Interview: Uma Krishnaswami’s Grand Plans

Today, I’m delighted to welcome our guest, Uma Krishnaswami, to the Mixed-Up Files.  Uma’s new book, THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING, came out last month, and has garnered some wonderful attention, including a starred review from Kirkus, Writes Kirkus: “Full of references to Bollywood movie traditions and local customs, this is a delightful romp with a fresh setting and a distinctive and appealing main character.”

Here’s a little about Uma in her own words: “Uma Krishnaswami was born in India and now wrestles with plot and character in northwest New Mexico. She is the author of many books for young readers including Monsoon, The Broken Tusk, and The Happiest Tree: A Yoga Story. Uma also teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.”

Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Uma! The Grand Plan to Fix Everything (or The Grand Plan from now on) is very different from your previous books. I think of some of your past books – Naming Maya, Monsoon, and others that are more serious in tone.  Yet The Grand Plan is a very funny book! How does it feel writing humor? Does it come naturally to you?

I think even my previous books had elements of humor, whether those lay in particular scenes in Naming Maya, or the image of feet in the air in The Happiest Tree: A Yoga Story. In some ways, with The Grand Plan, I took my usual balance of serious and humorous and turned it on its head. Naming Maya is serious but does have its moments of humor. The Grand Plan is humorous with an underlying emotional thread that is grounded in the realities of children’s friendships and their place in a world run by adults. So it felt very natural to shift that balance here, to pull out the funny stops if you will and let the joky narrative voice yank the story along.

What inspired you to write a book about Bollywood? How did you come to sense that India’s film industry might be great material for a middle grade novel?

It wasn’t such a conscious decision. In early versions Dini had a brother who loved the movie Lagaan and wanted to learn to play cricket. Soon I realized that any obsession needed to be hers, and so of course I got rid of the brother and created a best friend with whom Dini could share her love of movies. Dolly Singh, I like to think, is perhaps the (real) Bollywood star Gracy Singh’s long-lost sister. I understand that Gracy can also dance and act and everything although of course Dolly can also sing which has caused, you know, some jealousy over the years…well, all right, you can see where all this came from. Mind you, I’m no Bollywood expert. I did watch a few classic and contemporary Hindi movies while I was working on the book. By way of research, I suppose we could say.

Many of your books deal with the balance of two cultures, namely India and the West. How do you decide how much to show and how much to explain when writing about elements of Indian culture?

I think that depends on what kind of narrative voice you employ in writing your story.  The rather wacky narrative voice in The Grand Plan does do a little commentary on everything from post office procedures to the dreams of goatherds. But in all the scenes in which Dini’s present that voice stays pretty close to her consciousness and is much more concerned with her movement  through  the scenes of the story than with any larger context. Regardless of whether you’re using scene or summary to move the story forward, what I believe you should never do is step out of the story to deliver cultural explanations. I also never employ parallel translation in dialogue—you know, when a character speaks italicized words in a “foreign” language, and then repeats them obligingly in English. In The Grand Plan, I use a sprinkling of Hindi and a few Tamil words. I have to. That’s what Dini would see and hear around her in her Bollywood circle and in small-town Swapnagiri respectively. But there are no italics, and the meanings are all made clear in context.

The Grand Plan was such a lovely read for me – what I enjoyed most was that it seemed to be a book that dealt with happy coincidences – the kind that gives one hope that in spite of our setbacks, things works out eventually for the best. How do you write about fate and coincidence in fiction? How do you make your reader believe in them, even when life is stranger than fiction? :-)

All I know is that I didn’t try to mask it. Coincidence can be a nasty thing to find in a novel—a sort of caterpillar in the fictional salad—but only if you’ve been led to believe that there’s no such thing. I think I could place it here because this is a realistic novel in most ways, but it also has some elements bordering on the magical. I don’t of course mean spells and wands, not that kind of magic, but the kind that takes place when dreams come true, or the kind that can turn a girl’s everyday life into a movie script. There’s also trust, and optimism, and the sense that the world is a good place even if it’s a bit confusing sometimes, and coincidence is just a part of all that.

What’s special about middle grade to you? As a teacher of many years, including the Vermont College Writing for Children and Young Adults program, is there something unique/distinct about middle grade that you try to teach to your students?

I think we all have ages  in our childhoods that resonate forward into adult life. For me that age was 11. It was a kind of awakening year, the year it occurred to me that adults had feet of clay and that people died. But I still had boundless enthusiasm about life in general and my life in particular. It’s a very natural age for me to return to in fiction which is why I think middle grade novels hold such appeal for me. I don’t think they’re for everyone, just as picture books aren’t for everyone. When I teach, I want my students to follow their natural interests and inclinations. I do think that when you write fiction for young readers the only way you can craft emotional truth in your characters is to reconnect with the young person you once were.

Source: Interview by Got Story Countdown

The illustrations in The Grand Plan are delightful and precise. How did Abigail Halpin get those details, especially the ones set in India, so perfect? Did you get a chance to work with her on developing them? (Check out this interview by Got Story Count Down for a fascinating interview with Abigail Halpin, including some super-cool illustrations).

Not really. I did get to see roughs and I had a few comments–mostly about the way a sari drapes and whether it should be night in India and daytime in America or vice versa.  Abigail has added lovely touches like the flower garlands at the bakery. But she also carefully followed cues in the text, like Chickoo Uncle’s nose, for example.

Describe the editing process. How long did it take to finish working on the book with your editor? What were some of the big-picture ideas you worked on with her? What were some the finer details?

Well, speaking of magic, Caitlyn Dlouhy, my editor at Atheneum, is one of those rare, astute people who can read a fractured text and spot the intention beneath it. The version of The Grand Plan that she accepted had the storyline pretty much in place the way it is now but the girls and their role were sketched in, and needed developing. The big work of editing for me was heightening the focus on Dini and Maddie’s friendship, making it credible that it could stretch across miles and remain strong while allowing Dini to grow. I did a lot with what I think of as echoes in the text, taking ideas and making them resonate across all the multi-genre text—emails, magazine articles, letters—as well as in the scenes of the story. All that took about two months. What I hadn’t realized was that this round of edits completely tore up the timeline of the story, so that when we got to copyedits a few months later all kinds of awful tangles had to be undone. That copyeditor was more than slightly heroic, in my opinion. I have come to the conclusion that I must have deep-seated issues with the passage of time. Caitlyn was terribly patient but it must have been a trial dealing with a temporally challenged author. I had to manufacture dates and times for all the emails, and allow for the time difference. Oh, there were moments when I doubted my sanity. I’d walk around the house waving my hands and muttering, “If Dini sends an email at 18:09:53 IST and Maddie replies…” All that happened in stages over another couple of months.

Dini, the main character in the book, often asks herself when she doesn’t know how to fix a problem, “What would Dolly do?” (In this case, Dolly is an Indian film star that Dini hopelessly adores). Do you have a special mantra when it comes to writing? What’s your way of working out a problem in one of your books?

It depends on the problem. Sometimes it’s “just show up.” Sometimes it’s “push the character to the cliff and then push her off.” But often I think my way of working out problems is to try not to come at them too directly. Instead I go read something completely unrelated or write notes to myself in different colored inks until the knots begin to sort themselves out.

Thank you so much for being here, Uma! And be sure to look for Uma on our Skype Tour!

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Sheela Chari‘s middle-grade novel, VANISHED, set partly in Boston and partly in India, comes out this August by Disney*Hyperion. No Bollywood – just a musical instrument with a curse!

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