Join me as I chat with bestselling novelist Alka Joshi, author of two novels listed on Art In Fiction: The Henna Artist and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, both set in India in the 1950s and 1960s.
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Hello and welcome to Season 2 of The Art In Fiction Podcast. I'm your host Carol Cram, a novelist and avid reader of books inspired by the arts. This episode features Alka Joshi, author of The Henna Artist listed in the Decorative Arts category on Art In Fiction. The sequel to The Henna Artist is The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, available now.
Alka was born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan in India and has lived in the United States since the age of nine. Her debut novel, The Henna Artist, became a New York Times bestseller, a Reese’s Book Club pick, an LA Times bestseller, and a USA TODAY bestseller. The novel was also a top 10 Goodreads book of 2020 and is being developed for an episodic TV series starring Freida Pinto.
Welcome to The Art In Fiction Podcast, Alka.
Thank you so much for having me. This is so exciting.
I'm just thrilled to chat with you today about your novel, The Henna Artist, which I actually listened to on the audio book, which was marvelous. It was just so textural and such a wonderful novel to listen to. I read the second novel, so it was a different experience.
You know, Carol, I got to choose the narrator for the first one. And of course I wanted her for the second one too. She was amazing. So when I was listening to all these audio books and figuring out who sounds the most like Lakshmi, I was really taken with Sneha Mathan’s narration. I just thought, oh my gosh, she sounds exactly like I hear Lakshmi in my head. She is calm. She is collected. And she has this kind of emotional depth to her narration. And immediately, I said to Harper Audio, please get her an audition for this book. And they did. And she nailed it at the audition. I mean, she just read exactly the same passage that everyone else had read.
So I got a chance to choose between five different people and she absolutely hands down won. And I'm so glad because I think her narration is what took us to the New York Times Bestseller List in audio books as well. And you know, every club that I talked to, every book club I talked to, there are always people who have listened to the audio version and they say exactly the same thing you just did. Oh my gosh, the richness of her voice. She just brought the whole novel alive.
It was wonderful. I so enjoyed listening to it. I've become a huge fan of audio books. I mean, since starting Art In Fiction, I have to read a lot of books, and so this way I get my reading in and save my eyes.
The Henna Artist has been described as vivid and compelling in its portrait of one woman's struggle for fulfillment in a society pivoting between the traditional and the modern. So can you tell us a little bit about what The Henna Artist is about and also what inspired you to write it?
The Henna Artist is about the journey of Lakshmi. She is 30 years old when we first meet her. She is catering to the wealthy of Jaipur, these women who want their hands and bodies painted with henna for special occasions or as a way of enticing their husband to bed, or as a way of coaxing babies from their wombs and Lakshmi can do it all. She is helping them realize their desires, realize their hopes just through the henna and the things that she is feeding these women.
Now there's a knock at the door and who should show up after all of these years, when she really thought she had gotten rid of him: her estranged husband. She had deserted him 13 years prior in a small village. She had done that because she wanted to live a larger life than the one that she was allowed as an Indian woman in 1955.
She also wanted to get away from his physical abuse and she thought 'the only way I'm going to be able to do this is to leave this marriage'. In the middle of the afternoon, she tells her mother-in-law that she is going to go out to search for those herbs that her mother-in-law wanted, and she just keeps right on going all the way to the city of Agra, where she loses herself in the crowd and starts catering to the women of the pleasure houses because she has this great ability to give them these kinds of herbal remedies that they have to go to a doctor for, but she's able to help them remain childless, which is something they really need to do. And they teach her the art of henna, and then she parlays that into a whole new career in Jaipur.
So now what is she going to do with this husband who has suddenly shown up? And also he brings with him a younger sister in tow that she didn't even know she had. So now she is saddled with the responsibility of taking care of a young teenager; she's 13 years old. So, The Henna Artist is not only her quest for independence, but her quest to fit in all of these other trickier parts of her life and still be able to navigate within this very patriarchal, this very conservative society.
And the way that it came to me, this inspiration for The Henna Artist, was that my mother was married at the age of 18 in 1955. And she was married, of course, because her father said you're 18 years old, you're a little old to be getting married, and if I don't get you married this year, you may not be able to be married ever.
