Thursday, September 15, 2011

Interview: Sheela Chari, Author of Vanished (Interviewed by Stephanie Burgis)

When I read Sheela Chari's debut novel, Vanished, I fell in love. It's a wonderful MG mystery and also a beautifully-written family story. It has music, mystery and adventure, and also some really beautiful, quiet moments that perfectly capture the changing relationship between an eleven-year-old girl and her mother.

So I'm thrilled to welcome Sheela to this blog!

I was delighted to read in your afterword that you had written Vanished as a gift for your niece, Neela, who shares the same first name as your heroine. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came about, and what the challenges and rewards were of giving your heroine the same name as your niece?

Writing a character based on someone you know is both a blessing and a curse. The good part is that you have a character who is ready and vivid in your mind, from which to draw your inspiration. The bad part is that everything you know true about that person in real life has to be scrapped, because real people don’t always translate onto the page tidily.

When I started Vanished as a gift to my niece, Neela, I had no idea it would be published some day. By the time the book was sold and in its revision stage with my editor, we were having discussions about Neela’s character – what were her motivations? What were her fears? And I realized then with complete honesty that I had no idea.

I had always sort of superimposed the real Neela on my character. But I knew that for the sake of the book, I had to discover who the character was, and how her motivations and fears might best service the book. It was so very hard – but I had to abandon the real Neela – what she looked like, how she spoke and thought, what her friends were like, everything. The real Neela doesn’t have stage fright, but the character in the book did, so I had figure out why, and this meant creating relationships and conflicts with her teacher, her best friend, and her parents that were completely fictionalized. As writers we do this all the time, but when it came to a character rooted in someone I loved, it became especially challenging. It’s funny that when close friends and family read my book, they comment on how they can see the story in their minds because they picture the real Neela. For me, writing required the exact opposite –forgetting the real Neela as much as I could!

Despite all of these challenges, I was really pleased with the way Neela turned out in Vanished. While she might not be the real Neela in many ways, she still has a strong sense of ethics, an ease with being Indian-American, and a moral compass by which she makes important decisions. These are all things I admire in my niece, and I brought them to life in my character as much as I could.

I know that you're a musician yourself, but you play the violin rather than the veena. What kind of research did you do to write this book, as so much of the plot is based around the veena?

When I first started writing, I didn’t have anyone nearby who played the veena. So I looked at pictures on the Web, and then imagined the rest. Most of what I wrote concerning the instrument was really about what went on in Neela’s mind as she practiced, and for that I tapped into my own experiences as a violinist. I felt that technical rigor, discipline, and attention to form were all things that any musician had to master, regardless of the instrument they played on.

Only after I had written a draft did I interview Durga Krishnan (no relation to Neela Krishnan in the novel – just a strange coincidence!). She is my niece’s veena teacher, who lives in the Boston area. When I interviewed her, I went over all the technical details – like the structure of the veena, posture, techniques, and even a little of the instrument’s history. I also asked her to read over some chapters to make sure they were accurate and plausible. I also interviewed K.V. Kashinath, a veena maker in Bangalore, India, to go over the details of an antique veena.

This might seem like a backwards approach to writing about an instrument I didn’t know how to play. But I felt it was important to write as spontaneously as possible, so I came to the subject of music like a writer, and not a researcher. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I find that the first draft contains something magical – an intuition for conceiving a scene in the most organic and authentic way. When I go back, a small part of that authenticity goes away, and I always feel like part of the job of revising is hiding the fact that you’ve revised – kind of like covering your tracks in the snow behind you. This might be a long-winded answer, but I really do feel strongly that as writers, we should first get to the heart of our story and fit the details in later. I always find a way to make the logistics work.

Like Neela, you did cross-continental travel as a kid, visiting family in India. What kind of advantages do you think that cross-cultural childhood gave you?

When I was young, I didn’t feel like I had much advantage. I used to dread going to India – I always felt very different from my cousins, and so out-of-place in Bangalore, where most of my relatives lived. My hair was different, my dress was different, and I didn’t speak the language well. I was also shy and mortified by what others thought of me. A lot changed from my childhood. Bangalore is a completely different city today – bustling, modern, with people wearing everything from traditional Indian clothes to mini-skirts. My relatives have also become more global in outlook thanks to Facebook and Twitter, and working abroad. Most of all, I’ve changed – I’m more comfortable with who I am. I still don’t speak my native language well, but I do my best, and I know that being an Indian is more than just what you speak. It’s a combination of food, traditions, religion, cultural practices, movies, books, and family. I try to give my children a sense of that – to be comfortable in their own skin, to accept their cultural heritages both from India, and here in America. I hope that my experience of being a cross-cultural kid will help me to be more empathetic with them.

One of my favorite things about Vanished was the way that it mingled a fabulous, globe-trotting mystery-adventure with really beautifully written details about an ordinary eleven-year-old's life. Can you name some of the MG novels that have inspired you as a writer?

For plot structure, HOLES by Louis Sachar. I can’t think of a more perfectly crafted novel – there is nothing extraneous or redundant. The back-story and present day story in Holes are woven together effortlessly, and the results are just remarkable.

For mystery, CHASING VERMEER by Blue Baliett. After I finished reading this book, I was really inspired to write a mystery of my own – and when I decided to write one about a missing instrument from India, this was the book I kept close to my heart as my literary guide.

For atmosphere, THE PENDERWICKS by Jeanne Birdsall. I loved the gentle family dynamics of the Penderwick family, and that safe sense of knowing that in this world, nothing will truly ever go wrong forever.

For getting down the voice of a multicultural character, MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS by Lisa Yee. The voice is perfect! I love Millicent’s spunky personality, coupled with her unapologetic sense of character. She knows she’s smart and doesn’t pretend otherwise, and feels at home being an Asian-American. I wanted Neela to achieve that same sense of self-confidence.

For everything else – AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS by Gennifer Cheldenko. *Happy sigh*.

Thank you so much for hosting me, Stephanie!

Thank you, Sheela! And for everybody else: you can find out more about Sheela here and you can enter to win a copy of Sheela's Vanished (along with my own Kat, Incorrigible) on this Sarvenaz Tash blog entry.

(Note: all photos of Sheela in this entry are credit: Paresh Gandhi)


  1. Wonderful interview! Sheela, your novel sounds wonderful and I'm looking forward to reading it. I'm sure your niece is so thrilled!

  2. Sheela's great! And I've got VANISHED nearing the top of my TBR pile. Can't wait!

  3. Great interview. I love all those MG inspirations you mentioned for your book. I'm betting I'd enjoy Vanished, too. :)

    Best of luck with your book!

  4. Loved this! Cant wait to read the book and buy it for my library!

  5. Great interview--_great_ book. Definitely one for the library and at home shelf!

  6. Your book sounds wonderful, Sheela! Can't wait to read it.