Interview with Alka Joshi

10 min read

Born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India, Alka has lived in the U.S. since the age of nine. She has a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from California College of the Arts. She ran her own advertising and PR agency for 30 years. The Henna Artist was her first novel. Currently, she is working on the third book of the trilogy and a screen adaption of The Henna Artist. Visit her at www.alkajoshi.com or on Instagram @thealkajoshi

Girly Book Club: What can you tell our members about The Henna Artist?

Alka Joshi: Lakshmi, the main character, has always believed she deserves a larger life than the one her Indian culture allows. Married off at 15 to an immature rickshaw driver who abuses her, she abandons her marriage and her village at 17 and seeks refuge in a larger city. When we first meet her in the novel, Lakshmi is 30 years old, thriving in Jaipur as a celebrated henna artist and an extraordinary herbalist. The ladies she serves assume her husband deserted her, and she’s never contradicted them. Lakshmi is finally living the life she yearned for—until her husband shows up with a teenage sister she didn’t know she had. He wants money; the girl needs a family; and her carefully curated past is quickly unraveling. This is a story about a woman’s right to make the choices that shape her destiny, what a non-traditional family looks like, and why our mistakes teach us more our triumphs do.

GBC: Where did the inspiration for The Henna Artist come from?

AJ: I wrote this novel for my mother. She had to abandon college and career for an arranged marriage at 18 and three children by 22. But she made sure that I, her only daughter, would make all the choices she didn’t get to make. About marriage. About career. And about children. She only asked that I learn how to sustain myself financially before marrying so I would always have options. As I got older, I realized how far her gift to me diverged from her upbringing. How could I ever repay her? I couldn’t change her past. What I could do was create Lakshmi, a young woman who deserts her arranged marriage to forge her own path as a celebrated henna artist in 1955, the year my mother was married. When deciding what career Lakshmi would choose, I remembered that when I was a girl in India, not a day went by that I didn’t see a woman with henna on her hands; there was always a celebration or cause for henna decoration. Since Lakshmi didn’t have any formal schooling beyond the age of 15, henna painting seemed to be something she could choose as a career without the benefit of formal training or need for capital.

GBC: Being a historical fiction novel, what was involved in your research for writing this novel? How many trips to India did you embark upon in the name of research?

AJ: There’s so much research that goes into a historical fiction novel; authors like me want to immerse readers in the time period, to make them feel as if they’re living alongside the characters. My research took several years and five trips to India. I interviewed my parents, both of whom were born before Independence. They experienced the historic occasion (my father participated in Gandhi’s marches for freedom). They were married in 1955 and raised the three of us post-independence in Rajasthan. My father was an esteemed engineer who helped rebuild India after the departure of the British; he informed so much of my understanding of the political and economic climate of the time. My visits to Jaipur led to more interviews with headmistresses, ayurvedic healers, henna artists, shopkeepers and my parents’ contemporaries. I watched lots of Indian films from the 1950s, many of which starred the popular actress Madhubala, whom I mentioned in the novel. Lastly, I read books by Indian authors that took place in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. And when my mother told me about having tea with the Maharani, I dug up a memoir Her Highness Gayatri Devi had written, A Princess Remembers, which informed me about life in palaces for women and the odd tradition of Maharajas choosing Crown Princes from outside the palace. I love research!

GBC: What can you tell us about The Henna Artist’s follow-up, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur (due out June 2021)?

AJ: So many readers fell in love with Malik, who had such a lovely, symbiotic relationship with Lakshmi. Malik loomed so large in my imagination that he begged me to tell his story next. In the sequel, he is no longer the scruffy boy with rubber slippers on his feet. At 20, with his posh boarding school education (courtesy of Samir Singh), Malik looks like a smart young man. Lakshmi arranges an apprenticeship for him at the Jaipur Palace, where Kanta’s husband is the Facilities Director. In the Pink City, he again encounters the Maharanis and the entire Singh family and learns of a tragic coverup that threatens the well-being of three people he loves: Kanta, Manu, and their adopted son Niki. The deeper he delves into the mystery, the more he realizes he will need Lakshmi’s help to resolve it. Meanwhile, his beloved Nimmi, a Himalayan tribal woman, works with Lakshmi to enlarge The Healing Garden at the hospital in Shimla. She and Lakshmi run across another mystery they’re trying to unravel. Could the two events in two different cities be connected? You’ll have to read the sequel to find out!

GBC: What prompted your foray into writing and becoming an author?

