Diribani has come to the village well to get water for her family's scant meal of curry and rice. She never expected to meet a goddess there. Yet she is granted a remarkable gift: Flowers and precious jewels drop from her lips whenever she speaks.
It seems only right to Tana that the goddess judged her kind, lovely stepsister worthy of such riches. And when she encounters the goddess, she is not surprised to find herself speaking snakes and toads as a reward.
Blessings and curses are never so clear as they might seem, however. Diribani’s newfound wealth brings her a prince—and an attempt on her life. Tana is chased out of the village because the province's governor fears snakes, yet thousands are dying of a plague spread by rats. As the sisters' fates hang in the balance, each struggles to understand her gift. Will it bring her wisdom, good fortune, love . . . or death?
I am going to start right away with a rather big question: With all the internetting about whitewashing/racefail/Mammothfail (I don't Twitter and so I really can't use those hashtags without feeling like a fraud), including our own post a few weeks ago, did you (or your editor/publisher) have any qualms about you writing POC MCs in a non-white culture as a white woman from California?
HT: My editor didn’t express concern about it to me, but I’m definitely aware of the issue and have been following the racefail etc. discussions with interest, including the one recently hosted by Enchanted Inkpot. I spent my teen years on a New England ashram founded in the 1960s by an Indian spiritual teacher, so am familiar with one “flavor” of Eastern thought. It was more of a constant background presence as I was growing up than a field of study, though, and I certainly wouldn’t represent myself as an expert on Indian culture or religion.
That’s one reason T&D takes place in a secondary world closely based on Mughal India. Setting it at one remove from actual history let me focus on the characters and their adventures, the food and crafts and landscapes that I’m fond of. Hopefully, my respect for the variety and vitality of India’s traditions comes through in the story. Overall, I think we each have a dual responsibility: as writers, to tell the stories that call to us, with all the sensitivity and sincerity we can muster, and as readers, to seek out and celebrate authentic voices.
Well, I think you did a great job–and I have to admit, in light of these recent discussions, I did read with an eye for those details, that sense of reality and authenticity that is so necessary when tackling a culture not your own (or even, really, when tackling your own culture. Authenticity is key!).
I know from your post at Tor that you are aware of the dearth of non-Western fantasy settings in YA; is T&D at all a deliberate attempt to do your part to rectify that? Or did moving this French fairy tale to India come about as a result of brainstorming (perhaps India's varied religious culture lent itself more easily to the idea that spewing toads and snakes could become a blessing rather than a curse)?
HT: My previous two novels are set in alternate worlds based on French history, which I also considered for T&D. But as you’ve pointed out, the aversion to snakes is so deep-rooted in Western culture that the older sister was starting out with a huge disadvantage. To level the playing field, I went looking for a place where attitudes towards reptiles and amphibians might be more flexible. With just a little research, India seemed very promising.
Not to mention full of fun foods and flowers and birds and traditions, all yours for the mining...
And now, shifting a bit from political considerations, how on earth did you research this? The details are amazing; I don't know that I recognized half the foods Tana and Diribani ate, and the feel of the air, the wells, the rituals of their religion...as a reader, I was pretty well wrapped up their world, but later, as a writer, I got a little bit overwhelmed. Have you visited India or are you just a researching whiz? (If the latter, have you any tips for those of us less whiz-like?)
HT: I’m so glad the world is believable! That’s one reason I try to base the physical details of my fantasy worlds as closely as possible on a specific time and place. I have been to Rajasthan twice, both short trips without too much time for sightseeing, but some vivid sense memories. For research, I mostly relied on reading: histories of the Mughal period, accounts of the building of the Taj Mahal (including novels), museum catalogs for art and artifacts, natural history and travel guides for wildlife and weather. A terrific resource was a memoir by Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a French jewel merchant of the period who may have been responsible for smuggling the giant blue gem we know as the Hope Diamond out of the Golconda Mines and bringing it to France. Another key book was STEPS TO WATER: THE HISTORIC STEPWELLS OF INDIA, by Morna Livingston, which has amazing photographs, very inspiring (you can see some on the Amazon.com page for the book).
I’m not sure there was any wizardry involved, actually, just a willingness to chase down any source or detail that looked interesting.
Museum catalogs...never thought to look at those. Great idea.
