Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Inside the Writer's Studio with Uma Krishnaswami

It is my Grand Pleasure to welcome author Uma Krishnaswami to Inside the Writer’s Studio today. Uma began teaching at VCFA after I graduated but the thing about VCFA is its arms reach far out into the writing world. You don’t have to physically be there to be considered family. And, I am honored to be part of the VCFA family with the talented Uma. (And as yesterday was Oprah’s last show I have to make the Letterman joke. Uma—Oprah. Oprah—Uma. THIS is the Uma Oprah should meet.) Recently, Uma Krishnaswami led a craft class at the YA A to Z Conference and I led a Q &A with Uma about the book she is here to talk about today, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. This inventive book has also been racking up some Grand (aka *starred* ) reviews. 

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything
Hooray for Bollywood. Eleven-year-old Dini is not pleased at all at the prospect of leaving Takoma Park, Md., and her best friend Maddie to live in a small town in southern India for two years. But though she knows it’s ridiculous, bakvaas, as Indians say, she wonders if she might get to meet her idol, Dolly Singh, Bollywood film star. Dini and Maddie are devoted Dolly fans. And, in a series of events as wonderfully convoluted and satisfyingly resolved as any movie plot could be, she does. The fast-paced tale introduces and manages to connect an Indian-American family, a postal worker from Mumbai, a movie producer and his erratic star, a car mechanic, a tea plantation owner, a local baker and assorted monkeys—all coming together for a grand finale party and dance. Set in imagined Swapnagiri (which means Dream Mountain), this high-energy concoction is thoroughly believable and entertaining. The story is told in a third-person present-tense voice that rings true to its protagonist, who sees her life as a movie script. Though Dini and Maddie are halfway around the world from each other, they communicate through cell phones and computer chat, keeping up their friendship while making new ones. Full of references to Bollywood movie traditions and local customs, this is a delightful romp with a fresh setting and a distinctive and appealing main character. - KIRKUS, April 1, 2011, *STAR

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything
Krishnaswami perfectly captures movie-star infatuation, best-friendship, geographical displacement, and youthful determination in this exuberant blend of American tween life and Indian village culture. When 11-year-old Dini's physician mother gets a grant to work at a clinic in the tiny village of Swapnagiri in India, Dini is plucked out of her contented life in suburban Maryland. Distraught about abandoning her BFF Maddie--who truly understands Dini's passion for Indian movie-star Dolly Singh--and their plans to attend Bollywood dance camp, she nevertheless remains optimistic as she tries to plot her new life, and those of the people she meets, as a screenplay. Krishnaswami (Naming Maya) interlaces Dini's story with lighthearted portrayals of the Indian film industry and postal system; she neatly and satisfactorily resolves every dilemma, suggesting elements of magic ("[W]hen you are moving... to a place whose name means ‘dream mountain,' your mind begins to open up in strange ways") while remaining firmly grounded in reality. An out-of-the-ordinary setting, a distinctive middle-grade character with an unusual passion, and the pace of a lively Bollywood "fillum" make this novel a delight.
--Publishers Weekly, April 4, 2011, *STAR

Let us welcome Uma. Now, on to the interview…

Is there a story behind the story that you wish to share? (i.e.: the ah-ha or lightning moment where the story inspiration struck.)

I’m the slow cooker in the story kitchen, so my work always progresses through very long simmering rather than dramatic lightning moments. I take things that happen to me and places where I’ve been, and then slowly, slowly work them into fiction. “How slowly?” you may ask. I will tell you that there is a house named Sunny Villa in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. The tea estate in the book is named for the house. It’s the place where our star-struck young heroine Dini ends up, and the place where she plans to track down the movie star she admires, so she can fix…you, know, eveyrthing. Well, when I was just a baby (in the last century) my parents lived in a house in these very mountains in south India. A house with a name—you guessed it, Sunny Villa. 

Here it is, this house from my childhood, and it is the house in the story, in a town much like the town in the story. It took me all of five years of trying to get at this story from many, many angles before I realized that this house needed to be in it, and that its red walls and blinking eyelash shutters were telling me something and I had better pay attention. It's a muddled, tedious way of constructing story but it's my way. 

Theme can be seen as a dirty word but as writers I believe we all have something to say, something we want to share with the world. What is that something for you?

