Anjali Banerjee is the author of five books for young readers and three for adults, the most recent of which, Haunting Jasmine, was published in February. Banerjee was born in Kolkata, India, but she grew up in Manitoba, Canada, and now lives in Olalla, Washington, on the Kitsap Peninsula, in a cabin in the woods. She has degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and has worked as a veterinary assistant, an office manager and a law student. Writing is her true love, though—she’s been writing since childhood. She also loves cats, as you can see in her books, and she has five of them, all rescued.
Haunting Jasmine is a story about a recently divorced young professional woman who receives a summons from her eccentric Auntie to come up to Shelter Island in the Puget Sound to run Auntie’s Bookstore (no relation to the Auntie’s in Spokane; the fictional store is actually based on The Dauntless Bookstore in Port Gamble, WA). Auntie must go back to India to get her heart fixed and tells Jasmine “only you will do,” to run the store. Reluctantly, Jasmine comes (lugging all her “real” work with her), intending to get as minimally involved as possible. She soon learns that books and bookselling require much more of her than she’d thought, and also that the bookstore is an odd place filled with the spirits of departed authors.
Although Banerjee is elbow-deep in revisions for her next novel, she took time out to answer some questions.
You began your writing career with children’s books and moved to adult fiction. What prompted the move? Actually, when I wrote my first novel, Maya Running, I didn’t know it would be classified as a novel for young readers. I just wrote the story without thinking about the market. The protagonist is a 13-year-old Bengali-Canadian girl who asks a statue of the Hindu elephant-headed god, Ganesh, to grant her wish for a perfect life. My agent decided to try to sell the book as a young adult novel. We had a two-book contract with Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, but when I started writing my second book, I quickly realized it was turning into a novel for adults. The main character is a young matchmaker, living in San Francisco, who has a hard time finding her own true love. So my agent sold the book to Simon & Schuster as Imaginary Men, and then I went back to write my second children’s book for Random House, Looking for Bapu. I love to write for both youngsters and adults. I’ll probably continue to do both. As soon as I finish writing my next book for adults (for Berkley/Penguin), I’ll be developing my next children’s book proposal.
Your bio simply says that your career now is writing, but you did mention to me that you have a day job. So many writers have day jobs and do the juggling act of working outside the home (or outside the book) and writing. Tell us about that balance and how it works for you—and what the challenges are. I work at home and it’s a constant balancing act. I never have enough hours in the day. I juggle a day job that is often full-time, with writing books, taking care of the house and garden, caring for five cats, spending time with my husband and dealing with administrative duties. On any given day, I might have requests for author appearances, donated books and career advice in my e-mail Inbox. It takes me an hour just to drive to the post office and back to send books to schools or libraries. The way I’ve decided to deal with this over the next year is to decline most event/appearance requests and focus on my writing and my job. I simply don’t have time to do everything anymore, and I want to write books for readers who enjoy my stories.
Jasmine is a very career-driven young woman, to the point where she hasn’t taken the time to read a novel in years. Does this reflect you at any stage in your life? Nope. I’ve always loved to read, so it was difficult to depict Jasmine in that way. I had to work at it.
In Haunting Jasmine, Auntie’s Bookstore is inhabited by the ghosts of departed authors. If you could meet the ghost of one deceased author, who would it be? I can’t pick just one! I would love to meet any number of dead authors, from Rumer Godden to Jane Austen to Rudyard Kipling. But when I was young, I especially wanted to meet Alexander Key, who wrote Escape to Witch Mountain and The Magic Meadow, among other novels for children. In The Magic Meadow, a group of sick children, all orphans, have to teleport to a magic meadow before they’re separated and moved to different hospitals. The story is beautiful, full of magic and suspense —but I discovered after reading it that Alexander Key had already passed away. I was terribly sad!
Just a couple of days ago, I recommended Haunting Jasmine to a customer, and she surprised me by asking, “Is it clean?” When I assured her there was nothing graphic, she reminded me that the opening page mentions Jasmine’s ex-husband’s “American penis!” H.J. is a novel I wouldn’t be hesitant to recommend to a teenager, as far as the love story goes. So I’m curious why you chose to open it with the edgy reference. Thank you for recommending Haunting Jasmine to a customer! The word “penis” does spark interest on the first page, doesn’t it? The word helps to establish Jasmine’s voice, and I don’t actually consider the first page to be edgy. There’s a middle grade novel called The Higher Power of Lucky that has the word ‘scrotum’ on the first page, and that book is for kids.
I thought your writing stretched and grew in new ways for Haunting Jasmine. What facilitated this growth for you? I believe if writers keep writing and learning the craft, our skills keep evolving. I feel I’m a better writer now simply because I’ve been at it a while, but each book is different, as well. Some books are more difficult to write than others or require more revision. If I could go back and rewrite a book, I would add way more texture and depth to Imaginary Men. But I wouldn’t change Looking for Bapu.
One of the things that grew phenomenally for H. J. is your sense of place. I really felt like I was there on Shelter Island in the Puget Sound, and in the dusty old bookstore. What did you do to get so good at creating a setting? Thanks! I have no idea. Practice? I hope I can do the same with my current novel.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers? Read, read, read, and write, write, write. Learn, learn, learn, and be humble. Writing is a profession like any other. It requires an apprenticeship. I’ve written eight books, many short stories and articles, and I feel as though I’m just starting out.
As a bookseller, I got a huge kick out of Jasmine’s misperception that bookselling is an easy gig, and her learning curve as she discovers how involving it is. Where did you get your insight into the bookselling life? I read a few blogs about bookselling, and I interviewed a couple of local booksellers at Bethel Avenue Book Company (now closed), Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, and so on. I took some liberties in the novel—in the service of the story—but I hope I got the basics right. I admire booksellers.
If you were to make a display around Haunting Jasmine, what books would you put on the table with it? Wow, what a great question! This requires me to think like a bookseller. Of course I would put my other titles around it, and maybe other women’s fiction novels with charm and light touches of magic realism, like Garden Spells and a couple of titles by Alice Hoffman.
What is your favorite independent bookstore (at home or away)? I love many independent bookstores, but our local stores are Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island, Mostly Books in Gig Harbor, and Dauntless Bookstore in Port Gamble, and of course I love Powell’s Books.
What can we look forward to next from you? My current novel, Enchanting Lily, is due for release from Berkley/Penguin in August 2012. It’s about a young widow hiding out on Shelter Island in her vintage clothing boutique, who comes out of her isolation and falls in love again with help from a cat.
Amanda MacNaughton has worked in books her entire adult life, and about six years ago she landed her dream job: bookseller at a small independent bookstore. As well as being a front-line bookseller at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond, she is also the Events Coordinator, responsible for setting up and managing the author events.