AJ: I’d always been an avid reader, but I never dreamed of becoming a writer. I wanted to be an artist—a painter, a graphic designer, a commercial illustrator. But when I applied for an Art Director position at a big advertising agency in San Francisco, they looked through my portfolio and offered me a job on the spot as a copywriter! It was a great job, and I began writing ads for radio and tv. I went on to start my own agency, writing marketing copy, designing ad campaigns, and producing events. I was 51 before I ventured into fiction with encouragement from my husband, who thought I had a talent for it. At 53, I completed my Masters in Creative Writing with a rough draft of The Henna Artist as my thesis. It took another 10 years and 25 more drafts to bring the book into the hands of readers.

GBC: What makes a book great in your opinion? What elements does a great story possess?

AJ: For me, a great story is one where I can empathize with the characters—their strengths as well as their flaws. I cheer them on. I feel their pain. The characters help me grow—they teach me something about myself, my motivations and my blind spots. A great story is also one that immerses me in place; I lose myself in the setting, whether it’s in another century, another country or another culture.

GBC: When you start writing a new book, what is your goal? What do you aim to invoke in your readers?

AJ: Similar to the way I want to be immersed in a novel when I read, I want my readers to feel transported to the time and place of my novel. I start with an intention, whether it’s to explore how women are making their own way in their world or to elucidate the history of a people or place. Then I build a world that feels so real that readers can step right into the pages of the novel, experiencing what my characters—in all their imperfect glory—are going through.

GBC: Do you ever base your characters off individuals from your life or include snippets of your personal life into your novels?

AJ: While the majority of my characters arise completely from my imagination, I also draw upon bits and pieces of real-life individuals. For example, in The Henna Artist, Lakshmi looks like my mother and has her resilient spirit, but the way she navigates the patriarchy stems more from my personal experiences in the corporate world. The Maharani Latika (whom I gave my mother’s middle name) is the founder of a school for girls, similar to the real-life Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, who started the MGD school to elevate education for females. (In 2019, I had the pleasure of addressing MGD’s senior class!) The gentle teachings of Lakshmi’s mother-in-law mirror my mother’s patience and loving nature toward me and my brothers. The disappointment Lakshmi’s mother feels when her husband donates the gold from her dowry to the Indian government’s war effort is the same disappointment my mother felt when my father did the same. The exuberance of the Indian people I describe at India’s rebuilding efforts come from real-life interviews with Indians alive during that period.

GBC: What does your writing process look like? Do you map each story out from start to finish or do you begin with an idea and see where it takes you?

AJ: I experience the world visually. So a story usually starts with a vivid scene that pops up in my imagination. I’m seeing people, patterns on the clothes they’re wearing, upholstery on the furniture, whether there’s a candle burning on a table and what it smells like. It’s a mental image that I then start manipulating. What is character X saying to the character in front of them? What if another character comes into the room? Is there a gust of wind shaking the window; will it blow the candle out? Once I’ve built that scene, I compose it on my laptop. Then I conjure the visual image of another scene and start editing it mentally before committing it to paper. These turn into the major scenes of the book—like pearls on a necklace. Once those scenes are in hand, I’ll create the transition scenes that thread the necklace together.’

I never know how the book will end. That is as much a mystery to me when I’m writing as it is to the reader when they’re reading. What fun that is!  Perhaps that’s why I never find writing an arduous chore—it’s so pleasurable to live in the worlds of my characters (and to eat all the yummy food they’re eating)!

GBC: Any advice you can share with the aspiring writers within our community?

I’ve learned so much over the past 12 years! Chief among them:

  • Create believable characters who aren’t perfect. Readers want to empathize with your characters, so ask yourself what they want from life, what’s their backstory, where they’re trying to go. It could help to find visual references of people who resemble your characters and settings.
  • When you think you’re finished, go back to the first page. Read the manuscript out loud. You’ll catch a lot of overused words, cliches, mediocre dialogue. Make notes and start revising again from page one. It takes many, many drafts to make a book better; it took me 30 drafts! Keep at it.
  • It takes a village to write a book, so rely on the experts. Hire developmental editors to review your book and tell you where you need to go deeper into characters or where you’re losing narrative tension. Listen to your agent and other reviewers. Follow their advice. You may be surprised when it leads you to an unexpected, albeit better place!
  • Treat yourself with patience and kindness. It takes time to get good at something. Like musicians, scientists, and bricklayers, you’ll spend hundreds of hours polishing your work. If you’re frustrated, give yourself some time off to smell the roses, take a walk or go on a trip.
 
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