Have you always been a fan of fairy tales and fantasy? What keeps you writing stories with magic as opposed to realistic fiction?
HT: Oh, always! I’ve tried writing realistic fiction, but magic seems to creep into the story anyway.
Yeah, I think that happens to most of us here. Magic just makes everything better.
Your first book, THE SWAN MAIDEN, appears to be another retelling (but I can't really be sure–I *refuse* to read anything about books I haven't read but want to read); your second, AURELIE, is not a retelling (but *is* lovely and satisfying and full of French fairy-tale creatures)...can we expect more retellings from you? What story are you working on now (if you can talk about it)?
HT: Yes, THE SWAN MAIDEN is a retelling of a French fairy tale called “The Devil’s Daughter,” of the tale-type known as “The Maid as Helper in the Hero’s Flight.” AURELIE started out as one also, but changed radically over several drafts. It’s so comforting to have a time-tested plot—at the start, anyway. A couple of projects are currently in the works: one is a companion to T&D, another retelling. The other is not fairy-tale related at all, and set in a fantasy world based on 1890s California, if the Hotel del Coronado had been built on Catalina Island instead of San Diego. We’ll see which one gets finished first!
Ooh, more Tana & Diribani? (hey, I just noticed they have the same initials as the title...so clever!) Can't wait!
Okay, I know you live a somewhat unconventional life (living on a boat with cats and husband and baby) (sounds awesome, btw). What is your writing schedule like? Does living on the water affect the stories you tell, or the way you tell them?
HT: My writing schedule tends to be erratic and deadline-driven. I’ll write for long periods, day and night, when I’m drafting and polishing, less when I’m in research and idea-gathering mode. The baby’s arrival last January has changed that pattern, for sure! I’m trying to learn how to stay focused and write in shorter bursts during naptime etc., but productivity has definitely suffered. My writing buddies assure me it’ll get better… when he’s two.
I think the biggest change about living on the water is a greater awareness of the natural world: the wind, the weather, the birds and animals. It takes a while for life experience to percolate into my fiction, so I’m sure I’ll see other effects in time.
And because we find these sorts of things fascinating, can you give us a quick rundown on how you got here? Do you remember the first story you wrote, the book that made you want to become a writer, your first great writing moment? Publishing triumph? What's the one thing that will always keep you going when you're tired/discouraged/brain-dead/just plain worn out?
HT: I’ve always been a fanatical reader. (When I first got my driver’s license, I had to take my younger sister along to help me navigate rural New Hampshire, even trips to the dentist and the mall, because I was always reading in the car and had never paid attention to directions.) Writing came more recently. In 2000, I left my 10-year job in book distribution to go with my new husband to a new city. While unemployed, I figured it was an opportunity to try writing the kinds of books I liked to read: mostly fantasy, especially retellings like Robin McKinley’s BEAUTY and Elizabeth Marie Pope’s THE PERILOUS GARD.
So I took classes, joined SCBWI, and found a critique group, which has had a huge impact on improving my writing. Every two weeks, I had to show up with a new chapter. (Did I mention, deadlines are my friends?) My critique group partners are brilliant writers, so smart and encouraging. Seven years and four completed manuscripts later, editor Reka Simonsen at Holt liked SWAN MAIDEN enough to publish it. AURELIE and T&D have also benefited from her eagle eye.
What keeps me going? How much I enjoy participating in the community of children’s literature lovers: writers and readers and publishers and booksellers and librarians and teachers. Writing a novel combines elements I adore—research, reading, and making up stuff. It’s first a solitary, and then collaborative endeavor. The whole process is very satisfying.
Fanatical reader + deadline-lover + *lurvs* writing community = pretty much every single Inkie (and a great number of our readers), I'd be willing to bet!
Finally, what's the most compelling fantasy you've read lately? We are always looking for good recommendations!
HT: Jo Graham’s THE BLACK SHIPS is a wonderful retelling of the Aeneid. Not as new, but Elizabeth Knox’s DREAMHUNTER and DREAMQUAKE have really stayed with me. And if you’ve not read Clare Dunkle’s THE HOLLOW KINGDOM trilogy, you are in for a treat. Goblins!
How great are fantasy writers? Thanks so much, Heather, for your thoughtful answers, and for taking the time to join us here at the Inkpot. And for making my first interview so fun!