An Interview with Anjali Banerjee

We did a Q&A session with author Anjali Banerjee to get her thoughts on craft, writers groups and her latest release, Haunting Jasmine. We are pleased to have her as our guest author today.

PLC: Thanks for joining us at the Parking Lot Confessional, Anjali. Will you tell us about your writing process? Do you have any rituals?

AB: Do you mean what is my process for writing a book, or what is my daily writing process?

Process: the book

For me, the writing process has been different for each book. Each story has a unique personality and thus presents unique challenges. Maya Running, my first novel about a Bengali-Canadian girl caught between cultures, began as a series of personal but fictionalized recollections. I wrote Maya Running after receiving perhaps 50 rejection letters for my first manuscript, a romantic suspense novel that will remain unnamed. One agent wrote, “it’s not different enough.”

I thought, what could be more different than my own life as a young immigrant growing up in a Canadian town? People say first novels are the most autobiographical, and in my case, that’s true. I revised Maya Running several times. Even after we sold the manuscript to Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, I had to revise again for my editor.

Looking for Bapu, about a boy searching for the spirit of his grandfather, came out fairly smoothly, perhaps because the boy’s goal was so compelling. His love and longing for his departed grandfather propelled the story. I didn’t need to write an outline (I rarely do).

We sold my current (third) adult novel, Haunting Jasmine, to Berkley/Penguin on proposal. In this case, I had no choice but to write the dreaded synopsis. I find the process far too analytical. I prefer to “fly into the mist” when I write first drafts.

But we did sell the novel on proposal. It started with a simple idea – the ghosts of dead authors haunting a bookstore – and then I added a troubled, newly divorced woman who needed help from the ghosts. Again, I revised several times, each time getting to know Jasmine a little better.

Process: daily writing ritual

I prefer to write in the morning, before the demands of the day set in. Sometimes I warm up by writing in my journal and/or reading an article in a magazine. I know that sounds weird – warming up for writing by reading – but I believe reading is an interactive process. I’m absorbing, interpreting and forming ideas while I read. When I write, if I’m unsure of where to go next in the story, I go for a walk or a swim. If I’m on deadline, I write in the afternoon as well.

I also have a day job telecommuting as a financial writer for an investment consulting firm. When I have job deadlines, I have less time for writing. I’m constantly juggling my job, writing, promotion, and life.

PLC: Are you a member of a writers circle or group?

AB: I’m a member of a wonderful critique group made up of six women writers. Five of us are published; one is well on her way. We meet every two weeks. When we meet, we’ve already read pages for critique and are ready to discuss them. The group is great for support, commiseration, brainstorming and sharing industry news.

PLC: Who are your influences?

AB: Too many to name! I love so many writers, and every book I read influences me in one way or another. I hate to name authors – if I mention a few, I’ll inevitably be omitting dozens of other important ones.

PLC: The concept behind Haunting Jasmine is so unique. How did the idea come to you?

AB: Honestly, the initial idea came from nowhere. I remember thinking, what if dead authors could come to life in a bookstore and urge people to read their books? I love bookstores, old Victorian mansions, ghosts, and love stories. What better way to put everything together?

PLC: How much of you did you write into Haunting Jasmine?

AB: I believe authors write themselves into every book in one way or another. After all, all the words come out of our heads. We might identify with one aspect of a character – perhaps Jasmine’s tendency to obsessively check e-mail, for example – but not with others. I suppose I can identify with her complex ethnic identity, but I don’t have the same kinds of conflicts with my family that Jasmine has with her immigrant parents. For example, Jasmine’s mother wanted her to marry a Bengali man. My mother, who also grew up in Bengal, had no such expectation. Jasmine’s younger sister is good at Bengali cooking. My three sisters are adopted and don’t cook Indian food.

PLC: What advice do you have for those writing multicultural stories or addressing diversity in their works?

AB: Do not oversimplify. Ethnicity is complex. Each of us is different. We’re individuals with individual ways of viewing ourselves in relation to the world. Be careful not to stereotype characters from a particular ethnic group. Just because I was born in India, doesn’t mean I automatically identify myself as “Indian.” What does it mean to be Indian, anyway? What would you say if someone were to ask you, what does it mean to be “American?”

My brother is half Italian, half Indian but has spent very little time in India. He has, however, spent a lot of time in Italy and speaks fluent Italian. I was born in India and grew up in Canada and California. My background is complex, my sense of identity multifaceted. Someone of mixed heritage might identify more with the background of one parent than the other. So above all, treat your characters as real people – not simply as members of a particular ethnic group. We’re living in an increasingly global society. Culture is fluid, always changing.

However, if you’re going to write about specific cultural details (for example, you want to describe Punjabi cuisine), do some research and/or talk to someone who knows the answers.

PLC: In Haunting Jasmine, Tony says, “Books are more than commodities to sell. Books hold our culture, our past, other worlds, the antidote for sadness.” This is a beautiful way of looking at what we create as writers. Do you have any advice on how to balance this philosophy with the very real and often daunting world of publishing?

AB: Thank you! I feel I’m constantly balancing the creative and public sides of being a writer. Writers are walking contradictions – we’re at once expected to produce innovative work and to respond to the market. We’re considered introverted, socially awkward and solitary, but when our books come out, we must venture into the world and become savvy promoters, fearless public speakers who know just how to get readers to pick up our books. It’s difficult to do everything and do it well.

My love of writing (and readers!) keeps me going. We have to understand that much of what happens in publishing is beyond our control. We can only do our best – writing, marketing, promoting. No matter where we are in our careers, we’ll always face rejection and obstacles. The odds against getting published are daunting, but I still believe that if you have a *passion* for writing and developing your authentic voice, you will find an audience.

Thank you for being our guest author this week, Anjali!

Anjali Banerjee is the author of Maya Running (Wendy Lamb Books/2005) and Looking for Bapu (Wendy Lamb Books/2006). She was born in India, grew up in Canada and California, and received degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction has appeared in several literary journals. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband. Readers can visit her online at www.anjalibanerjee.com.

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