In this interview, award winning novelist Padma Venkatraman shares experiences in writing a middle grade novel and her the inspiration for The Bridge Home.
Imagine running away from home with your sister and trying to find a life while you are only a child. Not only do Viji and Rukku face this obstacle, they are poor children living in a city in India. Padma Venkatraman shares this page-turning story of these two young girls as they struggle to survive on the streets, finding friendship and home in unlikely places.
Developing the Sisters’ Story
Kendall: What was your inspiration for writing The Bridge Home?
Padma: My mother volunteered to help at schools for children who had much less than we did. So, I met children who had experienced dire poverty. These courageous children – and others I later met and spoke to – inspired The Bridge Home. And, one of my grandfathers actually went hungry – so he experienced economic deprivation and hardship worse than I ever did. So in a way, he is an inspiration, too, because he was also a survivor.
Kendall: Can you share about your process of how your books develop? Do you start knowing where a book is going or do the characters and plot take shape over time?
Padma: My process is very organic. I feel like I “hear” a voice in my head and the I listen until I can see the character(s). The deeper I get into my writing, the more it’s like a movie playing in my mind. Character feels a whole lot easier to me than plot – I don’t feel like I work on my characters, I feel like they come to me.
That said, this helps voice, but plot is a lot of hard work. It is, in part, a matter of putting the book away, reading it over with fresh eyes, and cutting and chopping and planning and thinking. Plot is about revising until I get it right. And of course, my agent Rob Weisbach and editor Nancy Paulsen are incredibly important. Rob has magic sight and believes in my work from the first time he sees it; Nancy has a magic touch that helps me rewrite and rewrite until it’s right.
Kendall: How did you develop the character of Rukku? Was she inspired by another individual? In general, what is your process of how a character develops?
Padma: Rukku was inspired by someone I knew, as indeed many of my main characters have been in all my novels, until now – Climbing the Stairs, Island’s End and A Time To Dance. Character is like a ghost that haunts me – And at some point, it feels like a soul-melt – my character ghost possesses me. They take over even my dreams. I don’t just live with them, they live inside me – or maybe I live inside their bodies and minds and souls and see through their eyes and breathe like they breathe…
Kendall: I love Viji’s personality. Is she inspired by another individual? Do you think we can all find her spirit, drive and optimism?
Padma; Two girls who became close to me, Padmini and Indira, shared stories that included domestic abuse, fleeing from home, finding family in friends they made, and even sheltering in a graveyard to escape pursuers. Viji is a lot like Indira. Like some other homeless kids I knew who’d experienced terrible violence, Padmini and Indira were incredibly strong and resilient. They stayed optimistic and they were driven to succeed. Indira especially. Plus there were kids who had the courage to laugh, the ability to smile and stay hopeful despite their hardships. I wanted to capture that – the laughter – as well as the tears, because it’s honest and it’s incredible, too.
How an Author Makes Choices Tweet This
Kendall: Do you think Viji and Rukku would have lasted as long as they did without the help of their new friends, Muthi and Arul? How so?
Padma: I think they needed friends to help them learn the ropes. The city can, as Teashop Aunty warns, be a horrific place for children – especially two young girls. There are so many unscrupulous, unprincipled, abominably cruel people waiting to take advantage and exploit children – and really, any vulnerable person.
Kendall: Why did you decide to have Arul and Viji believe in two different faiths? Although they believe in different faiths, they are able to work together and find motivation to keep going after such hardship. What do you think their relationship with God symbolizes?
Padma: The easy answer is that they came to me that way. But then again, until now, my novels have always shown my protagonists’ belief systems. I think it’s probably the one thread that runs through all my books, different though they are. Certainly, another part of the answer is that kids I knew who’d faced the kind of horrific trials that Arul and Viji faced, did often end up being either deeply religious like Arul or staunchly irreligious, like Viji.
I do wonder, though, if, subliminally, I was thinking both of the fact that I haven’t yet, through characters in a story, explored Christianity – the faith tradition in which my husband was raised, and one that I was exposed to quite a bit as well, growing up, because I went to a Catholic school and college for part of my life, and the tradition that is part of my daughter’s heritage now in the United States.
Atheism and agnosticism were also beliefs that I hadn’t yet explored– and I think the novelist in me realized that juxtaposing a deeply Christian character (Arul) with characters who are atheistic and agnostic (Muthu and Viji) would lead to interesting situations and conversations.
I wonder if I was also motivated by the fear and hate rhetoric related to religion that seems to be surfacing in so many countries at the moment, including India and America. I love that Arul and Viji are the best of friends despite their dramatically and drastically different attitudes toward religion and well, life and the world. And I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a middle grade novel in which a protagonist is truly atheistic/agnostic or questioning, the way that Viji is.
One of the loveliest things that happened right after the ARC of the book was released was that a writer friend whom I deeply admire and love, Margarita Engle, sent me a message to say “The Bridge Home is a wonderful way to teach religious tolerance. It will be a classic!”
Her words felt like a blessing and I can only hope that The Bridge Home and my other books will, in some small way, increase mutual understanding and respect and empathy at a time when our planet is in such dire need of such feelings.
Kendall: The Bridge Home deals with heavy themes even though it is a middle grade novel. How are you able incorporate these heavy themes but still make it understandable for children?
Padma: Never talk down to kids – or any audience, for that matter. I never once think of my themes as heavy or try to tone them down. That said, sure, at the editing stage, Nancy Paulsen might say cut a particular sentence out or rework a scene or suggest that the brutality occurs offstage. But my challenge is to still make it gut-wrenching and to render a really, really hard emotional punch.
