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Writing and Rewriting during COVID with Alka Joshi

During COVID, I have been reading books to make me feel like I am traveling. After reading The Henna Artist, I reached out to author, Alka Joshi, and spoke to her about her book and about India. She has spoken to over 400 book clubs. I asked her about how did that happen….. Alka Joshi: […]

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During COVID, I have been reading books to make me feel like I am traveling. After reading The Henna Artist, I reached out to author, Alka Joshi, and spoke to her about her book and about India. She has spoken to over 400 book clubs. I asked her about how did that happen…..

Alka Joshi: I responded to every direct message I received, every direct message on Facebook, everyone that I received on Instagram. I remember being a reader and writing to authors, you know, with that sort of star gaze in my eye, and just thinking, “Oh, I loved your book so much. And here’s what I loved about it. And just hoping for your response back.” I really wanted to connect with people, and I think everybody else was hungry for connection too. And you know what the Buddhists say?

Lisa Niver: What?

Alka Joshi: They say, “You are exactly where you’re supposed to be right now at any given moment.” 

Lisa Niver: That is a beautiful thought during this challenging and uncertain time. The thing that I was drawn to when I wrote about The Henna Artist for Ms. Magazine is, I really felt like I was back in India. Your book has so much sensory information, like the taste of the cooking or the smell of the women dressed up at the party, or how did the henna look on the hands. I felt like I could almost touch India again. 

Alka Joshi: One of the most rewarding things is to have people from the country you’re writing about validate everything you’ve written and say, “I get it. I was there, my mother was there, or my grandfather was there. I get this story because it relates to my family.”

Lisa Niver: One of the highlights for me of being stuck at home in Covid was to read and feel like I was in a place.

Alka Joshi: Thank you so much. Lisa, you have traveled all over the world. Did you feel during this lockdown that you were somehow imprisoned here or did you feel like this was a moment to reflect on all of your travels? 

Lisa Niver: Being able to read a book like The Henna Artist or The Secret Keeper of Jaipur–which is coming out next month–that to me has been such a joy of this–I’ve been calling it The Great Pause–and for me, I worked on my memoir about my travels and about my divorce.

Alka Joshi: I think, Lisa, a lot about our purpose in life. I think about why we’re here on this planet. And I do feel that our response to moments like this is what shapes us. And our response to moments like this is a result of all the moments that have come before it and what we have learned from them, and what we learned about how to react to them, you know? So, I think that the pandemic was a wonderful way for us to test what we’ve learned in our lives, how we move forward when we’re given these limitations, in the very similar way that I think the characters of The Henna Artist and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur move forward, given the limitations of their lives, right? 

Lisa Niver: Absolutely. I would recommend to everybody who’s listening to us to read The Henna Artist first, and if you’ve already read it, read it again. Let’s talk about the journey. I think when I took the class you gave at Kepler’s, did you say you rewrote the book twelve times? 

Alka Joshi: Actually I think what you’re reading of The Henna Artist is the 30th draft of the book.

Lisa Niver: Three-zero?

Alka Joshi: Yes. As you’re learning how to write a novel, you are learning how to become an expert in something that is new to you. And, for example, when you become an Olympic skier, you have to put in a lot of hours before you can qualify for the Olympics, right? It’s the same thing with writing a novel, you have to learn how to sustain the reader’s interest over 300, 400, 500 pages, however much you’re writing. And you have to learn how to make sure that each character has a story arc so that they are not left the same from the beginning to the end of the book, there is a transformation that has happened. Otherwise we wouldn’t read the book. We want to know how people change. We want to know how they grow, because I think a lot of times we use fiction as a way to pattern our real lives. We use fiction as a model for how we can react to circumstances, how we can grow from circumstances that we’re facing. 

Lisa Niver: That’s beautiful. And we see all of those character arcs in your books. You’ve written them so beautifully. And I know you’ve spoken about patterning Lakshmi on your mom, is that right? 

Alka Joshi and her mother

Alka Joshi: Yes. My intention was that I wanted to re-imagine a life for my mother that she did not get to live, a life where she gets to decide what her future is going to look like. In The Henna Artist, I created Lakshmi as a way to re-imagine my mother and–a person who can leave her marriage, who deserts her marriage before children are born. And then she goes on to forge a life of her own. She starts a career that is just her own. She has success in her life because of her intelligence and her wit and her talent, not because somebody else set it up for her.

When you start with an intention and that is very much inside you, and you feel like you have to write about it, then I think that you will always be successful. Whenever a new writer asks me, you know, “What do I need in order to succeed?”

I always say that you need three Ps: First is the Passion, the intention that you start with. Why are you writing this? Why you? Why, at this particular time, do you feel you need to write about this? Secondly, it’s Perseverance, because you have to stick through as many drafts as it takes to get it to the point where somebody wants to buy it and put it out there in the world. And then the last is Patience.

You know, I am a very impatient person. I think that I should be immediately good at whatever it is I take up. And so I had to learn to be patient with myself. My husband is very good at reminding me about these kinds of things when I get impatient with myself, like, why aren’t I finished already? Why aren’t I published already? Why in the world is this Covid thing, you know, keeping me back? And he’ll just say, “You know what, honey, it just takes patience, and you need to be patient with yourself because you can’t become good at something overnight.” He really keeps me grounded. We all need someone like that in our lives, whether it’s our parents or a best friend or somebody who always says, “Go easy on yourself. You can’t accomplish everything all at once.”

Lisa Niver: Wasn’t he also a tiny bit of the inspiration to go towards writing?

Alka Joshi: I think within a year of our marriage–and we’ve been married now almost twenty-six years–but within a year of our marriage, he said to me, he goes, “You know, honey, I think the reason you married me is because you want to be a writer.” He was a writer and he got an MFA at Stanford in creative writing. And I met him years later, but I was so attracted to him because he was a writer. I love writers. I love the fact that they create worlds out of their imaginations. I love the fact that they can make me feel things that I didn’t even know I could feel, and that they are reminding me of parts of myself that maybe I hadn’t given a voice to.  

Lisa Niver: You’re such an inspiration. What a great relationship where you really want each other to grow, and what a gift he gave you to believe that you could do it so that you could give us the gift of these two incredible books. I think one time I heard you mention there might be a third book on the horizon.

Alka Joshi: I am writing book number three in the trilogy, and then the trilogy will end. Book number one is about Lakshmi, primarily. Book number two really focuses on Malek as an adult. Book number three focuses on Radha as an adult. Radha will be the same age that Lakshmi was in The Henna Artist. Radha is a perfumer at a fragrance lab for a major master perfumer. The perfumer is a woman because it’s very important for me to always put women in these leadership positions. Radha is on the cusp of helping her design a signature scent for a client.

There’s a knock at the door and on the other side of the door is going to be somebody that Radha has not seen in eighteen years, not since The Henna Artist. And that is going to throw her completely off balance. She is in love with her husband. She has two little children. Her husband is Parisian, which is how she ended up in Paris. She’s developed this whole life that she always wanted this exotic, wonderful life. She has the family she always wanted, but now having this person show up after eighteen years is really going to stun her into a whole new kind of awakening. 

Lisa Niver: I know you have been patient, and you have been perseverant. You have had passion, and you published The Henna Artist and next The Secret Keeper of Jaipur coming in June. This has been such an honor to spend this time with you. I wish you only the most incredible continued success.

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