Author Squared: Gabrielle Burton and Chitra Divakaruni
Two Authors chat about writing, books, and everthing in between...
Take it away ladies!
Gabrielle: In One Amazing Thing, Chitra, you have 9 characters. Did you like some more than others? Have a favorite? Was there one who really gave you trouble?
Chitra: Gabrielle, it was tough to work with 9 characters, especially since I think of One Amazing Thing as an ensemble novel, where all the characters are equally important. To add to the challenge, they came from different racial backgrounds—Indian, Chinese, Caucasian, African American. My favorites turned out to be Malathi, the visa office worker whom everyone hates in the beginning, and Cameron, the older African American veteran. I didn’t have trouble with Malathi—she’s Indian, and I felt I understood her thinking process well. But Cameron--it took me a long time to imagine and research the details of his life because it was so different from my own experience.
How about you, G?
Gabrielle: In most of the stories about the Donner Party, a man named Lewis Keseberg is the villain, the scapegoat. Thinking about him for so many years while I was writing Impatient with Desire, he became much more dimensional and sympathetic to me. He didn't become one of my favorites like your Malathi but I became fond of him and felt for him. Generally in writing fiction I think the character most like me is the hardest to write because of having to face up to truths. Conversely, the one most unlike me can be the most fun because I can indulge my fantasies. In Heartbreak Hotel, I had 7 characters, and the easiest one to write was Rita the bellydancer.
Chitra: You mean you’ve never belly-danced? Never too late, Gabrielle! But seriously, in writing, how much do you draw upon your own experience?
Gabrielle: Sometimes when readers ask me that, I say, If I tell you none of it is based on my experiences you'll be disappointed, and if I tell you all of it is, I'll be embarrassed. In truth, it's someplace in the middle. Our life is our material and we all draw upon our experiences--sometimes the way something actually happened, more often the way it could have or should have happened--in other words, we make a better story of it. Or we use a part here, a part there, and the whole becomes something brand new. And sometimes we just plain make stuff up.
What about you, Chitra?
Chitra: I started making stuff up right from my first novel, The Mistress of Spices, which employs magical realism. The main character is a woman who knows the hidden power of spices and can use them to heal people, not just physically but mentally, and bring them what their hearts desire. From then on, there was no looking back. (How could my own life compare to something like that!) And that has been very freeing for me, because whenever I base a character on someone I know, at some point or other, I get blocked & have a hard time moving away from their life.
Are you ever blocked, Gabrielle? What do you do?
Gabrielle: I think of two things that are really the same thing, one that Flannery O'Conner said, "I sit at my desk every day from 9 to 12. If inspiration comes, I'm there to greet it." And the other an artist, Irving Kriesberg, I met at MacDowell when I was young and struggling said, "You have to trust the act of work." You have to trust that if you keep giving it your best shot, something will happen. The important thing is to get something, anything, down on the page no matter how bad it is, then you have something to work with.
Are you ever blocked or despairing, Chitra?
Chitra: I love that Flannery O'Connor quote. I’ll have to share it with my writing students. Yes, I do get blocked. (Is there any writer who doesn’t? If there is, they’re lying.) Usually it’s because I haven’t understood my story/scene fully enough, or I haven’t figured out the characters motivations and desires. So then I have to make extensive notes and figure these things out. Only then can I move on. I have an alternate strategy: it involves my muse, Juno, and is on my website, http://www.chitradivakaruni.com/about/muse. (Yes, interested readers will just have to go there & check it out!)
Do you have objects or talismans on your writing desk that help you, Gabrielle?
Gabrielle: I often copy down something that a person I admire has said or lines from poems and prop them up in front of me--they change from year to year. Permanent residents are a 140 year old china doll that was my grandmother's, and a piece of amethyst that was the last present my sister gave me. The former inspire me; the latter comfort me.
What do you have on your desk, Chitra?
Chitra: I have a meditating Buddha that my mother gave me. I usually meditate in the morning before I start writing—that helps me enter the fictive world. My Buddha reminds me that all this will pass. Even the worst writing problem I’m facing will get resolved, one way or another. I also have sheaves of notes and a to-do list. When I’m writing and remember something that I should have done, and am tempted to interrupt myself and get up & do it, I write it down instead.
Chitra: Of course all writers would love to have a best seller, but a published book can bring other treasures. What's a wonderful unexpected thing that happened to you as a result of publishing Impatient with Desire?
Gabrielle: One thing was meeting other writers the way you and I met through sharing a publisher, and also meeting writers on the internet. I work pretty much in isolation and the internet has broken that isolation. A splendid thing was a Donner Party descendant writing me, asking if I'd like to see Tamsen Donner's cashbox. She brought it from Oregon to show me, and from my research I was able to tell her a story about it she didn't know. I wrote off and on about the pioneer heroine Tamsen Donner for nearly four decades and not in a million years would I have dreamed her cash box would one day sit on my dining room table for me to touch 165 years after she had.
Gabrielle: I bet people tell you their amazing things all the time. That's what's wonderful about your book, that it inspires people to pay attention to special things. Tell me one amazing thing that has happened to you because of your book.
Chitra: Well, it really touches me anytime I attend a book club and people begin to share their “One Amazing Thing” stories. Sometimes they open up and tell a story they’ve never told anyone. The most amazing time was when this reader—a very successful doctor, very proper, very in control—told the group how he had felt the first time a patient of his died. By the end of his narration, we were all moved to tears—including him. It made me think, this is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping for when I wrote the book—community and connection through sharing our stories. Your amazing story above points to a similar connection through reading, too, I think.
Gabrielle: We've talked about this, Chitra, and I know you agree that those are the moments when we know how fortunate we are to be writers. They're really humbling moments. Moments of grace.
Thanks Gabrielle and Chitra! Trimuph over adverstiy, women empowerment and American history in Impatient with Desire and personal discovery, diversity, and intriguing relaitonships in One Amazing Thing. Both make excellent book club selections.
Gabrielle Burton's novel, Impatient with Desire: The Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner, was awarded the Western Heritage Award for outstanding novel. She's also the author of the novel, Heartbreak Hotel, and the nonfiction books Searching for Tamsen Donner and I'm Running Away from Home but I'm Not Allowed to Cross the Street. She has written for the Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Ms. Magazine, etc., and blogs for the Huffington Post and the Nervous Breakdown. Her screenwriting honors include: the Mary Pickford Prize from American Film Institute, 1st prize in the Austin Heart of Film Screenplay competition, and a Nicholl fellowship. She lives in Venice, CA.
Chitra Divakaruni's work has been translated into 29 languages, and her novels Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart have been made into films. She has won a number of awards including an American Book Award and a PEN Josephine Miles award. Her latest novel, One Amazing Thing, was recently picked as the 2011 Gulf Coast Reads book, a one-region-one-book program for the Houston area. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Houston. An avid blogger and Facebooker, she invites you to join her on her author page, http://www.facebook.com/chitradivakaruni