Interview with Mahtab Narsimhan: The Silver Anklet
THE SILVER ANKLET is a sequel to Mahtab Narsimhan‘s THE THIRD EYE, which won The Silver Birch award in 2009. For those who don’t know, The Silver Birch Award is a province-wide honour given by Grade 3, 4, 5 and 6 Ontario students. Although administered by the Ontario Library Association and run by teacher-librarians and teachers in schools and by children’s librarians in public libraries, the final choice is made by the young readers.
The trilogy follows the adventures of Tara, a young Hindi girl who lives in the village of Morni in India. When Tara’s brother Suraj and two other children disappear from a local fair, Tara and her friends set off to find them.
I enjoyed THE SILVER ANKLET even more than the first book in the Tara trilogy. Like its predecessor, the story kicks off with immediate action and suspense, with a chase and a mystery, grabbing the reader and not letting go until the very end.
Mahtab’s vivid descriptions add rich detail to the exciting story, weaving in Hindi colour and flavour that bring scenes to life for the reader. My mouth watered for biryani wrapped in banana leaves and spicy papads, and I shuddered as Tara and her companions trudged through the dark forest, batting away clouds of mosquitoes.
Tara is an appealing protagonist, fighting her private fears and insecurities to save her brother. This is a story full of secrets and discovery, betrayal and mercy. Fans of the first book will love THE SILVER ANKLET.
Q&A with Mahtab Narsimhan:
How long have you wanted to write?
Writing was definitely not a life-long wish, though I’ve always been an avid reader. I felt the desire to write only when my father passed away in 2003. I wanted to keep a record of incidents that happened back home so I would never forget the fun times we had as a family. These initial jottings, along with my love for fantasy and adventure, morphed into the idea of writing a children’s book in early 2004. THE THIRD EYE’S gestation period was longer than a whale’s; four years and twenty rewrites before it was published in the fall of 2007. And now, writing is all I want to do.
Was THE THIRD EYE your first writing sale? If not, what was your first sale? How did it happen?
I did manage to get a short story and an article printed in couple of magazines but, yes, this was my first “real” sale for which I was paid. I was so ecstatic to receive that cheque from Dundurn that I wanted to frame it and keep it in my office. My business-savvy husband suggested that I take a photocopy of it and cash the real thing!
I love all the cultural details/flavour threaded throughout THE THIRD EYE. How much research did you have to do for this book?
The cultural aspect, e.g. the food, clothing, locale etc was easy since I lived in Mumbai for most of my life. Indian Mythology can be quite complex and confusing and that took a fair bit of research. I’m still finding out interesting facts about the various Gods and Goddesses especially their Avatars. Only the very interesting bits make it into my books and are woven through the plot to make the narrative richer.
What’s your writing process for a book? e.g. outlining? how many drafts? etc.
THE THIRD EYE was my very first attempt at writing a novel. It involved a steep and lengthy learning curve. Initially, I made a grid which listed all the chapters and jotted bullet points about the content and characters of each. This gave me a pretty good idea of how the story was progressing, and about pacing and structure.
The first draft was a whopping 68,000 words and garnered many rejections. As I worked through it with my critique group, the story became leaner and more polished. It was 52,000 words when it finally made it to publication. As I mentioned before, from start to finish it took 20 drafts and 4 years of writing and rewriting. This was because each time I rewrote I could only concentrate on one aspect of the story; character, plot, pacing, dialogue, motivation. As I’ve gained experience, I can focus on two or three aspects simultaneously, greatly cutting down on the number of times I have to rewrite.
For THE SILVER ANKLET, I wrote a synopsis and a very detailed chapter by chapter outline which gave me the framework. In the course of actually writing it, the story changed a fair bit but I always knew where it was going. The interesting part was that I wrote the first draft late 2007, early 2008, and put it away for a while. Then I took a Creative Writing course at the Humber College. My instructor was Tim Wynne-Jones. I worked on an entirely different manuscript with him but I learned many techniques which I was able to apply to all my writing. When I came back to this draft I didn’t like it at all. So out the window went 50,000 words and I started afresh. The new draft took about six months to write and another six to polish. So all in all, this one took a year. I worked with another wonderful writer, Uma Krishnaswami, on this manuscript and once again, gained some excellent writing tips.
The final book in the trilogy; THE DEADLY CONCH(working title) took two months to write only because I had the plot already worked out, most of the characters were already fleshed out so the key things I had to focus on were pacing, consistency and the quality of writing. It took a month to finish the second draft. Compared to the first novel, this will be done in record time.
