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!

Series Nostalgia: Animorphs

riverofadventure.jpgLiterate adults who were once child readers tend to carry warm memories of books that shaped and nourished them. They also carry memories of the books they were addicted to, the ones that worked like candy, arriving in shiny packets, promising escape to imaginary yet predictable worlds, and usually dismissed by grownups as junk. Often these junk reads were series titles.

In my long-ago youth, they were the books of Enid Blyton. I read them avidly and repeatedly, and then tossed them aside for the next one and the next. In the end, I grew disillusioned with them and with the worldview they represented, but that is another story.

My son, now a responsible adult in the world, similarly devoured a series of books that pre-dated Harry Potter. Anyone remember the Animorphs books? Today we’d call them middle grade. At the time, they were thought of as YA.

I will admit I have not thought about the Animorphs books in a good, long time, but then I came across this article in  The Paris Review. And I remembered that child in my house, not yet morphed into a teenager, who devoured every one of these shiny new titles, poring over it until the covers disintegrated, at which point it was time to read the next. The pages warped from endless flipping to experience the low-tech spot illustration that “morphed” from front to back. My son subsequently created a miniature morphing flipbook of his own, transforming himself into our cat. It felt as if those morphing teens–boy to jaguar, girl to butterfly, girl to squid, boy to hawk–had moved in with us for the long haul.

In the Paris Review article, Frankie Thomas writes:

Look, I know! I know how it sounds. And yet, against all odds, the books were great. They were dark and witty and thrilling, endlessly inventive and achingly sad. They made me laugh out loud and cry myself to sleep.

Back in the waning years of the 1990’s and the start of the oughts, on the principle that I needed to know what the kid was reading, I read the first few. Even with my parental mind on, I could feel that dark-funny-aching blend. They were every bit as consumable as the Enid Blyton series titles of my youth, and they were clearly by a writer who knew what she was doing.

That writer, of course, is Katherine Applegate. She and her husband Michael Grant co-wrote the books under the name of K.A. Applegate. The series was a product (I use the word deliberately) of Scholastic Books. There were 54 of them in all. Eventually the fad passed, Harry Potter arrived on the scene and we were off on another kind of book-binge altogether–also, as it happens, courtesy of Scholastic.

But series titles count in the life of a young reader, and today I find myself thinking fondly of those cheesy 90’s covers and the friends with secret powers who battled the evil invasive Yeerks and kept my son reading voraciously.

The Yeerks of our time, alas, digging into our ears, uttering falsehoods, taking possession of our thinking, come from right here on Planet Earth. An Animorph or two might come in handy in the real world right now.