And you are in college, but I can't even have you complete college because we have found this young engineer and he's going to be perfect for you. He is up and coming. He shows a lot of promise. You need to come home, get out of college, and get married. So my mother does that. And then within four short years, she has three children. She never had a life of her own. Every decision that is made for her about career, about marriage, about children, they're all made by other people. And I don't think that she ever got a chance to realize what she might've wanted to do in life.
And later on in life, when she and I were going to India to visit relatives, I asked her 'Mom, what would you have done if you hadn't gotten married?' She said, 'Well, I think I would have finished my psychology degree. And who knows, who knows after that, I might've become a psychologist. I might have gone into business on my own.' And I think she had all of those capabilities. I think she had skills to be entrepreneurial. She had skills to deal with a lot of different kinds of people. She was a very gentle person and she was very creative. She could do anything. You know, you could give her two sticks and a glass and she could probably make a piece of art out of it. And so I just always realized that my mother could have done something else in her life. So what can I give her back for the ability to determine my life that she gave me?
With me, she always said, 'you will get to make your own decisions about marriage, about career, about children. I will not ever interfere with you. But the only thing I ask is that you make sure that you get yourself a job once you graduate from college and you make yourself financially sustainable because you never want to be in a position where you have to stay in a marriage because you need the income from the husband.'
So I'm like, okay, that makes sense. So I became a very independent woman and I've always been able to do whatever I wanted in my life, but my mother didn't. So I thought, well, I think what I can do is create the life for her in fiction that she didn't get to have. And this is where Lakshmi, The Henna Artist, is born. Lakshmi does leave her marriage, does get to navigate the patriarchy on her own terms, does get to determine what kind of career she's going to have.
It's interesting you talked about your own mother. Um, my mother actually was extraordinarily lucky. She was the exact same age, more or less. And because she did get to keep her career after she got married, even though that wasn't necessarily done in the fifties as well. But it's interesting that she taught me exactly the same thing. Make sure that you are always financially independent. You never have to depend on anybody else to survive, and what a great gift.
What a great gift. And also, I think it does something else for us women. When we know that we can support ourselves before marriage it gives us so much confidence in our ability to do things for ourselves. I don't know how it is for women who, you know, get married without that kind of skill behind them because I think that they may not be as confident in their ability to get out of that marriage or to even just be able to do things for themselves, the way that, you know, you and I have been able to do well.
I’m very familiar with that scenario because for many, many years I taught vocational courses to women. Most of my students were women who were trying to get into the workforce, and they were in their thirties or their forties, or even older, and leaving bad marriages because they didn't get the education when they were younger. And so it was very rewarding because I taught them skills so they could get out into the workforce on their own. But boy, that so underlined for me as well the freedom they lacked because they chose to get married to the good-looking guy when he was going to take care of them forever. Well, 20 years later, he's taken off, they've got three kids. Now this was maybe 20 years ago. I'm hoping things are a little better now, which actually leads me to my next question.
So India in the 1950s, it's like an additional character in the novel and not only sensually, which of course a huge of your novel is the sights, the sounds, the smells, but also the social structure. So can you tell us a little bit about the constraints of the fifties and how India has changed since then?
I'd like to be able to tell you that India is completely different from the 1950s, but it all depends on what socioeconomic level you're in. If you belong to the poorest of the poor and also maybe the lower socioeconomic class, your situation as a woman is pretty much the same as it used to be in the 1950s. So you are going to probably have to get married at a young age. You will probably start having children at a young age and your life is not going to be your own. But, that said, what's happening with women in the middle class is that they are able to get more of that college education and higher than college education. So they get their master's, get their PhDs and also can be able to explore things that they really want to do in their lives.
That's happening because the middle-class has grown so much. And those parents have more money to send both their kids to college, the boy and the girl, and also be able to leave them in college a little bit longer before they're able to get married. So that is happening with the middle-class girls whom I spoke to in 2019 when I went to India to answer exactly the question that you're asking, but I also found that there are all kinds of non-profits which are working to help the lower socioeconomic girls who are having to get married.
So in Jaipur, for instance, when I was there and I was speaking at this middle school, they had me come around to the back of the school and I said, oh, what's back here? They said, wait till you see it. It turned out to be a school for Rajastani village girls who were being bussed in from all the surrounding villages.
