Tell us about your background and what led you to writing this book, including the inspiration for it.
Shortly after we married, my husband pointed out that I had a talent for creative writing. For years, I’d been writing tv and radio commercials and print ads, never imagining that I could write literary fiction. At Brad’s urging, I registered for evening workshops. My instructors were so encouraging that I kept going, enrolling in a two-year MFA program when the 2008 recession put a halt to my advertising/marketing business. During this time, I also took my mother on multiple trips to Jaipur—staying for a month at a time and experiencing India through her eyes. It was eye-opening! As an immigrant child in America, I’d wanted desperately not to be Indian, not to be different. As an adult, I saw a rich, vibrant, diverse culture that I was proud to reclaim.
After spending so much time alone with my mother on these trips, delving deeper into her Indian girlhood, her early desires, her arranged marriage to my father, I understood why she had—very consciously—raised me, her only daughter, to choose my own destiny. She had always encouraged me to decide whom to marry, whether to have children, which career to pursue. I began to wonder: What if she had fled her marriage? What would she have done to survive? Given the option, what choices would she have made? That reimagining of her life became The Henna Artist—a gift to my mother for all she gave me—and a journey that took ten years to complete.
How does it feel to hold your book in your hands?
On February 22, I held the hardcover in my hands for the first time, gliding my fingers over the embossed title, my name in print, marveling over the gorgeous cover design by Harlequin’s Art Department. Had I really written this book? Then, when MIRA officially released The Henna Artist, my heart sank deeper as, one by one, each book event was canceled because of the pandemic. Finally, a surprise: Reese Witherspoon had selected The Henna Artist for her May book club pick! My calendar was suddenly flush with radio interviews, cooking videos and virtual book club discussions. Now when I hold the book, it feels solid, real.
What was the most challenging part of writing it?
Revisions were the most challenging part of my 10-year journey. I’d finish a draft, confident that I’d nailed the characters, only to have an editor or reviewer tell me I hadn’t. After yet another draft: Surely I’d fixed the pacing, hadn’t I? After the seventh draft, I wanted to give up. No one had asked for this novel. No one was expecting it. Why was I torturing myself? But the characters wouldn’t leave me alone. Lakshmi, Malik, and Radha kept knocking at my consciousness: when will you finish our story? So I would begin anew, sometimes from the very first page.
At times, I found that the writing community wanted me to incorporate aspects of Indian culture that they perceived as important (i.e., the caste system or Partition or clash between Muslims and Hindus). But I knew this was my story to tell and I wanted to tell it organically, incorporating the cultural nuances into scenes subtly, sensitively. I held fast to that.
What’s some great advice you’ve received that has helped you as a writer?
- Writing is rewriting. Revisions make characters and scenes richer.
- Movement (walking, cycling, swimming) allows your imagination toflow, to work on scenes, dialogue, pacing.
- Magic happens when things don’t go your way. How I interact withreaders in the pandemic is different from anything I had envisioned—in many ways, it’s better, more direct, and with a wider reach than I’d thought possible.
- Stay. With. It.
- It takes as long as it takes. Don’t rush it.