Interview: May 1, 2014
In Pia Padukone’s debut novel, WHERE EARTH MEETS WATER, a man searches for meaning in the wake of incomparable tragedy. Bookreporter.com’s Alexis Burling talks to Padukone about what she has learned from her first publishing experience and why she is fascinated by other writers’ processes, as well as the important and not-quite-lost art of diary writing. She also considers the difference between the very human states of wanting and needing, how secrets can be both helpful and harmful, and the joy of co-writing a blog with her husband, Two Admirable Pleasures, which combines her two major loves: cooking and reading.
Bookreporter.com: WHERE EARTH MEETS WATER is your debut novel. Congratulations on getting it published! How would you describe your experience as a first-time author?
Pia Padukone: Thank you! I have learned a lot about myself and how disciplined I can be when something matters to me. I’ve learned a lot about the publishing world that I didn’t know or wouldn’t have guessed --- from what makes a compelling cover to envisioning the appropriate title. I’ve also learned that I am incredibly, unbelievably lucky to have a support system that helped me believe in myself. To have a publishing team that’s always looking out for the best interests of my book and me. To have friends who understand that writing has to come first and remain patient and loyal nevertheless. To have an immediate family who are constantly curious about what I am working on, pushing me to write the next story, challenging character motives. And to have married a man who gives me time: pushing me out of bed toward my writing desk on those mornings when I don’t think I can do it, making elaborate dinners that fuel my brain so that I can put all my creativity into my work and learning the crazy business of publishing alongside me. All reminding me that writing a book is not as solitary as one might think.
BRC: The book is written from six different perspectives, including one chapter in which two points of view --- those of Karom’s parents --- are conjoined. Why did you choose to write the novel in this way rather than, say, a straight narrative? Which character’s chapters did you identify with or enjoy writing the most?
PP: I’ve studied and read a lot about writers and their various processes. While there’s certainly no right or wrong way, learning how people approach writing really intrigues me. Some writers outline their entire stories from start to finish, so they know from the very first page what will happen on the last. Some writers research and think about their books for years so that when they finally sit down to write, it only takes them a few weeks to get everything that’s been brewing in their brains down on paper.
With WHERE EARTH MEETS WATER, I dove right in, writing furiously without much consideration to perspective or plotlines or motivations: I wrote what was inside me, and six different voices emerged. But I’ve always been particularly drawn to stories about intertwined characters, and it made the most sense to set the book up in this manner. I was also writing while I read Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, a novel composed of chapters that use unconventional narrative to guide the story. Egan’s work inspired me to explore unique methods of storytelling, including an epistolary chapter, as well as a story within a story. I think I enjoyed the letter from Karom’s parents the most because I was challenged with writing two unique voices simultaneously. The letter was also one section where I knew where I wanted the flow to begin and end, so it was fun filling in the middle.
BRC: WHERE EARTH MEETS WATER is set partially in India. Do you have family in India, or did you travel there to research the book?
PP: My parents emigrated from Bombay, India, in 1978 to New York City, where my brother and I were born. My grandparents and extended family still live in Bombay and Bangalore and I have remained very close to them over the years, traveling there as often as once a year. I didn’t travel to India specifically to research WHERE EARTH MEETS WATER, but my visits certainly influenced my writing of the story.
BRC: In describing Gita’s grandmother, Kamini, you write: “Her whole life, she has always felt as though she is on the brink of something. Nothing has felt settled or fulfilled… Nothing has felt as though she were fully in the moment, because she has learned that there is nothing she can get comfortable with. Nothing, that is, until she began to write.” Do you identify with that quote?
PP: It certainly resonates. Kamini spent so much of her life being volleyed from family to family, from house to house, that writing and the pages she created became the foundation in which she could cement herself. I spent a long time focused on another career as a copywriter in the advertising industry, one that was certainly related to storytelling, but is also different in many ways. But I suppose it wasn’t until I began to write short stories and then ultimately this novel that I finally satisfied an itch that I didn’t even realize was plaguing me. I began to derive a gentle satisfaction from waking up early and writing several hundred words before I headed to work. At some point, I couldn’t go too long without writing. And now that I have started, I don’t think I’ll be able to stop.
