“I read books so that I can learn from the characters and how they handle the obstacles in their lives. Now, I get to write those characters.” Alka Joshi joins Zibby and shares how her latest book, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, stemmed from her readers’ requests for more stories about the characters in her first novel, The Henna Artist. Alka and Zibby also discuss where we might see Alka’s characters in the third and final book of her trilogy and why sometimes it’s better to become a writer later in life. Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books has teamed up with Camp Slumberkins! Use code CAMPZIBBY for 15% off until July 31st!

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alka. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Secret Keeper of Jaipur.

Alka Joshi: Really good. Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: We were practicing my pronunciation of that, FYI. I didn’t want to mess anything up. Congratulations on your second book in this trilogy starting with The Henna Artist and now The Secret Keeper of Jaipur and now another one to come, which I want to hear more about. Tell everybody what this book is about and how — I know it said your fans were the ones who were demanding more stories. Talk a little bit about that and how this book came to be.

Alka: I had so many readers who fell in love with Malik, the eight-year-old boy in The Henna Artist. I had loved him, but I didn’t really think everybody else was going to respond so much to him. They all said, we want to know more about him. How did he come to be in the Pink City? Who took care of him? What’s going to happen to him now that he’s going off to Shimla with Lakshmi? I thought, I can actually answer a lot of those questions because they were written in pages for The Henna Artist that never made it into the book. There were so many pages that never made it into the book because, as you know, writing a book means that you are editing, cutting, adding, subtracting all the time. I thought, okay, I can answer a lot of those questions. Then Malik himself kept bugging me in my brain and said, I would like you to do the next story just about me. It’s going to be mainly about me. Here is how I write. A scene comes to me first, just like it did for The Henna Artist. There was one major scene that came to me. Here’s the scene that came to me. It is Nimmi, this tribal woman. She’s twenty-something years old. She is at her stall along the pedestrian mall in Shimla. Shimla is a place where a lot of people go for honeymooning, for vacationing because it’s much cooler at the foothills of the Himalaya mountains than it is down in Rajasthan or Obra, Pradesh, or in the middle of India, which is really hot. A lot of people go up there. The pedestrian mall is one of those where all the tourists congregate. They walk from one of the tourist sites to another to another. There’s a library that Rudyard Kipling used to hang out in. There’s Christ Church, which is a beautiful architectural monument. There is the statue of Mahatma Gandhi. There’s all kinds of wonderful things there.

People are milling about this mall. There are vendors who set up shop along there. Nimmi is one of those vendors. What does she have splayed out in front of me? I am looking at this visual image that I have. It’s a moving image. I see people moving around in it. What I see is that she has her wares from the flora that she has collected along the foothills of the Himalayas. She has rare flowers that you don’t normally see at this level, but only much higher in the mountains. She has herbs. She has all kinds of interesting things spread out. There are two people making a beeline for her. One is Lakshmi. The other is Malik. I see that Malik is much older now. He’s about twenty, which means Lakshmi has to be forty-something. They are coming towards her stall. As they approach her stall, I realize that she and Malik have a connection. I don’t know quite what it is, but they have a connection. I also see that Lakshmi does not approve of this connection and that she needs to make sure that this is not going to happen between the two of them. At Nimmi’s side in a small basket next to her are two small children. They are tethered to the basket. They’re playing with each other, tiny little kids. Then I have to answer the questions as a writer. What is a tribal woman doing at the pedestrian mall when, really, she should be up in the mountains with her tribe going up and down to the changing of the seasons? She should be migrating with the sheep and the cows and the goats and whatever.

Now I have to answer this other question. Why is Lakshmi not approving of this liaison? Why would she not approve of Malik being interested in her? Then I have to answer this other question. What time of the year is it? Why is Lakshmi much better turned out than she used to be before? I realize that her name is Lakshmi Kumar, which means she married the good doctor. That is the scene that comes to me. I am seeing all of these people moving around in it. Now I start asking the questions that I need to ask as a writer and flush the whole story out. Lakshmi does end up sending Malik away so that this liaison is thwarted. She sends him to Jaipur where she has all of those contacts with the maharanis and Manu, who is the director of facilities. Manu and his wife are the ones who adopted baby Nikki. Now Malik is at an apprenticeship at the Jaipur Palace. He is taking care of some of these projects and learning about the projects that the maharanis are involved in, these construction projects. Of course, he meets up with the Singhs again, who are the largest construction company now in Rajasthan. Then meanwhile in the Shimla area, Lakshmi is having to placate Nimmi because Nimmi is upset that Lakshmi has sent away her beloved. She hires Nimmi for her healing garden, also, to be able to expand it into these other flora that she has no knowledge of, but Nimmi does. There are tensions on both sides because they are apart. The thing that’s going to bind them together are the secrets that Malik is finding out in Jaipur. As he finds out these secrets, he has to figure out how to protect those he loves, including Nimmi who is compromised up in Shimla as well. That is the crux of the story. It is more of a mystery this time. It has an element of mystery in it that The Henna Artist did not have. It has all of those character arcs and people coming out at the back end with a little more knowledge about themselves and about the people in their relationships.