So, in a way, writing for children isn’t about writing easy stuff – it’s about writing tough topics and not shying away from what’s brutal – but also leaving just enough to the imagination. For example, the nasty bus driver that the girls meet when they arrive in the city is clearly out to exploit them, and a child reader would immediately understand that. But whereas an adult might wonder if he wanted to force them into prostitution, a child who hasn’t been exposed to that may not imagine such a thing. Still, both the child and the adult sense that the man is a shark and I need to show enough so a reader of any age can sense his creepiness and be utterly revolted and scared by him.
It’s harder to do this without showing the reader shocking details, but that’s the challenge a children’s book author must rise to – that you can make not only a child cry or laugh, but even an adult. Adults may not be the “target” audience, but then adults are important gatekeepers. And if an adult is going to read my book, I want to move her/him, too. I want to touch every reader, no matter how old they are. I want my characters’ joys and sorrows to be my readers’ joys and sorrows.
Kendall: You certainly succeed in that. I was deeply touched. What was the most difficult part in developing The Bridge Home?
Padma: I have witnessed and survived familial violence. So, although the circumstances are particular and different, the first scene, in which the girls are subjected to physical violence by their father, was probably the hardest for me to write – because it forced me to go to places I dislike visiting.
Supporting Other Writers
Kendall: What was your experience of judging for an anthology of teen writing for the Scholastic National Award for Teen Writing? What was your favorite part? Was it difficult to judge?
Padma: I’ve judged several competitions by now – the PEN Phyllis Naylor Award, the School Library Journal Battle of the Books, the Julia Ward Howe Boston Authors Club Award, the NSK Neustadt Prize, etc. I do it mainly because I feel it’s like a service to the writing community – my duty, in a way, to give back, because I’ve benefited from winning so many awards.
I’ll admit, though, that I hate saying/thinking negative things about people’s work – even if it’s constructive criticism. So it’s never easy for me to judge, because for one thing, as a former scientist, I am well aware that even in science there’s subjectivity (and judging writing is super-subjective); for another, I know someone put years of time and effort into each work. Judging teen writing is even harder because I don’t want any child to be hurt. I want to tell every teen who writes, every teen who entered, that they are amazing just to have sent an entry in. I mean it. That requires organization, dedication, and hope. I want them all to persevere, even if they don’t always win.
Summer Camp for Intellectuals
Kendall: How was your fellowship and writer-in-residence experience in Delmenhorst, Germany? What did you enjoy most about it?
Padma: In many ways, it felt like summer camp for intellectuals. I lived with a diverse body of people: chemists, oceanographers, physicists, astronomers, microbiologists, historians, literature professors, anthropologists, political scientists, philosophers, etc. from all over the world. We were different, but we also shared some fundamental beliefs, I think. And the level of conversation we could engage in was incredible. For the first time in a long time I felt like I quickly made deep connections with other people – friendships that I hope will last. It was incredibly inspiring and a wonderful atmosphere in which to write.
Kendall: Do you believe your travels have inspired you to write? Do you suggest others, especially aspiring writers, to travel the world to seek inspiration?
Padma: I think to be a writer you should live as much as you can and as fully as you can. Too often people are drawn to writing because they want to see their names in print. Publication shouldn’t be an end. I think that’s really important.
Travel, sure. If you can’t travel in the flesh, travel in your mind. Read, read, read. Support other writers and readers. Don’t seek inspiration – allow it to come to you.
Kendall: What is your favorite book that you have written and why?
Padma: Can’t pick a favorite, because they’re like children that I love equally. Each was a challenge to write – in part because I pushed myself to write them differently, in part because the form that fit them best was different and this helped me grow as a writer.
A Time to Dance is a verse novel, Island’s End is written in lush, rich prose, Climbing the Stairs is historical fiction – and of course, The Bridge Home is written in the second person which is unusual and hard to pull off, but it’s also really the only way to tell that story, for many reasons I don’t want to get into. I must say I also love the fact that The Bridge Home has humor in it despite the tremendously serious and tragic situations and social justice issues it deals with. So I’m a bit obsessed with The Bridge Home right now. After all, it’s my newest baby.
Tips for Writers Tweet This
Kendall: Do you have any other tips for writers?
Padma: Remember that if you are a writer, then you must love the process and not be too concerned about the successes or failures of the product.
You have to pour all you have into a book and then just move on and write your next book – which is really hard to do. You can’t crave attention too much. You can hope for it, sure, we all do. We all want the big awards and recognition. But we need to recognize that that it is, in the end, a matter of luck, in addition to quality. So you need to write the best book you can in the world and then not get too involved with how it does in the public arena – which is tough.
When you love someone, you may want to marry them, you might hope to marry them, but that – the marriage – is not something you should confuse with the love itself, right? When you are a writer, you might hope for publication, awards, sales, recognition; but you shouldn’t confuse those material rewards with what you love most – which is the act of writing. Writing is the magic of the soul.
Like Veda, in A Time To Dance, writing, to me, is, a way to lose myself in that which is larger; a way to communicate with that which is higher and deeper; a meditation that enhances my compassion, and, I hope, the compassion in the world.
Padma Venkatraman lived in five countries, explored rainforests, and was chief scientist on oceanographic vessels before becoming a United States citizen. Her novels, A TIME TO DANCE, ISLAND’S END and CLIMBING THE STAIRS, were released to multiple starred reviews and received many honors and awards. Her latest novel, THE BRIDGE HOME, a contender for the Global Read Aloud initiative, has received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and School Library Journal. Visit Padma Venkatraman’s Website. Connect with Padma on Twitter.