Author Interview: Jyoti Rajan Gopal Reflects on Owning Her Identity as a Writer

By Suma Subramaniam

We’re thrilled to welcome Jyoti Rajan Gopal to Cynsations.

When you look back on your writing journey, what are the changes that stand out?

There are several moments that stand out!

I knew that children’s publishing was extremely hard to break into, or even understand, because I had dipped my toes into trying to figure it out, and very quickly retreated. But one day, in the middle of a coaching session with other teachers as we worked in pairs about achieving personal goals, I shared that I hoped to get a picture book biography I had written published. Then, as part of the coaching work, I laid out the steps needed to realize that goal. That act of saying those steps out loud, in a public space, was a profound shift for me and the beginning of my writing journey!

The other was a moment that, coincidentally, also took place in a public space. I was at a writer’s workshop, about a year after I began my writing journey, workshopping a manuscript and learning about writing craft. It was during this workshop that for the first time, I believed that I was a writer. Until then, I did not believe that to be true. I would tell people that I was a teacher and that “I also write stories for children” or “I have a picture book biography I’m trying to get published.” Meanwhile I had written at least four other stories and had still not said those words to myself, much less out loud.

And finally, when I first started writing picture books, it was all nonfiction. That was the only thing that I was interested in writing, and the only genre I thought I could write. And yet, along the way except for Desert Queen, illustrated by Svabhu Kohli (Levine Querido, March 2023). which is based on a true story, the six other picture books I have sold are all fiction and four of them are in rhyme!

What was this weird twist in my writing journey? Who knew I could write fiction? Or rhyme? Not me!

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

When I was working full time as a teacher, I wrote in the evenings, and sometimes late into the night. And weekends. Because that was the only time that was available to me. Now, without the demands of a school schedule and with both my daughters out on their own. I pretty much write whenever the mood hits me. It doesn’t need to be at a particular time of day. And, although I have a studio space, I don’t always sit there to write.

What I do need is my laptop and a spot somewhere in my house. In good weather, I’m on my porch or the back yard. Otherwise, my studio, my dining table, my bedroom floor or the living room couch in front of the TV are all fair game. Sometimes, a story that has been niggling at me just flows out. In very little time. And very close to its final shape. Sometimes, I’ll spend hours working on a story, in the flow, writing, revising, revising. Sometimes, I’ll toggle between manuscripts, getting very little actual writing done, but I stick to it, because well, butt-in-chair may bring me some epiphany. And some manuscripts have taken me a few years!

Jyoti’s porch – one of the places where she writes

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I have always loved books. My mom says that as soon as I could read, she couldn’t pry me away from books. Stories had the power to create worlds in my mind that I could visit, beloved characters that became my friends and oftentimes, also became a part of my imaginary play with my brother. When I was in fifth grade, our teacher read Watership Down [by Richard Adams (Rex Collings, 1972)] to us, a chapter at the end of each day. We couldn’t wait to hear each installment of the adventures of Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver and their trials and triumphs.

I laughed, I cheered, I mourned with the rabbits. It was the first time I cried when listening to a story. That story has remained a favorite of mine, one that I return to often. I even read it aloud to my girls when they were old enough, just like my fifth grade teacher did, chapter by chapter, at the end of each day. Language has the power to move, to shape, to reveal possibilities and I think that’s quite magical!

Jyoti’s inspiration in her studio

What are you working on next?

As a kindergarten teacher, I loved all kinds of picture books, but nonfiction picture books were my favorite. My classroom library was filled with all sorts of nonfiction, from informational and narrative to expository and browsable. So when I started writing picture books, that’s what I knew I wanted to write.

But my writing had different plans and I ended up doing a lot more of fiction writing than I thought I would. So now, I’m back to working on my nonfiction manuscripts. I’m taking classes on nonfiction writing and honing my craft in this area. I’m also revising some of my nonfiction stories, polishing others, and finally fleshing out ideas that were seeds but that I couldn’t figure out how to write. And, of course, submitting what my agent and I think are ready.

From L to R: Jyoti Rajan Gopal, Cathleen Barnhart, Cindy McCraw Dircks, and Kimberly Marcus

For me, living my creative life as a writer means I can work on whatever is speaking to me at the moment, wander off into the byways and rabbit holes of my ideas, play and experiment. I love that there are so many possibilities. But that’s also the most challenging part of the creative life! I get to the tell the stories that I didn’t even know were in my heart, but it can be hard to corral those ideas or to pin them down and figure out what it is I’m trying to say. And living the creative life as a writer can be a very solitary pursuit. You have to actively work on creating a community, which is especially hard when the globe is in the middle of a pandemic. I give thanks for critique partners and the writer friends in my life – they really get it and are such a wonderful source of support and inspiration.

Also, there’s something so beautiful about creating a piece of work that is going to get into the hands of children, and hopefully resonate. I was invited to a reading celebration recently where I read my debut picture book, American Desi, to a group of children, ranging from kindergarteners to tweens. After the reading, one little girl came bouncing up to me, grabbed my hand, and jumped up and down saying, over and over again “That book was about me!” She was followed by a tween who spent the next ten minutes chatting with me about how she connected with the book! What a gift those moments were! Those moments are exactly why I started writing, and why it’s all worth it.

Cynsational Notes

Jyoti Rajan Gopal is a teacher, writer, and mom. She grew up in Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, China, and India. She finally settled in New York where she raised two daughters with her husband (who also grew up all over the world). As a child, she adored and devoured books but did not enjoy writing. At all. As a grown up, she is a forever kindergarten teacher and mom. She still adores and devours books. But now, she likes to write! She has two picture books coming out this year, American Desi, illustrated by Supriya Kelkar (Little, Brown BYR, June 21, 2022) and My Paati’s Saris, illustrated by Art Twink (Kokila, Nov.8, 2022).

She was awarded the 2021 SCBWI Work In Progress Award for Underrepresented Voices. Jyoti has five more picture books coming out over the next few years. To find out more about her and her books, you can visit her website.

Suma Subramaniam’s interests and passions in writing for children are mostly centered around STEM/STEAM related topics as well as India and Indian heritage. When she’s not recruiting or writing, she’s volunteering for We Need Diverse Books and SCBWI. Suma was the short story contest winner of the We Need Diverse Books short story contest.

She is also the author of Namaste Is A GreetingShe Sang For India, and other books for children and young adults. Suma lives in Seattle with her family and a dog who watches baking shows. She has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College Of Fine Arts. Learn more on her website.