Zibby: Wow, good synopsis. That was awesome. When I was reading all about the collapse in the cinema and all the different characters and getting to know them, because as you wrote in the book, everything was before and after — each chapter was three months before or two months before, during, or after. Everything is in relation to that. I found myself wondering if it actually happened. I didn’t have time to google it, but it sounded like from the notes in the end that this actually is an event that happened. Is that right?

Alka: No.

Zibby: No. You made it up? Oh, my gosh, I’m an idiot. I’m so sorry.

Alka: No, actually, I’m delighted that you think it actually happened because then I’ve done my job as a writer to make you think it has.

Zibby: I don’t know why I thought — this is why. You said, “My father, his encyclopedic knowledge of India and almost everything else comes in handy when I’m writing about India, and her people contributed to the engineering details of the Royal Jewel Cinema.” I thought that maybe — so, no?

Alka: No. What my dad did tell me, though, is that when incidents like this happened, because they were all privately funded buildings, when something like this happened, if there was a collapse or anything like that, the people involved in the investment would all take care of it. There wasn’t any such thing as trial lawyers and lawsuits and things like that that happened. The maharanis, maharajas, they would take care of anything like this that happened. If it was a private enterprise with a bunch of different businesses who had put together some large, let’s say, stadium or something, they would take care of anybody who was injured or dying.

Zibby: Well, I got that wrong. No big deal. When you said you had one scene, I was wondering if it was going to be the scene of loss where — now I’m blanking on the name of the character. I promise you, I just was reviewing this before. I got no sleep.

Alka: Malik?

Zibby: No. When her husband and the sheep go falling off into the ravine and she has to deal with the loss and the trauma and then having a baby right after and spending that whole week not even knowing where she was and having to caretake an infant while mourning the loss of a spouse, I thought maybe that was what came to you and said, this is a book.

Alka: No, but that did come to me in a scene where Nimmi is in the throes of labor pains and realizing that her husband has just died on one of these mountain treks that the nomads take. By the way, this still happens. There are nomadic tribes who migrate seasonally, winter to summer, up and down the mountains. There are many different tribes that do this kind of thing. Consequently, they live a very dangerous life because these mountainous treks are oftentimes filled with boulders or ice or something like that which can cause a collapse. I saw this scene where she was panicked. She was really distressed. She ends up inducing her labor early as a result of this anxiety that she’s feeling about her husband. Then I see that Dr. Kumar and Lakshmi are tending to her. I did see that scene happening. Then I incorporated that into Nimmi’s account. You see, what I wanted to create, Zibby, is this idea of gratitude, that she owes Lakshmi something for having saved her baby. They helped deliver this baby at a time when they were up in the mountains and there was nobody nearby who could’ve helped them. At the same time, she is very frustrated with Lakshmi for having sent Malik away. It’s this contradiction which I’m always interested in. How much do we owe people who helped us even when we’re upset with them, even when we’re angry, even when we are pissed off at them? How do we reconcile the balance of what we owe them versus what we want them to owe us?

Zibby: Do you have something in your actual life that reflects in this some way, or this is all theoretical? It sounded pretty specific.

Alka: I think that probably a lot of it is growing up with parents. Your parents take care of you. Your parents do everything for you, and so you owe them. You do have this huge gratitude towards them. Then on the other hand, if they want to be in your life, if they want to tell you what to do, you think, how do I balance the fact that I need to be grateful to them, versus, I want them out of my life because now this is my life, this is what I get to live? I think that there’s always that thing that’s tugging at us. Then I think that there’s also a little bit in our relationships with our spouses. They do nice things for us, and so we’re grateful for what they do for us. Then there’s all these other times when we get upset with them and we think, okay, now I have to remember that they do these nice things too. It’s not just the fact that they left the crumbs on the countertop. It’s not just the fact that they left the wet underwear just lying on the floor, that kind of thing.

Zibby: I think I need that reminder too. Can we discuss how neat it is that you started writing at age fifty-one? You had a whole career. Then I read that you took a writing class. Now look at what happened. Tell me that story. That’s amazing.

