Today the Tollbooth welcomes writer and Vermont College faculty member Uma Krishnaswami.
Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to hear one of Uma's lectures, knows what a brilliant writer she is and that she has the soul of a poet. We are so happy to have her here with us today to talk about her new picture book, Out of the Way! Out of the Way!, which is illustrated by the other Uma Krishnaswamy, (spelled with a y, instead of an i).
[ To read more about the writer Uma Krishnaswami and the illustrator Uma Krishnaswamy working together, click on this link to A Tale of Two Krishnaswami/y's at Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog, CYNSATIONS.
Welcome, Uma and congratulations on your latest book.
Thanks Sarah, and thanks for having me. It’s lovely to be visiting the Tollbooth.
Out of the Way! Out of the Way! tells a story about a busy road and a wide-spreading tree who make room for each other to grow simultaneously. You have created an allegorical tale that seems to fly in the face of commonly-held beliefs. Could you tell us about the genesis of this book?
You know how you start writing something and then it becomes something else. Nancy Willard calls it “the hidden story” and has written about how it never shows up full-blown but sometimes arrives in the form of a single image. That image for me was the child crouching down to look at something small and green. Memories fed the story, and I didn’t even realize that, but this image was the first scene I visualized.
An aside: The manuscript began its life with the title The Pitted, Potted Road. For a while it was called The Edge of the Road. It took about four years to whittle it down to what it became.
In the book, as the path turns into a lane and then a graded road, so the tree widens its branches and becomes more of a center of activity, providing a haven for birds and squirrels, as well as a meeting place for children and animals and grown-ups. The rhythm of your sentences grows faster as activity increases around the tree and the road. Were you conscious of this as you were writing?
I had to go back and look at the text to see if that was true, so I suppose the answer is no. But there are different ways of being aware. Cognitively, with your conscious mind, and viscerally, with your body, the way young children are aware. I think when I write I try to arrive at that kind of awareness. And then the language follows, because words after all are a bodily expression. They’ll go where the emotions lead them, if we only allow that to happen. I spend lots of writing time trying to trick my controlling mind to get—well, Out of the Way! Out of the Way!
Did you have a particular place or particular experiences in mind?
I’ve mentioned that image of the boy, but that in turn came from a couple of places—one is a memory of planting a mango seed when I was very young, no more than four or five. It’s one of the earliest memories I have. I remember being very low to the ground, picking up rocks to put around the place where the seed went, waiting and waiting to see what would happen to it, and the thrill of seeing that tender, velvety seedling pushing up.
Finally, this story has everything to do with the passage of time. In the last few years of my father’s life, when I talked to him on the phone, quite often he’d say, “Shall I tell you a story?” I’d grab pen and paper and off we’d go. They’d be memories, little anecdotes, or a joke. One was a little news item about a group of people who protested the condition of their roads by planting trees in the potholes. It was such a weird radical act that it grabbed me, and that was when I started writing.
You chose distinctive details that seem suggestive of the world of myth -- the bullock-cart man, the mango-seller and flycatchers, for example. As you selected these details, were you intentionally creating a timeless world or were you more conscious of evoking a particular time and place, or was it perhaps a combination of these factors or none of the above?
The setting here is the India that exists on the urban fringe, the place where I’ve seen cities and towns over the years begin to gobble up peripheral villages. It’s not mythic at all, but quite contemporary. As the story evolved that became its point—that these things that appear to belong to different centuries can in fact all coexist, and do. Look at this tree in this very urban road. It’s home to koels and parakeets and crows while the traffic passes beneath.
In the editing process Sandhya Rao, editor at Tulika Books, caught one thing in the text that was leaning toward exoticism—my mango seller had the basket on her head. Sandhya asked, is that worth noting in the text? Meaning, why take what’s common to the culture and point it out? That stranges it up, and we don’t need that. As it happens Uma of course put the basket on the mango-seller’s head but my text doesn’t mention that, which is the perfect way to naturalize such an image. It’s there, but it doesn’t need singling out.
You are very artful with your placement of repeated phrases such as, "from here to there and back again," avoiding an expected pattern that might drain energy from the text. Your repetitions come at points that surprise and delight. Did you think about this as you worked?
As I recall, in earlier versions the repetitions were more overt and occasionally intrusive. Gradually they began to find a balance. Sometimes you have to overwrite so you can find the places that need you to pull back.
The language, while seemingly simple, infuses quite a bit of mystery into the story and is also quite lyrical. You leave room for discovery. Could you tell us about your writing process, how the story begins, how you revise.
I think it’s different for each story, but here’s an early draft of this one—ha! Look at all those words.
For a long time the road went between two finite places—two cities with the village in between.
The story went nowhere. I sent it to a few editors I work with in the US and studied the responses. There wasn’t enough happening, the boy needed to be more active, it was all too quiet. So I did the conventional things you do with stories—I nudged my kid toward the center, I made him take action. We ended up with a situation in which a bunch of people showed up to cut down the tree. Hmm.
It got published as a short story in that mode, in Kahani, which is a South Asian children’s magazine http://www.kahani.com. It was titled “A Tree in the Road”. It had a fantastic element to it as well, with hordes of animals showing up. I thought I was done with it.
On one of my annual visits to India I mentioned it to Radhika Menon, the publisher at Tulika Books, and she asked to see it. It’s thanks to her insights Sandhya's that all the extra stuff got stripped away and I returned to the core of the book, which is that image of the boy and the “something/ small and green in the middle of the path”.
Out of the Way! Out of the Way! is published by Tulika Books in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. http://www.tulikabooks.com/picbooks29.htm On your blog, Writing With a Broken Tusk, you provide a link to a slide show which tells about Tulika Books, a company which seeks to "reflect a multicultural world in children's books" and which, as I understand it, will publish your book simultaneously in nine languages. Is this your first book with Tulika Books? Could you tell us about working with them?
It was a delight and yes, it’s published in English and eight Indian languages: Hindi, Bangla, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam. It’s so much fun to see all those beautiful scripts.
Sandhya asked a few questions about the story and they were exactly the questions I needed: What if we didn’t name the boy? Off went his name, and the story shifted at once, became more subtle. She also wrote: “An important point to keep in mind though, is that as the sapling grows into a tree, the boy grows into a man... so this will change perspectives in the story.” It did. In all, this story felt as if it had found a loving home, which is exactly what we all want in the publication of a book.
I would be remiss if I did not mention again the striking similarity between the names of the writer and the illustrator of Out of the Way! Out of the Way! Is this the first time the two of you have worked on a book together?
Yes, and I’m so pleased! We have become friends over the years. The last time Uma illustrated anything of mine, it was a poem in Cicada. They didn’t tell me they were contracting with her to do the art, so it was a lovely surprise. In this book, which is all about dualities, it seems especially apt to have the author and illustrator names also seem to be repeating themselves.
Is the book available in the United States? How can readers obtain copies of it?
At this time, through the Tulika web site: http://www.tulikabooks.com/picbooks29.htm but stay tuned.
Would you like to say anything about your next project?
I have a middle grade novel due out from Atheneum next year. It’s the story of a star-struck Indian-American girl whose family has moved to India for a couple of years. Great fun to work on—a romp through a hill town in south India, with a host of wacky characters, bottlebrush trees and a flower that blooms every twelve years. Monkeys. Goats. People with dreams. Chocolate. The title is still under discussion, so I can’t announce it yet, but soon, soon….
Thank you, Uma. We loved seeing you in the Tollbooth!
Thanks again Sarah, it’s a delight to talk to you.