Process Talk: Sheela Chari on the Mysteries of Novelizing a Podcast

Manu Patel, Mars to everyone, is one of a motley crew of outsiders at H.G. Wells Middle School in the Seattle area. The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel is the first of a three-book series by Sheela Chari, based on an award-winning podcast from Gen-Z Media.

Sheela Chari’s opening title is charming, engaging, spot-on for middle grade voice and eccentricity. I asked Sheela if she’d tell me more.

[UK] You’ve ventured to the borders of the known world in this project. How does one go about novelizing a podcast? What parameters did you have to stick with and what was the extent of your creative freedom?

[SC] The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel is an original podcast that spans 3 seasons, created by Gen-Z Media. The Mars team did a fantastic job of bringing their story to life in podcast form, with kids around the world tuning in to find out what happens next as Mars and his pals search for their missing friends while encountering the mysterious billionaire inventor, Oliver Pruitt.

When I first came on board to novelize this popular series, I asked myself the same question — how do I take a high-action audio drama and turn it into a book? Some lucky things I had going for me: I had the entire plot laid out, season to season. The other lucky thing is that I had support from the Mars Patel team to take the story and make it my own. This meant I was free to explore these characters, their backstories, and even make adjustments to the storyline to make the novel work.

Still…I had some choices to make: where does the story start in time? How do we hear the voices of these characters who are so strong and distinct in the podcast? And how does Oliver Pruitt, who narrates the podcast, play a role in the novel? Eventually, I wrote the story in third person and I gave everyone a chance to tell some of the story, though we stay mainly with Mars. I also relied on texting messages, podcast transcripts, and comments to give us a flavor of how the characters speak with each other and over social media. This was hands down, the most fun I had in writing this book! I loved writing the group texts between Mars, Caddie, JP and Toothpick — with just a few lines I was able to show how they think and communicate. I also loved the sections where podcast fans could leave comments for their hero, Oliver Pruitt. As the novel progresses, their comments gradually change form adoration to suspicion as it dawns on them that Oliver Pruitt might not be the person he says he is.

In terms of the plot, I tried to stay as faithful as I could to the original story. Fans of the podcast who pick up this book will recognize all the key moments. This way the reader and the listener will arrive at the same place by the end of Book 1 and Season 1. But I also wanted to give readers something extra — the backstories of the core characters, to show us why Mars, JP, Caddie, and Toothpick do what they do, and why they remain so fiercely loyal to each other. Lastly, it was a joy to set the book in Washington State, where I’m from. People who live or have visited the area will recognize elements of the Puget Sound in Mars’ fictitious hometown of Port Elizabeth.

[UK] What came easily to you in writing this first series title? Any challenges you didn’t anticipate? 

[SC] Any mystery writer will tell you that the hardest part in writing a mystery novel is the plot. I didn’t have the problem! The whole plot was given to me from start to finish. Which really allowed me focus on the characters and the storytelling. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to create the character of Oliver Pruitt on paper.

In the podcast, Oliver Pruitt is the narrator. Listeners will realize early on that Oliver Pruitt is an unreliable narrator. He’s telling the story but he’s also part of it, and he’s constantly disrupting the lives of the main characters. Also, part of his charm is that you never know if he is a good guy or not. In the novel, Oliver Pruitt is not the narrator, but his podcasts are an integral part of the story. In the transcripts, not only do we get a flavor for Oliver’s personality, but I weave in clues that he’s signaling to the reader. Which is why it’s important to read the podcast sections carefully along with the rest of the book! 

[UK] It’s so great to see this mystery/adventure for kids with a South Asian American protagonist. Your thoughts on representation? How did you feel bringing Mars Patel to the page?

[SC] When I sat down to write my first mystery novel, VANISHED, it was very important to me that the mystery involved an Indian-American in the chief detective role. Which is how Neela, the main character, operated throughout the book. Her Indian heritage was important but remained in the background of the mystery. In the Mars Patel novel, I had similar ideas in mind. I was very drawn to Mars because he shares my South Asian heritage: his mother is from India. On the other hand, it was important that his heritage did not overshadow the plot. As one of my daughters said to me recently, she wants to be able to see Indian-American characters in movies and books who get to do all the same amazing things that their white counterparts do without focusing so much on cultural and ethnic differences. That’s how I see this book — showing us all the ways Mars is like any other American child growing up. His mother, Saira Patel, occasionally speaks in Hindi, she lights a diya in prayer, and some of the foods she mentions are Indian. She plays a larger role in the subsequent books, and in her, I see important moments that reveal her cultural heritage and how it shapes her character. To me, that strikes the right balance between Indian and American.