Alka: My husband had been telling me for years, for about sixteen years, he’d been saying, “You know, you make up stories about people all the time when we go out to eat,” the people sitting next to us or on a plane or wherever we happened to be. “You’re always making up these fantastic stories. Why don’t you learn how to do this so that you can actually write about them?” He said, “I think you can do this.” I said, “No, no, no, I’m just an advertising hack. I’m a marketing hack. I write brochures. I write commercials. I don’t really write long-form fiction.” He said, “I know you could do this.” Finally, when I had a break in my work, I took the plunge and decided to enroll in an MFA program. I was probably the second-oldest person there. There was one guy who was like seventy. I was probably the next in line. In a lot of my MFA classes, I had twenty and thirty-year-olds in those classes. They had come, many of them, straight from their BA. I think they were looking at me like, what’s grandma doing in this room? What does she have to offer?

Here’s the thing. As we get older, we have so much more to say. We have so many more experiences that we have accumulated. We have grief. We have loss. We have love. We have frustration. We have betrayals. We have the learnings from the bad things we have done and the good things we have done. These are things that we can incorporate into our writing in a way that I could never have done in my twenties or thirties or even forties. I just think I know more now. I have more empathy for everybody else who has made the same mistakes I have had. I love to talk about characters who have both strengths and weaknesses. I’m interested in how they deal with the tougher parts of their lives. I feel that when I was a reader, I read books so that I could learn from those characters and what they decided to do with those obstacles in their lives. Now I am one of those writers who gets to write those characters. I love that because now I hear from readers who say, hey, that really helped me to figure out what I’m going to do now for the next phase of my life based on what Lakshmi did or what Malik did or whatever. It’s very rewarding. Writing is so rewarding.

Zibby: I totally agree too. The problem is that I think a lot of people know that deep down they are writers. That’s a skill they have. That’s a passion they have. There’s no great “here, be a writer right out of college” path. You have to wait a little bit, just as you were saying, to get some of the — after college, it’s the black-and-white sketch, but to get all the colors and the watercolors in it, you have to just have the life experience.

Alka: You’re absolutely right. Your podcast, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read,” that came from your experience. You came from that experience where you probably loved to read. All of a sudden, you’re a mom. Now you have no time. How can you help other moms carve out some time for themselves? I think it’s so important when we have small people, small whatever’s in our lives that we have to look after, we need to carve out time for ourselves or we will go nuts.

Zibby: I agree, yes. I have carved an entire job out of my self-care. Now I just have to find time to go to the gym. Do you feel like when you sat down to write — by the way, I do the same thing. I was just talking about this at our book club the other day. When I go on vacation and there’s the other family over there by the chairs, I’m always trying to figure everything out. Who are they? Are they fighting? Is that their babysitter or their sister? I’m always, not stalking, but I’m just super curious about it all. I mentioned that to the book club. Then a fiction writer who was there said, “I don’t just wonder. I make up full-on stories.” I think maybe that’s the difference. When you’re a real novelist, you make the stories up.

Alka: That is exactly what I used to do. I used to make up full-on stories and backstories about them and all of this. I do think that a lot of my training as an advertising copywriter helped me with that. Essentially, when you write a commercial, when you write a radio spot, you are creating a scene with characters and dialogue. You are envisioning all of their backstories at the same time. You have to communicate within a half a minute or a minute, exactly what’s going on in that scene so all the viewers understand what’s going on and all the listeners understand what’s going on.

Zibby: It’s so true. I worked in advertising for a little bit, on putting the creative briefs together on the strategy side and the strategic planning, brand planning rather, and then having to take and see what everybody comes up with when you give them these sixteen points. Then next thing you know, it’s like, here’s Dove with their ad campaign. Very cool. Tell me about your next book, the third installment.

Alka: The third installment, this, of course, also is something I had written in The Henna Artist. I got a chance to expand on it in The Secret Keeper, but now I really get to expand on it in book number three. This is a story about Radha. She is thirty years old. She lives in Paris with a young man whom she met in the Himalayas as she was going to school there at her fancy boarding school. They fell in love. In typical Radha style, because she is so impetuous, she eloped with him. They live in Paris. They have two little girls now. They actually made a pretty good marriage, so kudos to Radha for having grown up and matured. The other thing that she did, because she was so good at mixing henna paste and also the paints for the old man in the village, she got herself a chemistry degree at the Sorbonne. Now she went to work in the fragrance industry. How do you work in the fragrance industry when you don’t have any pedigree? The fragrance industry in Paris, and this is the year 1973, would have been something that would’ve been passed down from father to son. All of the knowledge would’ve been passed down in a very patriarchal way. There were very few women who were master perfumers. Radha got lucky enough to work for one of them. She is a lab assistant to a master perfumer.

