“Middleview” Interview with Debut MG Author Varsha Bajaj

Posted by Tamera Wissinger

Today, Varsha Bajaj is joining Smack Dab In The Middle Blog for a guest “middleview” interview. Varsha’s debut middle grade novel ABBY SPENCER GOES TO BOLLYWOOD, Albert Whitman, released on 03/01/2014! Congratulations, Varsha!

Here is a bit about Varsha in her own words:

My story begins in Mumbai, India. My slice of Mumbai in the early 1960s was a rambling house built in the 1930s surrounded by coconut, guava and beetle nut trees. I was raised in a Maharashtrian, joint family; my father's parents and his sister lived with us.

My father and grandfather were perfumers and sampling strips of sandalwood and jasmine were always being sniffed and perfected. Making perfumes became a part of my imaginative play. Didn't everyone make perfumes of dirt, crushed flowers and pebbles? I grew up reading cross culturally. We were exposed to various children's series written by British author Enid Blyton. These were stories set in far away, unseen, magical England. They were tales of boarding schools, vacations in a caravan and exotic foods like crumpets.

There were no explanations or author's notes. Enid Blyton probably did not realize that her books were being read by millions of non British children in Her Majesty's ex colonies. At times we were puzzled. My sister and I tried to figure out the meaning of “blancmange”. Using context clues we guessed that it was some kind of slippery British dessert. I also read plenty of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy series. I was also bitten by the travel bug; I just did not know it then!

My grandfather influenced my reading choices as I got older. He introduced me to Jane Austen, and P.G. Wodehouse. On my own I discovered American romance novels!

Growing up I wanted to be a journalist and then an Indian classical singer. The worst case of dust and other allergies soon torpedoed that dream. My choice of profession crystallized after meeting an inspiring psychology teacher in tenth grade, Mrs. Krishnaswamy.

On September 13th, 1986, I came to America as a graduate student. I was young, naive, and idealistic. I arrived at Lambert international Airport in St. Louis with two suitcases, a few dollars and dreams. I was to be met by a representative in the Foreign Student's Office. After waiting for someone to show up for twenty interminably long minutes, I dug out some quarters (kept in case of an emergency that I hoped wouldn't happen) and read strange directions to make a call to the International student office. About an hour later a student walked up to me and asked, "Varsha?"

I blinked my tears away and nodded.

"Welcome to America," he said.

We drove into Illinois in uncomfortable silence. His limited English made conversation almost impossible.

I felt a frightening loneliness. Everyone I knew and loved was a world away. I stared through the window at the alien surroundings whizzing past me on the people less highway. Then I read, "Mississippi River."

It spoke to me. The Mississippi was where Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn played. I had visited that river before. I started to babble about Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer. My companion looked at me as if I was demented and drove a little faster. But my fear had decreased, and my mouth was a little less dry.

That day Mark Twain made a girl from India feel less alone, and a lot less scared. Such is the power of stories. Western writers have invited me into their world. My adjustment to this country and culture was facilitated by my knowledge of the language and my awareness of the culture through books, movies and music and by the warmth and welcoming attitude of its people.

After a dozen intermediate years in which I got a Masters degree, worked as a Counselor, got married, had two children and became a citizen, I started writing. It was 1999, two years after my daughter was born; my son was five and I had fallen in love with the picture book.

And I continue to write today...

Here’s a description of ABBY SPENCER GOES TO BOLLYWOOD:

What's the one thing you want most in your life? Abby Spencer wants a life of excitement!

Well, sort of. Actually, that's a lie. All Abby really wants is to meet her father. It's not that she's ungrateful for what she has - nice mom, adorable grandparents, great friends - but she feels like something's missing. And she'd never tell anyone that. 

Abby knows her dad lives in India, but she's never met him and doesn't know much else about him. But Abby's mom realizes it's time to have the big talk. It's time for Abby to finally meet her father.

But does he want to meet her? Is Abby ready for the truth? Abby's about to find out that her dad lives a very different life in a very different country and she's going to experience it all, for better or worse. This is what happens when all your wishes come true...

Here are the links to Varsha onlineWebsite, Facebook,  Twitter, Goodreads 

Now it’s time to hear from our guest:

Smack Dab Middleview with ABBY SPENCER GOES TO BOLLYWOOD author Varsha Bajaj

1. In a nutshell, what does your main character, Abby Spencer want?

Abby Spencer would love to meet her father. She knows that he is from India and lives there, but not much else. She wants to understand him and have him in her life.

She would also like to have more excitement in her normal but boring life. In Abby’s words, “My life is a plate of perfectly edible but ordinary scrambled eggs. I want them savory, creamy, cheesy and maybe with bacon on the side.”

2. What is in her way?

Abby’s mother has been reluctant to share anything but the minimum information about her father. Abby does not want to push her mother for fear of hurting her. Abby is also upset and angry that he has never made any attempt to know her or be involved in her life.

3. Did you know right away that this was your story, or did you discover it as you wrote? How did the story evolve?

I was enthusiastic about the concept and knew it was a story I wanted to tell but the details of the story evolved as I wrote and discovered my protagonist. Abby turned out to be spunky, fun, adventurous, intelligent and sensitive. I started to look at situations through Abby’s eyes and that’s when the story took off. Abby above all, has a sense of humor and it does not desert her through the story and neither does her imaginary string quartet!

4. Was Abby Spencer goes to Bollywood always for middle grade readers or not? If so, why did you choose middle grade? If not, what had to change for it to be considered a middle grade novel?

Yes, it was always meant as a middle grade novel. I wanted Abby to be old enough to make the journey to India but I didn’t want her to be so old that the reader wouldn’t be able to buy that her mother had continued to keep her father’s identity a secret.

5. What is the best part of writing for middle grade readers?

I love that middle graders still have some of their innocence and are not jaded. Their sense of adventure is palpable. They still have so many firsts ahead of them.

6. What are the challenges in taking your character to another culture/country which might not be familiar to them?

Taking Abby and the readers on a journey to India was a privilege. But there were challenges. Abby would be seeing India for the first time, and through the eyes of teenager raised in America. She has taken many privileges for granted.  In many ways, I tried to channel and recall the reactions of my own teenagers to Mumbai and India. I also wanted to make sure that Abby’s story and journey always took first place. I had to resist the urge to have the plot twists and turns be determined by my desire to take the reader sightseeing.

Balancing teen interest/appeal with cultural specificity was important to me.

Thank you for joining us at Smack Dab in the Middle Blog, Varsha, and again, congratulations on the release of ABBY SPENCER GOES TO BOLLYWOOD!


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