Meet the Authors – Sowmya Rajendran
After a long, long hiatus, the ‘Meet the authors’ series is back on our blog. This time, we feature Uma Krishnaswami, a prolific children’s author and a teacher of writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has written over 20 picture books, illustrated books and novels for children, and her books have been published in India and abroad. She won the Crossword Book Award this year for Book Uncle and Me.
Uma has reviewed some of our titles on her blog and for the Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. Her books for Karadi Tales – Young Markandeya, Markandeya’s Vision, Bheeshma and Karna – are yet to be published.
Karadi: What made you take up children’s writing? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a children’s writer?
Uma: I was a writer when I was a child, but I didn’t know it. I didn’t see myself as a writer, even though I read all the time, and wrote spontaneously, frequently, and for fun. It was not until my son was born and I began to collect children’s books for him that I remembered my early pleasure in reading and writing. It seemed natural to me to turn to writing books for young readers, since those were the texts that spoke to me so powerfully when I was young.
Advantages? Disadvantages? That’s an interesting question. I don’t think of my work in those terms. I write for this audience because I can’t imagine doing anything else! If I’d known just how risky and unpredictable the business of writing is, I’d probably never have taken it up at all, so it’s just as well that I was clueless.
I suppose the positive thing about writing for children is the freshness of the audience. Children are honest readers and they keep us honest as well when we write for them. The down side is that people in general, and even writers who write for grownups, sometimes think it must somehow be easier to write for children. It’s just a minor occupational annoyance and one that’s generally easy to laugh off.
Karadi: Do you have to like children to be a good children’s author?
Uma: No. You have to have been a child. You have to have a visceral, unsentimental memory of that time in your life. You have to look upon childhood and children with a clear eye and a lack of nostalgia. You don’t have to like children, in my opinion. That said, I do believe that you must respect them and you must never, never write down to them. If anything you have to write up to young readers. You have to trust that they can handle greater complexity and nuance than they’re usually given credit for being able to do.
Karadi: What do you like to read? What are your favourite children’s books? Who are your favourite authors?
Uma: I read impulsively and eclectically and completely at random—everything from fiction to nonfiction, adult to YA to children’s books. I read books in the forms I write in and others in forms—memoir, for example—that I’m not in the least tempted to try. Recently I’ve read and enjoyed the following, for example:
The Great Tamasha by James Astill—and no, I am not interested in cricket but this history of the game in India was really absorbing
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys—YA novel set in the Soviet era
Yarn: Remembering the Way Home by Kyoko Mori—a memoir of immigration, love, loss, and knitting. I can relate to all of it but especially the knitting.
As for my favourite children’s books here’s a partial list: http://www.fromthemixedupfiles.com/2013/11/multi-cultural-books-dead-not/
Charlotte’s Web and The Phantom Tollbooth are others I turn to repeatedly. In the picture book department, I think that Where the Wild Things Are is as close to perfect as one can get in a picture book, structurally and in terms of the economy of language.
Karadi: Do you follow a writing routine? How do you go about writing a story?
Uma: I follow an anti-routine. I try to block in a few hours a week for writing time, except when I’m traveling. I make those appointments with myself. I vary the time of day, but I always keep the appointments. I make myself a cup of tea, settle down at my desk, and stay logged out of e-mail while I write.
The process of writing a story varies with the story but in general I am not an outliner, and I don’t know ahead of time how a story will shape up, or what it’s really about, or what it means. I revise many, many times and in the process I surprise myself and eventually find out where the story’s going.
Karadi: What are you currently working on?
Uma: Too many things at once, I’m afraid. A children’s novel I began back in 2006, a nonfiction project for which I’m just starting the research, and a couple of shorter pieces that are still quite unformed.