Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Eleven Up: Interview with Sheela Chari, author of VANISHED

Please welcome Sheela Chari to the Apocalypsies blog! Her middle grade mystery novel, VANISHED, is out today.

Eleven-year-old Neela dreams of being a famous musician, performing for admiring crowds on her traditional Indian stringed instrument. Her particular instrument used to be her grandmother’s—made of warm, rich wood, and intricately carved with a mysterious-looking dragon. When this special family heirloom vanishes from a local church, Neela is devastated. As she searches for it, strange clues surface: a teakettle ornamented with a familiar-looking dragon, a threatening note, a connection to a famous dead musician, and even a legendary curse. The clues point all the way to India, where it seems that Neela's instrument has a long history of vanishing and reappearing. If she is able to track it down, will she be able to stop it from disappearing again? 

Here's my interview with Sheela!

Please tell us about your path to publication. How long did it take Vanished to get written and published?
Sometimes I think I have the shortest path to publication …and the longest. The actual story took about a year and a half to write and polish, and about 6 months to find representation. After I signed with my agent, I revised some with him for almost 10 months, and then we went on submission for about a year. This had to be the longest stage in the whole process. During that time I became pregnant with my second child, and I use to joke to everyone that I wondered if I would have my baby first or get a book deal.  Well…the baby did come first. By about 4 months! I sold my book in 2008, but it would be 3 years before I would see its publication.

During those three years I changed editors once (my acquiring editor went to another publisher), and I got bumped from 2010 to 2011. Was it worth it? Absolutely. My new editor was fantastic and VANISHED is better and stronger than it ever was. I also got to help start the Elevensies, and I know that I’ve definitely grown so much over the past few years, not just as a writer, but as a reader and reviser. When you add up everything, from idea to publication, it took me a total of 6 years!

Veena (source: webIndia123.com)
In the novel, Neela loses a family heirloom, her grandmother’s veena. This made me think about significant things I owned and lost as a kid, through carelessness or neglect (like diamond earrings from my grandmother – I was supposed to get married in them!) Have you ever lost something significant, and if so, did that help you to imagine Neela’s reaction?

I know I must have lost some very important items in my life, but the one that comes to mind is a dark blue, cable-knit sweater I owned when I was sixteen. I had traveled with my high school orchestra from Pullman, WA to Seattle to hear the Seattle Symphony perform. While we were there, I put down my sweater on a bench somewhere, then forgot to take it with me. Sometime later I remembered and raced back, but the sweater was gone. It seems silly to mourn the loss of a sweater, but for me, I have a TERRIBLE memory. I only remember with certainty the things I record somewhere – in a journal, on camera, etc – or through the things I own. Material objects carry a lot of meaning for me, because they help me to remember. And as awful as my memory is, I do remember that sweater and all the places I went in it (including Berkeley, CA, which for me as a teenager, was the coolest place I could imagine). Having that sweater taken away from me, was almost like having those memories taken away, too. 

Did this experience help me to imagine Neela’s reaction? I do know that the guilt she felt about her veena’s disappearance was one of the hardest emotions for me to describe. It was important not to understate it, but I also had to be careful not to overdo it either. Once my brother was looking after a friend’s veena for the summer in Boston, where it gets insanely hot. The frets on a veena are made out of wax. Unfortunately, my brother left his friend’s veena outside in a car one day, when the temperature was really high, and the wax actually melted into a thick goop. He felt terrible! It turns out that the wax frets on a veena have to be regularly replaced because of their extreme malleability. So, it wasn’t the end of the world – but for a short period of time, it felt like it was for my brother. There is nothing worse than damaging someone else’s belongings. I tried to tap into that particular humiliation, and my brother’s experience certainly did help!

Here’s one of my favorite lines in the novel: “The world seemed full of surprises, of strange secrets, hidden talents, and unexpected discoveries.” This reveals Neela’s state of mind as she pieces together her clues, but I think it also captures something about being a pre-teen, about becoming more aware of the wider world. Can you say a little bit about why you chose to write for middle-grade readers, and what you enjoy about the age of your characters? 

I started writing a middle grade novel quite by accident. VANISHED was originally a birthday gift for my then 8-year-old niece – a story that would amuse her, but which I never dreamt would be read by a larger audience. But something happened as I wrote – an immediate comfort level, as if the story on paper matched the sensibility inside my head. 

If I look at my older work – at the short stories I published in the adult literary market, the writing hasn’t changed all that much – nor has the voice. But I find that my ability to craft a plot has significantly improved and sharpened…it’s as if I have a greater pool of experience to draw upon when writing about kids than I did when writing about adults. The first short story I published was about a retired married couple—which I wrote in grad school when I was in my twenties and still single! Imagine that! 

Writing VANISHED has been like opening the door to a part of my past I intensely enjoyed. I’m not saying 5th grade was perfect. But there were perfect moments…and even though I have a terrible memory, I do remember those perfect moments completely…maybe it was because I was at an age when reading was everything. Or that having a best friend was just as important as falling in love (or even better), that school was a safe place where I looked up to teachers, even the eccentric ones, and most important of all, I had the whole possibility of the future out ahead of me, fresh and unknown. 

I really enjoyed solving the mystery alongside Neela, and marveled at your intricate plotting. What do you find most rewarding about writing a mystery? And most challenging?