They were given uniforms, they were given books and they were being taught their numbers and their letters. So they were getting an education that they may not have had in their village. And also they were learning skills like the art of henna. So I actually happened upon a henna class and these girls were anywhere from 13 to 18 years old, and some of them were already married, but as long as they have a skill behind them that they can always use to earn an income, that was the goal of this particular school. And it was being funded by all kinds of private enterprise.
So I love that, but there are lots of people in India, even though they might have ascended to a different socioeconomic class, they really want to help these village girls maybe ascend into another class of their own, or even learn how to take care of themselves financially.
It's interesting that your character in The Secret Keeper of Jaipur is Nimmi who I presume is like a village girl or a mountain tribeswoman.
Yeah. So much fun, Carol, researching her character because what I had to do was research the nomadic tribes. There still are so many nomadic tribes up in the upper Himalayas. So what they do is they will come down when it's winter. When winter is approaching, they come down from the mountains and they spend their winter in the lower Himalayas, like in the Shimla area and in Punjab and different areas like that. They bring all of their sheep, their goats, their buffaloes down and along the way, everybody grazes. And then when they get down to the end, they can sell their wool from the sheep, from the mountain goats. And they sell the milk from the buffalo, all of that kind of thing. This is how they stay afloat. And then when it's summer up in the mountains again, in the upper reaches, then they make that same trek all the way up again.
So it was fascinating to learn about these nomadic tribes, and this particular woman, Nimmi, in The Secret Keeper decides that she really wants to live in the village after her husband dies in a tragic accident as they are crisscrossing the mountains. And she decides that for her own two small children, she wants to make sure they stay protected. And so she thinks that life in town will be better for them. And she decides to live in the village and how she supports herself is to collect all of these exotic herbs and plants and flowers and sell them along what's called the Shimla Mall where all of the tourists have always gone for a hundred years.
Shimla used to be the summer capital of the British, because it was too hot in Rajasthan to hang out. It was too hot in the lower parts of India. And so they would come up to Shimla, up to the foothills of the Himalayas, because it was much cooler in the summertime there. So that's where all the tourists go. And that is where Nimmi is selling her flowers when Malik meets her and then subsequently gets involved with her.
It just reminded me when you talked about the school and teaching the young women that it is like the character of Nimmi, who I loved. She was so much fun. We'll talk about the characters. They're so key to the appeal of The Henna Artist, your characters of Lakshmi and Malik, of course, which I'm sure everybody loves Malik, particularly now he has a much bigger role in your new novel, which was great.
One thing that really strikes me about your characters is their resourcefulness. As a novelist, reading your novels, I'm thinking this a really great character trait to give your characters that makes them so much more compelling, is this resourcefulness, the fact that they don't, life is not easy, but they keep trying and they go around obstacles or go through obstacles like Lakshmi and Malik in particular and Nimmi. I mean, she has a lot of things that happen to her in The Secret Keeper. So I just love this whole idea of giving resourcefulness as a character trait. I think it's a great lesson for authors. What do you think about that?
You know where that comes from? It actually comes from my wanting to talk about the Indian people. I think the Indian people are very resourceful people. I think that they are extraordinarily resilient. When you think about all of the centuries of colonization and domination and sort of raping and pillaging of the wealth in India that has been done over millennia. You have to give a lot of credit to the Indian people. They have faced so many hardships and so many obstacles, and yet they keep going. They just keep right on going. They're like, okay, if I can't make this path work for me, if there's a block in this path, maybe there's another path that I can take that will get me to where I need to go.
In a way, both novels are like a metaphor for India itself, then.
Oh my goodness. That is so prescient of you. Yes, that is, that is really true. They are both very much a love letter to India and the people who have, I think, built it, who have rebuilt it over and over, and the people who are still formulating it today.
Because really one of the major characters in both novels is India. You know, and as someone who unfortunately has never been to India, it's still on my list whenever we can travel again, it's a fascinating country to me. And I think it fascinates a lot of people because it's just so diverse. There's so many things. And that whole thing about resourcefulness, that's very true. When you think of the history of India, all the things that it’s been through and just the way it keeps reinventing itself, how it's now a central place now for technology and all of these things.
