who is South Asian. What went into your
decision to switch the parent from your own experience?

SJS: In part, it was a little mental trick to keep me from slipping into
the role of identifying too much with the character, and inadvertently
turning her into me or unconsciously modeling her parents after mine.
It was something that worried me a little. Asha and I have some things
in common, but she's definitely not a stand-in for me, and I didn't
even want to be tempted in that direction. I wanted her to be her own
person. And I wanted to challenge stereotypes a little by making her
father--who's NOT the South Asian parent--the strict one.

NM: I read in Ari's interview with you that you did graduate work in
fiction writing, as did I. What would you say were the pros and cons
of doing an advanced degree in fiction writing? In retrospect, now
that you've seen your first book to publication, would you still have
gone that route?

SJS: I definitely would still have gone that route. Prior to my MFA, I
didn't have much knowledge of fiction writing except as an occasional
hobby--my undergraduate degree is in Art and Psychology. I desperately
needed the feedback and the additional background in literature and
craft. And what I've gotten out of it has been so much more than
that--specifically, a committed, diverse and very talented writing
group, and a far more critical eye about writing, both my own and
others'. As for the cons, I think they're the ones common to most
graduate programs, especially in the arts: personality conflicts, the
occasional teacher who played favorites, a relative lack of attention
to the realities of a career in the field. :) Overall, though, it was
a great experience--for me. I'm sure it's not the right route for
everyone, but I'm a school-loving nerd, so...

NM: What are you most proud of accomplishing so far? (This could be either
writing/publishing related, or otherwise general life related).

SJS: Getting my first novel published is definitely way up there! There was
a lot of pressure for success when I was growing up, perhaps
especially because I was younger than most people around me (I
graduated from high school at 16 and undergrad school at 20), and it's
a lot to live up to as an adult with the same advantages and
disadvantages as everyone else. Really, I think I'm the most proud of
having followed my dream of pursuing a career in the arts, despite
various naysayers and setbacks, rather than giving up and doing
something practical. :)

NM: I was very impressed to read somewhere that the doodling inside
the book was yours! As someone who is illustratively challenged, I find
this very impressive. Besides writing and doodling, what are other
ways you express your creativity?

SJS: Besides the graphic design I do as part of my day job, I still
consider visual art one of my vocations, so when I have time and
energy, I try to spend some time making artwork (generally drawing,
painting or printmaking). I can play the piano and sing a little,
though I wouldn't say I was either very creative or particularly
accomplished at it--I just enjoy it. I try to be a creative cook,
mainly because I like to eat yummy food, but again, I'm not going to
be on Iron Chef anytime soon!

Is it fair to say my messy office is one way I express my creativity??
Or is that just an excuse?

NM: What's next? Are you working on something new? I read that you are
fantasy/sci-fi fan - might we see something from you in that genre? :)

SJS: Yes, I love fantasy and sci-fi. I'm currently revising and trying to
find an agent for another YA novel, this one about a girl who develops
the power to hear thoughts in the wake of a family tragedy. (She's
also half South Asian! Go figure.) And I'm trying to get going on a
brand-new novel that's sort of a dystopian-ish steampunk-ish story of
intrigue. (That's all I can say about it for now. I'm still working on
the details and have only written about a page.)

NM: My friends and I sometimes daydream and share our Lofty Goals. Do you
have any Lofty Goals? Please share! These could be along the lines of "one
of my books gets a starred review in Kirkus," "I am asked to be a keynote
speaker at a national conference," "I set up a foundation to offer grants to
fiction writers of latte descent," or "PBS does a special on me and my

SJS: I managed to reach one of my lofty goals, thanks to my book--I got to
be on NPR! It was a local NPR program, but still, that was one of my
lifelong dreams. :) A starred review in Kirkus sounds great, too! I
think the lofty goal that's always floating around in the back of my
head is to be some kind of Intellectual Icon. I'm not sure what that
entails, exactly, but hopefully it includes getting invited to TED
conferences and being consulted as an expert on some impressively
esoteric topic.

NM: I've had some of the TED fantasies, too! ;D Thank you so much,
Sarah, for stopping by!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Queens Reading & A Quote

Wanted to share this wonderful quote I saw in an email today from an amazing feminist teacher. I did not ask if I could mention her name, so you will just have to trust me when I say that she is fantastic beyond words :):

"I think the importance of doing activist work is precisely because it allows you to give back and to consider yourself not as a single individual who may have achieved whatever, but to be a part of an ongoing historical movement."  – Angela Davis 

What an absolutely lovely way to start off the day! That quote encompasses everything writing is for me. Personal achievement means little if everything around me stays the same. My kids still have to grow up in the mess and the beauty that is this world and if I can do something to elevate the beauty and reduce the mess . . . that is accomplishment enough for me.

In other news -- I have been very excited to read in Queens, NY, because it is home to one of the largest Asian/South Asian populations in the city. When I volunteered at SAYA! (South Asian Youth Action), I was lucky enough to work with some of those diverse Queens teens and it was always the highlight of my week. 

As part of the Teen Author Fest, I will be reading with Melina Marchetta, Barry Lyga and Brent Crawford on Thursday, March 17th from 10-12 at the Long Island City branch (37-44 21st Street, LIC, NY 11101), then signing books that Sunday (the 21st) at Books of Wonder in Manhattan. If you're in or around any of those locations, please come and say hi!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Why I do What I Do

Last night, my fourth-grade daughter stayed up later than usual, finishing up her "A Woman I Admire" essay. She went on the computer and searched for images of Raven Symone, her inspiration, and printed them out. My daughter loves Raven because Raven acts, sings and designs clothing. She is not skinny and she is not afraid to be brown. And she is one of the only young women on mainstream television that look like my daughter.

This morning, as I was driving my girls to school, the fourth-grader looked at the picture of Raven Symone in her hands, crumpled it up and put it in her pocket. In a soft voice, she said, "Sometimes people say Raven is ugly." Then she looked up at me and I could see the sheen of tears in her eyes. "I don't think I'm going to talk about Raven, Mommy."

Even as my heart was breaking and I was doing all I could to remind my daughter of her beauty in the minutes before she headed off to school, I knew I had lost this battle. So much of this is bigger than I am. But I was reminded, with a surge of remembered pain, why I write what I write -- to counter some of what my girls see in the world, every minute of every day.

It will wear at them and they will not come out unscathed. But I can do my best to teach them how to fight. And part of that, I can do through my stories.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

SHINE and JAZZ Giveaway

Book Smugglers is giving away a copy each of Shine, Coconut Moon and Jazz in Love . . . . Go and comment on my guest post (about why I love feminist fiction) to enter!