Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Padma Venkatraman's Island's End

Today I’d like to welcome Padma Venkatraman, author of the award-winning novel, Climbing the Stairs. She’s here today to discuss her new book, Island’s End. Thank you for joining us, Padma!

I’m fascinated by your far-ranging physical and spiritual journeys. You weren’t originally a writer. In fact, at nineteen, your passion for mathematics and science led you to leave your native India to pursue a graduate degree in Oceanography in the United States.

As an oceanographer, you conducted research on crocodiles in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands off the coast of India. Your contact with the tribal people of these islands inspired Island’s End. Can you tell us about your stay on these remote islands and the people you met there? (The photos on this blog are from Padma's trip to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.)
Living on the Islands was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had. Life had a different pace there - it felt calmer - and when I lived there in a tiny little cottage near the rainforest with next to no possessions, I felt far more satisfied than I imagined I could be. I loved the simplicity and warmth of the people I met while I was there.

Though you were a scientist, you always had a great love of literature. Your first books were nonfiction, biographies of women mathematicians and scientists. You also wrote folktales and eventually you evolved to writing novels. Could you tell us about your transformation from scientist to writer?
My love of words was and is far deeper than my love of numbers (though I do love that world as well). But at first, writing was a sort of hobby to me - something I enjoyed doing in my sparetime. And I don't consider anything that was published before my debut novel, CLIMBING THE STAIRS, appeared to be examples of me as a writer. I only took myself seriously as a "writer" during and after CLIMBING THE STAIRS appeared - and the novel is of a far higher standard (in my opinion) than any piece I did before it -I call it my first book because it feels like my first real work as a writer - what I did before seems like play, and just not comparable with my novels - which reflect the real writer me. And now that ISLAND'S END is here, I know for sure, I'll always see myself as a writer. Science fulfilled my intellect alone, writing fulfills me more deeply and completely.

You were the only woman on the research team to the Andaman Islands, and both your novels have featured strong female heroines. Do you feel a kinship between Vidya in Climbing the Stairs and Uido in Island’s End? Do you see echoes of these girls in your own life?
Undoubtedly, my experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field enter my writing. When I was writing ISLAND'S END, I was going through a lot of self-doubt about my writing abilities - and I think Uido's initial concerns might reflect my own lack of confidence. Then again, I wrote ISLAND'S END because I felt like I was hearing a voice that was telling me her story - an almost surreal experience - so sometimes I feel like "the voice" wrote the story - that it doesn't really "belong" to me - though it was through me that the story was written. I love the process of writing - especially this "hearing voices" thing. Sometime I think writers are schizophrenics who shut themselves up with a computer when they hear voices...

In some ways, Uido is the opposite of a scientist. As a shaman-to-be, she learns through dreams and spirit guides. What do you see as the relationship between science and spirit? How have these two ways of viewing the world informed your writing?
My time on the ISLANDS opened up my mind - and expanded my world view - and taught me to respect and give credence to ideas/experiences/cultures that existed beyond the mind-set and framework of science. I think I've inherited, from the Hindu tradition, a sense of spirituality that embraces and respects all paths to the higher goal of living a better life and being a better person. Spirituality and philosophy interest me - and I have a sort of scientific curiosity about different ideas of spiritual truth and reality. My scientific training also gave me the gifts of questioning and rewriting. My characters often embody questions that interest me - and as I rewrite I ask my characters lots of questions so I feel like I deeply know them - questioning helps me occupy their emotional space.

Can you tell us about your process in writing Island’s End?
Writing ISLAND'S END was different from writing my first novel - in part because I had a child (who took up a lot of my time and energy, so "real life" often intervened and it was a challenging to find the time and mental space to live inside Uido and her world). But then again, writing it felt magical, because I had the incredible feeling like I could hear the voice - a voice that sort of possessed me - in a marvelous and refreshing sort of way.

You’ve already begun another novel. Could you tell us a little about it?
My third novel, tentatively titled A TIME TO DANCE, is inspired by someone I knew - a dancer who overcame physical disability to excel at what she loved most. I'm working on it with my wonderful editor Nancy Paulsen (who also helped ISLAND'S END come alive) - and the novel will appear on her list (Nancy Paulsen Books).

Do you have any final words for our readers?
I fell in love with the process of writing as I wrote my two novels - so that's when I started to consider myself a writer. To me, equating publication with being a writer is as silly as confusing marriage with true love. Just as marriage isn't necessary for true love to exist - publication isn't a necessity for a writer. Publication - and everything that goes along with it, like acclaim and awards are a wonderful gift for a writer - but shouldn't be any writer's end goal. A writer's goal should be to remain eternally in love with the writing process.

I'd love to invite your readers to stop by my website - and to download the virtual lesson plan I created and the fabulous discussion guide my publisher Penguin created. Even if they aren't thinking of using ISLAND's END in a classroom or book club setting, I think some of the exercises are fun - my favorite is one that I did because a teacher who read my book pointed this out to me. Uido, Lah-ame, Danna and Ashu - were, in my head, associated with water, air, earth and fire - and interestingly, the language I ended up using (metaphors, verbs etc) to bring alive each of these characters keeps the association with these 4 "elements" - a really interesting aspect of pattern in the novel that I enjoyed (re-)discovering! Thanks again, Linda, for inviting me to be on your blog!
Thanks so much for stopping by! I know our readers will enjoy Island’s End.

ISLAND'S END (my 2nd bk) trailer:
* "consistently engrosses...refreshingly hopeful and beautifully written"
- Starred review KIRKUS
* "a lovely novel...offering an enticing blend of mystic tradition and imaginative speculation"
- Starred review PW
* "Vividly written and expertly paced ...a moving story that will stay with readers long after the end"
- Starred review SLJ
* "succeeds intricate yet wholly accessible story"
-Starred review BOOKLIST
Dr. Padma Venkatraman's author website with free downloadable resources:


Unknown said...

Great interview. I love anything that blends art and science! And the idea of separating publishing from being a writer is definitely food for thought.

Padma Venkatraman said...

thanks diana and linda!

Jeannine Atkins said...

This book sounds wonderful. I look forward to reading it. Great to hear the backstory .. and to know that yet another novel is on its way! Congratulations, Padma, and thank you, Linda! (and good luck with your poetry!)

Linda Crotta Brennan said...

Thanks, Jeannine! So glad you stopped by!

Cheryl Kirk Noll said...

Great interview, Linda.
I loved both of Padma's novels. Island's End kept me reading, hoping that Uido would be able to help her community survive the combination of cultures, as so many have not.

Now I have to re-read the book to look for the water/earth/air/fire language.

I loved Padma's analogy of writer/published author to in love/married. Here's to love AND marriage! : )

Kimberly Newton Fusco said...

Fascinating interview, Linda. Congratulations to Padma!