Behind the Scenes with Award-Winning Author Natasha Sharma
Recently, I had the luck to talk to award-winning author Natasha Sharma. We delved into her new books, the inspiration behind them and, in particular, we went behind the scenes of my favourite book – Vikram and the Vampire. She opened up her world of writing to me and helped me understand everything the literary headspace of an author. We talked about strong characters in her books, the source of many of her books and a lot more!
But, first, here’s how I over came my nerves:
Big Nerves, Bigger Smiles
I will admit, when Ms Sharma first entered the meeting, I clenched and unclenched my sweaty fists on my lap and offered a weak grin. I knew I was prepared for the interview, but sometimes nerves can get the better of us. Thankfully, I was inspired by an ice-breaker game played by the characters of one of my favorite book’s called ‘Everything, Everything.’
Reina: I thought we could play an ice-breaker game called ‘Fast Five Favourites.’ I know it’s hard to pick a favourite, but what’s your favorite picture book?
Natasha Sharma: Oh my god. So, you started this off by saying it’s very hard to pick a favourite and now you’re putting me on the spot! Okay, so my favourite picture book… (my gosh), I’m just going to go with an author – Oliver Jeffers. I love his work, I find it very, very contemporary and very topical. He’s capable of magic with concepts.
R: Favourite musician and artist?
NS: My favorite musician, is a really old one – Carol King. Love her music. As for artist, I really like the work of Francis Newton Souza. I find the work really interesting – the strokes. And, I love pencil work more than oil so I really enjoy his work.
R: Finally, your favourite dish and your favourite novel?
NS: My favourite dish to eat is by far mutton biriyani, it’s my comfort food! And, I love baking cakes. As for the favourite novel, I’m just going to let that slide because I have too many actually to name one!
I decided to understand what types of books and themes she liked reading, to see if those were the same ones she enjoyed writing.
R: Have you been writing or reading any books?
NS: There have been a couple of projects that have been going on and actually I’ve been busy with two books which are set to release at the beginning of Feb, 2022. They’re picture books and have been inspired by my dog Molly. The working title is What is Molly doing? So, it’s in the last stages with a lot of proofreading, back and forth with the marketing plan – so I’ve been really busy with that at that moment.
R: What themes in books do you enjoy reading?
NS: I enjoy historical fiction quite a bit. I find those really interesting. On the other flip side of it, I like really realistic writing as well. Beyond that, I wouldn’t say there is a particular genre I will consciously pick. I think its mainly based on my favourite authors, or what I’m reading is sounding interesting. Also what my mood is at the moment! Sometimes I just want a quick fast read or something that will get me into a really happy frame of mind. Whereas other times I’m very happy to delve into a much darker story. What I do tend to read less of are fantasy and science-fiction books.
Ms Sharma’s reading choices were also reflected in her writing. The genres she liked reading are the genres you will see in most of her books. I wanted to find out if that applied to her History Mystery series too.
R: So, is your love to read historical fiction the reason why you created the History Mystery series? Or is it because you liked history in school?
NS: Bizarrely enough, history wasn’t one of my favourite subjects at school. As a child, I was like- “why am I having to muck up all these dates and names?” Today history is taught very differently, where it’s contextualized. It gives you the broader picture, you understand that it’s the telling of stories. I grew up and began to read independently, I began to find both historical fiction and history books really interesting.
The History Mystery series that you are referring to came about in a very strange way. It wasn’t really well planned or thought through when I started writing them. I was doing a workshop and was asked to pick a genre that I hadn’t actually considered writing. And strangely enough, till then, I hadn’t considered writing historical fiction for children, so, I picked that. Then we were given a prop which we had to pull out of a bag without looking – I pulled out a sock. My mind immediately went- historical fiction and a sock?! But the people at the workshop were nice enough to say that I could use it broadly with feet, footsteps, something connected to socks and shoes.
That lead to a very small draft of Akbar and the Tricky Traitor. I enjoyed writing it and the publishers thankfully enjoyed reading that very short 1500-word short story.
Post that, they asked me if I would like to flesh this idea out into a full story? So I went back to doing a ton of research and that’s how the first book came about, and that evolved into the History Mystery series. So, it had a fairly circuitous journey to getting to series and writing historical fiction. But, I think there’s some love for it that definitely led to it eventually.
The History Mystery series is a unique take on the stories of the historical figures we’ve heard of since we were little in various bedtime tales. The roundabout journey and the fact that this is the first time Ms Sharma is exploring this genre makes this series even more remarkable.
The pandemic came with a lot of problems and sadness, but it also brought a new opportunity for filmmakers and authors – it led to them making movies and books about the pandemic. Natasha Sharma’s book ‘Princess Easy Pleasy is Bored’ is about the princess during the pandemic. When I read it, I wondered if the story was an outcome of Ms Sharma’s own pandemic experience.
R: One of your newest books- I think the second one in the Princess Easy Pleasy series – is it based on your personal time in the pandemic?
