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!

Did I Get it Right?

asianFrom time to time, I get asked to read work in progress set in India or within an Indian expat community, to see if the writer “got it right.” I used to consult on quite a few of these at one time. I’d get requests from writers and from publishers. There haven’t been as many lately. That could be because they were taking over my desk, and I began pleading lack of time.

I’ve begun to realize lately that there’s a whole new bunch of writers and illustrators of South Asian origin. Well, new for an old bird like me! At one time you could count us on your fingers, all five of us in the US and Canada. Maybe 7 if you counted the UK!

So I’m betting I’m not the only one fielding these requests now. Which is great, because honestly, it was never my favorite kind of teaching activity!

But here are some questions I’ve found helpful when reading what I will call an outsider manuscript:

  • What cultural borders does the work cross? Are those natural to the story or do they feel forced or imposed?
  • Does the source culture feel real? Not in an abstract way, not like a tourist video, but real from the viewpoint of the story? This means the details and their physicality–what things are called, how they are used. Clothes, shoes, utensils, the materials of which each of these is made. That’s the heart of getting it right and it’s tricky because you can’t get all of it from Google. You need to dig deeper, if it’s not something you know.
  • Is the author’s awareness of the target audience too overwhelming? What’s the writer’s stance? Does the story keep stopping with a lurch so the writer can step out of it to explain some cultural quirk or idiom or gesture or situation? What is that saying about the writer’s comfort? What is it saying about assumptions of readership? How would a kid from the culture concerned feel?
  • Do the large story decisions carry resonance for me? Or do they feel as if they too are imposed by an overly mainstream sensibility, or by false assumptions about the people the writer is trying to create?
  • How is language used in narrative? What are the rhetorical choices? Is the idiomatic mix enough to convey flavor, but not so much as to caricature? (E.g., Is the river called by its local name, Ganga, or has the author turned it into “Mother Ganges”in a clumsy attempt at translation?)
  • Are the cultural depictions specific to the particular region of the subcontinent? Would someone with ties to the region recognize them? Does the writer avoid using pan-Indian conflations? Or does s/he treat all of the region as much the same, and all its people? Are the religions conflated? Do the names reflect intentional cultural fusion or is that juxtaposition of Hindu and Muslim first and last names purely a mistake?
  • Is there a story beyond the greatness or the despair or the problems of the culture and place and people in question? Or is the story just a vehicle for what I call the 3 Fs (Food, Flowers, Festivals)?

Keep in mind that “getting it right” is a subjective judgment. But if you’ve been asked to deliver your assessment, take a stand that is fair and thoughtful. Give the writer the benefit of the doubt. When I read someone else’s work in progress it behooves me to remember that every book may contain flaws, and that includes my own.