Exactly. You know, I was just thinking about this the other day, Carol. And I don't know if this could be proved true or not, but as I have worked in major cities, when I am in downtown and I am on my way to a business meeting, I look at the people around me, they're coming in my direction. They're walking across my direction and everybody seems so stressed out. You know, they have this pinched look on their face, like, okay, I need to get to that meeting now. Am I going to be able to make it to this deadline? Am I going to be able to do this? It's as if they are never in the present, they are always thinking about where they need to go to next.
Now, another thing that is very different that I have noticed in India is that when you see people walking on the street, they're just walking on the street. They are present in their moment. They know that they need to get some things done, but nothing is on a timeline. And this is why oftentimes when you go to a meeting in India or let’s say your contractor is supposed to show up at your house, or you see a sign outside a store window and it says, back in an hour, they'll be back maybe in three hours.
This is why in India, nobody gets angry with the lateness of an appointment. It's just expected. It's just, everybody is on their own timeline. And I found myself getting stressed out sometimes when I was with my mom in India and we were having the plumber come, or we were having a cook come or something, and they wouldn't show up at the time that I asked them to. And I realized after a while, Alka, chill. This is a whole different time zone that you have entered. This is not a place where everybody is concerned about the next thing that they have to do. They're actually just walking down the street and observing everything around them, because they're just walking right now. You know, they're not thinking about the destination.
That again reminds me of the novels themselves because they are so much of the moment, they're so sensual. Especially when I was listening to the audio book version, I just felt I was in India. And very much in the moment. You take the time to describe the scents and the smells and all of that. And, although you're turning the pages, because you've got to know what's going to happen to the characters, in the meantime, you're having this wonderful present sensual experience. So that's interesting what you say, about how people in India are much more in the present, which is something we can learn here in the west.
Yeah. And when I was in India, you can get so overwhelmed by all of the senses. Anytime you go to India you step off the plane, you step off the bus, you step out of a car and immediately you are assaulted by smells and colors and patterns and honking and the cow going by and a sheep baaing at you. It can be really overwhelming, but people there are so used to it that they just take it all in stride. Nothing is a surprise.
So this is your debut novel. It's shot to the top of the charts. Rightly so. But what do you think it is that resonates with people about The Henna Artist? I mean, it's beautifully written with wonderful characters. There's more to it than that. What do you think, why do you think it's taken off so wonderfully?
I hear from readers every single day from many different countries, not just Indian people, but we are talking about Colombians and French and Hungarian and Canadian and Australian. What they're telling me is that this book could have been written about their life. That Lakshmi could have been them, that Lakshmi could have been their mother or their grandmother. So I think that they are able to see the quest of a woman who is trying very hard to create her own life and the obstacles that she encountered. They feel her because they have been there. They totally get her. And I think that so much of what Lakshmi is going through is what all women go through. We all have to struggle so hard sometimes to be seen, to be noticed, to be recognized for what we're bringing to the party.
And it's that constant struggle that women are relating to. And they also relate to the fact that Lakshmi is not perfect, that none of the characters in the novel are perfect, that they feel real. We all are so imperfect. We all have flaws. We all have strengths, but we have weaknesses too. And every single character in the book has those.
And I like reading books where people feel real, where the characters feel like people I recognize in my life. So I think that that has a lot to do with it. Another thing, Carol, I think is that the pandemic where we have been on lockdown made us wish to travel, even if we could only do it in our minds. And The Henna Artist allowed so many people, as they have told me in their letters and their direct messages, and so on that, they said, thank you for letting me escape for a little while, to a whole new country, to a whole different language, a whole different tradition. I could just immerse myself in this other place, even though I can't go anywhere in an airplane, I could go there in my mind.
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I listed The Henna Artist in the Decorative Arts category because of its descriptions of henna art. This is actually quite unfamiliar to me. I mean, I know what it is, but I don't know much about it. Your descriptions of Lakshmi's work as a henna artist was a facet that I loved, and I'm sure a lot of your readers enjoyed. So for listeners who are not familiar with henna art, could you describe it and why you decided to make Lakshmi a henna artist?
Every little girl in India, as you're growing up, you're seeing women with henna on their hands. You're seeing your mom, your aunties, your grandma, your neighbors. Everybody's got henna on their hands because they've been to a wedding or they're going to a festival, or there's a special occasion at home that they're celebrating. And so you grow up with it, you grow up with that wonderful kind of earthy smell of it all over around the ladies that you hang out with. So I think it's something that all South Asians can relate to, but henna is also practiced in 22 other countries.
