This week I have the pleasure to share with you an interview I did with the author Padma Venkatraman, on her writing process and the release of her newest book, Born Behind Bars, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, which debuts, September 7, 2021.
Book Description: (taken from https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/647196/born-behind-bars-by-padma-venkatraman/)
Kabir has been in jail since the day he was born, because his mom is serving time for a crime she didn’t commit. He’s never met his dad, so the only family he’s got are their cellmates, and the only place he feels the least bit free is in the classroom, where his kind teacher regales him with stories of the wonders of the outside world. Then one day a new warden arrives and announces Kabir is too old to stay. He gets handed over to a long-lost “uncle” who unfortunately turns out to be a fraud, and intends to sell Kabir. So Kabir does the only thing he can–run away as fast as his legs will take him. How does a boy with nowhere to go and no connections make his way? Fortunately, he befriends Rani, another street kid, and she takes him under her wing. But plotting their next move is hard–and fraught with danger–in a world that cares little for homeless, low caste children. This is not the world Kabir dreamed of–but he’s discovered he’s not the type to give up. Kabir is ready to show the world that he–and his mother–deserve a place in it.
Padma, I read that you wrote poetry at a young age and in the Q&A on your website that a poem you wrote was published when you were only 12. Do you remember what drew you to writing initially?
No. But I can’t remember not writing – I feel like I always was writing in my head, at least, and listening to poems in my head.
And later on, after you had worked as an oceanographer, and a director of a school, what made you choose a career as a writer?
I felt that just presenting facts to people wasn’t necessarily enough – to make our world a better place we need to cultivate compassion – and I felt I could do that via my creative writing – help people understand and respect one another and value our world together.
Do you have a special place that you prefer to write?
I write in a lot of places! Sometimes on my deck. Sometimes on the dock.
Do you have a critique group?
Never have. Guess I never will. That said, I informally always get feedback and critical reads. For BORN BEHIND BARS, I really wanted wonderful new and up and coming writer Saadia Faruqui to read, because I wanted her honest thoughts on Kabir, the lead character, who is half Muslim. I also asked 7 other friends and family who aren’t writers for feedback because they are Muslim. And I had people who are incarcerated or work with incarcerated people look it over, including author Dede Fox. And my dear friend author friends Elly Swartz and Victoria J Coe – although they weren’t beta readers, for this novel, they were early readers. I guess you might say I get critiques from different groups of people based on what I’m working on – mostly in the early draft stage. Then, I work closely with my brilliant editor Nancy Paulsen (who edits the legendary Jacqueline Woodson, and Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Ann Braden, Aisha Saeed, Torrey Maldonado and so many other wonderful writers) and she’s my one person critique group as the novels progress!
You’ve said that your characters, in a way, possess you so that you see and feel what they might. Do you take notes on who they are, how they see the world? Have you ever interviewed a character you’ve written about?
No. I just try to listen to them when they speak to me. It’s a very organic process and a lot of it happens while I’m dreaming or day dreaming or meditating.
Do you handwrite your first drafts or go straight to the computer?
These days because of health issues I have been hand writing parts of my work, but I do often write straight on the computer.
How many drafts on average does it take for you to feel comfortable that you have a finished piece?
Gosh. It depends. I’m not the fastest, I’ll say that. I need my own time to take care of my mental health and maybe because of that, I am slow. I don’t know.
I’ve read that the idea for Born Behind Bars came from a newspaper article you had read as well as hearing a young boy singing a snatch of song and that your other titles were similarly created from a kernel of fact. How did you sense that each of those kernels needed to become a story?
I never plant the seeds of any story in a conscious way. It’s more like these seeds start to grow without my knowledge. Suddenly, there it is – a little plant, trying to establish itself and then it’s my job to help strengthen it and make it the tree it can be. I guess it’s always a character, really – a voice that I hear and that gets louder than the rest of the static in my mind.
In Born Behind Bars, Kabir gives names to the women and the girl in the prison by how he perceives them, which is an easily identifiable childlike behavior and gives the reader immediate insight into how those characters present themselves. Similarly, in The Bridge Home, Viji names the adults she and Rukku meet from where they’ve met them, like Teashop Aunty. How do you choose your main character’s names? How do you know that Viji can only be Viji or Kabir only Kabir? Have you ever started a story where the character had one name and you changed it?
Wow. I’m not sure. It’s like the characters, as they grow, they tell me who they are, maybe? The name isn’t that important to me in the beginning, it’s the voice I hear – words – snatches of sentences – paragraphs – passing photographs in my brain that then become scenes in a movie…somewhere along the line my characters acquire names…
In The Bridge Home, each of the main characters’ perspectives are as varied as their personalities. Though their circumstances are difficult, each carry a sense of hope within them and each in their own way display compassion. How might the characters in Born Behind Bars be similar to the ones in The Bridge Home?