 I think it’s the concept of home, and of geographies that overlap and criss-cross in maddening, mysterious ways to create that concept in the heart. I find myself returning to this idea again and again, whether it’s a picture book about a boy waiting for his adopted baby sister to arrive (Bringing Asha Home) or a child’s-eye view of the rain (Monsoon) or, as in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, friendships that survive and thrive in spite of, or sometimes, in very crazy ways, because of, the vast distances that separate the friends as well as their own often quite muddled internal sense of place. It’s funny stuff, in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, but it also has a layer of reality to it that I think many children in our fast-paced shrinking world will recognize.

 How important is voice in your work? How does “voice” come to you?

 I'll answer that by talking about this book in particular. Is it true of everything I write? I don't know. But voice was essential to this story finding its form. The story of Dini, and Dolly the movie star, hung around in my files and notebooks for a couple of years, looking for a voice. It wasn't until a passage about the town arrived in my mind, almost exactly the way it is now, that the voice kicked in, and it was only then that the story began to move forward. It's a slightly loony voice, with a definite omniscience to it. It asserts itself in varying degrees in the scenes with the girls and the eccentric adult characters in the book. It's the voice that links all the various storylines that come together in the end. It is critical to the book. As to where it came from, I think perhaps it grew out of books I read when I was 12 and 13: P.G.Wodehouse, Paul Gallico, and the Don Camillo stories by Giovanni Guareschi. All their story voices poured into my mind long ago, and emerged in some sort of mad fusion in the voice of this book. 

I am keen on examining structure. A favorite quote of mine goes something like this: “We only look at a poorly formed story and call it formula. Structure is the art that conceals itself.” How important is structure to you and what are some techniques that help you build a story?

My quests for voice and structure run parallel to each other forever, and when they begin to converge, I know I'm onto something. I wish I could figure out structure first in some logical way, but I can't, so I have to settle for circling around the story, sometimes for a year or two, before I begin to know the characters enough to understand what's likely to happen to them. In the case of The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, once I had the voice I knew that the story needed to rotate among several micro-settings in which a host of characters are all inching towards each other with Dini desperately trying to corral everyone into cooperation. And once I realized that Dini would see her own life playing out as one of the Bollywood "fillums" she adores, that's when I knew how not only this book but also its sequel (due out next year) would need to be structured. Techniques? I do the usual things--timelines and maps and notes off the page, but I'm terrible at most of them. Still, they're not the art form, the novel is, so I don't sweat it. I just do my best to pay attention to my characters and to the places in which they're moving through time. 

Do you have a favorite craft book? If so, what is it? And what is your favorite take away?

I think Ursula LeGuin's Steering the Craft is my best-thumbed craft book. "An Opinion Piece on Paragraphing" where she dismisses all "rules" about the desired lengths of paragraphs, is just one of my favorite passages. But here's a book that is not really a how-to book but it's just incredible reading. It's Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino. I've read it so often that my copy pops open to pages I particularly love, and there are so many of them that when it's not tidily on the shelf, the book splays permanently open, fanning out to several dozen places just for me.
Describe your main character's favorite meal? And why does she love it?

Dini, in The Grand Plan, eats at a bakery in the little hill town of Swapnagiri, and acquires a taste for curry puffs: pastry crust stuffed with potatoes and onions, and another secret ingredient that you have to read the book to identify. The curry puffs are paired with a luscious chocolate cake and rose-petal milkshake, with or without chocolate sprinkles. My big fear is that someone will ask me for a recipe for those curry puffs, and I have honestly never, ever tried them with that secret ingredient. But I am sure they are quite wonderful and the moment I make them, all my fears will completely vanish and I can make grand plans to fix anything at all. 

In ode to Maebelle, the main character in my new book Truth with a Capital T, who keeps a book of little known facts about just about everything, please share a wacky piece of trivia that has stuck with you or please share a little known fact about YOU.
About me? I am addicted to dried mango. The unsulphured, organic kind. Why didn't I make that the secret ingredient? Oh, I am kicking myself but it's too late.

 Do Not Miss

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 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 6/30/11. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on 7/1/11 and notified via email.

Today is VCFA Day on Uma’s Grand Plan Tour. Check out other interviews with Uma with Kathi Appelt, Michelle Knudsen, and Sarah Johnson. Thanks Uma for being with us and look for an essay about the art (& insanity) of teaching writing penned by Uma that will appear in the fall issue of Hunger Mountain.


  1. Really interesting to hear about how this wonderful book came into being - thank you. And do take a look at my interview with Uma for the Blog Tour for a bit more about those curry puffs :-) -

  2. Ah yes those curry puffs. Beware of placing fictional foods in a story!