BRC: In an early chapter, Kamini is given a computer and learns to type, use email and post messages on social media sites. Contrary to some older people, she picks up new technology quickly. When you’re Kamini’s age, do you think you’ll be as adept as she is at learning new tricks? What type of invention might you have trouble mastering?
PP: Kamini is way ahead of her time. In a world where women were encouraged to be strong but silent and were discouraged from joining the workplace, she defied those parameters and focused on the task ahead because she had no other choice but to survive. Perhaps the speed of Kamini’s technological education is rather idealistic, but I wanted her to eventually step out from the cloak she had invented for herself rather than spend the rest of her life hiding behind it. After reading my novel, my 87-year-old grandmother requested a laptop and lessons with which to use it. I can’t help but smile when I think that, in this case, life imitates art and that Kamini perhaps inspired my grandmother to board the tech train. As for my prowess, I have no idea what might await me when I get old: drones, robotics and implanted chips in my body? The advantage I have is that I have been raised in this world, so I’m prepared for what could be. Unfortunately, Kamini and the people of her generation had neither the financial nor physical access to these kinds of advances.
BRC: Lloyd’s internal struggle is quite complex. Sure, it’s a romantic and sexual struggle, but it also involves deep psychological conflict. Like Karom and Kamini, he, too, has to let go of his past in order to embrace the future. Would you agree?
PP: Absolutely. Lloyd struggles a lot with romantic and sexual feelings but also those of loyalty and friendship. As much as he tries to hold on to what is comfortable and known, those are the things that he has to release in order to live his life without his own ghosts and demons. Lloyd’s storyline reflects how much Karom’s struggle affects him, too, echoing my intention to demonstrate how one person’s actions and emotions extend to those around them.
BRC: The chapter dedicated to Mohan and Rana Seth, Karom’s parents, is written in the style of a diary. In it, Karom’s mother writes: “…sometimes without the pressure of having to speak to a face, a live breathing person who can easily respond, writing can help break down that barrier of intimidation to truly allow people to speak their minds.” Do you keep a diary? If so, did doing so inform your choice to write this chapter in this way?
PP: Sadly, I don’t keep a diary as conscientiously as I did in high school. But I do morning pages, which I have come to think of as nearly the same thing. First thing in the morning before you make coffee or read the news, you focus on writing freehand for three whole pages. You can write about anything: what’s on your mind, about the plot of a story you’re working on, your chores for the day. At first, I found the practice very difficult: writing for three pages when you sometimes have nothing to say and are practically half asleep is really challenging. But the idea is to drain the mind of all distractions so that when you sit down to write your novel, you can truly focus on the content in front of you. I swear by it. Sometimes, when I am stuck at a crossroads while writing my book, morning pages can help me figure out where to go.
An exhibit at the Morgan Library on the personal diary sparked the idea for Mohan and Rana’s chapter. It showcased different diaries throughout the centuries and highlighted the power of the personal written word. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s diary that he kept with his wife was on display, and reading the interactions between the couple gave me intimate insights into two people who I hadn’t otherwise known much about. At the time Mohan and Rana began their diary, they were dealing with a lot of emotions that neither of them necessarily knew how to approach. I thought a joint diary might help them work through some of these concerns when they didn’t quite know what to say or how to say it.
BRC: In this same chapter, Karom’s parents write about teaching him the difference between needing and wanting as a kid. This seems to be a recurrent theme in the book --- characters struggling to figure out what they want versus what they need, and some have an easier time of it than others. Is this something you think about in your own life, and how did it inform your writing when shaping your characters’ stories?
PP: When I wrote the section during which Karom is being taught to speak by his parents, I was truly simply focusing on the nuances of the English language! But the idea of wanting and needing both have roots in survival. Oftentimes, we think we need certain things in order to move forward, but we are quite capable of accomplishing tasks with only the minimum that’s required. Each of the characters figures out what is essential to them in order to move forward, and that inherently is the difference between what they think they require (want) and what they actually require (need) to move beyond their specific hurdle.
