Coffee Break with Padma Venkatraman

The Coffee Break Spotlight this month goes to none other than Padma Venkatraman, author of Climbing the Stairs, A Time to Dance and Island’s EndI had the pleasure of meeting her and listening to her speak at the James River Writer’s Conference in Richmond, VA this past October. She gave the welcome address and spoke on many panels, impressing me with her passion. It was a great pleasure to read and review her second book, Climbing the Stairsand I plan to follow up with A Time to Dance. She graciously agreed to join me for a Coffee Break interview, and is nothing if not constantly on the go, so I shall not us delay any longer! Welcome, Padma Venkatraman!

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First things first! Coffee, tea, chai? Or another beverage preference?

Strong black tea (if I’m writing hard and don’t have a talk coming up); ginger tea with honey (if I do have a speaking engagement soon).

Very good! Tea for you, coffee for me and off we go!

I’d like to cast a wide net and draw in some non-historical fiction readers here. In four sentences or less, why should someone who has never read a historical fiction novel start with Climbing the Stairs?

Because few novels pack as much as power as CLIMBING THE STAIRS does, into as few pages. And, I only say so myself because you ask – but I’m grateful to acknowledge the critical acclaim it received – it was released to starred reviews in 3 journals and won two awards and was on countless best book honor lists.

Because, as a reviewer pointed out “after reading so many beloved books that just describe a storm in a teacup, it is great to read a book that is so current and yet also captures such a wide swath of our shared history, and so beautifully intertwines so many different themes into a gripping narrative peopled by such strong characters.”

Because, it is one of the best historical fiction books out there that brings to life forgotten WWII heroes, without whom none of us in the free world would be able to read or write novels! To read CLIMBING THE STAIRS is to acknowledge and respect the men – and the women – who fought for all that we enjoy today.

Because to read CLIMBING THE STAIRS is to enter another soul and to live and breathe another life – so that when you close the pages of the novel, you will be more compassionate. To avoid books on global narratives, like CLIMBING THE STAIRS, it is to live without an understanding of where we came from – as citizens of the world – is to leave yourself easy prey to prejudiced, hateful, intolerant ways to think.

I must say that is a tremendous answer and I would have to agree!

I might have started out with a tough question. And I might be following up with another toughie. My goal with the book review is to promote books that I believe are worth the time of a busy mom. If a potential reader (and busy mom) said to you “I’m not sure I have time,” how do you respond?

Neither question is tough for me to answer!

With all due respect, if you have time for a hair appointment – or a TV show – you have time to sit down and read a great book. So cancel that next chat with the hairdresser or that next veg-out-and-passive-viewing session and buy and read CLIMBING THE STAIRS, please!

It’s well worth some roots showing or a little less TV brain-drain, in my opinion!

Next up is an easy one. (And one of my favorites!) What kind of dinosaur would you want be?

Actually, this is the tough one for me! Probably a brontosaurus – they were gentle vegetarians, weren’t they? And tall – so that would give me a good view of the Jurassic world!

Excellent choice. I immediately think of the brachiosaur from Jurassic Park…and that giant sneeze. Yuck!

Back to writing questions! What is the best piece of advice you have gotten as a writer? The worst?

Donna Jo Napoli gave a marvelous talk. She said something like “We start off unpublished and then we really, really want to be published. Then our names get into print in a magazine and we really, really want a book. Then our book comes out and we want a great review. And then we get our great reviews, but we really need an award. And once we get an award we moan because it’s not the award. Or else we’re depressed we only got THE award once. Writers this is bullshit.” Wise, wise words, and yes, I’ve heard people remark sadly how they only got this that or the other once and well, I can’t say how necessary it is to realize, in this field, you can only control how well you write – you can never control how your writing is received and, as we all know some marvelous books never get the acclaim they deserve while some not-so-nice books get the limelight. So as writers we have to not get caught up in the treadmill of publicity.

Worst: “Get that next book out fast.”

Indeed! I am amazed by those who can churn out one best-seller after another. Perhaps one day I will have that skill…in the meantime I will keep working slow and steady at it.

Next question is a two-parter: Climbing the Stairs and A Time to Dance both have strong female main characters, although one is a historical fiction and the other set in more modern times. Did one era feel more natural for you when writing than the other, and are you are likely to write more from that time period for your next novel? And where will you be in five years (in terms of what stories you will have told?)

My mother and father lived at a time when they saw signs saying “No coolies (a bad word for Indians) and dogs allowed” in their own country, thanks to colonialism. So I’m not that far away from the era in which CLIMBING THE STAIRS is set. And I experience and have experienced prejudice all my life, so hey, it’s not like the feelings of the characters in it are outdated!

As for A TIME TO DANCE – its central theme – of spiritual awakening, through the power of what one loves to do – is timeless. It was harder to write because that theme is the hardest of all to do well, although it’s contemporary.

In 5 years… I hope my next novel, set in contemporary India, about homeless kids, will be out in print (scheduled for 2019 release now); and I hope to spread my wings out a bit more after that. I’d like to expand into writing picture books as well as a novel or two for grown-ups and explore other kinds of voices – humorous, fantastic –  and also delve deeper into poetry.

Those are valid and important points about the feelings of characters transcending the times and how issues of the past carry forward. I’m excited to see how you handle the theme of spiritual awakening in A Time to Dance, and am intrigued by the premise of your next contemporary novel!

Bonus question: What character in Climbing the Stairs did you most enjoy writing (and why)?

I love all my characters, even periamma and periappa who aren’t nice. If you don’t love a character, you end up seeing them flat; if you see your characters in all their humanity, you have to love them and embrace them with all their faults – the sort of love we end up having for the families we’re born into and couldn’t choose.

That’s excellent perspective. Perhaps as readers it is much easier to have a more simple relationship with (and distaste for) a character, particularly one who is not likable. That being said, the ones who are the least likable are also often the most believable and well-rounded, and ones that the writer probably spent a great deal of time developing.

Well, I’ve drained my coffee which means it’s time for a refill and to get back to work! It’s been a delight having you join me for the author spotlight! I look forward to reading more of your work!


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Thanks for reading! I would love to hear from you. Comments and questions are welcome in the comments section, for The Mom and Padma Venkatraman!

Have a book to recommend for review by The Mom Who Runs? Are you an author and would like to be considered for a book review and coffee break interview? Fill out the survey below and I’ll be in touch promptly!

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