I have one word: plot. Before VANISHED, my plots generally consisted of two characters who misunderstand each other having a sudden, fleeting moment of mutual understanding. THIS IS NOT PLOT. This is character growth perhaps, or what might be called literary writing. For a while, I was very happy writing no-plot…often times plot serendipitously found me. When I got to end of writing a short story, a light-bulb would go off in my head and I would think, Oh, so that’s what this story is about! But when I started writing an adult novel (which I never finished), I ran into the all-encompassing problem of no-plot.

VANISHED never had a no-plot problem. You simply cannot have a mystery without a plot. Mysteries require intense planning. And even though it was incredibly hard to plan everything out ahead of time (premise + suspicious characters + red herrings + believable culprit + resolution), writing a mystery novel was the best thing that happened to me. It made me appreciate pacing and chapter breaks, to learn to write effective dialogue and meaningful action, and how to think more like a reader. The challenge was doing all of this while still maintaining depth to my characters. In VANISHED, my characters do still grow (I hope), but I tried to think about how their personal growth was in service of the plot, and vice versa. In other words, how did Neela’s quest to find the lost veena help her to grow as a character? And how did her growth as a character help to search for the veena? All good for me.

Please tell us about your writing process. I’m especially curious if you write to music, since this is such a musical novel, or if you prefer silence. 

Oh, definitely no music! I need silence and a good cup of coffee.

Although I did make an exception when I was working on passages where I described someone playing the veena. I really have to say, THANK GOODNESS FOR YOUTUBE. For those parts, I played music I found on youtube by E. Gayatri to hear the right sounds as I wrote about them.

I was shocked to learn you are not a veena player yourself! The details about this instrument are so precise. I also learned a lot about dragons and wyverns and Indian culture. How do you balance writing and research? 

In most cases, I read only as much as I need to start or get on with my story. Then when I’m done, I go back and do more research to see if what I’ve “guessed” is right. I suppose this is very backwards. Because sometimes I do guess wrong, and I have to do a substantial amount of backtracking and reworking. But I do the research last because I think there is some magical that happens when you write spontaneously without researching it all ahead of time. 

I know this runs counter to what I said before about mystery and plot and planning. Which is why I think it’s even more important to build these spontaneous moments into my writing where I can. Also I find that even though sometimes I guess wrong (for example, I never realized just how big and difficult a veena is to carry and transport until I started asking people about it), most of the time, my writing muse leads me in the right direction. 

With the veena, which I don’t play (I play the violin), I tried to impose all the qualities I felt when I played the violin, on my character Neela when she played the veena (the need to get it right, the frustration of missing/misplaying notes, the fear of playing in front of others, the pipedreams of envisioning yourself as a musician in an unknown future). The actual mechanics of playing the veena – I left blank. But I went back and did my research later. I interviewed a veena teacher, then later a veena maker, who both helped me write with accuracy about what a veena sounds, feels, and looks like.

I loved how Neela has to practice the veena on a battered old instrument after the elegant veena  gets stolen. When she complains, Sudha Auntie, Neela’s veena teacher, says, “It’s practice that makes you a great musician, not the instrument.” Does this lesson apply to writing as well? What do you think makes someone a good writer?

I agree with Sudha Auntie about the importance of discipline – and committing yourself to show up for the job (whether it’s practicing an instrument or writing for a period of time, on a consistent basis). I think discipline and commitment really take you places. It’s what helped me finished VANISHED, and will hopefully help me to finish my next novel, too. 

But I also agree with Neela’s grandmother, who tells Neela to “play for yourself, and the rest will come beautifully.” At the end of the day, we create for ourselves, and it’s so important that we feel a sense of accomplishment and happiness with what we do. We are our first reader and audience.

Finally, since is the Apocalypsies blog, I must ask you: what prized possession would you grab before you run to your bunker?

Oh, man! I could make up something honorable, like taking WAR & PEACE (which I adore, but seriously, it’s too heavy to carry), or I could be sensible and say I’d bring a warm blanket and bottled water. But the truth is that I’d probably bring my iPad, so that I could check email and watch movies on Netflix. Of course, this would all be fine until the battery ran out…

Thanks so much for dropping by, Sheela, and congratulations on your book launch today!

Fortunately, Sheela's not vanishing! Here's where to find her online:

Visit Sheela's website
Follow Sheela on Twitter
Read Sheela's blog


  1. Yay for VANISHED! congratulations, Sheela - I've been looking forward to this one for SO LONG. And hey, we're soul mates in the "need silence" department. Hope your release day is a happy one. xo

  2. I have wanted to read this one since the first time I saw its cover (I seriously love that cover). And this interview makes me want to read it more.

  3. I'll have to get this one! I'm not a big plotter either, but it looks like my next midgrade will be a mystery. Pretty much forces us non-plotters to come up with a good plot!

    Congratulations on your debut, Sheela!

  4. Congratulations, Sheela! Here's to a wonderful launch today. xo

  5. Thanks for such a wonderful interview, Diana! And thanks to all of you for reading it!

  6. great interview! So interesting that you started this to be a gift! I love that your really got into it! And I also need silence to write!
    VANISHED just arrived in my mailbox with it's gorgeous cover. YAY!