BRC: The combination of secrets and regret is another recurrent theme in the book: Gita’s feelings about Karom’s behavior and their relationship, Lloyd’s simultaneous attraction to Karom and Malina, Kamini’s early writing career and eventual decision to come clean. What interests you about the secrets in your characters’ relationships, and how does that impact their tendency to feel regret?
PP: Secrets are juicy! They create intrigue and curiosity, motivations and anticipation. At any given point and regardless of how well you think you know someone, they are holding information or experiencing emotions of which you’re unaware. Secrets are also incredibly powerful, harnessing the ability to build or break relationships. The theme of regret was less important to me than the idea of secrets. As I was writing these characters and their relationships with one another, I knew that they would each have to survive somehow, and that their secrets would make that survival more challenging. And for me, survival trumped regret.
BRC: Toward the beginning of the book, Gita and Karom visit the Taj Mahal. The Taj is one of the most exquisite and spiritual architectural structures in the world. Have you been there? If so, might you share your impressions of it?
PP: I visited the Taj Mahal in 2003, and my impressions of the shrine are actually quite close to what I have written in the novel. It’s such a feted monument; you build it up so much in your mind that you just want to be around it for a long time. I had the fortune of being able to spend a few hours at the site, walking around, admiring the intricate inlaid work of semiprecious stones, an art form that has become inherent to the Agra area, even though it’s originally an Italian technique. And I watched the sun travel across the sky, the light hitting the water of the reflecting pool and changing the color of the marble, just taking in what a feat it had been to build an edifice of this size during that time.
BRC: You attended the prestigious arts school Stuyvesant High School in New York City. How did this shape your aspirations for becoming a writer?
PP: Stuyvesant High School isn’t actually an arts school; its strengths lie in math and science. But we also had some truly influential humanities teachers, especially in the English department. A fiction-writing workshop that I took in my senior year taught me more about good writing than any other class I have taken since. A friend and I founded and ran a literary ’zine, and I was very active in the theater community, directing plays and immersing myself in the art of storytelling.
BRC: Tell us a little bit about Two Admirable Pleasures, the literary and culinary blog you write with your husband. How do you decide which books and recipes to feature each month? Do you have a favorite (or most interesting and scrumptious) post to recommend?
PP: Two Admirable Pleasures is a partnership that melds two major loves: reading and cooking/eating. The food pairings are inspired by what I am reading, whether it’s the food described within a book’s pages or a dish I crave because of the emotions I feel. Sometimes a particular scene in a book sparks my desire for something, or I simply tell Rohit how the book made me feel and he suggests a dish to pair with my demeanor. Truth be told, not all books that I read necessarily make me crave a food, or are suited for a recipe.
I think some of my favorite posts are Oscars Nights, which aren’t technically based on books, but I allow them for the blog because every movie is based on a screenplay. Each year, we make a dish or cocktail based on every movie nominated for Best Picture. This has become increasingly more challenging as the Academy has been nominating up to 10 movies. You can read our latest one here.
BRC: Aside from blogging and working on WHERE EARTH MEETS WATER, you have also written for the Associated Press in London and as a pharmaceutical advertising copywriter. Do you prefer one type of writing over the other, or do they balance each other out?
PP: I approach all forms of writing as storytelling, whether it’s journalism or writing copy. While they're technically both writing, they are so unique than it’s hard to compare them. But I suppose the rigorous legal restrictions around writing pharma copy make it a bit more challenging.
BRC: What’s next for you?
PP: I recently returned from a trip to the Baltic, where I was doing some on-the-ground research for my second novel, which partly takes place in Tallinn, Estonia. The story is about two families who meet through a student exchange program and become inextricably linked so that their relationship continues through the years after the program ends. The trip was crucial for me to understand the nuances of newborn Estonia and its culture, forming and creating its own characteristics after having been governed by neighboring powers.