Author Interview: Mitali Perkins on the First Daughter books

Learn more about author Mitali Perkins, read Mitali’s Fire Escape, and friend Mitali at MySpace!

What were you like as a young reader?

Addicted. After school, I took a roll of sweet tarts and one of the seven books I was allowed to check out each week from the Flushing branch of the NYPL, crawled out onto the fire escape secretly, and read and read and read.

Why do you write for children and teenagers today?

Stories were my solace in stressful times. As an oft-displaced young person, I made myself at home in books and sunk roots into fictional places. I know firsthand how stories shape the human heart during childhood and adolescence, so it was a bit of a no-brainer for me–who wouldn’t want one of the most powerful vocations on the planet?

What about young fictional heroes appeals to you as a writer?

Part of my soul got stuck at 14 or 15. There’s nothing I can do about it so I may as well write from that place.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

The Sunita Experiment was my first novel (Little Brown, 1993). I wrote it for fun in the early nineties, sent it to Megan Tingley at Little Brown–who was a lowly associate or assistant editor back then (she’s since ascended to great heights)–and got an acceptance phone call in about three weeks.

Great, I thought, I’ll be a writer! But then I wrote Monsoon Summer, which was rejected by at least 20 editors, if not more. I revised it so many times that multiple versions of the story began to suffocate my hard disk.

Finally, Francoise Bui of Delacorte agreed to publish it in 2004, and Monsoon Summer came out eleven years after Sunita (which was reissued in 2005 with a new title, The Not-So-Star Spangled Life of Sunita Sen.)

Looking back on your apprenticeship as a writer, is there anything you wish you’d done differently? If so, what and why?

I would have made the transition from writing as a hobby to a vocation much earlier. I should have treated myself as a professional writer years before I actually gathered the courage to do so–even during those harrowing years of constant rejection.

On the flip side, what was most helpful to you in terms of developing your craft?

Ironically, all those years of rejection and the many revisions I wrote of Monsoon Summer.

Could you catch us up on your back-list titles, highlighting as you see fit?

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen (Little Brown, 2005);

Monsoon Summer (Random House, 2006);

Rickshaw Girl (Charlesbridge, 2007);

First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover (Dutton, 2007);

First Daughter: White House Rules (Dutton, 2008).

Congratulations on the publication of First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover (Dutton, 2007) and First Daughter: White House Rules (Dutton, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about both stories?

Thank you! The First Daughter books are about Sameera Righton, the daughter of a front-runner candidate in the presidential election.

In the first novel, Extreme American Makeover, campaign staffers try to package Sameera into what they think would be a more “American” version of the Pakistani-born only daughter of James Righton. Sameera, of course, resists, and it’s essentially a story of celebrating and using your authentic voice.

In Book Two, White House Rules, Sameera moves to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with her parents and her cousin, and figures out a way to play the First Kid game according to her own set of rules.

In both stories, Sameera’s romance with Bobby, a guy she meets on the trail, plays a role (of course; I’m a sucker for a good romance).

What was your initial inspiration for writing these books?

My agent called over two years ago to tell me that Dutton was on the hunt for a book about a first daughter. Would I be interested in putting my own spin on it?

As a parent of two adopted teens from South Asia, the idea of an adopted Muslim-origin girl leaped into mind.

I had no idea that John McCain had adopted a daughter from Bangladesh, and by the time I found out about Bridget, the first book was already written. I wrote the Senator’s office and explained my dilemma–I had no desire to exploit Bridget’s real life joys and challenges for my own purposes.

If she objected to the publication of books in any way, I’d be willing to dump them. McCain’s office responded with a lovely note setting me free to go ahead, asking for copies once the books were released, which I gladly sent.

So, what is it like connecting these timely books to young readers in an election year? What special opportunities does that present?

I created Sparrowblog, a blog I ghost-write for Sparrow, to track the real First Kid wannabes in the election, because I know teens are interested in what it must be like to have a powerful parent.

Sparrowblog’s a safe, fun, bipartisan take on life in the campaign limelight, and gets lots of visitors (including Elizabeth Edwards, John Edwards‘ wife, who once stopped by and left a comment.)

Every chance I get, I try to speak to kids about how important it is to get involved in this election, even if they can’t vote yet. A middle schooler who is fourteen today will be going to college, applying for jobs as an adult, and eligible to fight as a soldier before our next President leaves the White House. The Web provides this wired generation with incredible opportunities to express opinions and inspire changes.

As the general election draws nearer each day, how has real life been mirrored in your fiction?

It is very eerie. McCain is now the Republican frontrunner, and Bridget is in the news whether she likes it or not, much like Sparrow in my book. As I wrote the books before anybody was running for President, I’m awed by my own prescience.

More globally, you’ve said that you like to write about life between cultures. Why is this important to you? Why should it be important to everyone?