She is on the cusp of helping this master perfumer design a signature scent. There’s a creative brief, just like you were talking about, the creative briefs you were doing in advertising. They do the same thing in fragrances. When they have a client who has a perfume that they want to create, a fragrance they want to create for something, there’s a creative brief. That is what the lab assistants and the master perfumer are working towards. Radha is on the cusp of helping design this scent. What she does is she goes down with Lakshmi, down to India once again. A lot of the base notes of perfumes are made in places like India because they have the heavy oils like sandalwood, like tuberose oil. Those are all things that are things that are manufactured down there. She’s down there with Lakshmi. Meanwhile, there’s a knock on her door in the seventh . She answers the door. No, actually, she’s not there to answer it. Her husband answers the door. On the other side of that door is somebody she has not seen in eighteen years since she left India. That is a huge shock to the senses. This young man on the other side is going to want to know, who are all these other people? Who is Radha? Who are the other people who were supposed to be in his life that he never knew about? That is what’s going on in book number three without revealing too much. I just want to reveal that much. I think you can probably figure out the rest if you have read book number one.

Zibby: Wow, that sounds great. I also worked, by the way — I helped launch a fragrance for Unilever, the Vera Wang fragrance. We had to go down and meet the nose. We had a scent tasting, if you will. What do you call it? We had to learn how to identify all the different scents and everything. I learned so much about that industry, which is fascinating.

Alka: Were you in France at the time?

Zibby: No, I was here in New York. There was some center here downtown, the Center for Fragrance, CFF. I don’t know, something like that.

Alka: Yes, it’s IFF.

Zibby: Yes, IFF.

Alka: You know, I was just there a week ago in New York City. I visited the IFF labs and just wanted to know, what does a lab look like? You see all those little vials everywhere.

Zibby: Yes, it was so cool.

Alka: It was totally cool. I’m learning a lot. The research that’s involved in book number three is about the fragrance industry, how fragrances are made. Then of course, there’s a lot about adoptions. There’s a lot about adoptees. I’m doing all this research on, what does it feel like to find out that you were adopted at some point in your life?

Zibby: Right, because that was a theme in this, keeping the secret from a twelve-year-old, which it is not easy to do.

Alka: It’s not easy to do.

Zibby: No, it’s not easy to do. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Alka: I have three magic potions that I have come up with over time. One of them is passion. You have to have the passion for what you’re writing about. The moment you get tired of your characters or your story, your reader will also. You have to have some kind of passion for why you’re creating this story. I created the original Henna Artist because I wanted to reimagine a life for my mother as a far more independent woman than the life that she actually got to live. This was all fiction and just reimagining this life where she leaves her marriage. She decides not to have children. She decides to fashion her own life for herself as this amazing henna artist and herbalist. Then in The Secret Keeper, my passion is, I love Malik. I want everybody to know what happened to him and also that he grew into this man that you didn’t expect of him at the age of eight. Now you think, oh, my gosh, I’m so happy that he grew into this guy. He’s still loyal. He is still a true-blue kind of person, so very happy for him. Then I have this passion about gold and jewelry that comes into play in The Secret Keeper. Then in book number three, I have a passion for fragrances and scents. That’s going to come into play there.

Number two, of the magic of the three Ps, has to be persistence. You have to stay with it. The first book took me ten years and thirty drafts. The second book then, because I learned how to write a novel and I learned how to sustain character tension and plot tension throughout, it only took me two years total. Persistence pays. You have to stick with it. You have to keep going even when you think, no, it’s going to work. I’m not meant to be a writer. This novel sucks. Whatever it is that you’re thinking, you need to stick with it. The third magic of the three Ps has to be patience. I am not patient with myself. I get frequently frustrated when things are not easy enough. I think, why isn’t this coming so easily? My husband is the one who has really taught to be a lot more patient. He said writing is like anything else that you want to get good at, whether it’s painting or Olympic skiing. You have to tell yourself, okay, that didn’t work. I’m going to try it again. That didn’t work. I’ll try it again another way. That is the only way that you get good at writing. Passion, persistence, and patience I think are the three keys for good writing.

Zibby: And maybe perfect husband, which it sounds like maybe you have. Just throwing that out there. Just throwing it out there.

Alka: We all have to have partners in our lives who are really going to support us throughout our journeys. Just the same way that we support them, I think it’s just as important for husbands to support wives throughout their journeys too.

Zibby: Thank you, Alka. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for putting all of your wonderful stories in the world. I can’t wait for the new book to come out whenever that one comes out too. Congratulations.

Alka: Hopefully, Zibby, it’s going to come out about the same time that we’ll be filming the TV series for The Henna Artist.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, so much cool stuff going on for you.

Alka: I just feel like everything is lining up to that moment. It’s all going to be all henna, all the time.

Zibby: Amazing. I can’t wait for that too.

Alka: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Alka: Bye.



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