Padma Venkatraman started life as a science nerd, but now she’s a bona fide writing nerd. Climbing the Stairs is her first novel, but definitely not her first book. She has 20 published books to her name, including a YA biography about the first female astronomer and a collection of mathematical folktales. Um, sounds like someone is equal parts science nerd and book nerd.
1) What do you think the underlying theme/take-home message is in every book you write?
I’m not sure there is a single underlying theme in every book I write. Climbing the Stairs, which is of course my favorite book of mine so far, has a lot of different themes woven into it: Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolence, the effect of World War II on India and the British colonies, Indian philosophers, the distance between some Hindu societal customs and Hindu spirituality, women’s rights and human equality. But I never thought about the themes when I was writing – it’s only after I actually finished the book that I sat back and thought, “Hey, there’s a lot of cool threads woven into this – it’s pretty much like a colorful sari in some ways!”
One of the central questions in Climbing the Stairs, which is as relevant in our nation today (as it was in India in 1941) is whether war is sometimes inevitable. My characters debate that – and they arrive at radically different answers because of who they are. Does “nonviolence” always work, and what really is nonviolence? That’s another related question which my characters raise in the novel, but don’t answer, probably because, again, I think that question is too complex for a simple take-home message.
Another thread woven into the novel is colonialism. My characters argue about the pros and cons of British colonization of India – but I don’t think there’s one easy answer to what happens when a nation is colonized and how colonization affects a people.
I guess my take home message is that there’s no simple take-home message in Climbing the Stairs!
2) What’s the hardest part of the writing process for you? How do you overcome it?
Finding time to do it! These days, anyway. I am struggling with the rewrite of Island’s End (novel #2, which luckily Penguin bought already), but I like to think it’s mostly because I just don’t have long periods of time to write anymore and I’m sleepwalking half the time, thanks to our new baby.
One technique I’ve found really useful is to try and connect with my characters every day as often as I can. Some days I just don’t get to the computer, but I still try to find at least 5 minutes to close my eyes and try to hear my characters speaking, or travel to the Island and listen to the sound of the surf. Or grab the scrap of paper that’s lying closest to me and scribble something – a few sentences, something about the plot, a sentence. If I’m feeling too knackered to connect with my novel, then I try to at least remember my own experiences as they relate to the novel (Island’s End is not autobiographical, but it does draw from my experience as a researcher working in a remote island location). This helps a lot. If I manage to connect a bit with it each day, it’s much easier to start writing when I finally find a moment, even if it’s only once a week.
3) How did you get your agent?
I decided to get an agent only after finishing Climbing the Stairs (I’ve sold about 20 shorter books without an agent, 18 of them to publishers in India).
I found my wonderful agent in a pretty typical way. I went to the library, spent hours researching agents there and on the Web, made a long list of agents and then whittled it down before I started querying them one by one.
I was sure they’d ask to see the entire manuscript. After all, three of my books that had been published in India had gone into second editions there, and one is being translated into other languages, including German and Korean. Plus, who wouldn’t want to read a coming-of-age story set during a tumultuous and exciting time? Climbing the Stairs had drama and romance. Though it was historical fiction, it had timeless themes woven into it, themes that were decidedly of topical interest.
Somewhere between the 10th rejection letter and the 20th, I was utterly devastated. I had followed agent’s guidelines and most of them hadn’t even asked me to send in sample chapters or pages and just sent form rejection letters.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the first two that actually did ask to see some or part of my manuscript (making me sing with joy and dance with hope) wrote back saying almost identical things: they loved the story, my writing was beautiful, etc. etc. but they didn’t think any editor would buy it because “multicultural fiction” that wasn’t about a crisis of identity was hard to sell and they felt the plot was too complex for an American audience!
As a new American, that was pretty hard to take – especially because I feel the novel tackles issues that are of great current relevance, and that all human beings are essentially the same.
I was thrilled when my agent believed in me and my novel enough to sign “us” on. Ironically, my editor said he bought it precisely because Climbing the Stairs exposed him to an unusual setting and aspects of history and culture and religion that he hadn’t come across in previous submissions.
If you want to know who my editor and agent are, you’ll have to peep into my book.
4) What’s the typical writing day like for you?
Hectic. Crazy. Disorganized. But usually energizing and exhilarating. Sometimes frustrating. A moment here, three moments there, and ah, maybe an hour – or even two!!! Typical – what does that word mean???
5) When you got your first advance, did you “splurge” on anything?
A trip to Vancouver – what a lovely city!