Today is the fourth anniversary of the PaperTigers blog and what could be a better way to celebrate than to be welcoming author and fellow-blogger Uma Krishnaswami on this the third leg of what promises to be a scintillating blog tour for her new book The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, illustrated in black and white by Abigail Halpin and published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers. You can find out more about the illustration process from yesterday’s stop on the Blog Tour, when Abigail Hilpin met up with Joy Chu over at Got Story? Count Down, along with a few other surprise guests. And don’t miss Uma’s insightful interview from Day 1 with Cynthia Leitich Smith over at Cynsations (where it’s so good to learn that there is a grand plan for a 2012 sequel to The Grand Plan to Fix Everything).
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything is a middle-grade novel that will have its readers laughing aloud as they encounter a cast of characters who become closely knit through coincidence and accidents or deliberations of circumstance. We will be publishing a full review of the book soon, in the meantime here’s a brief introduction from its blurb before we meet Uma herself:
“Eleven-year-old Dini loves movies – watching them, reading about them, trying to write her own – especially Bollywood movies. But when her mother tells her some big news, it does not at all jive with the script of her life she has in mind. Her family is moving to a tiny village in India, far from her best friend Maddie and the grand plans they’ve made for the summer.
So now, Dini is hard at work on a new script, the script in which she gets to meet the amazing Dolly Singh, Dini’s all-time favorite Bollywood star. But life is often more unpredictable than the movies, and when Dini starts plotting her story things get a little out of control.”
…and here’s the book’s trailer, put together by Uma’s son, Nikhil Krishnaswamy:
Uma, thank you for dropping by the PaperTigers blog. Right in the inside jacket it says: “they’re moving to a teeny, tiny town that Dini can’t even find on a map: Swapnagiri. It means Dream Mountain, a sleepy little place where nothing interesting can happen..” Well, by the end of the story, no one is going to agree with that final statement – but I have to admit, I did try looking Swapnagiri up on a map and I couldn’t find it. Is Swapnagiri a real place or did you invent it? Can you tell us something about the locations in the book and your connection with them?
Dini couldn’t find Swapnagiri on a map (and she’s pretty thorough) so of course, neither can you. All right, all right, I made it up!
It’s based loosely on several hill towns in a real region of south India, the Nilgiris or Blue Mountains. So the mountains are real, but the town is made up. The house Dini and her family live in is real, but the tea estate is made up. That is a tea-growing area, though, so that was an easy fictional step to take. My family lived in that part of the country when I was very young. I don’t remember it, as we left there before I turned two, but I heard about it often as I was growing up. I visited it later and fell in love with that house. It seemed to be crying out loud to be placed in a story.
As for Takoma Park, Maryland, my husband and I lived in the DC suburbs for nearly twenty years before we moved to New Mexico. Of all the suburban communities in that area, Takoma Park seemed the right one to place Dini and her family in.
Reading the book gives a sensation of worlds within worlds, so that by the end readers may well be questioning themselves about the notion of reality – also bearing in mind that the book itself is a work of fiction. How easy was it to jump between the different levels of reality in your writing?
Oh, I don’t think I even realized I was doing that until several rounds into the process. Then when I did begin to sense it, I found that I could play with the notion. That’s how all the commentary on film and filmmaking came to be. That’s when Dini began to make little asides on her life as a movie. But I do think that it began with that part in the opening chapter about Swapnagiri not being detectable on a map.
I think my inspiration for this came from the P.G.Wodehouse books I read growing up. They’re spoofs of a small social setting seen from close up—but then there’s a pig, and newts, and hordes of batty people. The whole thing is not so much realistic as idealized. If I’ve managed even a tiny, tiny fraction of what Plum accomplished in those wonderful books, I would be a happy woman.
As soon as you say that, I can totally see it. Just you have monkeys, goats and a peacock – and hordes of batty people! And I came away from reading the book with just the same sunny outlook on life that reading Wodehouse engenders.
There were a couple of places where I laughed aloud because you allow the reader the conceit of knowing what is going to happen before the characters do – and then turn those expectations on their head. Was this intentional and what do you think it adds to the notions of kismet and coincidence that run through the book?
That’s a very perceptive observation. I wish I could say that I plotted those bits out carefully and then wrote them. But the truth is that I wrote some very messy drafts and then combed through them looking for cues. When I found some that I could turn on their heads like that, I was delighted. I worried for a while that scattering so many chapters about without Dini in them would drain all suspense, but then I remembered something that E.M.Forster said. He wrote it about fantasy but it applies equally to many kinds of fiction: The writer, Forster says, “manipulates a beam of light which occasionally touches the objects so sedulously dusted by the hand of common sense, and renders them more vivid than they can ever be in domesticity.” I hope I’ve found that beam of light in this book.
Much of the novel revolves around friendship – maintaining a friendship across different time-zones; realising that making new friends does not have to mean being disloyal to older ones; “Giving an inch” when it matters; and being open through “listen-listening, look-looking” to finding friendship in unexpected places. There are no “baddies” in the story, except by proxy, as it were, from descriptions of Dolly’s films, but lots of people are feeling harassed by a variety of circumstances. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
I think that a story finds its own trajectory, when the writer establishes the right premise and manages to place the right combination of characters on its stage. I often feel as if I’m inviting a range of characters to come audition for a story, and then when they show up and start talking I can figure out if they’re going to last or not. So what can I say? No real baddies showed up. I don’t think any were needed. On the other hand, if there were, say, criminals hanging around in Swapnagiri (and maybe there are a few) they’d have their own stories and they’d be forgiven in the end. It’s that kind of place.