[UK] Every book teaches the writer something. What did writing this book teach you?

This project involved inheriting characters I knew nothing about. They were given to me and I met them like you might meet a stranger at a party. Which means I had to really spend time getting to know them inside out. In a strange way, it forced me to become more empathetic, to walk in someone else’s shoes. I had to dig deep to imagine their backgrounds and memories, and even, to figure out how they speak. 

I think it’s important for all writers to find new ways to enliven our craft. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of writing the same stories or thinking about characters in the same way. In her ground-breaking book, THE ARTIST’S WAY, Julia Cameron speaks of filling the well, of finding activities and experiences that reinvigorate us as artists. Writing this series was  definitely an invigorating experience for me. I know I will carry the ideas I learned from this book— on dialogue, on making my characters more inclusive, and thinking outside the box when it comes to finding missing things.

[UK] Thank you, Sheela! Happy trails to you and Mars and his pals!

A Heartbreaking Collection

I don’t usually pay attention to the Travel section of National Geographic–because, you know, I’m waiting to see how the National Geographic project plays out. And because, travel, what’s that?

But here’s an account of a collection in the Foundling Museum, in London’s Bloomsbury district:

The objects are known collectively by the museum as “The Tokens.” Trifles, mostly, these small random pieces were left by parents, usually mothers, forced by poverty or the social stigma of their child’s illegitimacy, to relinquish their children to what was then called the Hospital for the Education and Maintenance of Exposed and Deserted Young Children. Used as identifiers in the case of the parents’ return, they now form a heartbreaking collection often overlooked by visitors to the U.K. capital.

Education and Maintenance. Exposed and deserted. Those terms speak volumes. Founded in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram, a retired sea-captain, the hospital began taking in infants on a “first come, first served” basis in 1741. Today, the Foundling Museum “works to transform the lives of disadvantaged children through the arts and to inspire people to make the world a better place.”

For a novelist’s take on this history, read Jamila Gavin‘s Whitbread Award-winning children’s novel, Coram Boy. Published all of twenty years ago in 2000, it remains a moving read, with a complex villain and interwoven lives in two periods of time eight years apart.

Excerpt:

As usual, there was a throng of desperate women pressing at the gates at the hospital; Begging not to be forced to drop their babies in the street to die, Begging for a chance in the lottery. They had to dip their hands in a basket and draw out a ball: a white ball denoted entry, A blackball meant denial and a red one meant they could wait in the hope that one of the chosen babies would fail the medical test they all underwent.

Reading Jamila’s novel today, I can’t help thinking about the children separated from their parents in this century, for social and political reasons every bit as horrifying as those that prevailed in 18th century England. Today, for the most part, it’s not families who are “exposing” and “deserting” their children.

Process Talk: N.H. Senzai on Secrecy, History, and Fiction for Young Readers

History is contentious in the Indian subcontinent, so often determined by religious and national identity, by borders. But “to breathe the air and touch the soil where your family originated…” That is the closing of a circle, a moment that feels practically sacred. That search to find self and family is the driving force in Ticket to India by N.H. Senzai. I asked Naheed Senzai to tell me more.

[UK] Secrets figure largely in Ticket to India—family secrets, hidden grief and looming over the whole journey, the huge, unspoken secrets of Partition. What did it mean to you to bring secrecy and secrets into the light of fiction?

[NHS] My family, like most families, have secrets. Most are incidents, actions or emotions that are secreted away because they emote grief and loss. Over the years, when I talked with my mother, aunts and uncles about our family history, I learned that one of the greatest turning points in their life was partition – a great deal of suffering and loss was generated by physical displacement, economic upheaval and the loss of community and country. 

I learned that secrets don’t stay hidden – they affect the very fabric of a family’s structure and manifest themselves in subtle and painful ways. My grandfather always said that he was ruined twice – one when migrating to East Pakistan, then moving to West Pakistan during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. These tragedies stayed with my grandfather and affected how he interacted with us, and the world. 

In writing Ticket to India, I wanted to honor our elders and highlight the memory of their sacrifices – they hid painful secrets to make sure that the next generation succeeded, as Maya’s grandmother does. 

[U] How does your Maya fit her name? 

[NHS] I have always loved the name Maya and I think if I’d had a daughter I would have chosen the name.

[UK] Me too! No daughter but I too had a character named Maya in my very first novel. Something about the name…

[NHS] For my main character in Ticket To India, I wanted a name that was global, crossed boundaries, religions and ethnicities.

