This week’s guest to the Debutante Ball is Anjali Mitter Duva. Anjali is an Indian-American writer raised in France. She is a co-founder of Chhandika, a non-profit organization dedicated to the Indian classical dance form called kathak. Educated at Brown University and MIT, she lives near Boston where she is working on her next book and also runs a children’s book club and the Arlington Author Salon. Anjali’s debut novel, FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN (She Writes Press, 2014), which was shortlisted for the 2016 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, is a gorgeous book about a family of Hindu temple dancers in Rajasthan, India, in 1554. The book has recently been released in audio, bringing to new life the rich world of these dancers. To hear a sample, head here. We are pleased to have Anjali join us!
But first, If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN! GIVEAWAY: RETWEET on Twitter, and/or SHARE on Facebook by noon (EST) Friday, September 30th to win a copy of FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN (US only). We’ll select and contact the winner on Friday. Good luck!
And now for the interview:
Talk about one thing that’s making you happy right now.
There are times when my various activities can seem rather disparate: novelist, project manager in health care, urban planner, non-profit co-founder, parent, Indian dance student and teacher. Sometimes I wonder—am I spreading myself too thin? Does doing all these things mean I’m doing none of them well? But lately I’ve been feeling a very gratifying coming together of all the elements. I’m not excelling at any of the above, but together they give me a certain satisfaction, and a feeling that there is, in fact, some sense in what I’m doing. It was serendipity, really, that created the catalyst for it all: in 2001, after a trip to India to take my husband to one of my favorite places in the world (Rajasthan, where my book is set), I decided to join a class in kathak, a storytelling classical dance from North India. Within a couple of weeks I was smitten: the dynamic rhythms, the percussive footwork, the magical sound of thousands of ankle bells jingling in unison, the rich history, the storytelling, the melding of both Hindu and Muslim traditions and aesthetics. Walking into that studio set me on the path to co-founding a non-profit with the teacher, and in so doing researching the history of the dance, which in turn inspired my four-book project. It unlocked my writing career, which in turn gave me a new way to contribute to the community through literary projects and events: running a children’s book club, starting the quarterly Arlington Author Salon. Linking dance with my writing, linking my writing life with raising children to be literary citizens, widening my circles of friends through all these activities, these have been unexpected gifts.
The road to publication is twisty at best–tell us about some of your twists.
From the moment I scratched out the first notes about Faint Promise of Rain to the day of the book’s publication, eleven years rolled by. I now know this is not uncommon for a first book. I was working, having and raising children, allowing myself for the first few years very little time to pursue this project. But in 2007 I took a plunge and registered for a 10 week Novel in Progress class run by Grub Street. That was a pivotal summer. One year later, I had an agent, and I thought I was off and running. The agent—a New York agent with a raspy voice whose “I simply looooved your book” over the phone convinced me I was only a hair’s breadth from bestsellerdom—worked with me for a year, and every time I showed her a revision that I felt addressed all her concerns, she liked the manuscript less and less. The morning of the first day of the 2009 Muse and the Marketplace conference, we met for breakfast and agreed to break up.
That was hard. Having an agent and then not felt like going back to square negative five. I went home to lick my wounds, and I had the horrible, stomach-sinking realization that the change she had been advocating, changing the entire point of view of the book from multiple third person to first, was in fact the right thing to do. So I did it. I took months to re-write the book, and in 2010, 8 months pregnant with my second child, I returned to the Muse with a new manuscript. A week later, I had offers of representation from two very different agents: a Big Name in New York who said with some reserve that while my book was beautiful it would be a hard sell and she would take me on for this work and only this work, and a warmly enthusiastic newish-to-agenting former corporate PR agent from San Francisco who raved about the book and emphasized how she takes on clients for the entire body of their work.
It felt like a true crossroads. This was 2010, and publishing was going through the first (maybe second) wave of major changes. Small publishers were being swallowed up. Famous authors were beginning to self-publish. I knew this was the first of several books I would be writing. I had to take the long view. So I went with enthusiasm over connections, flexibility over tradition. I signed with April Eberhardt, a “literary change agent.”
