Thursday, October 1, 2009

Interview with Uma Krishnaswami

As any writer knows, there are teachers along the way that guide your growth and understanding of the writing process; that help unlock the secrets of the craft so that the choice and order of the words you write have a purpose, an intention, a plan. Well, Uma Krishnaswami is one of those teachers for me.

Uma is a writer as well as a teacher. She has published numerous books: MANY WINDOWS (with Rukshana Khan and Elisa Carbone, Napolean & Co,. 2008); REMEMBERING GRANDPA (Boyds Mill Press, 2007); THE CLOSET GHOSTS (Children's Book Press, 2006); THE HAPPIEST TREE: A Yoga Story (Lee & Low, 2005); THE BROKEN TUSK, Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha (August House, 2005 and Linnet Books, 1996); NAMING MAYA (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2004); MONSOON (Farrar Straus, 2003); CHACHAJI'S CUP (Children's Book Press, 2003) and many more.

Additionally, she is part of the faculty of the M.F.A. program in Writing For Children and Young Adults at Vermont College. I had the pleasure of meeting her through several writing classes at Writers On The Net and I'm so thrilled to get the chance to talk to her today about writing and her career.

Kiki: Uma, thank you for joining me and sharing some insight into your writing career. I’ve had the pleasure of working with you through several online writing classes at Writers On The Net. I am in awe of your literary knowledge and often refer to you as the ‘walking literary encyclopedia’ due to your phenomenal knowledge of published works, both new and old. Have you always read? And how to you retain so much information about these different works?

Uma: I don’t remember learning to read, so I must have begun to read quite early. I don’t remember ever not reading. As for remembering book, I don’t retain such a dazzling amount of information as all that. Well, I retain some of it, but I also keep a running bibliography of just about every book I read, with a brief annotation. I started doing that after I began teaching at Vermont College. I was asking my students to keep annotated bibliographies, so I thought I should try it myself. It’s amazing how writing something down can help you remember.

Kiki: On your website you call yourself a child writer who writes for children and that your first poem was published at the amazing age of 13. Can you tell us about your writing progression? Did you continue to write through your teens and into adulthood?

Uma: I wrote off and on until I finished high school. College and then graduate school really knocked creative writing out of me for several years. It was during the years that I worked as a rehabilitation counselor, with young people who had disabilities, that I started paying attention again to the stories all around me, the stories of people’s lives. I wasn’t a terribly good counselor because I sometimes had trouble seeing what I needed to do to help people. I was just too engrossed in their stories. But I was always the one who volunteered to write case studies and journal articles and grants—all deadly stuff but it was good practice.

Kiki: You are also on the faculty of Vermont College MFA program , you teach other teachers, as well as teaching online classes through Do you have a writing schedule? Do you have a system that allows you to balance your personal life with a writing life?

Uma: I’m letting of those obligations go, little by little. My First Steps class on is now being taught by VCFA graduate and writer Debby Dahl Edwardson. My work with teachers is now pretty much around school visits related to my books, which is a comfortable place to be. I love teaching at VCFA and I’m committed to that for the long haul. And my writing will never let me go, so I’m careful to make time for that. What else? A personal life? What’s that?

Kiki: I’ve noticed that your 2003 Monsoon is set in India and your 2007 Remembering Grandpa appears to be set in New Mexico. I know you split your time between the two locations. Do you give direction to the illustrator about the settings in your books?

Uma: Not directly. I usually keep a photo file with pictures and art sources that I can pass on to editors. When Jamel Akib was working on Monsoon, he ended up using a lot of my source material for the artwork. That was really fun to see.

Kiki: Your 2004 Naming Maya, a heartfelt story about change and trust, is your only middle grade novel to date. Do you plan to write any more MG novels?

Uma: Yes, I do. I have a middle grade historical novel currently under contract with Lee & Low, and a humorous middle grade slated for publication in 2011. I love the form of the middle grade novel, and feel I have at least a few more in me.

Kiki: Do you pick a specific topic to write about (some of your stories have been about loss of a loved one and adoption) or do story ideas just flow out?

