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Interview: February 12, 2010

February 12, 2010

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a creative writing professor at the University of Houston and the author of several works of fiction and poetry, including THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS, THE CONCH BEARER and LEAVING YUBA CITY. In this interview with's Norah Piehl, Divakaruni explains how firsthand experiences during times of crisis inspired her latest novel, ONE AMAZING THING, and discusses the symbolic meaning behind the book's exotic setting for its various characters. She also names some of the classic and contemporary works that helped shape the novel's format, describes how emigrating from India to the U.S. jumpstarted her writing career, and shares how her work as a poet has influenced her prose. In many ways, your new novel, ONE AMAZING THING, dramatizes many of the themes of your earlier fiction --- dissolving stereotypes, breaking down walls between various ethnic and racial groups, and celebrating diversity. How do you see this latest book fitting in with your other novels?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: You are right in that ONE AMAZING THING celebrates (and points out the challenges of) diversity, like many other novels/stories I've written. But I'm actually doing a number of different things here. The structure of this novel, with stories woven into it, is very different. The style --- much sparer, more elliptical --- is different. The venue is (deliberately) claustrophobic --- the world of these characters shrinks to a room in a basement, and has to be enlarged through story. There isn't a single protagonist but an ensemble of heroes, all of whose stories are equally important in creating community --- and the majority of these characters aren't of Indian origin. Of course, as in all my work, India plays an important role (here, it's more the idea of India, as physically none of the characters will manage to get there during the course of the novel).

BRC: What was your starting place for this novel? Did you start by profiling individual characters? Writing their stories? Or did you come up with the earthquake situation first and populate it with your characters as you went along?

CBD: It was when I was volunteering with Katrina refugees in 2005 that I first started thinking about this novel --- or actually, about the whole phenomenon of grace under pressure. Some of the people I worked with were so angry. Some of them were devastated. But others were able to maintain calm, or even joke about things. I kept asking myself, Why? Why some and not the others?

A few weeks later I was experiencing a similar situation first hand --- Hurricane Rita was coming through Houston, and we were asked to evacuate. As we sat on the freeway late into the night, paralyzed by traffic and wondering what would happen to us, I saw people around me responding in many different ways. The pressure of being in a life-threatening space brought out the worst in some and the best in others. Some were toting guns, snarling at people; others were sharing their meager supplies of water and snacks. That’s when I knew I’d have to write about this phenomenon.

BRC: What inspired you to use an earthquake as the catalyst to throw all these characters together?

CBD: I've experienced earthquakes myself, having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for almost 20 years. I called upon my own memories, my own fears, and then did some research.

BRC: Your novel has been getting a lot of publicity due to the proximity of the devastating Haiti earthquake to its publication. What was your reaction when you heard about the earthquake in Haiti?

CBD: I was deeply saddened and shocked by the enormous devastation in Haiti, and by the suffering. It brought home to me that we never know when disaster is going to strike our lives and turn things upside down. In Haiti, too, we saw the entire spectrum of human behavior --- tales of great courage and selflessness side by side with looting, rioting and emotional violence. It struck me more than ever that as humans, we really need to learn how to deal with catastrophe in a humane and compassionate manner, overcoming that primal "survive at any cost" urge that is probably hardwired into us. I hope ONE AMAZING THING will make readers think about all these things.

BRC: There have been a lot of comparisons made between ONE AMAZING THING and Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel, BEL CANTO, which also brings a wide range of characters together in a tense situation. Have you read BEL CANTO? How does the approach of your novel differ from Patchett’s?

CBD: I love Patchett's work, and just before beginning ONE AMAZING THING, I re-read BEL CANTO because I really liked the feel of that novel. I don’t read that much when I’m writing, but I also remember reading Eckhart Tolle’s THE POWER OF NOW while writing this book --- his idea of the importance of living in the now becomes very important to my novel. My book tries some different things from BEL CANTO; for instance, all the characters share a "quest" --- they are all planning a "pilgrimage", if one might call it that, to India --- each for a different reason, and these reasons come out of the depths of their beings and their relationships.

The most obvious difference is in the storytelling that each character takes on; this becomes crucial to the speakers and the listeners --- and the readers, I hope. I want readers to think about the idea that in each of our lives there are amazing things. I want them to think about which story out of their lives they would choose to tell, were they in a similar situation. Which is the seminal story, the one that defines them?

BRC: There are such diverse, and often surprisingly so, characters in ONE AMAZING THING. We get to see the situation from everyone’s point of view at one point or another. Was there one character who was your favorite to write about? Did you have a hard time getting into any character’s head?

