For Bollywood-obsessed Dini, being on the same subcontinent as superstar Dolly Singh is about the only compensation for being uprooted from her Maryland home to live in small-town India for two years. In a starred review, Kirkus called The Grand Plan to Fix Everything a "high-energy concoction [that] is thoroughly believable and entertaining."
Go here for a list of books about Indian kids around the world.
The author Uma Krishnaswami, who writes both picture books and novels, also teaches writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Recognized for sharing international and multicultural viewpoints with young readers, her novel Naming Maya was recognized as a Notable Book for a Global Society by the International Reading Association in 2005.
You’ve written a variety of children’s books. Can you comment on the challenges and satisfactions of writing a longer book, such as this one?
Before I wrote my first published novel, Naming Maya, I never thought I had enough words in me to write something so long. I’ve come to love the intensity of the novel as a form, and how the characters arrive to live with me for the duration.
Even so, every time I get to the middle I become convinced I’ll never make it through. Sometimes when that happens I take a break and work on a picture book for a day or two, or do something else completely unrelated, just to get my mind working again.
The other challenge, of course, is simply to remember everything I’ve written so the story doesn’t end up contradicting itself. I keep a lot of notes, but I will admit that my timelines tend to run away with me. I’m always tearing my hair trying to figure out what happened when.
Tell me a little about your writing process. Are you the type of writer who plots carefully in advance, or do your characters boss you around?
I’m a messy writer. I leap in and write what I think the story is. I’m very tentative and unsure for quite a while. In this case, Dini arrived in my mind a few months before the story began to take shape, and her Bollywood obsession arrived a short time later. Even so, I wrote about four versions, between 80 and 150 pages apiece, and threw them all away. They weren’t working, but I think I needed to write them to get to the story.
Was it challenging to catch the voice of an 11-year-old girl—did you do any special listening research to capture that?
I don’t recall doing that, although I always listen when I hear interesting voices. When I visit schools, I look for gestures and listen for phrases, and for the emotional slants that underlie conversations.
But when I write I have to sharpen all those things, make them much more defined than they would ever be in real life. Once I put Dini on the couch with her friend Maddie and clicked a Dolly movie on, those voices began to speak in my mind. That’s not to say that there weren’t awkward or authorial pieces of dialogue that I had to sweat over, but, in all, the girls’ voices grew from each other.
Dolly, now, she was more of a challenge, because I had to convey a sense of her voice when she was still offstage and because, honestly, how on earth would I know what a Bollywood star sounds like offscreen? In comparison, 11-year-old girls are easy. I was one once. While speech patterns and slang change with time and place, the emotions beneath them tend to convey with surprising authenticity.
What do you like most about writing for children?
They’re an honest audience without pretensions. They don’t get distracted by nifty literary technique and clever devices. You can’t fool them with loftiness. They’re after the real thing. You have to give them story.
The other thing I love is when children read my books and write to me, and I can see how they make connections between their lives and the lives of characters in my books. It’s so true that books are not complete until they’ve been read, and I can’t think of a finer audience than young readers.
I enjoyed the theme of optimism that threads through your book. Are you an optimist?
I think so. I have to be. Publishing is such an unpredictable business: Margaret Atwood describes it as “part gamble and part arts and crafts with a business component.” I think I survive on hope. Not in a blind way, but definitely with a kind of fierce commitment, because otherwise what’s the point? There are terrible ills in the world, no question, but there are also stories of great humanity and small goodness. And there’s laughter, which makes a lot of flaws bearable.