Asha Nehemiah: Interviewed by Vimala Malhotra

Asha Nehamiah is well-known and well-loved for her wacky, funny books. She talks about the forthcoming Trouble with Magic with Vimala Malhotra, who runs the wonderful Hippocampus, Bangalore.

VM: For me the title does it – it sets up expectations of whackiness, fun and naughtiness and Veena and Aunt Malu live up to it. As a storywriter what is the importance of the title when writing for the newly armed independent reader? I ask this because I am assuming – rightly or wrongly – that this category of reader maybe making more book selection decisions themselves, as against a younger reader for whom the parent and illustrations make the decision!

AN: I’m so delighted that the title has set up all these expectations! The title, as an integral part of the cover design, is vitally important in attracting the reader to the book. I think that applies to all age groups and for parents too who choose books for children. Readers want an instant visual and verbal preview of what the book promises. Having said that – I must admit that I am notoriously bad at coming up with a good titles and my editors have to hand-hold me quite a lot in this area. Sayoni was very patient with me and this title is actually one that she suggested.

VM: “The thinking part is the most crucial part. That’s the idea part. I don’t even put a word to paper until I have kind of not a full blown idea because wonderful things can happen in the process, but I have to have what I consider a good idea.” Tomie dePaola. From what I understand there are possibly two kinds of start to a story – the sudden flash of an idea or having to work, work, work toward one. What is it that led to ‘Trouble With Magic’. Or maybe there are other triggers?

AN: I don’t remember the actual sequence of how Trouble with Magic became a story. For me, most of my ‘Eureka! moments’ in writing come from putting pen (or nicely sharpened pencil) to paper and drawing all sorts of complicated maps and cobwebs with story ideas going all over the place. That usually works. So does jotting down random exciting stuff I happen to see or overhear, on notepads and bits of paper. My handbag usually yields an assortment of fairly-workable ideas scribbled behind grocery lists and bills.

VM: The two protagonists of your latest book to me indicate the validity of ‘child is the father of man’ in a very entertaining manner. The child is in fact the ideator, the manipulator and the deal closer; while the aunt is the one blowing in the wind, very easy to manipulate and convince. Was this conscious characterization?

AN:No, not a conscious characterization at all. But yes, I do feel that some of the most exciting ideas on how to have fun come from children. When an adult succumbs to these ideas – unexpected things are bound to happen. And that’s what takes place in Trouble with Magic. Aunt Malu is the only adult in the family who indulges Veena and goes along with her ideas – with wonderfully funny consequences.

VM: Veena’s ‘brilliant ideas’ are just the excuse Aunt Malu needs to indulge in some fun that she wouldn’t otherwise have considered. I think most adults have this need or trait. So is writing such fun, bordering on slapstick fantastical stories your escape route to indulging the child in you?

AN: You’re right. For me, writing is fun (besides being hard work too, of course) and the perfect outlet to the zany, wacky side of my personality.

VM: I absolutely love the crazy concoctions that you have dreamed up from Aunt Malu’s workshop and would personally love a can of each of those magical paints. Who needs TV and surround sound when they can just opt for these paints! Did your love of baking contribute to the most exotic ingredients that go into making Aunt Malu’s herbal products?

AN: Psst, I do have a secret stash of some of these concoctions and if you’re up to some adventure, I could share a bottle or two with you! Ha, ha. More seriously, I do love the idea of putting strange things together with unexpected results. I also love the idea of mundane commonplace things behaving in bizarre and surprising ways. Yes, I love baking but have yet to include some of the exotic ingredients Aunt Malu uses like: pineapple prickles and whispery onions skins.

VM: There are not too many Indian authors who are writing for the child who has just started chapter books . Why do you think this is?

AN: This segment is just evolving in India and beginning to get the attention it needs. More Indian publishers are commissioning authors to write chapter books.

VM: More recently you have started addressing the 7-9 year-old readers. What conscious changes have you had to make while making this shift from writing for the 3-5 year-olds to the 7 + audiences? And why the shift?

AN: I was offered the opportunity to reach these readers and grabbed it! Because apart from writing for the 3-5yrs age group, I’ve been writing for the 9-12 yrs age group for many years. While writing for 7+ age group, I assume that the parents may not read aloud to the child. So I try to ensure that the child can enjoy the book absolutely independently. The stories have to be very exciting, the plot needs a little more than one simple linear storyline. The narration must have some stylistic flair but the vocabulary has to be appropriate without being too dull and simple.

VM: You have an inclination for fantasy. What were your favorite books as a child of let’s say 7 to 9 yrs of age – and have they coloured your bias toward this genre?

AN: I was 8yrs old many decades ago so my favourite books were Enid Blyton’s adventure series from where I went directly to adult books. Those were the only options available to kids then. I do like using fantasy in my writing. But more than creating alternate worlds or introducing supernatural elements, I love writing about fantastic things that sound like they could very easily happen to you or me. Trouble with Magic first appeared in a different, very abridged form in a children’s magazine. The editor told me that she received many letters from kids asking where they could buy the products mentioned in my story. I enjoyed that response!

VM: The illustrations strengthen the slapstick value of the story and children this age are endlessly entertained by this flavor in a story and for me this works as it tempts children to read more. What is your take?

AN: Children love funny, they love wacky, they super-love gross, they love eccentric — and so do I. So do many adults. But yes, children do enjoy slapstick with more abandon. And Priyanker’s illustrations are great! Some portray the straightforward in-your-face humour. But some are more subtle … like the one of the retreating elephant. That was one of my favourites in the book.

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