Step by step, new young adult novel unfolds
Padma Venkatraman of Narragansett, R.I., is an oceanographer by training, but since 2008 she also has been an acclaimed writer of young adult novels.
Her debut, "Climbing the Stairs," received the 2009 Julia Ward Howe Boston Authors Club Medal (YA) and was named the Booklist Editor's Choice Best Book of the Year. The story, about a teenage girl named Vidya bridging traditional and changing roles in India during the British Occupation, was based on the experiences of her mother.
Her follow-up, "Island's End," was inspired by Venkatraman's experiences doing research in the remote Andaman Islands. Its main character, Uido, is a teenage girl with a spiritual calling to lead her native people.
Like her earlier books, her new novel, "A Time to Dance," features a teenage girl facing an enormous struggle. After losing part of her right leg in an accident, Vida must re-learn the traditional bharatanatyam dance, which becomes a spiritual as well as rehabilitative journey. Kirkus Reviews called the book "a beautiful integration of art, religion, compassion and connection." She answered five questions in a recent interview.
Q. What did you read as a young adult?
A. I often read novels; mostly British classics, such as "Middlemarch" by George Eliot, "A Passage to India" by E.M. Forster, "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh, "The Rainbow" by D.H. Lawrence, "The Razor's Edge" by Somerset Maugham; and some classic American novelists - Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner. I also loved to read and re-read poetry, by everyone from Shakespeare and Keats and Tagore to Rainer Maria Rilke and T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden and William Carlos Williams.
Q. All three of your novels feature a female adolescent heroine. What are some ways in which you get into the mind of that sort of character?
A. I never try to get in their minds - it's more like they get into my mind. My husband often says they haunt our home while I'm writing - and it's true. Their voices - the voices of all my characters in a novel, but of course especially of the protagonist, possess me. By the time I am writing the final drafts, I am dreaming their dreams! It's like suffering schizophrenia, though I never converse with the voice - instead I just listen. And write what they say.
Q. What is some research you did in order to tell Veda's story?
A. I went "method" - the way actors do. I spent a lot of time on crutches, or with my foot bound up or sending my foot to sleep (to do my best to experience something similar to phantom pain). I guess it was worth it, because one woman who'd had an amputation and read a draft of "A Time to Dance" assumed I was one-legged. When she realized I had full use of all my limbs, she burst out "How did you know so well what it feels like to have phantom pain!"
Q. The book is told in a sort of prose poem. Why did you decide on that form?
A. My colleague (at the University of Rhode Island), Peter Covino, kindly allowed me to sit in on his graduate class in poetry. I'd also just sat in on a workshop run by Richard Blanco, President Obama's inaugural poet, before he became as famous as he now is. Those experiences certainly influenced my writing, I think. As did, of course, my life-long love of poetry. But in a way, I didn't decide on that form. Veda's voice dictated it - and while I did get cold feet for a bit and at one point rewrote "A Time to Dance" entirely in prose. But it just didn't work - at all - when it was "normal" prose sentences.
One theme in "A Time to Dance" - a character's spiritual awakening - is rarely ever explored in fiction, and it works particularly well with a more poetic form. I'm glad I ended up taking the "risk" to use a poetic form, because in the starred reviews "A Time to Dance" received in Kirkus, Booklist, VOYA and SLJ, each reviewer commented on how well the form fits the dance theme in the novel, and I think this form really helps bring out Veda's spiritual awakening and the power of art.
Q. The book is dedicated to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and others who have triumphed over tragedy. At what point in the writing did the terrorist attack occur? Did it affect the final draft?
A. It didn't affect the novel at all because the attack occurred when the novel went into copyediting. It was done - finally complete - after years of work, and out of my hands by then, and I had no desire to work on it some more. The only thing the attack influenced was the dedication; normally I have a dedication in mind much before the novel is done. In this case, I didn't.
When the news story broke about Adrienne Haslet-Davis (the dancer who lost a limb in the bombing), I was very shocked by the eerie similarity her story has to Veda's. But, more than that, I was moved by the courage she and others showed. Hence the dedication.
IF YOU GO
What: Booksigning by Padma Venkatraman, author of "A Time to Dance"
When: 3-5 p.m., Sunday, May 18
Where: Bank Square Books, 53 W. Main St., Mystic
For more information: (860) 536-3795, www.banksquarebooks.com
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