So it is practiced in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in the Northern African countries, in the Southern China area. So, there's a lot of different places right around there where the henna plant grows. Rajasthan however is supposed to have the best henna plant. So that is where everybody really wants the finest henna. And there are villages in Rajasthan that really specialize in providing henna all over the world.
So the plant grows, they remove all of the little leaves. They dry them, they pulverize them, they remove all of the stems and seeds and things like that. And then they sell it in different grades. So you can pay for the finest, silkiest, most powdery henna, or you can pay for a little bit grainier henna, which will be cheaper. So then every henna artist, I find this fascinating, they put their own proprietary mixture together to blend with this powder, this henna powder. And no artist will tell you what their proprietary mixture is. Because I tried to ask them, I said, oh, so what did you put in this henna; this is beautiful that you're doing on my hand, tell me what's in here. They clam up because you know, they think, oh no, no, no, no, no. This is my secret recipe. This is what makes my henna bring out the red on your skin. This is what makes my henna last longer. I'm not giving up this recipe to anybody else.
So you know, they'll add all kinds of different essential oils. Maybe they'll add rosewater or there's another kind of water, kiwa water, that they can put in there. They can put maybe lemon juice in there. They can put maybe sugar in there, all kinds of different things. And so I liked the ability of every woman to make up her own henna paste. So that was fascinating to me. And then, like you, I am an artist and I have always been an artist and I love to paint and I love to draw and I love color and patterns. And so for me, it was really fun to imagine Lakshmi doing henna on different women and what would she do to solve the problem that they are having.
So Kanta really wants babies. She really wants children. And so Lakshmi decides, okay, for your henna today, we're going to paint on your stomach. And then she divides up the circle on the stomach into six different parts. And she has a baby doing very different things in each part. And then when Kanta says, why is this baby crying in this part? And she says, oh, because babies cry. So these are all the things that babies normally do. And what she's hoping of course is that things will take that image of all of the babies on her tummy and she will be able to imagine the baby inside and it will start growing.
So I love that whole concept of henna actually being able to realize these women's dreams. In reality, that is not what henna can do, right? So I don't want to burst anybody's bubble, but in reality, henna doesn't have that ability, but I just love the idea that Lakshmi can do this and she can make these women believe that the henna will have these amazing results for them.
Actually, henna, maybe it doesn't really do it, but it does do it in our minds, just like art. Art is transformational. Right? So art inspires us, so the henna inspires us to do things. So yeah, I think it does do what it says it's going to do.
I like looking at it that way. Yes.
Because it’s the purpose of art. This is why the arts are so important, I guess, for human beings. Without the arts, what do we have? The creative spirit. Right? So what I loved in The Henna Artist was a whole type of creativity I didn't know about.
Well now in reality, when my mother was married the henna art was very crude. So it was just the big circles, maybe with some dots and maybe the fingertips were done in henna, that's it, and maybe there would be circles on the inside as well. Very, very crude, very primitive. But, of course, I wanted Lakshmi to be able to make so much more money and be such a special henna artist that she is richer than all the rest of them.
And so she is doing henna art that is way more complicated, way more sophisticated than anybody else is doing, because she has learned, remember, from the courtesans in Agra, and they have come from all these distant lands. They've come from Morocco and they've come from Marrakesh and they'd come from Cairo and, you know, different places. And so they brought their patterns with them. They brought their traditional ideas of how henna is done in their countries. And so she has learned all of these and she has to use them all to make these amazing designs. If you would like now, I can read to you a portion of The Henna Artist, where we're actually talking about why she's able to make all of this extra income and why she celebrated.
That is a perfect segue. So, as we talked about, you're going to do a short reading from The Henna Artist.
In this scene, Lakshmi is working on her major client, Parvati. Parvati is the one who has introduced her to all of the elite women of Jaipur. She is the wife of Samir. Samir is the one who enticed Lakshmi to come to Jaipur in the first place. And as she is working on a part of these hands and her feet, she is thinking about her life as a henna artist.