The name Maya proved to have those characteristics;  Maya is an old Arabic word, means princess, it translates into eternal spring in Hebrew, and love in Nepali. There have been extraordinary Maya’s throughout history; Maya was the mother of the Greek god Hermes, and the founder of Buddhism. Maya is also another name for the Hindu goddess Durga, who is believed to be invincible as the power behind the creation, protection, and destruction of the world.

[UK] It also means illusion: the power by which the universe becomes manifest; the shifting appearance of the material world, a sense that things are not as they appear. Understanding that sense of shifting reality is a huge motivation for your Maya, as she longs to make sense of her family’s fractured past. Talk about why the past matters—to you, as well as to the lives of young people. 

[NHS] I love history and have always been struck by the saying by writer and philosopher George Santayana ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ Only by knowing your history can you make knowledgable decisions on how to move forward. Also, current events do not happen in a vacuum, they are influenced by years of history. 

[UK] Very true. Your earlier novel, Shooting Kabul, explores a more recent history, of an Afghan family trying to make the United States home, and a boy desperate to make that family whole again.

[NHS] Most of my books  incorporate history and the importance of knowing where you come from and how it impacts your life today. Ticket to India delves into the impacts of colonialism and the coming partition. 

[UK] You and I both have connections with the subcontinent. What would you wish for that region of the world?

[NHS] Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan, once said “There is a little bit of Indian in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistani an every Indian.” 

My maternal grandparents are buried in Pakistan and my paternal grandparents in India. Before partition the people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were one. And although the people of those regions are highly diverse, they were one and coexisted for the most part. That is the beauty of the region and I wish they would remember it today when there is so much intolerance and far right activity in the subcontinent.

I wish that too. Thanks, Naheed!

Mary Winn Heider on The Mortification of Fovea Munson

Jacket Pic MWH.jpg

Photo courtesy of Mary Winn Heider

Ever since Mary Winn Heider was my student at VCFA some years ago, I’ve looked forward to the books that I knew she’d write–curious, eccentric, inventive. Recently, having gotten my hands on a copy of her delightful middle grade novel, I spent an afternoon chuckling over it and marveling at the machinations of its author’s wondrous mind.

Allow me to introduce you to The Mortification of Fovea Munson, and to the author who brings Fovea and friends to life: Mary Winn Heider. I asked Mary Winn to talk to me about her wacky new book.

[UK] Talking heads and music, a loopy extravagance of wordplay, and a kid finding her way in the world–how on earth did all this come together in the labyrinths of your mind? I want to know how that brain of yours ticked its way into this story.

[MWH] Well, the first spark happened outside of my mind and sort of…by accident? I was looking around for a job and I landed a gig as the receptionist of the cadaver lab at a medical school in my city. It turns out very few people arrive unexpectedly at a cadaver lab! (Often those that do have nothing to say.) So as the receptionist, I did very little actual reception and had plenty of time to write—it was as dreamy as a cadaver lab can possibly be.

The lab was a great workspace, but it was also immediately clear that I should set a story there. It was all life-and-death-y while still being completely absurd, and if that doesn’t sound like middle school, then I don’t know what does.

As far as the rest of the puzzle, I knew Fovea and heard her voice right out of the gate. Everything else took its time. I didn’t know there would be heads until Fovea heard a noise in the lab and decided to go check it out. I had no idea what the heads wanted at first, although the options were limited. (In general, the limitations of having half of your main characters unable to move much of anything but their eyebrows was not something I’d thought through. If it had occurred to me to worry about it, I probably would have been way more stressed out about it than I needed to be. And this is probably true about most of the things we worry about when we write?)

Mortification of Fovea Munson[UK] Very true. And really, drafting is not the time for worry.

[MWB] The wordplay is inspired by my own family, but feels inevitable in this world, since medicine is a field of chewy language—all that Latin and Greek and euphemism. One of my favorite details is Fovea’s obsession with the Museum of Holography, but that didn’t enter in until my editor demanded (in the kindest way possible) that I figure out what Fovea actually enjoyed. After some mental flouncing around, I remembered that near the neighborhood where I imagine Fo’s apartment building and the lab exist, there used to be a real Holography Museum. It closed about twenty years ago, but I’d been to it just before that and it was so weird and cool—and I decided she might like it. It wasn’t until later that I realized what a perfect, intangible foil it is to her parents’ love of the corporeal.

So I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t do anything (there was SO much to do!), but I did let myself be pushed around by the story a lot, and when I needed solutions to problems, I tried to use what already existed in the story as often as possible (like the Holography Museum, for example, or when I needed something flammable and I’d already stashed tampons in a drawer many chapters earlier. Chekhov’s tampons, I’m calling them.) That’s one of the things I love about revision—finding the threads that already exist to be tied together. I’m a big believer in our writerly inner geniuses, that we subconsciously plant things that later become useful or meaningful in ways we didn’t overtly recognize when we were doing it. It might not be a great way to get out of a labyrinth—getting pushed around by the labyrinth itself—but then again, it might?

