Thursday, March 28, 2013

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni on Creating Suspense, Multiple POVs, and More: An Interview with the Author of Oleander Girl

Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Simon & Schuster ~ 289 pages

Interview by Debby DeRosa

How much of our identity is decided by our background, and how much can we choose?  18-year-old orphan Korobi Roy must find out for herself during the course of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s new novel, Oleander Girl.Sheltered by her traditional grandfather, Korobi has grown up knowing little about her parents.  Her only tie to them is a letter her mother wrote to her father, which causes her to long for a love like theirs.  She meets Rajat, a handsome playboy from a wealthy family, and she thinks she has found what she desires.  Then, on the night of her engagement party, her grandfather dies from a heart attack, and she discovers a dark family mystery.  Putting her relationship in jeopardy, she travels from India to the United States to discover who she really is. Told from four points of view, Korobi’s captivating story explores the challenges of navigating a world filled with differences. 
Busy on her book tour, Divakaruni spares some time to share her techniques and intentions in writing Oleander Girl.
The oleander is a prevalent image in your book.  Could you talk a little about the importance of this image in your story and why you chose this particular flower?
The oleander seemed to be the perfect symbol for the book on many levels. It is ambiguous, both positive and negative, beautiful and dangerous --and hardy, capable of protecting itself. It is central to the mystery of the protagonist Korobi’s mother Anu, because Anu (dying at childbirth) chooses to name her daughter after this complicated flower. A question that drives the novel is why Anu chooses to name Korobi after this flower. Why not Rose or Jasmine or Lily, as is more common? It is also a flower that grows in both India and America, connecting the two worlds through which the novel and our protagonist travels.
As the quotes on the cover describe, your story was a “page turner.”I found the book to be incredibly suspenseful because of the family mystery and way you switched points of view.  Could you talk a little about your process of creating suspense?
I think carefully about what to reveal and when. A secret is what propels the action of Oleander Girl, so I had to plan it carefully. I examined literary novels that I have enjoyed which depend for their effect on secrets and mysteries, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. I tried to make sure the suspense came as much out of character as out of event, and that its effects upon character were also seen clearly. I tried to plant enough foreshadowing so that the reader never felt tricked. I am glad it worked for you!
Even though you change points of view in the story, Korobi is the main character and heroine.  How did you decide to use multiple points of view?  What challenges and opportunities did this choice create for you when writing the book?
The book has four major narrators. Korobi, the 18-year-old heiress of a distinguished if dilapidated old Kolkata family, is engaged to Rajat, whose family is newly rich and very posh. (He’s actually quite the bad boy, partying hard until he meets Korobi.)She gets a first person narrative as this is largely her story. I decided on first person for her because I want the readers to experience her emotions and bewilderment and conflicts close-up, particularly when she discovers a huge secret that her grandfather has kept from her all her life. The other three—Rajat, her grandmother, and Rajat’s family chauffeur—all get a third person point of view, as I wanted some distance, some irony, in their understanding of their situations. I chose four very distinct characters from different generations andsocial and religious backgrounds so that their vision and understanding of what’s happening, what’s right, and what’s their duty would rub against each other, creating irony and tension.
Place is an important element inthe story.  The action of the story happens in India, New York, San Francisco, and Boston, often at the same time.  On top of that, Korobi speaks with people from Arizona and Georgia in her quest.  Why did you choose to include many places in your story, and how did you achieve the movement between places so seamlessly?
Oleander Girl is based on a mythic structure, the hero’s journey. (Though I’ve partly turned that structure on its head because unlike in the epics or myths like the Iliad where the male hero travels and the wife/sweetheart stays back home, here Korobi is the one who must undertake a dangerous journey alone and Rajat is left in India to feel anxiety, jealousy and some insecurity as he wonders if she will return to him or not.) This is why so many places are necessary in this novel. Place is always important to me. I feel it stamps itself upon character. I’m glad the movements work for you—they were a challenge, particularly as in half the world of the book it is night while in the other half it is daytime, and communication between the characters becomes increasingly difficult.
Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like people to know about your book?
This book grew out of my urgent belief that, as Auden says so beautifully"We must love one another or die."  How, in this increasingly multicultural world fraught with violence, are we to coexist in peace with people whose religions, beliefs, ideologies and customs are all different and maybe even opposed to ours?  In Oleander Girl, I pose this question, and I hope that by the end of the novel the reader comes up with a satisfying answer.  
Buy the book on Amazon or through independent bookstore Politics & Prose.
More information about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, including upcoming events. 

Note:  On May 9, Chitra Divakaruni will be in the DC area, reading from Oleander Girl, along with DC writer Manil Suri (who will read from his latest novel, City of Devi):  
7 pm ~ One More Page Books ~ 2200 N. Westmoreland Street, #101 ~ Arlington, VA

About the interviewer:  Debby DeRosa holds a BA in English from the University of South Carolina in Columbia and is working towards an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College.  She is scheduled to graduate in June.  She works as a Marketing Manager for Five Star Plumbing Heating Cooling in Greer, SC, and she freelances as a copywriter and content developer.  She and her husband, Joe, have one daughter, Aimee, and they are expecting their second child in August.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.