“I couldn’t wait to see what would happen if I actually wrote them down.”
Most days I think about writing far more than I actually write. A swamped desk at work, an evening at home playing with my kids, a strong desire to sleep at night, all of these things often take priority over writing. So instead I try to untangle tricky plot points in my head during the in-between times. On the drive home, I’ll try to nail down character motivations. While waiting in line at McDonald’s (sigh, it’s almost always McDonald’s), I’ll expand on loose bits of dialogue. During an otherwise boring meeting, I’ll focus on how to create more conflict for scenes that drag. By doing this, I can stay focused on my WIP, but more importantly, I keep from getting too bummed out that I’m not where I want to be just yet.
One of my favorite authors/musicians/overall-human-beings, John Darnielle once said,“I think of writing as a place that you carry around inside of you.” And that’s definitely true.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to exchange a few emails with children’s author, Meera Sriram. Through the course of our conversation we hit a number of topics, but my favorite part was Meera talking about her early days of writing, when her ideas were just ideas and she was so excited to start.
It’s important to remember those daydream days, because they’re not always a waste of time. Sometimes they become something bigger.
So whether you’re thinking of stories while cooking dinner or in the shower or stuck in traffic, please know that you can get that story down on a Word.doc someday. And when you do, it might just be amazing.
Though even if it’s not, at least you’ll learn something new. Just keep going. Like Meera says, you’ll get there, it may just take some time.
Our conversation follows:
Dane wrote on February 17th at 10:38am:
Thanks so much for taking your time to do this. We’ll start right here if that’s okay with you.
What inspired you to start writing for children? Was it something that you daydreamed about for a while before you started or did you hit the ground running?
And then, if you don't mind sharing, what were your early attempts like when you first started out?
Take all the time you may need to write back. No rush at all. I look forward to reading your response!
Meera responded on February 23rd at 7:56pm:
Writing was the farthest thing on my mind until I became a mom. I was designing chips as an electrical engineer before that. Anyway, I was reading lots of board books and picture books to my daughter. And I became particularly fascinated by the concept of picture books. More so because I never had them growing up. I was born and raised in India and most of what I had read were either comics or novels (British/American classics and mystery). And to see a medium as beautiful and powerful as a picture book blew me away.
During this time, I was also actively seeking stories that would resonate with at least a few of my family’s experiences. However, I soon realized there was something missing in what was offered as mainstream children’s literature, because many people and experiences were completely absent. And that’s around when I began thinking about creating what I wished to see in books.
You are right in asking if I ever daydreamed—yes, totally! I daydreamed for months before quitting my corporate job. I would line up ideas and imagine plots in my head while driving, cooking, in the shower. I couldn’t wait to see what would happen if I actually wrote them down. In the end, I did quit my job and write.
My first attempt was to write for an Indian audience. The backstory is that whenever I traveled to India to visit family, I would search for books (on India) for my toddler. But nothing much had changed over the decade – books were either from the West or the homegrown ones were of poor quality. I was excited to bring something new over there and to sort of give back to my roots. I discovered a couple of publishers who were trying to put out fresh content. I collaborated with a friend. And ended up co-authoring four books, mostly narrative non-fiction, that came out between 2010 and 2013. They’re on lesser known communities, animals, forests, and vocations within India.
A year later, I started thinking about writing for kids here. For reasons I had talked about earlier. I had a long list of ideas. I was writing, but not consistently. In January 2015, I joined SCBWI and a critique group. That’s when I really got into solid picture book writing. I still remember my first manuscript that I took to my very first critique meeting, and it was long! Taking feedback was initially hard but very helpful. I wrote and revised. I began attending workshops and reading up on craft topics. Slowly, I was writing more, better.
Well, I’m still learning and writing.
Dane replied on February 24th at 1:15pm:
Thank you so much for sharing how you started writing. I can totally relate to how exciting it was to first start writing and how that stays with you. I’m still a daydreamer too, constantly thinking about what I want to accomplish when I grow up, rarely recognizing that I’m getting older every day. There’s so much than writing gives us, and that’s maybe my favorite thing about it: the ability to hope and dream. It keeps me feeling young.
On March 12th, 2019, your debut picture book, The Yellow Suitcase will be out (those interested can order it here). The early reviews are amazing:
“A thoughtful story that artfully addresses the loss of a grandparent from an immigrant perspective.”– Kirkus Review of The Yellow Suitcase, Dec 2018
“This thoughtful picture book provides a rare and necessary perspective, free of tropes and clichés… Asha’s feelings gives this book powerful bibliotherapeutic value…” – American Library Association’s (ALA) Booklist, Jan 2019
“…beautifully bittersweet expression of love and loss…” – Foreword Reviews, starred review
What was your motivation behind writingThe Yellow Suitcase? Was there anything in your drafting process that made The Yellow Suitcase stand out from some your earlier attempts?
Meera replied on March 2nd at 4:05pm:
Well said, Dane — writing gives us the ability to hope and dream! Beautiful.
There are countless experiences in our lives, and yet if you think about it we don't touch upon many of them in our stories. Maybe because we're uncomfortable. Or maybe because we underestimate kids. In fact, I think that most books that are shelved "niche" deserve to be mainstream. We don't buy them until we really "need" them. However, reading outside of our own experience is valuable as it helps build empathy and resilience. I always believed in this.