CBD: I had a difficult time initially with Mr. Pritchett, who is a white man in his early 70s. I haven't known anyone like him closely, so I had to do a lot of imagining and rewriting. But then I became very fond of him. His story, when it came, surprised me. Many readers and reviewers have said that it was the one that moved them most.

BRC: Names are very important in ONE AMAZING THING. How do you come up with names for your characters?

CBD: Trial and error. They have to sound right, they have to fit the character, they have to be clear (and pronounceable!) and not too similar to other names. I often change names as a novel moves along.

BRC: ONE AMAZING THING makes explicit reference to Chaucer’s THE CANTERBURY TALES, another work that brings together a wide range of characters to tell their own stories. Did you reread Chaucer’s work before you wrote ONE AMAZING THING? Which tale is your favorite?

CBD: I was familiar with many of the tales that use the tale-within-a tale framework, or the device of many people in one place, telling their stories, or multiple storytellers commenting on each others’ stories with their own. In addition to rereading THE CANTERBURY TALES (which appears in my novel) and WUTHERING HEIGHTS, I was drawing on works such as THE DECAMERON (which is the closest to the setup in ONE AMAZING THING, since the characters face a life-threatening situation --- in their case, the plague), THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, and the Indian Wise-Animal tales, THE PANCHATANTRA.

I enjoyed/struggled with all of the stories, but I had most fun writing Malathi’s story. I loved the beauty salon she worked in. I really inhabited that space. Imaginatively, Uma’s story struck me most strongly. That borealis in the Southern city-sky. I wanted to see that myself.

BRC: One of the interesting things about the novel’s setting is that this group is not just trapped in any random bureaucratic office --- they’re trapped in an Indian visa office. Through the characters’ stories, we discover that many of them have unusual or surprising connections to your own native country. What image of India were you trying to convey through these stories?

CBD: Multiple images, really. Each character has an idea of India that is quite distinct from what others believe. Some are more fact based. Some are largely imagined. To some characters, the journey is one of adventure and possibility. To others, a homecoming. To yet others, India is a chance for beginning anew, or of spiritual reparation.

BRC: Readers might be inspired to read more about contemporary India after finishing ONE AMAZING THING. Besides your own fiction, what other novels or short stories would you recommend to readers who want to immerse themselves more fully in this culture?

CBD: Some of my favorite authors writing about India are Amitav Ghosh, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy, Arvind Adiga, Suketu Mehta, and Bharati Mukherjee. I recommend them all.

BRC: Two of your previous novels have been turned into movies. What has that process been like for you? Has ONE AMAZING THING been optioned yet?

CBD: It was a fun process --- I was only tangentially involved, as a consultant (which I think kept me sane and detached, with a real understanding that while the novel had been mine, the movie really belonged to the director). I was pleased by the fact that the movies reached many viewers who then became readers.

ONE AMAZING THING hasn't been optioned yet, although three other works --- THE VINE OF DESIRE, THE CONCH BEARER and THE MAID SERVANT'S TALE --- have recently been optioned. Let's keep our fingers crossed!

BRC: Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you get started with writing?

CBD: I think immigration made me into a writer. The world of America was so different from the traditional Indian society I grew up in --- I think I started writing in order to make sense of it, to process it. I continued writing so I would not forget the world of my childhood. Then I became very interested in immigration and how it transforms us.

BRC: I see that you were first known as a poet. How is the experience of writing fiction different from writing poetry? Do you still write any poetry today?

CBD: Poetry is very important to me. Through poetry I learned to focus on the moment, and on imagery and sound, elements that remain central in my fiction. For the moment, I'm focusing on writing fiction --- there's so much to learn in this genre.

BRC: What is your writing routine like? Do you write at a certain time of day? Do you write every day? How do you revise?

CBD: I try to write every weekday when I'm not teaching. I write fairly early in the morning (as a mother, that works best for me), though I find that I write better late at night, when everyone around me is asleep. I like to write for several hours at a stretch. I am an obsessive reviser. I have to literally stop myself from revising my in-progress writing, otherwise I wouldn't ever be able to move ahead.

BRC: Would you ever revisit any of the individuals in ONE AMAZING THING, perhaps using them as the central character in a book of their own?

CBD: Perhaps! Who knows! That happened to me with the characters of SISTER OF MY HEART and VINE OF DESIRE, who first appeared in a short story.

BRC: What are you writing now?

CBD: I have just begun a novel titled OLEANDER, about a woman who grew up believing both her parents were dead and then discovers that her father is actually alive --- and goes in search of him.

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