Uma writes picture books (including Monsoon and the recently published Out of the Way! Out of the Way!), retellings of traditional stories (my personal favorite is The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha), and middle grade novels. She also teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts and was my advisor when I took the picture book semester.
Her latest novel, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, was released this week. It is a humorous middle grade novel, "featuring best friends, Bollywood dancing, postal mishaps, monkeys, and chocolate.) It received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.
Today we talk about her writing, her teaching, and how each contributes to the other. Plus, she answers a couple questions about The Grand Plan to Fix Everything.
Sarah: How have your interactions with other writers at Vermont College (VCFA) influenced any of your books or your writing?
Uma: The conversations at the residency are so full and rich that they invariably get me thinking about my own work and how to stretch myself in working and reworking it. I think I read from The Grand Plan to Fix Everything three or four times over several residencies, and each time I’d watch the audience to see where they laughed and how they reacted. Kathi [Kathi Appelt] and Tobin [M. T. Anderson] both read the manuscript and offered really terrific comments as well.
Sarah: Do you approach writing differently because of teaching at VCFA?
Uma: No question. I push myself more. I take more risks. I have to because I see my students doing exactly that, and I’m encouraging them to do so. The other part of how it affects my work is purely a matter of scheduling. That’s the hard part for me and I’m still struggling with a reasonable balance. This is because I have to get all my own work done between student packets. That means not just the writing part (drafting, revising, planning, research) but also what I think of the author part of the work (contracts, promotion, blog posts, submissions, and e-mails, e-mails, e-mails). So I have to compartmentalize things more than I would otherwise but it’s a good amount of pressure. I think that when I do write, as a result, I’m more focused because I know I have a limited amount of time.
Sarah: In what way(s) has teaching helped your writing?
Uma: It keeps the conversations about writing in the forefront for me. Even when I’m teaching (and so not actually working on my own writing) the questions that come up in exchanges with students are related to craft. That makes for good, fallow time for my own work, but also allows me to be thinking about it subconsciously because everything I’m doing is indirectly related. The other thing that teaching does is keep me honest. If I start saying something about a student’s work I always reflexively stop to think, Is that really true? Is it practical? Would I do that? And it makes me, you know, a little more generous than I might be otherwise.
Sarah: When did you realize that you are a writer? Who first encouraged you or told you that you are a writer?
Uma: I’ve always been a writer, even as a child. I was praised for my writing through school but I never thought of myself as a writer, not until I felt the urge to add my voice to the conversation of books. That was when my son was born and I realized (this was in the late 1980’s) that the books I went looking for, books across the age range with a range of diverse characters and themes, seemed few and far between. It was circumstance rather than a person that led to the realization. That’s not to say I don’t have many, many people to thank for their help and support over the years—you’ll find them in the acknowledgments and dedications pages of my books. My students figure largely among them these days.
Sarah: Has your writing process changed over time?
Uma: Definitely. I used to love drafts, and now I can’t wait to get past them so I can get to the real work of revision.
Sarah: Uma, you taught writing extensively both online and in other places before joining the faculty at VCFA. At Vermont you meet and interact with your students twice a year. Although online teaching is effective, what additional benefits does the Vermont low residency method add for both you and the students?
Uma: I think it strengthens the writing community we have at VCFA. We have that very intense, compacted time together at the residencies. Then as we all go home and begin the work of semester projects the impact of the residencies seems to persist until the momentum of the work builds and carries through. It gives us a foundation to work from, I think, as well as the common language of lectures and workshops.
Sarah: It must be a thrill to see your students publishing books, especially books that you worked on with them. What are some of these books and who are the authors?
Uma: Yes indeed. Here's a sampler of published and forthcoming books from both my writers.com classes and from VCFA: Amadi’s Snowman by Katia Novet Saint-Lot, The Faerie Ring by Kiki Hamilton, Fiona Finkelstein, Big-Time Ballerina by Shawn Stout, So Punk Rock and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother by Micol Ostow, The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams. There are others in the pipeline, I know.
Sarah: Could you tell us a little about your latest book, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything? When will it be released?
Uma: The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, the one I read from at residencies, will be out very soon, May 24. You can find more about it on my web site, and the trailer is here.
It was great fun to write and came from a sense I’d had for a long time that fiction grounded in culture and geography (the kind of thing we call “multicultural”) can be lively and funny as well.
Sarah: Chocolate plays a big role in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. I've enjoyed eating chocolate in many countries (such as China, Finland, and Brazil) and am now curious about chocolate in India. Is there much of a chocolate market in India and if so how did it lead you to the character of the baker, Mr. Mani?
Uma: Cadbury ruled the Indian chocolate market for years until Amul, an Indian milk products company, began making chocolate. Maybe in the 70's, I can't exactly remember. Nestle also manufactures chocolate in India. Almonds, cashews, and raisins are common as ingredients, and milk chocolate is more common than dark. Some of the Amul gift products have wonderful wrappers. Several imported European brands are available as well, although at a price. More recently, gourmet and designer chocolate is starting to hit the market for those who can afford it. The down side to this is that it may be displacing some of the more traditional Indian sweets.
That trend is what made me think of the baker in The Grand Plan, entering a small niche market with his dreams of redeeming his family's honor. Mr. Mani's trying to combine his Indian heritage with his baker's vocation. Hence he employs rose petals, a traditional Indian flavoring, in his recipes. He also adds pinches of chocolate to fusion foods like his curry puffs. Cultural fusion is a big undercurrent in this book, and chocolate seemed to be the perfect ingredient to embody that. But here's an interesting thing--when I was in New York last I stopped at Dean and Deluca's to pick up a gift for someone, and got talking to the cashier about a box of rose petal truffles they had on display. Just the kind of thing that Mr. Mani would be proud to offer his customers, right? It turns out that rose petal chocolate is a hot new trend internationally. I felt very pleased and affirmed, having created that trend in my own small way in fiction, in complete ignorance that it might even exist as a trend in the real world.
Sarah: Thank you, Uma for joining me today!
Mr Mani's curry puff recipe can be found on Uma's website by clicking on the downloadable activity kit. She blogs at Writing with a Broken Tusk.
Please visit Uma on other stops on her Grand Plan Blog Tour.
Today is VCFA day, and she visits with Kathi Appelt (a video interview, plus a clip of Uma reading from the book), Bethany Hegedus, and Michelle Knudsen in Through the Tollbooth.
Also, don't miss the previous interviews with Cynthia Leitich Smith on Cynsations where they talk about "Reinventing Your Children's Writing Career, and Got Story? Countdown where Joy Chu visits with several of the creative minds involved in the creations of Uma's book, including the illustrator and art director and Uma and a surprise guest.
Also, as part of this blog tour, there is a grand giveaway. Here are the details:
A Grand Giveaway! Three lucky Grand Prize winners will each receive one copy of THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING along with a starry assortment of bangles and trinkets that Dolly Singh, famous famous Bollywood movie star, would adore! An additional 3 runners-up will receive a copy of THE GRAND PLAN TO FIX EVERYTHING. To enter, send an e-mail to GrandPlanGiveaway@gmail.com. In the body of the e-mail, include your name, mailing address, and e-mail address (if you're under 13, submit a parent's name and e-mail address). One entry per person and prizes will only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses. Entries must be received by midnight (PDT) on 6/30/11. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on 7/1/11 and notified via email.