Interview with Varsha Bajaj

The world’s most populous democracy is the subject of award-winning author Varsha Bajaj’s latest picture book T is for Taj Mahal. In the book, Varsha combines her talent for rhyme and measure with a veritable encyclopedia of information about India. A transplant of India herself, I visited with Varsha recently about her beautiful native country, picture books and comfort food.

India is such a huge and diverse country. How did you choose which aspects to highlight in your new book?

The size and diversity of India did make writing the book quite daunting. I grew up in India and wanted very much to portray it accurately. I made an effort to include aspects of India’s history, geography, and government as well as its popular culture, food and dress. I wanted to be sure to include facts that kids would find interesting. For example, B is for Bollywood highlights the movie industry and C is for Cricket describes India’s favorite sport. As I wrote the book I considered myself a tour guide to India!

The book is written in both poetry and prose. Is one type of writing easier for you than the other?

Both are difficult, but I feel more comfortable writing in prose. I love poetry and rhyme but I wish it were easier to write. Rhythm and rhyme is appealing and fun but can also be constraining.

You’ve written both picture books and longer fiction. Which genre is your favorite to write in at the moment?

I tackle more than one project most of the time. I like to go back and forth between different stories. Some days are novel kind of days and other days I love the challenge of a picture book. So, I really can’t choose. It would be like picking my favorite child. Today, I am deep in the throes of my novel but tomorrow will be a whole new day!

Recently, the New York Times ran an article stating that the picture book genre was “dead”. Do you agree? Why or why not?

That article caused so much angst to so many writers, including me. I don’t think the picture book is dead. But it is harder to sell a picture book today than it was in the 1980’s. They are expensive to produce and in a tough economy it is difficult to sell a $20 picture book. But I believe there will always be readers for a good picture book. After all, a good picture book is a work of art.

What are your three favorite things about India and why?

I love Indian food. For me it is comfort food. The zing of a well made curry makes life worth living. I love the warmth and simplicity of Indian people. They welcome you with a genuineness that makes you feel at home. I grew up listening and learning Indian music and could not imagine life without it.

What events do you have scheduled for the book launch?

I’m scheduling events now! Watch my website and children’s literature blogs for more information! The Houston SCBWI conference bookstore in April will carry the book as well as local bookstores and online. It’s also being featured in a sourcebook that will reach thousands of librarians across Texas.

You can learn more about Varsha by checking out her website at www.varshabajaj.com or follow her on Twitter @varshabajaj.



This interview appeared in the HOUSTON BANNER newspaper, March 2011 edition.



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.