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Interview: Sita Brahmachari, author.

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As you know, I’ve recently read Jasmine Skies by Sita Brahmachari and absolutely adored it.
Remember my review? 
I mean, have you seen the trailer?

Looks good, yes?
It’s because it is! Go read it, shoo!
And then come back because I have the wonderful Sita Brahmachari on my blog today!  As with all of my favourite authors,  I just had to ask her if she would  answer some of my questions on her books, her writing process and what’s next. Luckily, she agreed!

I’m always interested in finding out about the process behind the books that I absolutely adore. So when did the idea for Mira’s story first come into your head?
There are many memories distilled into Jasmine Skies. Some moments in the book are remembered from the first time I went to India, when my eyes, like Mira’s were opened onto a world more complex than I had ever imagined possible. My own childhood outrage about the inequality of life in different areas of the world, has found its way into this story. Also, before he died, my father shared with me some of his childhood memories of Kolkata and those inspired me to research a story set amongst the old streets of Kolkata where my father grew up. My life long, long distance relationship with my cousin Jhuma (a classical dancer, though not a Dubstep DJ!) also inspired me to write a story about the nature of connection to family on the other side of the world. Even though we now Facebook each other, we still write letters. Our sharing of ideas and thoughts in our letters to each other since the 1970’s gave me the idea for the preciousness of the letters in Jasmine Skies. I recently visited family in India with my Mum and sister, and it was on that trip (the first without my father) that I began to take photos of places that have ended up being central to my story.

I’m sure everyone who has ever even thought about writing a book and trying to get it published has heard about the horror stories behind actually getting an agent and getting published. When you finished ‘Artichoke Hearts’, what happened next? Was it nerve wracking sending out queries to agents and waiting for their response?
I started from a point of very little expectation! I had written my story really for myself and my family. It was only when trusted literary friends read the book that I began to believe it might have a chance of being published. I was amazed when the first agent I sent it to took it up. I worked on the novel with my agent for about six months and then she sent it to Macmillan. I was lucky. Artichoke Hearts hit the desk of my editor Sam Swinnerton who apparently is very hard to make cry! It was the tears she shed over Artichoke Hearts that made her fellow editorial team sit up and take notice. Macmillan have commissioned three books from me as a result. Everyone needs champions for their work, and I have been lucky enough to find them.

Do you have any advice for people who are thinking about following in your footsteps?
Your need to write stories will drive you forward. I find that once I set off on the storytelling journey there is very little that can deter me from continuing. Writing has rendered me impervious to domestic tasks! Keep travelling the road and hopefully you will meet some amazing and helpful people on the way (in the form of agents and editors) who will become your travelling companions.

Was it strange when the reviews for ‘Artichoke Hearts’ started to be published? Didyou read them or did you try and keep your distance?
My husband tells me when a review of my work comes out. I don’t spend too much time dwelling on them, but it does leave a very warm and fulfilled feeling in your heart when you find that people have been moved by your story. A curious feeling came upon me after I wrote Artichoke Hearts… it was almost as if the work no longer belonged to me. I have felt the same after publication of Jasmine Skies, once you hand a book over to the reader it takes on a whole other reality. Almost as soon as the book is finished I am thinking of the next journey… the books that have been written have an identity and a history that I am no longer in control of!

When you first sit down to write a book, where do you start? Are you an advocate for planning every chapter down to the last detail or do you just write and see what happens?
I’m afraid I’m a bit of a stream of consciousness writer! It’s often after I’ve written a few chapters that I realise where I’m heading. There is a lot of editing that goes into my work, even before it meets my editor’s eyes. I start with a symbol or several symbols that speak to me as being at the heart of each novel. For Artichoke Hearts it was the charm that Nana Josie gives to Mira on her twelfth birthday, and in Jasmine Skies it is the sari cupboard and the kingfisher bird. These images sing to me from my own childhood memories connected to India.

Your second book, ‘Jasmine Skies’ was published at the beginning of this year. After winning the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Award in 2011for Artichoke Hearts and having it be so well received, did you feel a kind of pressure about writing a sequel?
I tried not to think about it! My job, as I saw it, was simply to write the story I set out to write. I think that Mira’s fourteen year old voice helped me to ease my way into my second book. Unlike Artichoke Hearts, my second book is a travel adventure, and the plotting of Jasmine Skies required a lot more thinking through than that of Artichoke Hearts… I think it helped me that I was learning that craft, while not having to worry about a completely new narrative voice.

Did you always know there was going to be a sequel?
I knew I wanted to write a story about India and dual heritage identity, but I did not know that it was going to be through Mira’s eyes.

