New England Meets India: inKonversation with Betsy Woodman
A north american with memories of India, returns back after decades to write a fiction based in the country of her childhood memories. Part memoir – part fiction the Jana Bibi Adventure series is back this winter with its second instalment. We get inKonversation with the creator of the vivacious fortune teller Jana Bibi and her intriguing parrot – Betsy Woodman. She talks about her India memories, turning them into fiction, writing and the interesting journey. Read on:
Betsy your first book Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes and the latest Love Potion No. 10 are both based in India while you are based in New Hampshire. Tell us about your India connection.
I have to give my parents the credit for my India experience. After growing up in small New England towns, they wanted to see the world. In India, my dad served as a cultural affairs officer with the US Information Service and then as an educational consultant with the Ford Foundation. My mom founded a ballet school in Delhi. They transmitted their love of India and enthusiasm for Indian art and culture to their kids.
In school, my earliest geography lessons were mapping the rivers and mountain ranges of India. In history class, I studied the Mughal emperors. I learned arithmetic by converting rupees, annas, and paise into pounds, shillings, and pence. (!) Later, as a student at Woodstock School, I explored Mussoorie’s three fascinating bazaars. These became the inspiration for my fictional hill station of Hamara Nagar.
10 formative years in India! Tell us what do you remember of you time here and how has it influenced you as a writer?
Oh, my goodness! I’ll just do a quick word association exercise. White-washed walls, red gravel driveways, friends, schools, ayahs, monsoons, Bharatnatyam lessons, Republic Day parades, twirling Diwali sparklers, playing Holi, riding in tongas, ponies, wearing chappals, traveling to hill stations, bicycles, sunshine, dust storms, Lodi Gardens, Cottage Industries, Khan Market, Connaught Place, trains, tea, samosas, sandalwood soap, pigeons on monuments, parrots in the trees.
Overall, my sense memories of India are so deeply engrained that they emerge first when I sit down to write.
A parrot on the covers of both the Jana Bibi adventures. Looks like it is key character in Love Potion No. 10 too. What is the inspiration behind making a character out of the bird?
Before Mr. Ganguly popped into my head, I had been reading about the work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her African gray parrot, Alex. That devoted pair showed how much humans had underestimated bird intelligence. After that, I got interested in the representation of parrots in art. One day I wandered around the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York asking the guards to point me in the direction of paintings that included parrots. I also looked for parrots in literature. There’s an irascible one who speaks several languages in Gabriel García Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. As a kid, I loved the character of Polynesia the parrot in Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Doolittle books, so maybe this whole parrot thing goes back a long way.
Getting published is quite an adventure in itself. Please share with us your adventure (or misadventure) in the run-up to be on a book cover.
It’s been quite a long journey! I started writing fiction more than twenty-five years ago, accumulated the proverbial fat folder of rejection slips, and gave up many times. However, my sister Lee Woodman would absolutely not let me give up. She sent me sticky notes saying, write that book! and ordered me to post them on the refrigerator. The breakthrough came when my novelist friend Elizabeth Berg (without my knowledge) sent her agent ten pages I’d tossed off one day about a fortune-teller and her parrot.
How would you describe your experience of publishing in India and the Indian readership?
Wonderful! I have really enjoyed working with the folks at Random House India and have loved making new Twitter and FB friends among readers and reviewers. India has been kind to me and I’m very grateful.
How much of Betsy Woodman is Jana Bibi?
Very little. I’m not Scottish, or a violinist, and I doubt I could be talked into setting up a fortune-telling salon in my living room. However, some of Jana’s childhood memories would certainly overlap with mine.
Writing is such a systematic business. How does the planning-writing phase work out for you especially when you are writing something set in the past like in the Jana Bibi series?
I love research and do a ton of it, both before starting the story and as I go along. Ironically, with Internet resources, Netflix, etc., it’s far easier to research the 1960s than it would have been at some time closer to the events. I also have access to a small mountain of family photos and correspondence. (Both my grandmother and my dad hated to throw anything away.) After I stir this material around for a while, I generally make a highly detailed plot outline. Once I get writing, I promptly depart from it, but having that framework helps avoid the panicky feeling of getting up in the morning with no idea of what to type on that blank screen.
Fans of Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes are definitely waiting to read, where do Jana and her parrot take the series further but what is in it for a reader who is discovering Jana & Betsy Woodman for the first time?
I’d hope that the books take you to a cozy place that’s both Indian and familiar to people who don’t know India at all; that the characters have their faults and foibles but are lovable in their eccentricity. Altogether, I’m happy if the reader has fun, sheds an occasional tear, and comes away with a chuckle.
You have been a book reviewer before turning an author. Has the role played a part/ helped you in taking to storytelling?
Oh, yes. For starters, reviewing all those books let me build up my library of books on India. Even when I was working at jobs that weren’t all that creative, I could still keep in touch with what was happening in fiction. I was constantly being exposed to different themes and styles of writing. Also, writing book reviews taught me to keep to a strict word limit.
Everyone who writes, writes for a reason; and to write a couple of novels needs a very real reason. What’s yours? And has that reason changed between the two adventures of Jana Bibi?
I wanted to describe a whole little world that was already in my head. In answer to your second question, no, my motivation didn’t change from one book to the next. My assignment from my US publisher (Henry Holt & Co.) was for three books, so from the get-go, I knew I wasn’t going to merely visit Jana and her pals once and then move on. I was prepared to settle in for a while. By the way, I recently finished the third Jana book, Emeralds Included, and it’s now in the production pipeline.
Literary agents, self-published or approach the publisher directly. In a volatile Indian publishing market today, what is your take and why?
Actually, I really don’t know anything about the Indian publishing market, in the sense of how to sell a manuscript. (Publication of the Jana Bibi books in India is by arrangement between Holt and RHI.) However, I will say that the Indian literary scene strikes me as very vibrant, with a lot of excitement among readers and book bloggers.
What according to you will be a milestone writing feat for you?
I suppose that a future milestone would be writing a book with a contemporary theme, based on lots of original research, and that hasn’t much to do with my own biography.
What is next on the literary front from you? Will be see more of Jana Bibi or have you found a new muse?
There are plenty more characters and subplots I’d like to explore in Jana Bibi’s world. For example, I’m sure Feroze’s nephew Moustapha is having an interesting time in Mumbai. However, at some point maybe I’ll set a story in New Hampshire—or do a nonfiction book, say a biography.
Your words of wisdom for newbie writers.
Don’t despair—no matter how successful you are in terms of recognition or money, you’re still doing a wonderful thing. You’re giving a gift to your fellow human beings. Be proud of that, do the best you can, and keep going!