Based on my six years of writing experience, I will say that practice does make perfect and the more you write the better you get. Writing bad stuff helps you get to the good stuff buried just underneath. Not a single word is ever wasted!
You said that you’re still finding out interesting facts about the various Gods and Goddesses, especially their Avatars. Could you please share a couple of these facts?
Avatar is a Sanskrit word and literally means “one who descends” and the closest translation is “incarnation or manifestation.”
Kali the evil Goddess of Death and Destruction is just another avatar of Goddess Parvati who is the wife of Lord Shiva and known for her kindness and gentleness. She is also known as the Divine Mother or Mother Goddess.
Hanuman, the Monkey God, who helped Lord Rama rescue his wife, Sita, from the evil Ravana in the epic Ramayana, is also a very popular God in India. He is believed to be an avatar of Lord Shiva and is worshipped as a symbol of physical strength, perseverance and devotion. In times of trouble, it is a common faith among Hindus to chant the name of Hanuman or sing his hymn – “Hanuman Chalisa”. Hanuman temples are among the most common public shrines in India.
20 drafts and 4 years to write THE THIRD EYE, wow. Did you ever find yourself getting discouraged? If so, how did you get through the discouragement?
Chocolate, Wine, and the Will to succeed. As the days, months and years rolled by, I realized that I had put in far too much effort and time to give up now. Though I was miserable doing the umpteenth rewrite with only rejections pouring in, I was even more miserable when I did not write. And so I kept going, trying to polish the manuscript till it shone. Then I got my lucky break and haven’t looked back since.
Reminds me of a quote I’ve often heard; The harder I work, the luckier I get!
What is your daily writing process? (e.g. mornings or evenings, setting daily goals, rituals, etc.)
I write for at least a couple of hours in the morning to complete my allotted quota for the day. If it is a new draft, it’s a thousand words a day. If it’s a revision I break the manuscript up into pages or chapters and try very hard to finish the amount allocated for that day. Most days I can stick with it, some days it’s impossible so I try and catch up on the weekends when I put in four to five hours each day.
All in all, I have daily, weekly and monthly goals on a bit of paper beside my laptop. It gives me tremendous pleasure to be able to tick off an item each day as I complete my quota. That’s why I love making lists!
I listen to instrumental music when I write. My two favourites are: The Lord Of The Rings (Part 1) –Music composed, orchestrated and conducted by Howard Shore, and Dan Gibson’s Solitudes: Rocky Mountain Suite. Currently the soundtrack for Avatar-music composed by James Horner is also at the top of my list. I love everything by John Williams, especially Memoirs of a Geisha. I always focus better when I have something playing in the background, though it must be without words or I’m tempted to sing along and that would be disastrous for my writing.
Most of my real work is completed in the morning when I’m fresh. In the evenings I revise, rewrite, research, catch up on my reading and spend time maintaining my online presence.
What was the Silver Birch award ceremony like?
FANTASTIC! It was a truly memorable moment filing onto the stage with the other authors, cheered on by thousands of screaming fans. It was so evident that these kids loved books, that they wanted to be here and were not shy about expressing themselves.
It was a heart-stopping moment when the runner ups were announced. Since my name wasn’t mentioned, my heart sank a little. I was hoping THE THIRD EYE would be (at the very least) a second or third choice of the readers. Words fail me when I try to describe that ecstatic moment when they announced that THE THIRD EYE had won! I wanted to cry, faint and dance, all at the same time! I have no idea what I said in the acceptance speech except thank you…many times over.
That feeling of euphoria, of a sense of unreality lasted all through summer. Even now, in the depths of winter when I am blue, I pull that memory out, examine it, remember it and inevitably…it lifts my spirits.
Any news about upcoming projects you’d like to share?
Penguin Canada will be releasing an anthology (to which I have contributed my own story) titled PIECE BY PIECE. STORIES ABOUT FITTING INTO CANADA on March 9, 2010. To celebrate the release of the book, Penguin is joining forces with the youth literary series Small Print to stage “The Piece By Piece Mash-Up,” an event on Sunday, March 28, between 2:30-5pm, at Gladstone Hotel. A writing contest for high school kids will be organized ahead of time, asking them to contribute their own 500 word, Piece By Piece stories. The event will showcase the contest winners and feature a sound clash by teenage DJs from different communities.
I’m really quite excited about this event and the book’s release because I believe it will be an eye-opener for many teens who believe that they cannot “make” it in a new country, far away from home. I hope it will inspire them to shoot for the moon!
For more insights from book creators, see my Inkygirl Interview Archives and Advice For Young Writers And Illustrators From Book Creators.