An Interview with Betsy Woodman

June 1, 2013

The first book of the Jana Bibi series by Betsy Woodman is out. Scottish lady Janet Laird or Jana inherits her grandfather’s house in a quaint Indian hill station and moves in there with her parrot, Mr Ganguly and her housekeeper, Mary to a world of old-fashioned living, interesting people and picturesque beauty. We spoke to the author about her special relationship with India, the inspiration behind Jana Bibi, her love for Bollywood movies and a lot more…

1. You’ve spent quite a bit of your childhood in India. How much have those years influenced Jana Bibi and her experiences?

Hugely. However, I’ve given Jana more Indian experience than I had, at an earlier time in history. I have her being born in India in 1902, going to Scotland in 1919 for a few years, and then coming back to India to stay.

Jana is totally formed by India—early twentieth century India, long before cell phones and computers. Street traffic to her means bullock carts, rickshaws, horse-drawn tongas, and only the occasional automobile.

Memories we would share: Monsoon puddles in red gravel; bright blue winter sky; chai-seller chanting on a railway platform; smell of pine trees in Himalayan forests; square-ruled notebooks, bottles of ink, and pen nibs in the stationer’s store; monsoon-stained walls; dust storms in May; fizz of Diwali sparklers; neatly folded clothes just sewn by the darzi.

Most importantly, in India, Jana has been surrounded by people of different backgrounds, religions, and ways of life. The characters in the Jana Bibi books are fictional, but the variety of individuals I knew provided raw material.

2. So Jana Bibi comes from her life as a violin teacher in a nawab’s household to an Indian hill-station and becomes a fortune-teller. Any real-life inspirations there?

Nope! Except for the setting, it’s all made up. I let my mind wander to “what if?” situations and took it from there.

3. The parrot “Mr Ganguly” is quite an interesting companion to Jana Bibi. Have you ever had a pet like that?

No, just cats and dogs. Parrots fascinate me, but I understand that having one is like taking on a three-year-old kid for life. I wouldn’t have any time to write books. Also, basically I think that wild creatures belong in the wild.

4. How much of yourself do you see in Jana Bibi?

Not a huge amount. I’m not a Scot and alas, I don’t play the violin. She’s had way more tragedy in her life. She’s more adventurous than I am. I don’t think I would take over a monkey-infested house or hang out my shingle and read cards for people.

There are a few similarities, however. We both like mountain views, and neither is very strong in the kitchen.

5. Would you enjoy coming and living in an Indian hill station like Jana Bibi does?

Bilkul. You’ve just identified my favorite pipe dream. Someone else would have to deal with keeping the house repaired, though.

6. You indulged in a lot of fortune-telling yourself to prepare this character. What was the most interesting prediction someone made for you? Did anyone ever predict the success of this book?

Several did predict success. No doom saying for them!

The thing that made me chuckle (it wasn’t really a prediction) was when one card reader asked if I was writing a cookbook. Others have given “if-then” predictions—if I eat my greens and get enough sleep, I’ll stay in good health.

One told me that there were spirits living in my house, but not to worry, they were friendly ones.

7. How good are you in Hindi by now? Any favourite Hindi word or phrase?

Meri Hindi? Okay, here goes, please don’t laugh. Mujhe thori Hindi ati hai, aur hamesha improve ki koshish karti hun. Bahut Hindi filmen dekti hun, mujhe subtitles chaiye. Kahaniyan pardne kilye shabdkosh bahut zarurat hai. BBC Hindi sun leti hun, lekin ve log itne jaldi bolte hain! Kyun nahin dire se bolna?

Favorites phrases? First one that springs to mind is “fikr mat karo, sub thik ho jayega.”

8. And when you talk India, you can’t not talk Bollywood. Any Bollywood movie you particularly enjoyed?

I can never choose just one.

I loved the sweep and visual lushness of Jodhaa Akbar, the romance across boundaries of Veer Zaara, the tension of Dor, the satire of the Munna Bhai movies, and the combination of entertainment and ethical issues in Guzaarish.

In parallel cinema, I found Mr. and Mrs. Iyer utterly riveting.

To research the Jana Bibi books, I watched a lot of 1950s and 1960s black and white classics—Boot Polish, Shri 420, Kabuliwallah, Jish Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Kagaaz ke Phool, etc. After all, I had to know what the Bharat Mata Cinema in Hamara Nagar was screening.

9. You have written several non-fiction pieces in the past. What made you take to writing fiction? And which of the two do you enjoy more?

I love both. While writing nonfiction, I enjoy lining up the facts and trying to make them interesting. For a few years, I wrote statistical reports on teenage alcohol and substance use. Sounds like a boring task, right? No, I even liked doing the graphs and charts. Nonfiction is more straightforward than fiction and in that sense easier to do.

Fiction is emotionally more involving, and the process is full of surprises. While you’re writing, the lows are lower and the highs are higher. You have a lot of freedom and it’s enormous fun going out on a limb with oddball characters or strange situations.

The impetus to write fiction? Those Indian memories pushing up in my head, I guess. Sooner or later, your childhood comes roaring back to claim you.

10. What kind of books do you enjoy reading? Any particular writers that have inspired your writing?

History, biography, social science, fiction, poetry. I read a lot of books set in India, or by Indian authors. I especially like Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, and Rohinton Mistry.

R.K. Narayan was an early favorite, and I learned a lot about creating a sense of place from his fictional town of Malgudi.

11. Any advice you would like to give our budding writers out there? What challenges should they expect in their path and how should they deal with it?

Best advice from me would probably be, “Don’t do as I did!” I got discouraged over rejection and would let lots of time go by before trying again.

The truth is, you don’t die from rejection. In fact, if you save your rejection slips, you’ll have some good war stories to tell. I finally threw away most of mine, which might have been a mistake. I remember that one said a manuscript was “pleasant reading,” which mollified me for a while, until I read somewhere that “pleasant reading” meant “deadly boring.” Another letter said something like, “you are too smart to waste your time on trivial work.” Was that a compliment or an insult?

Beware of “sensible” people who tell you to stop deluding yourself. One day, you might find that other people actually enjoy your delusions and want to hear more.

12. When will the next Jana Bibi book be out? What new adventures should we expect in Jana Bibi’s life?

Love Potion Number 10:A Jana Bibi Adventure will be out on August 13, 2013.

The town of Hamara Nagar is firmly on the map, Jana has added dream analysis to her fortune-telling repertoire, and her feathered friend has a national reputation as a psychic parrot. Fame, however, has its drawbacks. A reporter asks far too many questions and Mr. Ganguly falls into dire peril. Meanwhile, lots of people are thinking about love, worried they’ll lose it, or wondering if it’s too late to find it. It’s one thing to give advice to others, such as a friend with a pen pal suitor on a different continent, but what should Jana do, at age fifty-nine, when an old flame of her own shows up in town?

A big thank you, Ms Woodman for sparing time for this interview with us. We wish you all the best for your future endeavors.

My pleasure. Best of luck to you, too.

Betsy Woodman can also be found on her website and twitter


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