I am very excited to be participating in Uma Krishnaswami‘s blog tour for her wonderful new middle grade novel The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, illustrated by Abigail Halpin. Uma is the author of several books for children as well as a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I had the great good fortune of working with Uma during my first semester at VCFA, and I can tell you that she is brilliant and lovely and kind, and her books are absolute pleasures to read. The Grand Plan to Fix Everything was released into the world yesterday and has received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.
Read on below the interview for links to more of Uma’s blog tour stops and to find out how you can win some grand prizes in the Grand Giveaway!
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything is a story that seems to include, well, a little bit of everything! Best friends, Bollywood, travel, school, relationships, movie scripts, India, America, email, post-office sorting machines, curry puffs, monkeys…where did the idea for the book first start? Did you know from the beginning that you’d be including so many different elements?
No, but then I never know in the beginning where I’m going or how I’ll get there. I started with a premise, the family’s moving to India, and Dini’s character grew from there. The story tried to be a straightforward linear family relationships kind of story at first and it was really boring. It’s a terrible thing to bore yourself when you’re writing so I put it away. Then it tried to be a mystery of some sort—sandalwood smuggling played a part, as I recall. That was a bit of a failure as well, so I threw all that out and started over. When the Bollywood thread began to grow, it brought in all those other things, because that’s how those movies are—a little bit of everything.
The story is presented in a rather unconventional style. For one thing, there’s an omniscient narrator, which isn’t something we often find in middle grade novels. What led you to choose an omniscient point of view?
Oh goodness, I didn’t. I’m convinced it chose me. You know that passage that starts with the Blue Mountains of south India rising unexpectedly out of the hot plains? That sentence arrived in my mind just that way. The entire passage in fact stayed pretty much as it is now through successive revisions and then through the editorial process. As soon as I’d written it, I found I was energized. It was like some kind of necessary connective tissue was forming that I sensed was going to hold the story together, and it didn’t fail me. I was aware at that point that this voice was about to take the story in some very odd directions and that I may have to resist conventional approaches to developing this story. It got rejected in a few places because the underlying story of the girls wasn’t strong enough and readers were getting thrown by all this straying from the central storyline.
Did you have any hesitations about using an unconventional approach? How does an author know when breaking with convention is the right way to go?
I had no hesitation at all in writing that first passage, and I found myself looking forward to writing the omniscient passages. At one point I did ask myself who on earth was going to publish this, but by that time I was having so much fun I realized I really didn’t care. That wasn’t the important question at that moment. I knew I simply needed to follow this path because I needed to learn how to write in this way. So I think when you feel driven by your own work and its direction, when it’s exciting to you, then you know it’s worth fooling with the conventions.
Another unconventional choice was to write the text using multiple genres—letters, magazine articles, emails, etc. What made you decide to write that story that way?
That is entirely Dini’s fault. She wrote that letter, and I began thinking of where the letter would go (to Bombay, of course, the center of the filmi universe) and how I would connect all these places. I had this vision of letters flying back and forth (a phrase that became a chapter title). I saw them being delivered by hardworking mail carriers on bikes, which is how letters are still delivered in India. This was the point at which that loony narrative voice began carrying on about mountains and roads, so I abandoned the sensible option, which would have been to stay with Dini on her move. Instead, I followed the letter. Enter Lal the postman with his crackling uniform, by which time I was committed to this crazy trajectory. There was no turning back.
The story deals on many levels with the theme of communication—methods of communicating, miscommunication, reading, writing, phone calls, internet chatting, post office operations, letter carriers, culture-specific gestures and expressions—were you conscious of wanting to explore issues of communication in early drafts, or was that something that developed later on?
Communication? Thanks, Mikki, I never thought of that! Seriously, I didn’t. I really just wanted, so help me, to get Dini to find Dolly! That was all. When Dolly was clearly AWOL, I wanted to know how the letter could possibly get to her. When rattly noises began to occur, I wanted to know what they were. The things I want from a story when I’m writing it are very small things, in what Anne Lamott calls the one-inch window. Just getting to the next scene is plenty. If I worried about themes, I’d end up like the centipede, you know the one who “lay distracted in a ditch/ Considering how to run.” But communication…hmm, I like that.