Before I came to Jaipur, my ladies relied on women of the sugar Shudra caste to henna their hands and feet. But the low-caste Shudra women painted what their mothers had before them: simple dots, dashes, triangles. Just enough to earn their meager income. My patterns were more intricate; they told stories of the women I served. My henna paste was finer and silkier than the mixture the Shudra women used. I took care to rub a lemon and sugar lotion into my ladies’ skin before applying the henna so the imprint would last for weeks. The darker the henna, the more a woman was loved by her husband—or so my clients believed—and my rich, cinnamon designs, never disappointed. Over time, my clients had come to believe that my henna could bring wayward husbands back to their beds or coax a baby from their wombs. Because of this, I could name a price ten times higher than the Shudra women. And receive it.
Even Parvati credited her younger son's birth to my henna skills. She had been my first client in Jaipur. When she conceived, I saw the pages of my appointment book, fill up with the ladies of her acquaintance, the elite of Jaipur.
Thank you so much. I really enjoyed that. Took me back to the novel. Thank you.
So I wanted to now sort of segue in to talking a little bit about your current novel, the novel that has just come out on June 22nd. Why did you decide you wanted to do a sequel and actually, you'll have a trilogy, it sounds like.
Yes! There were so many things that got cut from The Henna Artist by my agent or by my editor or by another reviewer, who said you don't really need this, or you should have less of that. So I had about 150 pages that didn't make it into The Henna Artist. And I did so many drafts of The Henna Artist that have taken me to very deep levels inside each character. I know exactly what the backstory of each character is. And I also know their future stories because you would not believe how many epilogues I wrote along the way. The version that people were reading of The Henna Artist was probably the 30th draft.
So now that I knew all of these things about these characters, once The Henna Artist was put to bed, Malik kept bugging me in the head. He kept saying, do a story about me, do this story about me. He really looms larger than life in my imagination, just like Lakshmi does, just like Radha and Kanta do.
And so I thought, okay, I put everything else aside and I started working on Malik’s story. Well now, in The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, I'm able to put in all of the backstory. Where did he live in the pink city? Who took care of him? Why did he have to leave? When he left with Lakshmi to go up to Shimla, he actually had to leave and we need to find out why. So we learn all of these things about him in The Secret Keeper.
And the other interesting thing about him is that up in Shimla, he has had the benefit of this very private school education, very posh education, courtesy of Samir Singh. Malik no longer looks like the scruffy boy that he used to with his mismatched clothes and his rubber slippers that he used to wear.
Now he wears close-toed shoes and he wears these nice starched shirts. And he is unrecognizable to the people in Jaipur. The reason that that's important is because he's actually going to go down to Jaipur and serve an apprenticeship with the Jaipur palace. Kanta’s husband, Manu, is the facilities director for the palace and the Maharani is who he works for and who is building all kinds of things, as the royalty were doing. After the British left, they had to figure out some other ways to make money. The royalty did. First, the people who work their lands refuse to work for them so they have to figure out something else to do with their lands. And then, the British were stepping in and giving them incomes every year. Well, when the British left, they no longer had that income and they didn't have the people working their land.
So they started turning their fancy homes and palaces into these wonderful hotels. They also either ran for parliament, which they could do because everybody recognized their faces and said, oh, of course, Maharajah can be in parliament because look, they're used to running this big empire that they have. And the other thing that they did was they started building things. So the Maharanis are building all of these different things like this movie theater, which is state of the art and holds a thousand people.
And Malik finds out that when the theater collapsed on opening night, there had to be some reason that it collapsed. There had to be some reason that the balcony fell and these people died, but everybody else wants to sweep this tragedy under the rug. And he is convinced that there's something more to this story. He also wants to make sure that because he's loyal, he wants to make sure that Manu is not blamed for what happened at the cinema house. And he wants to make sure of that because he knows it's going to affect Nikki. And Nikki is a 12-year-old boy in The Secret Keeper. And he is, of course, the son of Radha from The Henna Artist. So he wants to make sure that that family will be whole, even after this tragedy is over. So he sets about to define what happened really with the secrets that are being kept from him.
What I really enjoyed about The Secret Keeper that's a little bit different from The Henna Artist is, as you said, it's a little bit of a mystery, isn't it? Because you need to know why did it, why did the palace collapse? The theater collapse? Also as I'm reading, I'm wondering what the arts tie-in is. And it turns out, like, for my purposes, I wanted an arts tie-in, but there is with, with the jewelry and the gold and the whole role that gold plays in India with people, like in gold jewelry and stuff like that. That was fascinating.