Although it brings a litany of losses, growing up between cultures provides many gains as well. Global nomads end up without strong allegiances to a single culture and yet strangely better able to savor the best in most of them. They get good at border crossing, learning languages, both spoken and unspoken, and tearing down walls fast to get close to people. And last but
not least, staying between cultures provides a great vantage point for storytelling.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Hone the craft. Cast away fear. Don’t waste time. You have stories that must be told–run, don’t walk, to find them.

In today’s crowded market, it’s essential for authors to promote their work and act as ambassadors for youth literature. How have you taken on each of these challenges?

I’m proud to be the newest readergirlz diva, standing with Justina (author interview), Lorie Ann, and Dia (author interview)(original-divas interview) in a collaborative effort to connect teen girls with great books. I love the emphasis on community service, like Operation Teen Book Drop, which partnered libraries, publishers and authors with teens in pediatric hospitals throughout the country.

I’m on the editorial advisory board of Kahani Magazine, a wonderful periodical showcasing the gifts South Asian cultures bring to North America.

I blog regularly on the Fire Escape, participate actively in the kidlitosphere, and try to use the Web to promote my work and the works of other writers–tapping the power of social networks, listservs, YouTube, slide shows, widgets, groups, and other internet-based gadgets and gizmos.

I also speak to educators, librarians, parents, teachers, and students about how good stories can help immigrant, multiracial, and internationally adopted children stay balanced as they straddle cultures.

On a personal level, what about writing Asian American-related fiction delights, frustrates, amuses, and confounds you?

I’m proud to be an Asian American author, and yet hope that many young readers from all different backgrounds will enjoy my stories. I don’t like being automatically shelved in the multicultural section, and feel that being labeled like that sometimes hinders my books from getting into the right hands or more hearts. Some of my books are about race, but in others,
like the First Daughter books and Monsoon Summer, ethnicity plays only a small part in the plot.

I also echo Hazel Rochman‘s clarion call to end apartheid in the world of children’s books– let’s
create authentic, creative stories without having to prove that we’ve got the right set of socioeconomic-cum-ethnic credentials to write them.

Meticulous research, listening carefully to other voices, a nourished imagination laced with empathy, and great storytelling–now those are the right creds.

Your titles are being highlighted in conjunction with FUSION STORIES. Could you tell us more about how this came to happen? Who were the driving forces behind the intiative? Why did the idea take off?

The mind of Justina Chen Headley is the engine behind many a great initiative, and the rest of us jumped on board quickly. We wanted to feature Asian American books for Asian Pacific Heritage Month this year; books that aren’t immigrant stories nor tales set in other countries (although we think those books are great, too). We’re open to other titles that fit the bill; just send them our way .

You’re an active blogger in the kidlitosphere! Please tell us about your blog–your approach to blogging, your focus, and why it’s important to you?

I’ve always loved to spout off about a gamut of issues as well as listen to others, and visiting the blogosphere while still in my pajamas with a mug of steaming coffee nearby is my favorite way to join illuminating conversations and bracing debates.

My approach to blogging is to share my voice, with all of its’ strengths and weaknesses, my attempts at humor, and my feeble efforts to make sense of life on this planet.

In my Web presence as in my life, I strive for authenticity and integrity–not that I succeed, in fact I often fall short, but those are my goals.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

I don’t do it very well. I’ve been way too busy on the author side and will have to pull back mercilessly and soon so I can get back to writing. I’m typing this on a plane back from TLA in Dallas, where I spoke. I will arrive in Boston at midnight, do a full-day author visit tomorrow, and leave in the evening to spend two days in California, followed by three days in Colorado.
Where am I? Who am I?

As a reader, so far what are your favorite books of 2008?

I’ve been reading exclusively for readergirlz so far this year — devouring great new books like Good Enough by Paula Yoo, A La Carte by Tanita Davis, Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen (author interview), Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, and Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham (author interview).

And as an ex-jock myself, I have to put in a plug for my good friend Karen Day‘s forthcoming No Cream Puffs (Wendy Lamb Books), a delightful coming of age tale with baseball as a backdrop.

You should see my nightstand! It’s loaded with great reads I can’t wait to get to — all the Fusion novels I haven’t yet read, new South Asian novels by Chitra Divakaruni, Jumpa Lahiri, Padma Venkatraman, and Kashmira Sheth. I need a hammock, a beach, and a mango smoothie.

What do you do outside the world of books?

Walk the labs. Play tennis. Watch television, listen to music, and go to the movies. Hang out with my teen sons and hubby. Fly to California regularly to spend time with my beloved parents. Worship. Pray. Study the Bible. Write bad poetry in my journal. Travel. Eat too much.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Secret Keeper (Delacorte) comes out January 2009, followed by Bamboo People from Charlesbridge in 2010. The former is a YA novel set in India in the 1970s about two sisters discovering the power of their family’s secrets. The Bamboo People is about two fifteen-year-old boys–one drafted into the Burmese Army against his will and the other a Karenni refugee hiding in the jungles along the Thai-Burma border.

Thank you!

No, thank you for all that you do in the world of children’s and YA literature, connecting, enlightening, and encouraging so many of us!