There is absolutely nothing didactic about The Grand Plan to Fix Everything but “listen-listening, look-looking” readers will learn some interesting facts about India. How do you generally approach conveying the cultural aspects of what you are writing?
Seamlessly, to the extent I can. I try to refrain from giving explanations unless the story needs them. I never use the shorthand convention of using a parenthetical comma phrase to translate from an Indian language into English. I try to make everything clear in context, so that there are no gratuitous facts strewn about for their own sake. I trust my readers. Young people are capable of “listen-listening” and “look-looking” with their whole bodies and minds with an ease that we adults have to make an effort to recapture. Maybe they tend to do so in smaller snatches than adults, but still, I trust them to connect the cultural dots in the story.
Are you a “true fan” of Bollywood films?
Not really. My father was of the opinion that no good films had been made in India past around, oh, let’s say 1949. So Hindi movies were not standard fare. But if you grew up in north India in the 60’s the music was everywhere, so the ethos of the movies got to you whether you knew it or not. I did watch several rather wonderful movies, and skimmed through some that didn’t grab me as much, while I was writing the book.
Your writing very much reflects the narrative’s focus on film, whether it’s Dini’s preoccupations with film-scripting the events around her, or the make-believe Bollwood world of her beloved “fillums”. Did you approach writing the novel as though you were writing a script, with locations, dialogues, props?
I approached it through Dini’s sensibility, and that in turn led me to thinking (as I watched those “fillums”) about the narrative voice that sometimes shows up in Hindi movies. In Lagaan, for example. It’s a sonorous kind of voice, with a high degree of omniscience, and it inserts commentary on the story at intervals along the way. That was the kind of voice that in the end spliced the events of the novel together for me. It was less a conscious effort to mimic the movie form and more that I had certain instincts—short scenes, that wacky narrative voice, cutting away from scenes to follow letters and e-mails and so on. At some point along the way I gave up trying to control the plot and instead followed those instincts.
Wouldn’t it be great if The Grand Plan to Fix Everything was made into a film! If you were in charge, how would you go about it?
Well, Dolly and Mr. Soli Dustup could probably pull it off. Wait—they’re characters in the book! Too bad. I did have a dream once in which the story became an animated film, but I’m a bit foggy on the details, on account of waking up in the middle.
Can you tell us what your plans are following The Grand Plan to Fix Everything’s release, and do you already know what you’re going to write next?
I’m working on a couple of novel projects right now that are still taking shape. They’re amorphous enough that I’m worried if I talk them out they’ll vaporize! And I always have a couple of picture book projects in the hopper, but again, they’re in the early stages.
I can tell you that my picture book, Out of the Way! Out of the Way! published last year in India by that little press with a big vision, Tulika, is to be published in a 2012 North American edition by Canadian publisher Groundwood Books. That’s very exciting to me, as we generally tend to see subrights sold in the other direction, with books published first in the US and then in overseas editions.
That really is great news about Out of the Way! Out of the Way! -we’ll certainly be looking out for it next year. And I just can’t resist this one final question about The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. Chocolate is prominent in the story – in fact, my mouth was watering at various points in the book – what’s the story behind the curry puffs? Can you possibly point us towards a recipe?
When I was younger than Dini is in the book, we lived in Delhi. My family hardly ever ate out, but every now and then my aunt Viji, my father’s sister, would take me shopping to Connaught Place which was at the time the major shopping center. Now Delhi has all kinds of fancy malls and whatnot but back then CP was it. We’d go to a restaurant called Nirula’s which still exists. And I would order curry puffs. http://nirulas.in/images/products/large/681-b.jpg. They call them “vegetable patties” now but I’m pretty sure they were called “curry puffs” back in my time.
Mr. Mani of course adds his own secret ingredient. I must confess that when I threw that secret ingredient into the novel, I was quite pleased with myself. It added just the right touch of eccentricity, not to mention cultural fusion. I didn’t for one minute stop to think that I might actually have to make the things some day. Now, with people asking if I could possibly share the recipe, or even bring a batch or two for book events, I’ve had to test it in real life. Yes, it works. Whew! For your culinary delight, there is a recipe in the activity kit on my website.
Yum! Thank you, Uma. It’s been such a pleasure hearing all about The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. Enjoy the rest of your Blog Tour – we certainly will! But wait, we’re not quite finished yet… Cue drumroll:
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything is celebrating its launch with a Grand Giveaway! Three lucky Grand Prize winners will each receive one copy of The Grand Plan to Fix Everything along with a starry assortment of bangles and trinkets that Dolly Singh, famous famous Bollywood movie star, would adore! An additional 3 runners-up will receive a copy of The Grand Plan to Fix Everything.
To enter, send an e-mail to GrandPlanGiveaway@gmail.com. In the body of the e-mail, include your name, mailing address, and e-mail address (if you’re under 13, submit a parent’s name and e-mail address). One entry per person and prizes will only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses. Entries must be received by midnight (PDT) on 30th June 2011. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on 1st July 2011 and notified via email.