August 2012

Niranjana Iyer


An Interview with Sheela Chari

When Neela agrees to bring her veena (an Indian stringed instrument that is an older and much bulkier sister of a sitar) to her sixth grade Instruments Around the World unit in her Boston school, she's chiefly worried about performing in public without embarrassing herself. But then Neela's four-foot veena, packed in its special wheeled case, vanishes while she's taking shelter from the rain during her walk back home from school. The veena has a history of disappearing and reappearing; could it be cursed? How can an eleven-year-old track it down, especially if it might have resurfaced in India? And does the dragon carving on the instrument mean something special?

Sheela Chari's middle-grade (MG) novel Vanished is a rollicking mystery that seamlessly incorporates multicultural elements into the fast-paced plot. Vanished was chosen as the 2012 Children's Literature Honor book by APALA, and was nominated for the 2012 Edgar Award. Chari, who was born in Bangalore and moved to America when she was three, lives in Boston with her family.

You have two graduate degrees in creative writing, but neither of them is in children's literature, and you began your writing career with adult literary fiction. Do you see yourself as a writer who has written a book for children, or are you a children's writer? And is this distinction important?

Honestly, when I think about myself and my writing, I don't see myself as a children's writer, but as a writer whose main characters happen to be eleven or twelve years old. I strongly value craft, and I believe a lot of what I studied and practiced doing at BU and NYU (where I got my degrees) applies to my writing today -- whether this is how to write strong dialogue, how to balance it with narrative, and what makes for a good story. I think being called as a children's writer is mostly helpful for other people who are reading my books to know what to expect. But I find that many adults, parents especially, read and enjoyed Vanished.

In an earlier conversation we had, you said, "I've realized how important it is to understand your form, whether it's the short story or the novel or poetry. You can't write as if you're in a vacuum, you need to know what came before you and where your work fits into all of that." When writing Vanished, what did you have to (un)learn about the MG novel?

Before Vanished, my writing was generally literary, and without a lot of action. When I decided to work on a children's mystery novel, I had to deal with a very clear story arc. Which was great for me! I learned how to structure my novel, how to space out clues, and how to make my chapter endings more urgent and page-turning. I was very conscious that a middle grade reader might get impatient with a lot of narrative and description. Essentially, I learned to read my writing like a reader, instead of as a writer alone. If I ever write an adult novel, I will apply a lot of what I learned to the writing of it as well.

The villains in Vanished aren't exactly villainous; in fact, all the characters are morally quite complex. Do you think MG readers look for certainties in their reading, or are they more accepting of ambiguity than we usually credit them with?

Interesting question. I do know that for me, I like all my characters to have flaws, regardless of who they are, and to sometimes act regrettably as a result of them. Perhaps the difference between my protagonists and my "villains," is that the protagonist, I hope, learns from her mistakes, and grows from them. Even so, I do like to surprise people; I like a villain to make an unexpected gesture of merit when you least expect it. Kind of like life, I think. There are some people that continually surprise me.

Can you talk about the art and skill of plotting an MG novel? So many seem to start with a bang and fizzle out, or, they're so packed with twists that the reader is utterly exhausted. Vanished is done so beautifully -- it never loses momentum. I read it in one sitting!

Thank you! Plotting was something I worked hard on. I think there are two parts to structuring a book -- plot, which is what the story is about, and pacing, which has to do with how you tell the story (along with narrative and voice). For plot, I finished a first draft, and then went back to see if my clues added up. This process took a while, especially after the book sold to Disney Hyperion, and I was working with an editor to revise the work. Not only did I have to make sure the clues were spread out, but that they built on each other to make them stronger. It's also important to vary your clues -- overheard conversations, newspaper articles, hidden items (that are found), as well as many suspects, each of whom may not provide reliable information, all help to keep things fresh.

In terms of pacing, I looked at chapter beginnings and endings to see if they contained something interesting and urgent to keep my reader reading. I also looked at each page to see where my paragraphs or sentences were too long, or all the same -- I varied their length, the sound of them, as well as narrative and dialogue, so that the writing didn't get repetitive or weighed down.