[UK] Every book teaches you something you didn’t know before. What did you learn from writing The Mortification of Fovea Munson?

[MWH] Hmm. I learned I could write a novel, which is no small thing.

In the course of learning that I could write a novel, I also learned a lot about writing and about living and also about the cadaver business. I learned how amazing copy editors are…

[UK] Indeed. They are. Hats off to copy editors.

[MWH] And also how long you can leave a thawing head outside in the summer before it starts to go bad.

[UK] Wow. (To quote from the immortal Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes, “Wow. That’s all she could say. Wow.”)

[MWH] I learned that I love revision more than I love drafting and also that when I make mistakes like accidentally ordering 600 legs, that stuff is very useful material.

[UK] 600 legs? You really did? I’m speechless.

[MWH] That’s right. I accidentally ordered 600 legs, because ordering legs—among other body parts—was my job and I was probably daydreaming about my story when I should have been paying attention to the online form I was filling out. I was supposed to order ONE leg at 600 dollars and…you can probably figure out what happened. But the good news is that then I realized it could use it in my story.

[UK] ONE leg at $600….I am lost in contemplation of this, but go on.

[MWH] My grandparents donated their bodies to science and I learned how that process works on the other end. I learned how to write about stuff that scares me, and how to do it in a way that is both irreverent and loving. Although—full disclosure—I’m trying to do that again, now, and I think it might be something I’ll have to learn all over again every time I write anything. But I’m here for it.

[UK] I’m so glad you are. What a treat. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next, Mary Winn Heider!

Guest Post: Susan Fletcher on Journey of the Pale Bear

Susan Fletcher‘s prose is glorious, and the history behind her middle grade novel, Journey of the Pale Bear (Margaret K. McElderry Books, October 2018) is fascinating. But the beating heart of this story is a deeply felt friendship between a boy and a bear, under circumstances both breathtaking and improbable. I asked Susan to write about how she built that relationship, how she made it so alive and so compelling.

journey-of-the-pale-bear-9781534420779_lgHere’s what she wrote:

It started with the bear.  I had read Daniel Hahn’s The Tower Menagerie and was taken with the exotic animals that lived in the menagerie in the Tower of London, beginning in medieval times.  And the animal that kept coming back to me was the bear, apparently a polar bear, a gift from the king of Norway.  The thing about the bear was…they let her out of her cage!  They let her swim and catch fish in the Thames River.  Though I was fascinated by many of the menagerie animals—the elephant, the leopards, the porcupine—it was the bear who captured my imagination.

As part of my research I contacted the Oregon Zoo, where I met, up close, the resident brother-and-sister polar bears: Conrad and Tasul.  Conrad (the male) was enormous (1500 pounds!), and had a commensurately big and goofy personality.  I really fell for Conrad.  But the polar bear in my book was going to be young, and young male polar bears are some of the most dangerous animals on the planet, making friendship with a boy unlikely.

I decided that my polar bear would be a female, maybe separated from her cubs, and that there would be a bit of mother-cub vibe between her and my protagonist, Arthur.  In fact, without realizing it, I had already put some of that vibe in the early drafts.   Right from the get-go, Arthur hums to the bear.  I found out later that polar bear cubs do a sort of humming thing with their mothers.  There was also an early scene where the bear reaches out a paw to make contact with Arthur.  I found out later that mother polar bears do this with their cubs.

So, what about Arthur?

He is a runaway, missing his mother, of course.  He is out of place in some way; he doesn’t quite fit the world in which he finds himself.  He is cut off from his family, unprotected.  I kept discovering echoes between Arthur and the bear.  They are both strangers in the world in which they find themselves.  They are isolated and lonely.  They long for freedom, and home.  In a way, they need each other.

In the 13th century, people didn’t feel as we do about animal rights.  I wanted Arthur to bond with the bear, but he still had to be a boy of his times.  One of the challenges of the book was to believably take Arthur from a place where a wild animal in a small cage is not a moral issue…to a place where he believes that caging this bear for the rest of her life would be cruel and wrong.

And finally, I thought about all the animals I have lived with and loved since childhood: a parade of dogs and cats and birds.  Somehow, without words, we understood one another.  We had relationships—friendships, actually—each unique.  So I tried to think, concretely, about how these friendships worked, and to bring that to the page, as well.

Susan, you do that and more. Congratulations on this beautiful book.