There are several important relationships in this story—Dini and Maddie’s best-friend relationship is central, of course, and Dini’s budding friendship with Priya, but there are also several grown-up relationships that play important roles in the plot. (Another break with conventional expectations, since we’re most often used to seeing child/teen relationships in books for young readers, or relationships between children/teens and the adults in their lives, rather than the adults’ relationships with one another.) Everything comes together so beautifully—was it a challenge to balance all the different relationships in the story?
Yes, there was one point when everybody seemed to want to barge into a single scene. I knew I’d want them all dancing in the end (well, we’re talking about Bollywood, right, so there had to be a big dance scene) but they all kept trying to get to the bakery before that, and I realized I had a real timing problem. The chronology was really hard to keep straight—the copyeditor found all kinds of timeline issues I’d somehow overlooked. I felt like Mr. Dustup dealing with unruly stars who wouldn’t do as they were told. That copyeditor was a fairy godperson in the life of this novel.
Throughout the novel, Dini is focused on trying to make the plot of her own story work out the way she wants it to. Were you and Dini able to learn from each other during the writing process?
Sometimes when I was writing those scenes it felt as if Dini may have been reflecting not on her life but on the book I was trying to write. Someone asked me about reality in this book, and how it leaves the reader with this sense of not quite knowing what was real and what was made up. I remember one day, after I’d written the scene with the goatherd dreaming of better times, I thought, oh grief, that’s me. I keep writing this book and trying to visualize it being finished, and really, any minute now all these characters are going to run off down the hill, bleating at me just like those goats, and I’ll never finish this book. But Dini’s an optimist, so I knew too that somehow I’d get all the straying storylines under control. I just had to stick with it.
Can you tell us a bit about the research you did for this novel? Did you travel back to India? Watch a lot of movies? Observe a lot of monkeys? Eat a lot of curry puffs?
I did watch a few movies, based on recommendations from the members of Sawnet, a south Asian women’s listserv I belong to. And I did travel to India, spending some time in the Nilgiris or Blue Mountains where I’d placed the fictional town of Swapnagiri. I actually wrote a few scenes while I was there, sitting out on a stone porch with views of tea gardens and winding roads, and yes, even goatherds stopping to rest beneath bottlebrush trees. And there were plenty of monkeys that would thunder through gardens and rip up canna plants, so all that was research. I did not eat a lot of curry puffs, I must admit, although I have vivid memories of eating them as a child.
I know you’ve been doing a bunch of interviews lately relating to this book. What question has no one asked you yet that you wish someone would? (And then, please consider yourself asked, and let us know the answer!)
All right. Here we go. It’s your fault. You did ask.
What’s your favorite punctuation mark?
No one ever asks about punctuation marks comma and yet how could we make any sense of words on a page without them question mark
Seriously, I can reply—others may hesitate, but I stand firm!—that it’s the em-dash. It’s such a dramatic horizontal line. It can separate or join, depending on your intent. The narrative voice in The Grand Plan was quite partial to em-dashes. I had to rein it in sometimes when it threatened to get too carried away, but I must admit that at other times I just went along for the ride. They ended up strewn about for silly fun as much as for dramatic effect. Dini, on the other hand, likes exclamation marks. There’s a scene in which she puts one down, likes the look of it and adds a few more. That’s what kids do when they’re discovering ideas. They try them on to see how they work.
[Yay! I love the em dash, too! - mk]
Thank you, Uma, for stopping by to talk about The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, and congratulations on a fabulous book!
You can read more about Uma and The Grand Plan here:
And for the full scoop on Uma’s Blog Tour, visit Writing with a Broken Tusk.
And…The Grand Giveaway:
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.