So I thought back to my own family's experiences where my kids could've used a book to either understand something better or for others to better understand what they were going through. Something that was important and relevant, and yet considered off-limit in books. I ended up with death. And how my children reacted when they lost their grandfather in India. Our challenges were also unique because our kids are raised bi-cultural and we call two countries home. I knew then I had a story to tell. I was excited because it also gave me an opportunity to break stereotypes in many areas.
Great question (on the drafting process)! I'm trying to think.... I remember sharing the story outline with my critique group before I started writing anything. It was the first time I did that. I also remember taking it to several workshops and having many people read it once I had a reasonably revised draft.
I did both mainly because it was a very sensitive subject. Both these helped make sure I handled the delicate parts right. Besides these, the writing mostly came about by tapping into the raw innocence of a child. I would consciously remind myself to do this because the conflict in this story was internal, unlike some of the other stories I was working on around the same time.
Dane replied on March 3rd at 5:24pm:
Thank you, Meera. I totally agree with the importance of reading stories outside of our own experiences. They help us build empathy and find new ways to connect with one another. Well said.
In a previous interview, illustrator Charlene Chua provided some valuable insight into what it's like for an illustrator to work on a picture book, so I'm curious now what it's like for the author.
What was it like working with illustrator, Meera Sethi, for The Yellow Suitcase? Did you have an illustrator in mind once you completed the story? How much input did you have in how the artwork came out?
Meera answered on March 5th at 11:51pm:
It has been absolutely wonderful knowing and collaborating with Meera, the illustrator. I must thank my editors at Penny Candy for bringing her on board. Well, what are the odds of ending up with a namesake? That in itself is a joy!
I did not have an illustrator in mind at any stage. But I knew there were certain aspects that were important, like the choice of colors and cultural details, as the story is set in India and the main character is Indian-American.
With Meera’s artistic background, her contribution fit right in for this project. When the cover art was first revealed, I knew it was going to be perfect! Meera's aesthetics included bold colors and prints - all the right elements to counterbalance a rather quiet story. She also brought the authenticity I had hoped for, with regard to depicting an Indian household, snapshots of funeral customs, and all the cultural details in the story. I had the opportunity to look at the spreads and share my thoughts. And I was blown away by how well she had captured everything. I did make a couple of suggestions which were incorporated. I remember seeing the art and tearing up for the first time as the story truly came alive, beautifully.
Dane wrote back on March 6th at 3:44pm:
Ah, I bet that was amazing to see your story brought to life and beautifully illustrated.
Did you feel a similar thing when you got your own copies of The Yellow Suitcase? What was that like?
How’re you feeling now that you're just under a week away from your official release date?
Meera wrote on March 8th at 12:19pm:
I think I didn't feel as much a rush as I did when I saw the text and illustrations laid out together for the first time, even though it was a soft copy. But I did experience most of the same emotions in a calmer, sort of more composed way when I held my physical copy. I was smiling a lot! These days, a surreal feeling takes over when I see the book on my desk or my kids holding it. Then I take deep breaths and get pumped to keep at it, to work harder.
I'm not nervous when I think about the release date or the immediate weeks following release. However, when I think about the reception long term - will educators, librarians, booksellers, and parents see the value and importance in terms of theme, perspective, and representation as much as I do - so yeah, that thought sometimes gets me a bit antsy. I guess it's best to focus on my launch event next week for now!
Dane replied on March 9th at 10:55am:
I hope you have a fantastic book release! I'll be sending good vibes from many hours away here in Illinois. What exactly do you have planned for your book event?
And then, for my very last question, I love that you mentioned taking a moment to notice how wonderful the little things are (seeing your children holding your book) while still digging deep and deciding to push yourself harder. What are some lessons you've learned so far in the process?
You've went from being an electrical engineer daydreaming of book ideas to being an author on the eve of her debut release, that's so awesome! So while I'm sure there is still plenty ahead, I just want to say congratulations and I'm so excited to see what's yet to come for you and your career.
Meera replied on March 11th at 12:15am:
Thanks, Dane. I need the wishes, and I'm taking them all!
I used to review multicultural books for an online magazine so for my book release event, I've requested the editor who became a close friend to talk for a few minutes on the importance of reading diverse books. I'll share my book/journey for a few minutes as well. Then I'll be reading the book aloud, followed by signing, a couple of crafts, and a small treat.
I've learned a lot craft wise. Besides that, the biggest lesson I've learned is that not all editors will love my work or share my vision and that is okay. While it is important to revise relentlessly, it is equally important to hold on to my vision sometimes. And to trust that the story will find its home some day. Because sometimes, the soul of the story could get lost with iterative revisions.
Lastly, to end in a more positive note (even though it's a cliché): perseverance *will* pay off. It might take time, but it will eventually pay off. I tell myself this almost every day.
It was a pleasure talking to you, Dane! Thank you so much for your time, support, and fantastic questions.
Thank you, Meera!
Meera Sriram is a children’s writer, an early literacy instructor, and an advocate and activist for diverse bookshelves. You can visit Meera’s website and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.