Interview with Varsha Bajaj

January is for new beginnings. After spending a few years overseas, I have an immense respect for people who pack a bag, get on a plane, and begin again in a new country and culture. One award winning Texan writer did just that. Varsha Bajaj left India in 1986 to attend graduate school in the United States. Now more than twenty years later, Varsha is an American citizen, wife, mother and successful author. I caught up with Varsha recently and visited with her about families, perfume and the craft of writing.

Where did you grow up?
My story begins in Mumbai, India. My slice of Mumbai in the early 1960s was a
rambling house built in the 1930s surrounded by coconut, guava and beetle nut
trees. I was raised in a joint family; my father’s parents and his
sister lived with us.

My father and grandfather were perfumers and sampling strips of sandalwood
and jasmine were always being sniffed and perfected. Making perfumes became a
part of my imaginative play. Didn’t everyone make perfumes of dirt, crushed
flowers and pebbles?

What made you want to become a writer?
I have always loved books and reading. As a teenager I considered becoming a journalist, and dabbled in poetry to express my teenage angst. (Isn’t that mandatory?) I didn’t consider becoming a writer until much later in life. I guess the possibility of making a living as a writer didn’t seem real. I trained and worked as a therapist for several years. I began writing after I had children and started reading to them. The amazing picture books I read to them inspired my own creativity.

What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?
I try to “write” for at least two hours several days a week. This does not include time spent in doing research, brain storming, reading writing related blogs etc. There are times when I write for much longer, it happens when I am in the thick of a project and the ideas and words are flowing especially freely. I wish I was more disciplined about writing schedules, but life can get in the way.

Where do you get your inspiration?
I get inspired by my kids, by the headlines, by my memories, and by issues that are important to me.

Who are your favorite writers and why?
Among picture book writers I admire Mary Ann Hoberman, Doreen Cronin, Jane O’Connor, Kevin Henkes and Kathi Appelt among others. They make picture book writing seem easy and effortless while it truly is one of the most difficult things to do. I equate writing picture books to writing poetry.
I love the magic of Kate DiCamillo’s stories, the simplicity of Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwick books and Beverly Cleary’s adventures. I would have loved Sarah Dressen as a teen. Her characters are so real. I enjoy Houston writer, Dotti Enderle’s Fortune Tellers Club series. Austin’s Cynthia Leitich Smith introduced me to the world of vampires with her paranormal books set in Texas.
There are so many writers and books that I love, I could go on and on. So many books. So little time….

What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Read, Read, Read. Read and study as many books as you can. The road to publication is paved with rejection, so be strong and be patient. And become a member of SCBWI (www.scbwi.org) if you write for children.

If you want to learn more about Varsha, please visit her web site: http://www.varshabajaj.com. She is the author of the award-winning book, How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight. Sleeping Bear Press will will publish her latest book T is for Taj Mahal: An India Alphabet Book, in September 2010.

This interview first appeared in the HOUSTON BANNER newspaper.

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