NS: The basic theme of it is. However, the primary theme was that we’re all stuck at home and children are cooped up inside and some of them might be saying that they’re bored, and even if they’re not saying it, parents are trying to figure out how to keep them busy. The idea was that it is great time to explore ways to join in household stuff which we just take for granted and don’t necessarily do. So, if they’re involved in bathing the dog or making the beds or actually doing some cooking with you in the kitchen or baking.
I think we can all relate to the book. During the pandemic everyone started helping around the house more, exploring new hobbies and themselves more. One more thing that struck me was how even in the darkest times, different people find a ray of light in different forms (in this case, in a book).
Most of Ms Sharma’s book involve made-up (and laugh-out-loud) characters with bizarre stories. And because of this very reason, I was quite surprised when I read the book – ‘The Good Indian Child’s guide to playing Cricket’ since it was very different from what she usually writes.
R: Your other book, ‘The Good Indian Child’s Guide to Playing Cricket,’ that’s a very different book from what you write. What inspired this book?
NS: It actually started with the first book in the series, ‘The Good Indian Child’s Guide to Eating Mangoes’, which is bizarre enough in itself. I mean why do you need a guide to eat mangoes? For me, a large part of every childhood summer was going through the parade of mangoes as they appeared. I was not familiar with the mangoes that you get here in Western India. So, that led to this spark of an idea that not only introducing children to different types of mangoes but the different ways to eat each mango is different. That’s where the series started and I wanted to build on that idea of Indian childhood.
As we all know, cricket is played in every lane, and when it’s on television the entire family gathers around. It’s a very inherent part of childhood in India- growing up in India. So, that’s where the second idea for the book came from.
Once more, the backstory to her books leaves me spellbound. One golden thing I’ve noticed in a lot of books is that the childhood and surroundings of the author also affect the story, which is applicable in this book too. This little fact also affects the reader – it gives them a feeling of nostalgia and reminds them of good times.
Out of all the amazing books she has written, Vikram and the Vampire left me intrigued. The story line, and the fact that this is her version of a story that existed generations back, left me hungry for answers.
Diving into Vikram And The Vampire
R: What inspired you to write it – was it stories from old version or was it your attachment to is reading it growing up?
NS: Actually, both. Vikram and the Vampire was actually a T.V. series when we were growing up. I think a lot of us while growing up saw that TV series, which was of course an adaptation of the old version. These stories were sort of an inherent part of our childhood. Everyone knew Vikram and Betal, and the short stories and the clever questions at the end of it.
So that was there in my head and there was this thought that I want to re-visit those stories and in my own way. But I also wanted to sort of stay true to the original structure and the sub-plots and pick a few of those. I read a lot of the absolute original versions of it- in English- and picked stories that appealed to me, and the sub-stories and the structures and worked with that as my base narrative.
Again, here, the fact that her childhood and surroundings shaped her stories stood out for me. The entire idea of it is lovely. It draws a parallel between the two generations. Taking something that they had in their childhood, and then paying it forward by giving it to us, in our childhood. When she mentioned picking some sub-stories and structures, it made me wonder if she had changed the stories or simply given her touch to them.
R: Have you changed all these stories or kept a few as they are?
NS: What I’ve done is kept the storyline the same, the problem or the key question that Betal asks the king is the same and the solution is possibly the same or a little bit different. But within that story structure of that substory, I have reworked and I have done my own interpretation of the characters, and how they’re personified in it, particularly where the women are concerned.
A very fragile part of re-writing a story that was originally written in a different era is that it has to be relatable to new readers and current day realities. I feel that was Ms Sharma’s aim too.
R: In all of your books, the baseline is humour – it has to be funny and relatable for children. Is that why you’ve changed a lot of the stories in ‘Vikram and The Vampire?’
NS: I think that over time you figure that you gravitate towards a certain writing style because that’s your style of writing. And for me I find that humour comes the most naturally, it’s the voice I like writing in. When I started off with Vikram and the Vampire it wasn’t necessarily with the thought that I have to make them funny. But the thing is – I’m freakishly spooked – I can’t write horror or scary stuff because I can’t even read it myself, so I knew that this is not going to stay in the spooky categor y- even if it’s got a vampire!
Once I started reading the stories, I realized that some of the plots and the structures are bizarre and they were written a thousand years ago. It actually lends itself to twisting time in a way that you can really have a lot of fun and make them really funny, because of the bizzare-ness of it. I think that was really exciting for me as a writer. So that’s where it sort of veered naturally into building a lot of humour, though that humour was not necessarily the way it was shown in the original plot.
I loved how Ms Sharma mentioned finding your own voice in writing since personally, that has been a very hard thing for me to do. If you read the various versions of the book, you’ll find that this version is the most understandable and relatable for you because of, as she mentioned, the humour that has been added.
Every strong female character has a strong woman as the motivation behind it. Earlier Ms Sharma had mentioned how, while re-writing, she changed the way women were portrayed. And in all the books that are written in that era, you will see the women as helpless creatures who are just side characters. But, in this version of Vikram and the Vampire the women are brave, headstrong princesses who fight their battle themselves. And I wanted to know if there was a strong woman behind these princesses.
