Alka Joshi Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Alka Joshi

Alka Joshi

An interview with Alka Joshi

Alka Joshi talks about two of her recent books: The Secret Keeper of Jaipur and her first novel, The Henna Artist.

The Henna Artist

What inspired you to write The Henna Artist?

I have my mother to thank for my first novel.

When I was fifteen, my mother and I went shopping for school clothes. We'd been living in the States—in the Midwest—for six years by then, but she still wore saris. As we passed the dresses, she plucked one with a plunging halter top off the rack and asked me try it on. An American girl might have thought her mother hip, but I was embarrassed.

For my sixteenth birthday, my mother made an appointment at Merle Norman Cosmetics so I could learn to wear makeup, something she knew nothing about but felt I needed to learn.

At eighteen, when I told her I wanted to sleep with my first boyfriend, she immediately took me to get birth control pills and urged me to experiment—she, who had had an arranged marriage at the age of eighteen and still stumbled over her English.

It took me years to understand that what my mother wanted was a life for me that she herself had been denied. She wanted me to experience the freedom of choice.

At some point, I began imagining a different start to my mother's life. What if her father hadn't made her marry at such a tender age? What if she hadn't had three children in rapid succession? What would a creative, fierce, smart woman like her have done to survive on her own if she had defied her father and refused to marry?

Lakshmi, the henna artist, embodies the alternative life I imagined for my mother. The frenetic period following India's independence from the British, when India was building new universities, government and cultural institutions, roads, dams and bridges at an unprecedented rate, was an ideal setting for Lakshmi to start a new life for herself. Like my mother, Lakshmi wanted to make her own decisions about what she would do, who she wanted to be with and where she would go. She rejected convention even when she knew the cost would be steep, not only for her but also for her family.

Yet, like the citizens of a newly independent nation, Lakshmi finds that progress takes time. While Lakshmi is recognized for her talents publicly the way my mother was not, the cultural norms she grew up with will not easily bend to accommodate a clever, headstrong young woman. Ultimately, she is forced to create a new path that will satisfy her ambitions and society's expectations of her.

My mother is no longer with us, but she lives in every breath Lakshmi takes and every word she utters. Through Lakshmi, my mother revels in the freedom she never had in real life.

Are you working on another novel?
Yes, I am exploring what the future will look for a few of the characters central to The Henna Artist—the year is 1967 and the younger characters are now the new generation of progressive Indians moving the country forward.

The Secret Keeper of Jaipur

What inspired you to write this novel?

Before I became a writer, I was an avid reader, and I used to marvel at how writers could make characters come to life on the page. I could picture each in the gown or slacks the author had described, moving about a scene, talking to the other characters. And I would wonder: Did the characters feel as real to the author as they do to me?

Fast forward fifty years. I'm sitting at my laptop, creating a scene between two characters when Malik, the enterprising servant boy I created in The Henna Artist, starts to tell me he'd like to tell his story. He's no longer eight years old; he's twenty. I ignore him for a while, but he's persistent—and persuasive. An extremely likeable and loyal character, Malik has captured the hearts of thousands of readers around the world. So I finally set aside the project I was working on and let Malik tell me his story. It came pouring forth. True to his character, Malik's story is full of adventure and danger, and his love interest is a woman of unique character—not unlike Lakshmi.

And the answer to the question I used to wonder about? Yes, characters do come to life for authors as much as they do for readers. And when they do, you have to listen!

What are you working on now?

I'm currently researching the third book in the trilogy. Little did I know when I started writing The Henna Artist ten years ago that I'd end up writing three books, each focusing on one major character. The third book centers on Lakshmi's sister Radha as an assistant perfumer in Paris, where she lives with her French husband and two daughters. She's created the family she's always wanted and surprised herself with an ambition she hadn't known she harbored: to become a master perfumer, a difficult accomplishment for a woman in 1974. She's on the cusp of developing a scent using an Indian ingredient unknown to the French when a visitor from the past upends her future.

It's utterly fascinating: the hundreds of ingredients that go into fragrances Radha works with, the mystery of perfume houses like Chanel, Dior and Guerlain, the musky base notes that kiss the skin long after the spicy top notes have dissipated, and the lengths to which perfumers will go to create the perfect scent.

I'm so eager to return to the world of Radha, Lakshmi, Malik, Kanta and the Singhs as their stories develop over the decades. Who knows? Perhaps even the Maharanis of Jaipur will make an appearance in book #3?

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by this Author

Books by Alka Joshi at BookBrowse
The Secret Keeper of Jaipur jacket The Henna Artist jacket
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