In both Artichoke Hearts and Jasmine Skies, my favourite thing was how you portrayed Mira’s search for her identity and her exploration of family history. Was it particularly important to you to explore both of these themes?
These were the things I thought about in my own childhood. I have worked with young people throughout my career in theatre, and I find that the wish to explore your history, ancestry and identity is of great importance to young people. We live in an increasingly diverse society, the fastest growing population In Britain is of people of mixed heritage, and so it comes as no surprise to me that the young people I talk to about my books, seem very connected to this exploration of history, culture and identity. I was very touched by the wonderful actor and Comedienne Meera Syal’s comment on my book.

‘’I really wish Sita had been writing when I was growing up as this beautiful heartfelt book explores so eloquently the need to find your history in order to find yourself. ‘
Meera Syal

What kind of research did you do?
In addition to the photographs I took in India on my last visit (2008). I also interviewed a BBC 1 DJ called Nihal Arthanayake for my character of Priya. I needed to know more about the Asian Dubstep scene and he filled me in! I also made sure that my cousin Jhuma checked through all of my descriptions of place to be sure that the details I placed in the story are correct. Obviously my own and my father’s memories, as well as what I have seen of India were the main research I drew on.

[Added by Jo: I didn’t just get one brilliant person on my blog today, I got two for the price of one. Sita kindly asked Sam Swinnerton, her editor at Macmillan, to help out with this next question!]

I’ve been blogging for about a year now and I love reading other blogger’s reviews but I’ve noticed that there is a distinct lack of exposure for British books, which is a shame because there are some absolute gems. As a British YA author, what comes to mind when you think of British YA? What makes our books stand out from the rest?

Sam: There are many fantastic British YA authors who deserve more exposure in the US. Often it’s thought that ‘Britishness’ doesn’t always translate well in the States, whereas we successfully publish many US authors int he UK.I’m not convinced by this argument, especially as someone who grew-up devouring Judy Blume – teen thoughts, feeling and issues can certainly cross the pond and don’t need to be set against backgrounds that are familiar to the reader.
Most British YA writing can be divided into observational comedy and first person narrative, gritty books that push boundaries, historical novels and, most recently, thrillers. The one area where the US seems to continually trump the Brits is the realm of the paranormal and dystopian –books that provide escapism and other worlds to explore. US authors are also able to pen sizzling romances that echo the drama and intensity of Hollywood, whereas most British love stories will start with a boy meeting a girl and buying her a cone of chips. I feel that British authors tackling teen subjects and the perennial issue of ‘coming-of-age’ do so with honesty and humour. British YA tells it like it is (or wraps the truth in irony), most often from the perspective of the underdog. Of course there are many US authors who write amazing contemporary fiction, but I do think the UK excels in this area. I love reading books by British YA, but I also enjoy the cliques, Prom Queens and Demons that seem to pervade every high school in America, as well as witnessing the chaos and devastation that will be our future world . . .

Ultimately, teens want to read about other teens experiencing the same fears, emotions and changes that they are going through, wherever and whenever the books is set. A strong voice and character can hold court in a high school or on another planet, but most definitely across the Atlantic!

Outstanding British YA authors you should read, if you haven’t already discovered them, are: Hayley Long, Gina Blaxil, Melvyn Burgess, Sophie Mackenzie, Louise Rennison, Kevin Brooks, Jenny Downham, SophieCrockett, Annabel Pitcher and Celia Rees.

[Added by Jo: Don’t know about you but a cone of chips sounds pretty good right now. I can’t wait to get started on that list of authors, can you?]

By the time I reached the end of Jasmine Skies, I was having absolute kittens. (Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for people who haven’t read it!). There IS going to be a third book isn’t there? Can you give us any clues as to what is going to happen next for Mira?
I know what happens, and I might tell you (in a back story one day!) but in a sense Mira has already been through her second rites of passage moment in Kolkata. I think the third will happen when she is a little older again… possibly first year of Uni? And who knows, by then which of the characters she has grown up with will still be by her side (actually I do know!) Don’t have kittens though… it’s all going to turn out, like life, not quite as we expected it, but maybe even better!

After you’ve finished Mira’s story, what’s next for Sita Brahmachari?
I am working on a third YA novel for Macmillan. I am very excited to have been given this extraordinary opportunity to write three novels . I don’t want to say too much at this stage but I can tell you that it is set in the third very important location in my life…. The Lake District mountains. It’s a story about falling and flying!

~*~*~*~

I would like to say a huge thank you to Sita (and Sam!) for taking the time to answer my questions so brilliantly. It’s always so great to hear about the writing process behind your favourite books, isn’t it? And the Lake District Mountains?! Count me in.

You can find Sita Brahmachari in various corners of the internet.

Her blog.
Twitter.

 

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