I have always been fascinated why Indians are so obsessed with gold. And you know, here in the United States, nobody talks about gold. You know, I think here, maybe it's all about diamonds or something, but in India, everybody is obsessed with giving the most gold for a dowry. They are obsessed with keeping the gold that they have. They are obsessed with making sure that the gold they have, that they may want to melt and then make into something else, that they get all, every little bit. of that gold back, that they're not being cheated.
There is such a big industry around the whole gold jewelry. And so I just wanted to explore that, like, what is that all about? I don't get it. Personally, I don't get it because maybe I've been in the west too long. And I also don't really like the color of that 22-karat gold jewelry, as much as you know, the people in India do. And because I think with my gray hair, silver just looks better. So I just, I just wear silver all the time.
So I wanted to explore what the gold jewelry is all about, why the obsession, what is going on with that. And we do get to explore that. We learn a lot about why Indians are able to get gold jewelry, even though they mine very little gold in the country itself and why it keeps getting smuggled in because of that reason.
Well, that was what was so clever. I really enjoyed the way you plotted this novel bringing in all of that. And we got to spend more time with your major characters who we love, but also, we have this wonderful mystery and yeah, it's a real page-turner. I think people will really enjoy it.
I'm so glad. And how did you like the relationship between Nimmi, Malik’s beloved, and Lakshmi? You know, they do not get off on the right foot.
What you've done with Lakshmi, as she's mentioned, she's not perfect. You know, she's a little judgmental of Nimmi and you know, she might come around, no spoilers, but that's what makes Lakshmi so compelling and so relatable is, is how she reacts to Nimmi. Because it's probably what might have happened. Like, she's worried, oh, is she the right girl for Malik who she has a such a stake and protective stake in. So I love that because it was very realistic. She's not perfect by any means.
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
So you brought that out with the character Nimmi and I’ll also mention, of course, that the novel is told from three points of view, three first-person points of view: Lakshmi, Malik and Nimmi, which is fascinating.
I love novels that do that. I'm working on one right now that's doing that and it's a lot of fun.
And I especially like a first-person point of view, because for me, first person is where I can get closest to the character. I've tried doing it in third person before with characters. And it's really hard for me to do that, but I might try it with novel number three, but with Radha’s character, I definitely am going to go back into a first person because I need to be really close to her in the third book.
But what I did in The Secret Keeper was I just let him, like, tell me his story. He basically just guided me along the way. And he said, this is what's going to happen. And then this, and then this, and then this. And I just let it all roll out. I don't know if you do that, Carol, or if you plot everything out, but I just let the story roll where the characters are taking me.
You know, it's sort of six of one, half a dozen of the other. I think I'm probably more with letting it roll. I think I should be outlining, but yeah, that doesn't really work for me as well as for some. Authors seem to be one or the other or, or even both, but they either plot or they don't.
You know, one of the best tips that I got from one of my thesis mentors is she said, why don't you put together a board of what you think all these people look like, what you think their houses look like, what are the street scenes in Jaipur that you want to capture?
And I did, I just did a search all over the internet and I found photos of people I thought, oh, this looks just like how I imagined Radha to look in my head. And then here's what Lakshmi looks like. And here's what Malik looks like. And here's what the Singh household looks like. So it made it really easy when I was describing them to just describe the person I was actually looking at on this big board that I had. And I tell you, that just helped me visualize their environment so much more. I would give that tip out to anybody. Make a visual board of all of your characters and your major settings.
Well, that's a perfect segue because that's exactly the next question I was going to ask. One of the goals with The Art In Fiction podcast is to inspire other authors. So I was going to ask you what is a tip that you would give other authors? And I love that idea. I do that as well, actually. I scour the internet for pictures of my characters and I put them up and it does, it helps a lot. And I also like the idea that also having their houses and things that I hadn't, hadn't done that. Although I might now with the current one, because it is historical again.
Another tip that I think I would give people, because so many people want me to look at their novel and then give them tips. And one thing I notice is that people forget that they are unique in and of themselves. Every writer has a point of view that will be unique. Every writer has experiences that will be unique. Write about those things that are unique to you. Don't write about subject matter that you think, oh, it's out there in the world and so I'll write about it because that'll sell. You never want to write a novel from point of view of this is going to sell, because that takes you down a whole different path and readers can tell when you have written something that isn't genuine, that doesn't feel real with the characters. They can always tell.