While Vanished has many multicultural elements, the cultural differences aren't the main story, but provide the setting for your plot. Given the changing demographics of the American population, do you think cultural differences aren't as big a story as they used to be? Or is your approach more a function of MG literature necessarily being plot-driven for its audience?

When I wrote Vanished, it was important that the book stood first as a mystery. The multicultural elements were secondary to the plot because I wanted this to be the kind of book anyone might read. Also, I also wanted to create a certain kind of immigrant on paper -- an Indian-American girl who was comfortable enough in her skin that the thought most immediate on her mind wasn't "How do I fit in?" but "How do I solve this mystery?" A story about such a girl couldn't focus on all that made her different.

Having said that, Neela was still a product of her Indian heritage. So the challenge for me was to include just enough details to make readers believe she was from another culture, without letting that part weigh the story down. Most of her "Indianness" came through in the foods she ate, and through some of the religious and musical practices of her family. I also used absurd things (an ugly Salwar Kameez the mother wears because she's doing laundry, or half-broken, dusty Indian handicrafts in the veena teacher's parlor) as a way to call attention to things Neela would otherwise not notice.

You wrote Vanished for your (Indian-American) niece, Neela. So many multicultural kid-lit authors say they began writing because they didn't see people like themselves in the books they read as children. Did you perhaps write this book for your niece (or your younger self) for the latter reason?

Vanished began as a birthday gift for Neela, who was about 8 years old at the time. But as I continued writing, I thought more seriously about the content. I felt that while there were children's books about Indian-Americans, there really weren't mystery books that featured them as central characters. Then I thought, why shouldn't there be? I saw a need to fill that gap, so that kids like Neela and my own children (who love mysteries and adventure books) might get to read about kids like themselves.

The India you portray doesn't figure much in public perception -- it's South India, devoid of Bollywood or curry or slums or any other popular (some would say stereotypical) images that dominate so much immigrant Indian fiction.

You've hit upon something that was very dear to me from the beginning. As a child who was born in South India, and who grew up in a traditional South Indian household in the United States, I didn't see any Bollywood movies growing up. We didn't speak Hindi in the household, but a mixture of Tamil, Kannada, and English. We ate mainly South Indian food: idli, dosais, rice, rasam, etc. My mother sings traditional South Indian classical music. These were things I knew, but they were also things I had yet to see in children's literature.

Did the unfamiliarity of your (Indian) setting have an effect (in either direction) on selling Vanished?

When it was time to sell the book, I don't know if it came down to asking the question, is South India too unfamiliar? But certainly, the veena, which is only played in the South, was unfamiliar. I did wonder, shouldn't I write about a different instrument, like the violin? The violin was more universal as both an Eastern and Western instrument, and I actually played it! The veena was so much more unwieldy and strange and different -- who would ever want to read about such a complicated instrument that's even a challenge to carry? But once I asked myself those questions, I saw it was necessary to write about the complicated and the strange. And once you acquaint yourself with the veena, you'll find there is nothing strange. It is a beautiful, lyrical instrument. What I like about the veena is that it is the perfect embodiment of South India, and a great way to write about a very specific region and subculture in which I grew up.

And your story highlights South Indian classical (Carnatic) music, which many would argue is an ultra-specialized art form that isn't accessible to many Indians, let alone American children. How do you write a children's novel that (very discreetly) educates them about an unfamiliar topic?

My goal was to have readers enter right into the world of Neela's, without a lot of explanation. Most kids would have never seen or heard a veena, but many would know what playing a musical instrument involves -- practicing, performing, and worrying about performing. I made most of what Neela does as a veena student about those elements. I figured kids would be able to get the essence of what it means to play such an instrument, to be frustrated by your limitations and fears, and to feel an awful sense of responsibility when something bad happens to it under your watch.

Humor helps, too. I found that attaching something absurd or unexpected to a situation is a great (and sneaky) way to write about the unfamiliar. It helped to have a cranky old veena teacher (easier to make fun of), it helped to have a string on the veena breaking in public (something for Neela to be embarrassed about, as well as a chance to talk about the veena being a stringed instrument).

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a second middle-grade novel, about a twelve-year-old boy with a very special talent who works at an Indian grocery store. I hope it's a book both children and adults will enjoy!

Niranjana Iyer lives in Canada and blogs at Brown Paper.