Good to Know
Some outtakes from our interview with Divakaruni:
"During graduate school, I used to work in the kitchen of the International House at the University of California, Berkeley. My favorite task was slicing Jell-O."
"I love Chinese food, but my family hates it. So when I'm on book tour I always eat Chinese!"
"I almost died on a pilgrimage trip to the Himalayas some years back -- but I got a good story out of it. The story is in The Unknown Errors of Our Lives -- let's see if readers can figure out which one it is!"
"Writing is so central to my life that it leaves little time/desire/need for other interests.. I do a good amount of work with domestic violence organizations -- I'm on the advisory board of Asians Against Domestic Violence in Houston. I feel very strongly about trying to eradicate domestic violence from our society."
"My favorite ways to unwind are to do yoga, read, and spend time with my family."
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In the fall of 2004, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni took some time out to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. I read this when I was in grad school, and it really made me examine my own role as a woman of color living in the U.S. It made me want to start writing about my own experiences. It made me think that perhaps I, too, had something worthwhile to write about.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
These are my favorites today (but I'm fickle -- I might like others better by tomorrow). They are not in any particular order.
Grendel by John Gardner -- He retells an epic story from the monster's point of view. Most imaginative, full of surprises -- I want to do that, too.
The Shadow Lines Amitav Ghosh -- A seamless narrative that spans two continents and cultures, with a shocking revelation at the end.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka -- A classic of modern fiction. OK, so it's a short story. But it does as much as any novel.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- I learned so much about creating characters from him.
The Mahabharat -- One of our Indian epics. I grew up with these amazing stories and characters, the lessons they teach us that remain timeless. I recommend it to everyone.
Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruko Murakami -- What a blend of mystery and everyday life, seriousness and play! This book has influenced my writing.
Selected Stories by Mahasweta Devi -- A searing writer who brings alive women's issues.
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse -- This spare and elegant novel about the spiritual journey moves me and is newly meaningful whenever I read it.
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman -- This trilogy (for children and adults) is absolutely magical. Be prepared for amazement.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien -- I've been rereading this trilogy ever since high school. I read it whenever I need inspiration. He has captured the archetypes of longing and achievement, fear and heroism and loss.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I love children's films. So some of my favorites are Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Wizard of Oz. They are so magical. Also, the three Lord of the Rings films. They are mythic in dimension, in their depiction of heroism. They touched something deep inside me. Also, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Logan's Run, Chariots of Fire, Enchanted April. Eclectic, huh? I guess I like epic films. Uplifting films. Weird films.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I listen to Indian classical and Indian spiritual music (bhajans). Sometimes the Beatles ("Imagine" and "Let It Be" are my favorites) and Simon & Garfunkel. Enya. Joan Baez. Gregorian chants. I like silence when I write (even though I don't always get it!).
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
My own books, of course! Because people could ask me all kinds of questions, and I could tell them why things were a certain way in the books. But seriously, the Dalai Lama's The Art of Happiness. That book has helped me so much and there's so much in it about living that would be great for discussion.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to get and give books by Indian authors or about India. I also like spiritual books. And art books. Books are my favorite kinds of gifts.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Before I start writing each day, I meditate. I have a statue of the dancing Shiva Nataraj on my writing table, because He is a symbol of cosmic creativity.
What are you working on now?
A children's novel titled The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming, set in India, involving magic, mystery, time travel. Sounds intriguing?
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
It took a long time. I had to be patient. Then I took a writing class, and the professor liked my work and sent it to an agent.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
There are so many good writers I know -- I can't answer this one easily. Maybe Caryl Phillips. He's not as well known as this country as he should be. I helped choose his novel A Distant Shore as a PEN/Faulkner finalist for 2004.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Find a good writing group who will give you valuable feedback and support. Take classes. Find a strong agent. Believe in yourself. Don't compromise your writing for commercial reasons.
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