Then came two years of submissions to traditional publishers. I accumulated an impressive number of “good” rejections: several paragraphs lauding my work, the character development, the setting, the story, the feeling, but inevitably ending with something along the lines of “not right for our list” or “too literary” or, my favorite, “too niche.” Editors didn’t know how to categorize my work, and this unsettled them.
April and I are a determined pair. The rejections did nothing but convince us that my book should, in fact, be out there. She led me to She Writes Press, a partner publisher who combines the best of traditional publishing (vetting of quality, editing, cover design, distribution to bookstores and libraries) with the best of self-publishing (author control, innovative marketing, higher royalties) to offer a third option to people like me. The rest, as they say, is history.
When you were a teenager, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
I grew up in France, where the educational system requires that one choose a “track” in high school: science, literature, languages, etc. Students who generally do well are very strongly urged to go down the science track, the (misconstrued) notion being that it is always easier to go “down” from science to one of the other fields than to go “up”.
Given this system, there is little opportunity for a teenager in France to explore fields and possible careers. The whole notion of even trying something out just for the sake of trying it out is non-existent. So in my teenage years, I buckled down and did what was expected of me: I took a course load heavy in math, physics and biology. I enjoyed math, I tolerated biology, and I disliked physics, much to my physicist father’s chagrin. The daughter of a scientist and a writer, I never really paused to think what I wanted to be when I grew up. Is that odd? Somehow, it seemed irrelevant…until I got to college in the US, and experienced the cornucopia of choice that a liberal arts education provides.
I went berserk. I took classes in 18 different departments. I ended up with a multidisciplinary major, went on to work in economic development for a while, then attended graduate school for urban planning, another multidisciplinary field in which I worked with engineers, community activists, economists, architects, environmental planners, public health specialists and more. And it was then, in grad school, that I realized it was meant to be: half Indian and half American and raised in a third culture, the only thing that ever made sense to me was to be a hybrid. A multi-something. A part this, part that. To not fall into a single category. For some years now, this knowledge has helped me with decisions. It is what enabled me to embrace the hybrid publishing option, for example, to take a new road paved with the cobbled together stones from other, separate paths.
Would I have benefited, back in my teenage years, from this perspective? I think not. All it would have led to then would have been frustration and confusion. Looking back, I think I was saved from a lot of anguish by simply not having the luxury of choice. Which feels like a very odd thing to say now, especially as I raise my own children here in the United States with a strong emphasis on letting them make choices.
What’s your next big thing?
My next big thing is Part 2 of a quartet. When I set about writing Faint Promise of Rain, I knew from the start it would be a four book set, each book taking place at a major time of socio-political upheaval in India’s history which was mirrored in the classical storytelling dance called kathak. (This is where being an infrastructure planner comes in handy: I’m used to massive, complex projects, complete with delays and cost overruns.) The first was set in the 1550s, at the start of Mughal (Muslim) rule in India. The second one is set in the 1850s, at the very end of Mughal rule and the start of British rule. I’m deep in that draft, and it’s full of complex layers and characters: a 30-year-old Muslim courtesan (the dancer), her patron who is a French engineer, their adolescent son, British officials of the East India Company, a musician from Rajasthan, and others. It’s full of what I love: people who do not fall squarely into categories, a mixing of cultures, music and dance, architecture, history.
Do you have a regular first reader? If so, who is it and why that person?
Well, funny you should ask! Crystal King, current Deb, is one of my first readers. We met at a Grub Street workshop, Novel in Progress, back in the summer of 2007. We were both working on our first drafts at the time. We hit it off, enjoying each other’s writing and company, and a few weeks after the workshop ended, when we were feeling bereft of the company of other novelists and wanting the feedback we’d so appreciated receiving, we decided to continue to meet. Eight years later we still meet every two weeks, along with the other two writers who make up our group, Jennifer Dupee and Kelly Robertson. Once a year, the four of us go on a writing retreat in Maine that has become one of my favorite weekends of the year.
The ways in which this group, the Salt + Radish Writers, has helped me develop my writing and my career are immeasurable. These women are my first readers, my support group, my cheerleaders, the ones who will tell me when something isn’t working, the ones who cry when they see a copy of my work in book form, the ones with whom I share a very special friendship—because they GET the writing thing—and to whom I am so, so very grateful. Our every-other-Monday meetings are sacred. My children say “Mom is going to writing group” with the understanding that this is non-negotiable.