R: Was the princess in the book inspired by someone you know or just the recent spotlight on women empowerment?
NS: I think everything is a part of our consciousness when we write – the circumstances and eras you have sort of grown up in, and you’re surrounded with. So, of course, it has an influence on what you want to portray. One of the things that really got to me when I was reading the original versions was how simpering, and helpless the women were portrayed.
That was one of the things I straight away said I want to rewrite. And therefore, yes, there was a conscious decision to portray them as much more independent-minded, but not just uni-dimensional. There are all kinds of people – I think growing up I had a very strong, independent, and very, very strong-willed and determined mother. I’ve always looked up to her and all that’s she’s been able to do. She’s been a great role model in my life.
I think there are all those aspects where you feel that the portray-er in stories and books needs to change, because when you portray something, it is when you bring it into the consciousness as well.
Understanding and re-writing the characters must have taken Ms Sharma a lot of time because the characters had to resonate with the readers and couldn’t be like how they were when originally written. It has always struck me how long authors take to finish their books and how we finish them in a few days. I wanted to know how much time it took to finish Vikram and the Vampire, which I finished in one day.
R: You must have taken – I’m guessing- a few months, maybe one year to finish Vikram and the Vampire. So how much time did it take?
NS: It took, at the very least I think, it took about a year. I did a lot of research on it and then I had to sort of go back to each substory, evaluate which one I want to write, then rewrite, then redo them, and think through how I can present the characters. So it took me a fair amount of time to write this book.
Imagine that! To spend one entire year focusing on one thing. Most of us can’t focus on something for even an hour, and this book took a year to polish and publish. It just further proves how dedicated and determined authors are to give us readers the best version of their books. In my mind, I imagined the time to write Vikram and the Vampire must have been exhausting and exhilarating.
R: How was that time? Was it exciting?
NS: Actually there’s a part in Vikram and the Vampire, and possibly the History Mystery series which involves a lot of research a background reading. The research sort of swallows you up and you just get so lost in it and it’s exciting to find new material and think of new ways of putting it together. So there’s that part of it.
I usually like to leave it all aside for a month, or a month-and-a-half before I start writing so that I get some perspective on all the stuff that is in my head. Once I start writing, I’m just in the flow. So that’s the really fun part. I feel the scary part is once I finish writing! I think the part where you’re actually writing the first draft is the fun part of it.
We never know how much work goes on behind the book. As Ms Sharma said, the research and background reading must have been a long time, which we readers never realize. But in the end, when you see the masterpiece you have created, it is an elating time. Have you ever had a moment when you just dry up? You stare at a blank screen, not knowing what to write. I’ve had those moments more times than I can count. And who can better solve that problem than an author?
R: This one’s a little more personal question- when I write, a lot, there are a lot of times that I face a block. I can’t think of anything creative, so I just sit in front of my laptop and I’m just staring at a blank document and I don’t know what to write. As a writer, you must have faced that a lot- how did you get over moments like that?
NS: So if I really get stuck with a plot point, or how to go forward with it or whatever, what works for me is to put it aside. Because I think, for me what happens is if I’m focusing too much on the problem at hand, I cant seem to find the way out. So what I do is I’ll park it on the side, I either go for a walk, sometimes I find solutions while I’m having a shower- I get so lost in it that I have to remember whether I have soaped myself! I have walked in circles around my dining table, where I don’t have to think about where I’m walking. When my mind is wandering free, is when the answer comes to me. I think that is possibly the simplest way I can put it.
When you allow your mind to wander somewhere, your subconscious gives you the answer. You have to allow it to come forward because it’s there in your head, you just can’t find your way to it. So you have to allow it time to bubble and rise to the surface.
Ms Sharma’s answer couldn’t have been more perfect. Having a free and open mind is one of the most important components of writing. As the interview drew to a close, I was very happy because I had gotten all the answers that I had been troubled about for weeks and the time was truly magical. So, my dear readers, remember to always let your mind wander and wait for your answers to bubble up to the surface.
Reina is a student of Bombay Scottish School, Powai, and is currently in 9th grade. Writing, football and reading are her primary interests along with music and dance. She does all types of writing but is most comfortable with fiction stories. Her current top book is ‘We were liars’ by E.Lockhart (but watch out, her favourite book changes all the time). She’s currently obsessed with Demi Lovato’s ‘Heart Attack’ and reading stories on Wattpad. She likes all genres of writing but somehow usually ends up writing horror. Her music taste varies from Selena Gomez to One direction. She loves interacting with people and getting to know them. Though she’ll seem to be shy at first and not talk at all, stay with her for a few days and you’ll wish she’ll stop talking. Tell her you love Selena Gomez and she’ll become your new best friend! Reina Ujual is part of the GetLitt! Editorial Student Council, a 10-week, literary initiative aimed at getting students actively involved in reading, writing, and editing.