Hello Mixed-Up Filers!
Today, I am pleased to welcome to our site, Supriya Kelkar, author of American as Paneer Pie, which came out this week from Aladdin.
JR: Hi, Supriya and thanks for joining us today!
SK: Hi! Thanks so much for having me on!
JR: First off, for those who don’t know about the book, can you tell us a little bit about American as Paneer Pie and where the idea for this story came from?
SK: American as Paneer Pie is about an Indian-American girl named Lekha, who lives in a small town in Michigan that doesn’t value diversity and her journey to find her voice and learn how to speak up for herself and speak out against hate. The idea for the story came from my own childhood, growing up in a small town in Michigan that didn’t value diversity. The story came to me in 2017 when hate was becoming emboldened and encouraged in a very public way that brought back a lot of feelings from my childhood that I had buried and tried to forget. I was also facing the fear that my own young children would be dealing with the same things I did and that not much had changed in the decades since I was their age. The first draft came very quickly to me because of how deeply I felt the story, and because I had lived much of it. The final result is a story full of love and hope that I hope will inspire and empower readers.
JR: I was fascinated by this book for many reasons. I’ve lived many places, where I was the ‘other’ and dealt with repercussions for that. So, I have to ask, was anything based on real life incidents for you?
SK: Much of the book is based on real-life incidents of othering and hate that I experienced in elementary school, middle school, and high school. The feeling of having two versions of yourself, at school, and at home, is one I can really relate to. I would have my Hindi film music on loud at home and beg my Dad to roll the windows up when it was playing in the car when people could hear it. The moments where Lekha feels embarrassed by her culture or religious holidays are ones I experienced regularly. And the words involved in the hateful incident Lekha experiences are words that have been shouted at me before. Although what happens at Lekha’s house is not something that happened at my house, we did have a rock thrown through our window when I was younger. It took me a long time to find my voice. I don’t think I really started to find it until college but luckily Lekha’s journey to find her voice happens much earlier than that.
JR: I’m sorry that happened. Your main character, Lekha, had a foot in two different cultures and had to make some tough decisions. Again, I identified with that aspect from my own experiences. How common do you think that is now?
SK: I think it is still fairly common, especially in spaces that have not embraced diversity. But I’ve observed it happening with kids even in spaces where diversity is really appreciated. I remember being at one of my children’s extracurricular activities and an Indian American high school teacher there was talking in an Indian accent and mocking it to make the students he was teaching laugh. I think that feeling of wanting to fit in is universal and can often lead to having to make tough decisions.
JR: You have a background in screenwriting, for both Hindi films and ones for Hollywood. What are some of the differences that you’ve seen between them.
SK: What we think of as Bollywood today really came to be as a form of escapism. So a lot of the more far-fetched moments in some Hindi films happen because of that. But both forms of filmmaking generally have the same goals, either to entertain or to be thought-provoking, so as different as they are, I think they also have much in common.
JR: How has that background in screenwriting helped in your transition to MG novelist?
SK: I write my novels the way I was taught to write scripts, with a three-act structure. I start with character journals, where I get to know all the big characters’ voices and goals. I then use the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet to come up with the main turning points and act breaks. I then outline each chapter. And then I start writing the first draft.
JR: I also read on your website, https://supriyakelkar.com/ , that you grew up watching Bollywood films to learn Hindi. Not even lying, I LOVE Bollywood films. What are a couple of your favorites?
SK: A couple of my favorites are Lagaan and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. Both films are about the triumph of an underdog. Lagaan deals with British colonialism and racism, while Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar explores privilege. And of course they both have great songs!
JR: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey getting to this point? (How long it took, how you got your agent, publisher etc)
SK: I wrote my first novel in 2003 and got my agent in 2016, so it has been quite the journey full of hundreds and hundreds of rejection letters from way back when rejection letters were on paper, and transitioning over to the current era of rejections being sent over e-mail. The novel I wrote in 2003 changed drastically over the years with revisions, and eventually became AHIMSA (Tu Books, 2017), which won the New Visions Award from Lee & Low Books in 2016 and was published the next year. I had given up on querying in the middle of 2015, I think. So when I found out I had won the New Visions Award and was going to have a book published, I queried again and heard back from the amazing Kathleen Rushall at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, who became my agent!
JR: Ah, paper rejections. I also have a few of those that I saved. What’s your writing process like?
SK: I spend a lot of time thinking about the story and characters before I write anything. I like to figure out who my characters are, what their wants are, and how they will change, and then tackle the story after that, to figure out how to get my characters to get to their final destinations.
After that stage, I again spend a lot of time plotting before I get to work on the actual draft.
JR: What’s your favorite book from childhood?
SK: When I was in elementary school, my aunt and uncle gave me the gift of a book of the month club for several years. This was in the pre-Amazon days so I was always so amazed when a package would arrive each month with books just for me. I still have every one of those books and although it is hard to pick just one favorite, I remember being really drawn to the art in picture books by Holly Keller, Tomie DePaola, and in books by James Stevenson.
JR: What’s your favorite movie?
SK: I have a lot of favorites but the one I loved to watch over and over again a lot growing up is probably the aforementioned Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, which has one of my favorite Hindi songs of all time in it, Pehla Nasha. On the surface it is the story of a bike race between colleges but it also examines wealth distribution and privilege.
JR: Something people would be surprised to learn about you?
SK: I’m afraid of circles. Okay it’s more like a repeating pattern of circles and really any shape, like in a honeycomb, or lotus seed pod, and it has a name: Trypophobia. It makes me shudder and I have to look away.
JR: Then, I won’t add a graphic here. 🙂 What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received and is there any advice you can give to writers looking to break in?
SK: Jim Burnstein, an incredible screenwriter who taught me at the University of Michigan, always emphasized the importance of revision. I think learning to not be attached to your words and understanding just how important several revisions are in writing, is one of the best pieces of advice I can give to writers looking to break in. It’s hard at first but I’ve always found my work improves drastically with each revision I do.
JR: Revise, revise, revise. Always great advice! What are you working on next?
SK: I’m working on revisions for my next two middle grade novels. The first, STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME (Tu Books, fall 2020) is historical fiction, set in 1857 at the start of the Indian uprising against the British East India Company. It challenges who we center in stories and who we leave out and will hopefully make readers think about these questions when it comes to classics like The Secret Garden and other books and stories. The second is THAT THING ABOUT BOLLYWOOD (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2021), which is about a Bollywood-loving girl named Sonali who isn’t very good at sharing her feelings. When her parents announce that they are separating, Sonali is suddenly forced to express herself in the most obvious way, through Bollywood song-and-dance numbers, thanks to a magical condition. I’m really excited about both of these books!
How can people follow you on social media?
JR: Thanks again to Supriya Kelkar and make sure you go out and get American as Paneer Pie!
SK: Thank you!