So I think that it's really wonderful to be able to start from a point of this is what I know. I know India, I know these people that live there. I know this thing about gold-running. I know about what a jeweler, how they treat you when you first come in. I know about the building industry because of my dad because he was involved as an engineer in building all of these things for the Maharajahs and Maharani. So there's so much that I know and I can harvest what I know into stories. I don't have to look outside of myself.
Well, that's fantastic advice. And I agree that they always say write what you know. And beyond that, there's still research. But I think the key thing you're saying there is it has to be genuine. You can't sit down to say, I'm going to write a bestseller today. Maybe it works for the people that have 20 of them out. But for those of us who are, we're starting out and although yours has done incredibly well, but you came to it a little bit later in your life, didn't you, and I should want to talk briefly about your publishing journey because that must've been a bit of a surprise, but it did so well so quickly.
And it took me 10 years to write this particular novel and get it ready for publishing. So I think all that time spending with it and you know, I took time off, right. I took a year off here, I took two years off after my mother died. I just couldn't work on the book. I took a year off because I was working on a big project or I was just so frustrated with finishing the book. I was just so frustrated that it still wasn't something that my agent wanted to send out to a publisher that I would give up on it. And I would not pick it up again for another year. So I spent so long working on this book that it doesn't feel like an overnight success. It feels like after 10 years the book has become a bestseller.
I think most overnight successes are the result of many, many, many years of hard work. So you had an agent while you were writing this book.
Yeah. I got an agent, I think in my fourth year of writing the book. And so the first two years I was in this program, in my master's program in creative writing, and this became my thesis, The Henna Artist. And then I took two years off because mom died shortly thereafter. And then what happened is one of my thesis advisors called me and said, hey whatever happened to that novel, and then I fished it out again and I started working on it again. And then she sent it off to her agent and said, hey, I think you might like this novel. That's how I got my literary agent.
So I never had to send it out to a lot of different people. And I always advise young authors or starting-out authors, you know, go with networking. Networking is a great way to find a literary agent. I think it's really hard to send it out to 50 agents and say is one of you guys interested in this book? So I always advise people to use their network to see if they can send it off to an agent who has published something similar or who has sold something similar. And they might be interested in your novel too.
That's excellent advice. And that is actually advice that I follow as well because the sending out to agents really doesn't work very well.
Yeah. So is there anything else you'd like to say? I know you're very used to doing these interviews and I so appreciate you taking the time to chat with me today. Anything else you'd like to say about the new book that's just come out?
I think that The Secret Keeper is probably going to have more men interested in reading it also. One thing that I found with The Henna Artist is that I think men are reading The Henna Artist because every now and then they'll write to me, but I think they're embarrassed to even admit that they might be reading a book that is historical fiction, about a woman who's a henna artist, and so on. But I think with The Secret Keeper I think I would have more of a male audience who is interested in Malik's journey because it's more, it's more plot driven and it's also, like you said, more of a mystery. So we are trying to find out what exactly happened with this cinema house and then where we go with it is not what we expect. So that I think will be very interesting for mystery lovers and for anybody who really likes plot-driven novels.
Now with book number three, I think I'm going to go back to the way that The Henna Artist was written, which is not as much plot driven, but a lot more of the sensory feeling about how you create scents and how you know, mine rose petals and lavender petals and you know.
It will be wonderful. So will there be a, will it be a trilogy?
It will be a trilogy and that'll be the end of that. And I'm hoping that the Miramax TV episodic series that they are developing for The Henna Artist will be filming by the time I finishe book number three. So then maybe I will be ready to go to India to watch the filming of that series.
Oh, won't that be wonderful. Well, thank you so much, Alka, for sharing all of your wonderful wisdom about your novel writing and your two fantastic novels. Thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Carol. It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me on here. It was fun.
This episode features Alka Joshi, author of The Henna Artist listed in the Decorative Arts category on Art In Fiction. The sequel to The Henna Artist is The Secret Keeper of Jaipur and is available now.
Be sure to check the show notes for links to more information about Alka Joshi’s novels. You’ll also find the link to receive a free audiobook from Audible.
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