Chitra Divakaruni is one of our favorite local writers. Her book One Amazing Thing was the 2011 Gulf Coast Reads title. She has read at our libraries often. She also teaches at the prestigious University of Houston's Creative Writing Program.
I was delighted when she agreed to do a Q & A blogpost about her new book which comes out today, Before We Visit the Goddess.
Q. What would you like our readers to know about your latest book, Before We Visit the Goddess?
A. It is a novel about three generations of Indian women - grandmother, mother and daughter, who have complex and sometimes tempestuous relationships with each other, but often find that they are also each other's source of strength. There are also four men in the novel who have different and unusual kinds of relationships with these women, and who support, transform, and/or betray them.
The novel moves from Kolkata, India, the city where I was born, to Texas, where I now live, so in some ways it forms the geographical trajectory of my life. Among other things, it asks the question, what is it that makes a woman successful? And does this definition of success change, depending on the time and place in which we live? This is a question that is important to me and I hope to many of my readers as well.
This book is also in a form that is new and exciting for me – a novel-in-stories, where all the stories/chapters connect in interesting and unusual ways and give us the vision and arc of the lives of the three main characters.
Q. How has living in Houston influenced your writing?
A. The title story is set in Houston, and the temple visited in the story is the Meenakshi Temple in Pearland! I think it might be extra fun for Houston readers!
It takes me several years of living in a place before I feel I understand it enough to write about it. As you can see, I have started writing about Houston.
Houston also has a rich and diverse literary community, and that has been very helpful and supportive to my writing. I particularly feel that teaching at the nationally ranked Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston has helped me become a better writer. Houston also has a very large South Asian community, and since that is one of my major subject areas, it is very important for me to live in a place where I can observe and drink in the atmosphere of the South Asian community.
Q. What role, if any, did libraries play in your upbringing?
A. Libraries have always been very important to me. I grew up in a family of very modest means in India and libraries were where I went to get books for reading. Without libraries, I could not have afforded to read the many books of literature that I read throughout my youth. These books really helped me to love literature and later to become a writer, so I believe libraries are central to my life as a writer.
On the family front, I have brought up my children to love reading, and one of our favorite activities when they were younger was visiting the library. I still love visiting my neighborhood library! Of course, now a special pleasure is going to the fiction stacks and seeing my books there!
Now that I am a writer, I love connecting with my local libraries. I was delighted when my book One Amazing Thing was chosen as a Gulf Coast Reads book. At that time, I visited many libraries in the area and spoke to library patrons across the Greater Houston region. It was a pleasure to see how people from so many different backgrounds and people of different ages connected with my book. They asked many interesting and unusual questions as well. Without the library system, I would never have had this enriching experience.
Q. How has technology changed writing, authorship, publishing and book promotion? How do you interact with your readers via social media? What are your thoughts about e-books and e-publishing?
A. Technology has changed many areas of writing and certainly the way we connect to readers. I like using social media – I have a Facebook page where I often have discussions with my readers about particular books or other writing related subjects. I am also on Twitter as @cdivakaruni, and there, too, I get to interact with readers from all over the world. I also have a website. I have connected with some wonderful writers through social media.
The Internet has also changed book marketing. With each new book, I now do a virtual tour, appearing on many different websites and blogs. In fact, I would say I spend more time on my online book tour than on my actual physical book tour – and it's very convenient as well! I can do it sitting at my writing desk, wearing my workout clothes! I also Skype, from time to time, if a university, school, or large book club has chosen one of my books to teach or discuss. I Skype with readers in other countries as well as across the United States. (I do dress up for those events!)
I feel quite positive about e-books and e-publishing. I read most of my books in electronic form now. It is convenient and earth-friendly and easy when I travel. I do realize that different people have different reading preferences: some will always prefer a book they can hold and turn pages. I feel very happy that in today's world we have books in many formats for different kinds of readers.
Q. What role does an editor play in your writing process?
A. I have been very blessed in having wonderful editors – currently Emily Graff at Simon and Schuster. They have read my work carefully and given me suggestions – and sometimes forced me to do rewrites! At times I was annoyed by this, but ultimately I have always been grateful because they pushed the book to a higher level.
My agent, Sandra Dijkstra, and her co-agent Elise Capron have also been excellent readers for my work and have given me good suggestions, especially in the early stages of writing.
I also edit and revise, myself, several times. As I tell my students, editing is an absolutely crucial step in writing.
Q. How do you feel about adaptations of your books?
A. I am always appreciative when my books Mistress of Spices, Sister of My Heart, Arranged Marriage, One Amazing Thing, and most recently, Palace of Illusions and Oleander Girl are made into films, plays, or optioned by producers. This brings the books to a whole new audience, and hopefully, to many additional readers. I understand quite clearly that film and drama are different medium – plays and movies are never going to be the same as the books I wrote and I trust the vision of the directors in each case, and feel fine with allowing them to interpret the work in the way they see fit.
Q. Any thoughts about the multicultural voice in today’s writers such as Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam?
A. I think it is wonderful that we have so many talented multicultural writers writing in America today. Even those who are writing elsewhere have their books fairly easily available in the US. These writers tell the human story in a unique way. It is particularly healthy to have many multicultural voices available to readers, especially young readers, because that is the reality of the American experience: a multicultural way of living that we should know and celebrate. I believe that when we read multicultural writers, or teach them, we are promoting a more open way of approaching other races and cultures. This is crucial if we are to live at peace with each other in this country.
When I first became a writer, multicultural authorial voices were very important to me. They taught me many things and gave me permission, as it were, to write my own stories. In addition to the names you have mentioned, I have enjoyed and learned from the works of people such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Cristina Garcia, Sandra Cisneros, Amy Tan, Maya Angelou, Anita Desai, Toni Morrison and Amitav Ghosh.
Q. Any tips, advice for burgeoning writers?
A. I always tell my students to read widely, read every day, and read as a writer – looking for techniques that they can learn from the books they read. In addition, it's important to write regularly as well. And revision – perhaps ultimately that's the most important of all!
We would like to thank Chitra for being so generous with her time to answer our questions. Check out her books available in print, audio and e-book formats at the library. Although my favorite Chitra book is Palace of Illusions, I am very much looking forward to reading her latest.
Librarian and Virtual Services' manager