Uma: They don’t flow out, nothing so lyrical. It’s more as if they come up to my window and press their little noses up against the glass, and hang out there making a racket. If I don’t let them in (which I never do, right way) they get more and more screechy and obnoxious until I start writing them out. Some go away and never come back, and that’s fine. Not every idea deserves to be written. It has to undergo the adoration test--you know, do you adore this idea enough that you can not only live with it in your head for the time it takes to write it, but can you then bear to see it in print for years to come?

Kiki: Many who will read this interview are writers and seeking publication. Do you have any words of advice for those just starting out or those that have been at it for a few years?

Uma: Write what you care about. Don’t pay attention to what’s hot and what’s not. Anyway, the books you see now reflect the acquisitions of two years ago, so it’s useless to try and follow trends. Cultivate your inner critic. Too many times we’re told the inner critic is a bad influence, to be sent away. That’s just not true. You can tame your inner critic so she does as she’s told. Bring her out to help you revise, so you can make the deep revisions that good writing requires.

Kiki: What are your favorite types of books?

Uma: I’ll tell you what I’m reading now. I like odd books, books that come at familiar subjects in unusual ways. Like Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage. It’s quite wonderful, the story of a rodent born in a bookstore basement who (literally) devours books. I’m also enjoying Carolyn Coman’s Sneaking Suspicions, reading it in small snippets and savoring young Ivy’s lovely see-saws between passion and crankiness. And my favorite picture book lately, that I was thrilled to see win a Batchelder Honor recently, is Garmann’s Summer by Stian Hole.

Kiki: You have a ‘peace page’ on your website, which I love. You talk of peace as a way, not just as a distant goal. Do you have plans to write any kind of book about this idea?

Uma: I rarely start books with a thematic idea like that. If it shows up in the form of characters inhabiting a setting, it’s possible. That said, I’m reading a beautiful nonfiction book that I wish I’d thought of writing—After Gandhi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistence by Ann Sibley O’Brien and Perry Edmond O’Brien.

Kiki: Your latest publication is a collaborative effort called Many Windows. Can you tell us a little about that?

Uma: It was something that two writer friends. Rukhsana Khan, Elisa Carbone, and I dreamed up one winter break. It changed quite a bit as we worked on it, grew from a picture book into a middle-grade collection for one thing. We divided up the characters and wrote segments, shared, revised, scrapped, rewrote. The whole thing took a couple of years because we’d work on it in between other projects. It is kind of a “peace” project if you will, or at least an “understanding and friendship” project.

Kiki: Any upcoming books you'd like to share with us?

Uma: I have two middle grade novels currently under contract and slated for publication in 2011. I hesitate to give you titles because they can change. Also if a working title already has an Internet life it always somehow manages to show up in Amazon and then I'm stuck with it forever. It'll be coughing and sputtering in my head whenever I use the real one! But I can tell you a little bit about each of them. The spring 2011 book will be historical, the story of a girl in a family with an unusual blend of cultures (Mexican and Punjabi Sikh) in California's Imperial Valley in the 1930's. That's being published by Lee & Low. The fall 2011 novel is from Atheneum. It's about a girl who moves from Maryland to India with her parents and finds that her favorite movie star is in the same town. It's a fast-paced story with a loving but tongue-in-cheek slant on the drama, romance, comic appeal, flashiness, and whopping coincidences of the genre of Hindi films now referred to as Bollywood.

I have a third book in the pipeline, a picture book about a tree and a road both growing along with the community they're in. It will be published in 2010 by an Indian publisher, Tulika Books.
Uma, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your stories with us. I look forward to reading your new books and continuing to learn from you.
For more information on Uma visit her website or her blog: Writing With a Broken Tusk.


  1. Uma and Kiki,
    Thanks so much for a wonderful interview! Uma, I love what you said about the "adoration test"!! Your mid-grade novels under contract and in progress sound awesome! I knew about the humorous one (I hope there's ONE detail that doesn't get edited out of that one :-) ) but the other two sound amazing as well! I suspect there was a germ of each of those in your short stories in Kahani, is that right? If so, is that a kind of test to see if an idea is rich enough for a novel?

  2. Lovely interview, Kiki ! It's going to be a long wait until 2011. When is the picture book published by Tulika coming out, Uma ? I like that publisher very much. They have lovely books.