Sunday, June 27, 2010

Uma Krishnaswami

Uma Krishnaswami is the author of over a dozen books for children. Uma's poems and short stories from pre-school to YA have been published in Highlights for Children and magazines of the Cricket group. Her books have been picked for CCBC Choices, Parent's Choice, IRA Notable Books for a Global Society and other honors. In addition to her writing and speaking, she reviews children's books for CLCD.

Her newest book, Out of the Way! Out of the Way!, is available from Tulika Books. I interviewed Uma recently in preparation for her blog tour.

Tell us about how Out of the Way! Out of the Way! came to be? How did the tree, the boy, and the road develop? How long was the process from idea to publication?

I've described the development of the story in some detail in my interviews with Through the Tollbooth: and Asia in the Heart: It has many layers, and came from many places. As for how long, I'm slow. This story, less than 500 words, got whittled down to its present shape over the course of five years or so. I looked up my files, and the first journal notes I have about it are from back in 2005.

Does having a multicultural, and lingual, audience change the “voice” of the story? Are you conscious of this as you write?

I was too conscious of it in earlier versions. I think in part that's why it took so long to find its form. If I were to do it over, I'd pay closer attention to where the story wanted to go, and I'd probably trust my own judgment more than I did in the beginning.

How and when did you get into writing? Could you tell us a bit about your educational and/or professional background?

I wrote and read at a ferocious pace when I was a child growing up in India, but it never occurred to me that I could be a writer. Honestly, I thought I'd have to be English and dead, as that pretty much described the writers I was reading. So when it was time to think about college and work I went in a very different direction. I have Master's degrees in Social Work and Rehabilitation Counseling, and I worked as a counselor for over ten years, and after that at the University of Maryland coordinating a grant program related to Special Education teacher training. And all that time, I'd volunteer to do all kinds of writing--grants, reports, journal articles, proposals. I cranked them all out, and I think I also learned to listen to people's stories. It was all good, and in hindsight it was all training for what I do now.

You are member of the Children’s Book Guild; do you belong to any other organizations or writing communities? What impact, if any, does this have on your writing?

I'm a member of SCBWI, and have been for years, ever since I first began writing seriously for the children's market. At that time, I also frequented the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The first class I took was with Judy Morris there. It was terrific--it felt as if I'd come home, to a place where people talked seriously about stories and young readers. And the Children's Book Guild of course was a gift to me when I was newly published and eager to connect with those whose work I knew and admired: Mary Downing Hahn, Lulu Delacre, and Susan Roth who is a dear friend now, were all so very kind and welcoming. At this time I'd have to say my primary writing community is the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I teach there, and the residencies in January and July feed my writing needs every bit as much as they support and inform students. There is no question that I'm driven to stretch as a writer because of my students and my fellow faculty at VCFA. More locally, I belong to a writing group in New Mexico: These women are dear to me as friends and as important, necessary critics of my work in progress. We've grown together as writers and human beings.

You were one of the first writers to mentor using the internet. How and when did that start?

I began offering classes on the Internet through in 1997. We were moving to New Mexico, and I felt I knew enough about the craft of writing that I had something to say to others who wanted to learn it. I'm very grateful to Mark Dalhby, who runs, for letting me float my first class online. And to all the students who took those classes over the 12 years I taught there. Everything I know about teaching, everything that allowed me to move on to VCFA, I learned from them. And here's a wonderful footnote. When I was hired at VCFA I knew I couldn't keep teaching online as well. There weren't enough hours in the day! I didn't want to just shut those classes down, either, so I was fortunate to find wonderful people (VCFA alums Sarah Aronson and Debby Edwardson) who have taken them over, transformed them, and made them their own work.

You have been reviewing for Children’s Literature for many years now, what role does this play in your own writing? Is it helpful to keep your finger on the pulse of children’s literature?

It's enormously helpful to both writing and teaching. I've told Marilyn [Courtot] that the best thing she can do for me as a writer is to send me a variety of books that push my reading beyond its customary limits. Reviewing challenges me to be thoughtful and generous and balanced about the books I read. That doesn't mean I end up liking all of them, but really, it's not even about whether I like them or not. Reviewing pushes me to judge a book not by what I would want it to be, but by the extent to which it seems to have realized its writer's intent. That in turn helps me to better recognize my own intent for work in progress.

Do you find it hard to read for pleasure?

Not at all. My secret addiction for which I try to set aside time in the summer, is the murder mystery. This week, in case you want to know, I'm reading The Feng Shui Detective by Nury Vittachi. Some years ago my local library shut down for a couple of weeks in the summer for a big move, and I was distraught. I think I went there just before they closed and cleaned out the mystery shelves in case I got stuck without a good read.

What books that you have reviewed have captured your attention lately?

Oh I would very much like to talk about two books, both of which I read on planes in the last few days, and both of which grabbed me in different ways.

One is Diane Stanley's Saving Sky. It's a near-future story set in northern New Mexico, with a premise that comes right out of our present-day world in which security and human rights are going head to head. Diane makes these perfect writing choices, pans the camera out in just the right way. I think I made the person next to me on the plane a little nervous, because I kept exclaiming in delight or apprehension as I read about young Sky, her choices and understandings about herself, her changing world, and the real danger her friend Kareem is in.

The other is a picture book, Coppernickel, the Invention by Wouter van Reek, a translation from the Dutch. I'm in love with translated books these days, you can imagine why. This one's got a really cool twist that makes you sit up and pay attention and wonder if you quite got what the story was about until that point. It's funny and ingenious, and then it segues from that into a lovely ending about friendship. But that little torque to the story is quite unusual, both visually and in terms of plot.

Is there anything you would go back and change in your career? Things you would do differently in hindsight?

I think I'd worry less and trust myself a bit more. Maybe listen more carefully, read those rejection letters with a more positive frame of mind. Recognize that this may be the only business in the world in which long, lasting friendships and professional relationships are built upon rejection.

Lastly, can you tell us about any future projects?

Happily. I have a middle grade novel due out next year from Atheneum. The title is still to be decided upon but it will be great, whatever it is. I can tell you that the story is about a star-struck pair of friends on opposite sides of the world from each other, united by a common obsession. There is a host of eccentric characters, as well as goats, monkeys, a flower that blooms only every twelve years, and chocolate. Oh, and there is dancing.

I should warn you that it also contains trees (one in particular) and a road. I just can't seem to shake those off.

Thank you Uma! This post marks the final day of the blog tour for Out of the Way Out of the Way! For other stops on the tour visit Uma's blog Writing with a Broken Tusk and for information about Uma's speaking engagements visit

Emily Griffin

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this interview. I loved learning about the books Uma is reading!!