Uma Krishnaswami was born in India and now lives in northwest New Mexico. She has been writing for young readers since 1994.
Please tell us about Uma the Author before.
Well, she came in a couple of incarnations, come to think of it.
Uma 1 was a reteller of traditional stories. She refused to call them “folk tales,” spurning the term for its patronizing quality, and published three story collections of which one (The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha (August House, 2006)) is still in print and has managed to achieve staying power purely by word of mouth.
When the so-called folk-tale market petered out in the 1990s, Uma 2 began writing culturally grounded realistic picture books (including Monsoon, illustrated by Jamel Akib (FSG, 2003), The Happiest Tree, illustrated by Ruth Jeyaveeran (Lee & Low, 2005), and Chachaji’s Cup, illustrated by Soumya Sitaraman (Children’s Book Press, 2003)).
What inspired your quest to reinvent yourself on a creative/career front? How much of your decision was a function of how children’s literature and/or publishing itself has changed over the years?
I suppose, really, in some ways the change was market-driven, but in other ways it was an evolutionary one. I had the sense to realize early on that plotting was not my strong suit, and retelling traditional stories came naturally to me.
Those stories became the place where I served my plot apprenticeship. I studied the patterns and structures and shapes of stories, and the motivations of characters. I puzzled through turning points and singling out the arc of a given tale from the whole web of story in which it came enmeshed.
At some point, I felt ready to begin creating my own characters, by which time it seemed, purely coincidentally, that publishers were also ready to consider my picture book stories. These were set in Indian and Indian-American contexts, and they’re all still in print. They are pretty directly narrated: No fancy footwork, clear single viewpoints. But reviewers saw that I was placing my characters in uncommon situations and settings.
Naming Maya (FSG, 2004), a middle grade novel, was similarly the story of an Indian-American girl coming to terms with her family history and the place her parents came from.
By 2005, I was getting restless, and beginning to wonder what would come next. I wanted to play with form and structure.
So I began thinking about the kinds of books I read as a young reader myself–P.G. Wodehouse‘s quirky silliness and sly social commentary ranked high, as did Gerald Durrell‘s close eye for the eccentric settings of his childhood memoirs, and Paul Gallico for the loving depictions of common but idiosyncratic people on uncommon journeys.
The result is The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. The sequel, untitled as of now, brings the story to Washington, D.C., thereby turning the nation’s capital into an exotic hot spot. But that discussion is for another time.
What were the challenges?
Oh, this business is fraught with challenges, and in the beginning, I saw them all as impediments.
My biggest one was that I never felt I had anyone to show me the way. For quite a long time, I was the only writer of Indian origin writing for the American market. It felt like such a huge step, and I felt so very inadequate to the task.
Then I took a writing class with Judy Morris at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. It was a great class, and I learned a lot. I was still, however, very aware that I was trying to do something that was different from the norm.
It was only later that I realized that all those facts weren’t necessarily obstacles. They were only that in my own mind.
What were the blessings and ah-ha! moments?
A huge one was the discovery of people who did what I was trying to do.
I found Jamila Gavin‘s books, and felt I’d found a friend! I’ve since met Jamila, and she is a friend, a valued one, in the way that writers can find friendship through our common passions and across vast distances. Writing in England, Jamila had stretched her work across continents in much the way that I was trying to do.
And I discovered the 1928 Newbery winner, Dhan Gopal Mukerji. I was touched by the story of his life, as an immigrant from India in the 1920s! The isolation he must have felt!
In contrast, I told myself, I was positively afloat in a sea of company! By the late 1990s, I had the Internet. I had e-mail. I had no excuses.
Sometime during the year I turned 40, I decided that while I would always be a student of writing, it was time to take charge of my own work, to grow my own opinions and push myself where I felt drawn to go.
Please tell us about Uma the Author after.
I can do that best by talking about The Grand Plan to Fix Everything.
It begins in Takoma Park, Maryland and then leapfrogs to a fictitious hill town in India named Swapnagiri. It’s peopled with a vast array of characters–children, adults, and animals. It flirts with the edge between reality and the magical, and spoofs Bollywood films by referring to their conventions and employing a few. And beneath it all is a story of friendships new and old.
It was completely different from anything I’d ever written before.
It didn’t start out that way. I thought I was writing another realistic novel in the manner of Naming Maya (FSG, 2004). But as I wrote, this character began to evolve, and she was nothing like anyone I’d written about before. She was a kid with a wild imagination and considerable determination, and she demanded an appropriately quirky, crazy setting.
In 2006, I started teaching at Vermont College, and that is the other part of this journey. I suddenly became aware of a whole community of writers whose central purpose was to enhance, enrich, discover, craft their own paths. I began to realize that I needed to quit being safe, writing things I knew how to write.
Joining the faculty at VCFA gave me the added push off the cliff that I so desperately needed. I fell headlong into this story, and a voice emerged that I could not ignore.
What did you learn along the way?
To trust myself and to be hard on myself, all at once. To trust my wildest dreams and to give my practical half, the self that balked at the dreams, a swift kick in the pants. To read and to reflect seriously on what I’d read. To explore what reading means to my writing self. To set small goals and not get distracted by people who didn’t get what I was after.
What advice do you have to other authors who hope to reinvent themselves?
Take a deep breath. Go there.
The other piece of advice is to read. Read everything related or unrelated to what you’re writing. Read books that are current and those that are classics. Read books you love. Read books you hate, books that trouble or puzzle you or make you angry.
Among all those voices, find the spaces that exist for the voices you are crafting.