Two of the main characters in BORN BEHIND BARS are kids who are, for a time, homeless and forced to live on the streets of a city. I guess that’s something they share with the kids in THE BRIDGE HOME. Another thing both books share that’s important to me is humor. Retaining a sense of humor was vital to my survival of childhood trauma and it’s vital to the kids in both books as well.
I appreciated your portrayal of Rukku and her ability to do much more than what others might expect her to. It’s such an important message and you’ve done it so well.
Thank you. I have an invisible disabilty – and maybe because of that – and the fact that I have many in my family who are people with disabilities, too, it’s important to me to see people with disability portrayed as main characters in books.
Do you purposely plan to write about spirituality in its many divergent forms?
Spirituality is important to me, as you say, in its many divergent forms. So when I wrote my first novel, CLIMBING THE STAIRS, it was sort of ground-breaking in a way because until then very few people were writing about spirituality in books for young people. I was told that A TIME TO DANCE was the first novel to center the theme of a young Hindu girl’s spiritual awakening. My family includes Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. Many of my dearest friends are Jewish. My child is raised not only multilingual but also multi-religious. I’ve always been drawn to the philosophy and the core spiritual beliefs that I feel can unite us despite religious differences. When I was invited to contribute an article to Kirkus Reviews a while ago, I wrote one called Accept, Don’t Tolerate, which is about this aspect of my books and books in general. I do think it’s an aspect of my work that I strengthen and give attention to as I revise.
You’ve written fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Is there any genre, that you’d like to try that you haven’t as yet?
Are you presently working on another project? As an off shoot of that question, how do you balance your creative work and the promotion of your work?
So hard, but I try to just be involved with the kidlit community, help other authors, and not worry about promotion. In fact, when book is released, the really shy and scared part of me emerges in full force and I actually do less online – I tend to bury my head in the sands of another novel as quickly as I can. I suppose you might say I become a sort of writer-ostrich right around now when BORN BEHIND BARS is scheduled for release, for example! I’m working on a couple of projects – another middle grade novel, and a nonfiction book for adults.
Is there any age group that you’d like to write for that you haven’t written for as of yet?
I’d love to write a picture book. Jackie Woodson once told me she thinks of a picture book as a poem, and I love that way of thinking of them. I do think I have a few poems that could be picture books someday… but they’re harder to write than they appear and so far my attention has focused on the characters who have so much to share with me that I need a novel for their stories!
In your website’s Q&A, you’ve advised those who aspire to write to read widely and read well. What would you say at this point in your life are your three favorite books?
Oh, it’s so hard for me to choose favorite books. Or even favorite authors. I love and respect so many. Some names at the forefront of my mind – Jacqueline Woodson, Nikki Grimes, Margarita Engle, Kathy Erskine, Laurie Halse Anderson, Phil Bildner, Tracey Baptiste – but already I want to make this list so much longer – many I love and hold dear.
You’ve also said to acknowledge the two parts of what makes a writer (the creative, spilling out the story and the corrective editor) and to allow them to respectfully coexist. Is there anything else you would suggest to those who are beginning their careers in writing? Is there anything you would like to share with those who might be wondering if they should persevere?
Write for your characters. They deserve the best story you can create for them. As for the rest, you can’t control any of it. Many brilliant books don’t get the recognition they deserve. Success is a lot of luck. So don’t worry about it. Just try to concentrate and be contented with the creative process.
THE BRIDGE HOME (2019) * WNDB Walter Award winner * SCBWI Golden Kite Award winner * South Asia Book Award winner * Paterson Prize winner * Crystal Kite winner * Nerdy Book Award winner *Audiophile Earphone Award winner * 2019 Global Read Aloud * 8 Stars * ALA Notable book * ALSC notable audiobook * NEA Read Across America selection * Junior Library Guild & audiobook * Nominee for TX Bluebonnet, FL SSYRA, VA, RI, GA, MN, WI, KY, VT, ME, NB, SC, WA state awards * Finalist for Japan’s Sakura Medal, Le Prix des libraires du Québec, Cybil, Malka Penn and Litterado Award * National Book Festival award Library of Congress Great Reads from Great Places * Translated into Farsi, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese and French ~ Padma Venkatraman (she/ her) frequently dictates emails & texts due to health issues. Please excuse errors, typos, brevity etc.
Thank you Padma, for your thoughtful answers to my questions, and for your beautiful writing.