In an exclusive interview with TOI Books, Surpriya Kelkar tells us more about her latest book ‘Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame’, what motivates her to write children’s books, her favourite authors and more. Excerpts:
1. What made you choose to write for kids?
I’ve always been drawn to stories for kids. Even the scripts I’ve written on my own, not for a production company, have been children’s films. I think because I never grew up getting to see my story in an American book or TV show or movie, it took me years to realize my story was important too and deserved to be told. That’s one of the reasons I love to write for kids, so every child knows just how very important their story is, and that they matter, and can feel seen.
2. What was the idea behind writing ‘Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame’?
‘Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame’ is the story of Meera, a 12-year-old child bride who escapes the life she has no say in, only to end up a servant for a high-ranking officer in the British East India company. When the flames of rebellion come to town, Meera must decide whether to continue her life of relative safety or risk everything to fight back against her native oppressors and her British colonizers.
I got the idea for ‘Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame’ when I thought back to my childhood in America in the 1980s and 1990s, when I never got to see anyone who looked like me in a book, TV show, movie, commercial, store catalogues, or even in junk mail advertisement. I thought back to how I felt one day when one of my elementary school teachers started reading ‘The Secret Garden’ to our class. I suddenly sat up a little taller, recognizing Indian people in a book, at last! But then I quickly realized the Indians in that book weren’t thought of as equals, or even as people. They were just there to serve the colonizers the story was centering. I remember feeling embarrassed, mortified, and less than. Decades later, as I thought back on that experience, I realized I wanted to tell a story that challenges who is being centered in so-called classics and other stories, and whose story is being erased. In America, as is the case in many parts of the world, history and social studies classes framed colonizers as brave explorers, discovering new lands and helping the indigenous people. In reality, that is far from the case. Colonization is a brutal practice whose effects are still seen today in South Asia, in America, and around the world. I wanted to write a book that made every reader, regardless of their age or background, really think about these stories in a different way. There’s a lengthy historical note at the end of ‘Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame’ that goes into just some of the ways colonization changed South Asia, including the millions of lives lost and the trillions of dollars stolen.
At the same time as wanting to write a book that empowered readers to decolonize their minds and their bookshelves, I wanted to write a book that had a strong female character that kids of all genders can relate to and be inspired by, who fights off her homegrown oppression while defeating her colonizers. I hope it empowers my readers to find their voice and use it to speak out for change, so they can truly feel like the title, strong as fire, fierce as flame.
3. From writing screenplays for Bollywood films to writing and illustrating for kids’ books– it’s a vast change in the writing format and the audience. Tell us a bit about writing for different formats– was it difficult/ easy for you, the challenges or limitations, etc.
I studied screenwriting at the University of Michigan, and still use what I learned in college, whether I’m writing a screenplay or a novel. So I always begin every novel or screenplay by thinking about who my characters are at the start of the story and how I want them to change by the end of it. I then outline the story, using a three-act Hollywood screenplay structure, and then I begin writing. I don’t find it difficult switching between the two formats but it does take me a beat to remember I need to use a different writing style for both.
In a screenplay you have to be under a certain number of pages, as each page equals roughly a minute on film. So you don’t spend time describing the way a person dresses, or the way a room looks unless it is vital to the plot because the script isn’t the final product, and a costume designer is going to decide what a character wears and a set designer is going to decide what a room looks like.
When I worked with my editor on my first published book, ‘Ahimsa’, she did have to remind me to pause and take the time to describe all those things and how the character interacts with her environment.
4. In a previous interview, you said “I use a lot of what I learned working in Bollywood in my books.” Could you please elaborate…
My experience in Bollywood taught me that stories have to entertain while exploring a theme so your audience feels enthusiastic about the film and really connects to it. I use that thinking whenever I’m writing a novel, trying to ensure I’m able to get my theme across in a way that almost feels cinematic for the reader. I hope it leaves them thinking about the story and characters long after they’re done reading the book, and I hope that they’re inspired to make a difference in the world because of my books.
5. It is often said by many authors that writing for children is more difficult than writing for adults. Do you agree? Is there anything in particular that you keep in mind while writing for children?
I’ve never written a book specifically for adults so I’m not sure! I always try to present my themes in an age-appropriate way for young readers while keeping in mind that the book is going to be read by adults too. I think children’s books are really the most important kind of books out there, because they make a huge difference in helping kids grow their empathy for others. Diverse stories ensure we can see ourselves in our classmates as kids, and our friends and neighbors when we grow up.
6. Research is considered an important part of historical fiction writing. Where did you draw the line between facts and fiction, especially while writing your new book ‘Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame’?
When I’m writing historical fiction, I have to make sure all the historical facts are correct, and then fit the plot into the history. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a historical note in the back of ‘Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame’ that touches a little bit on the enormous amount of research there was to write this book. Unlike ‘Ahimsa’, which takes place in 1942, there is no one around from 1857 to check facts with. I was lucky to have a family friend who is a professor who gave me several books from the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s. They were written by British colonizers and really tough to read. I had a knot in my stomach almost the whole time as I read their casual racist thoughts and what they did to the people whose land they were looting. I also read excerpts of some of the many travel diaries, or journals written by British memsahibs. Those books were one of the ways people in Europe learned about South Asia, and they were full of racist observations as well. There were also minor details that had to be researched. I had to make sure the fruits and vegetables I mentioned would have been in season in the months I am mentioning them back then. I had to make sure okra had been introduced in India at that time. And because it was really hard to find a painting or photograph of a girl back then, I was fortunate enough to be able to ask historian Dr. Toolika Gupta, questions about clothing and henna. She was so kind and helpful. All of this research together helped make ‘Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame’ what it is today.
7. Which are your all time favourite children’s books and authors. And why?
I was privileged to have a lot of book access as a kid. Not every child does. My house was full of books and I would go to the library all the time. As an adult, I am still reading several children’s books a month and leave the library with dozens of books each week. I learn so much from my fellow authors and illustrators’ work. It is hard for me to pick an all-time favorite because I read so much that is constantly changing. Some pictures books that really impressed me recently are ‘Du Iz Tak?’ by Carson Ellis. It is written in a completely made-up bug language and yet the readers is able to fully understand what is being said. I also cannot read ‘Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera’ by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann, without crying at the end. And I adore ‘Eyes that Kiss in the Corners’ by Joanna Ho, illustrated by Dung Ho.
8. What are you working on next?
It was a busy year for me this year, with four books releasing in 2.5 months! I am currently working on several fun projects that will be coming out in the next few years. My illustrator debut comes out next year from ‘Little, Brown. That’s called ‘American Desi’, written by Jyoti Rajan Gopal. I’m finalizing the art for that while also illustrating my dear friend Raakhee Mirchandani’s book from Little, Brown, ‘My Diwali Light’, releasing next year as well. I have a picture book called ‘Brown’, about all the beautiful, empowering things about the color brown, releasing next year from Macmillan. I have a book about being proud of your name and the people and places that went into making it what it is called ‘My Name’ from Macmillan releasing in 2023. I have a spooky novel about finding your voice coming out in 2023 from Simon & Schuster called ‘The Cobra’s Song’. And I have some unannounced projects I’m excited to share about once they’re public.