A couple weeks ago, Julie reviewed Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes and we are so happy that the author, Betsy Woodman, took some time to answer our questions.
GJR: Is there any part of the main character, Jana which is autobiographical? If yes, what do you two share in common? If no, is she an accumulation of people you’ve known?
Betsy Woodman (BW): Jana is neither autobiographical, nor a composite of real people. She popped into my head one day fully formed, parrot and all.
She comes from a different generation, closer to my grandmother's than mine, and so has lived through different events in history, including two world wars and the coming of Indian independence. She experiences India as a bride and young mother and as a middle-aged woman, which I didn’t do.
Oh, we share a few things. We both struggle with our wardrobes and neither does well in the kitchen. Also, a few of my own childhood memories crept into hers, such as soaping up the bathroom floor and sliding back and forth on it. (Our first bathroom in India had no fixtures, just a plain cement floor with a drain.)
GJR: Besides Jana, who is your favorite character and why?
BW: Feroze Ali Khan, the proprietor of Royal Tailors. I love his ability to see two sides of a coin, his gentle toleration of his customers who are culturally different from him, the fact that he loves his wife so much, his eventual willingness to change even when it's difficult for him. I also love the pride he takes in his craft, and his aesthetic sense that dates back to the time of the Moghul emperors. He is devout without being fanatic, and he knows that sometimes the loving thing is to let go rather than to hold on tight. Side note: Julie's favorite was Feroze as well.
GJR: You lived many years in India, what inspired you to write a novel about this expansive country and its people rather than a memoir or non-fiction book?
BW: A novel allowed me to incorporate humor, exaggeration, improbable happenings, and just plain fun. I also wanted a more shaped narrative then I would have had in a memoir–problems to be solved, interconnecting subplots, resolutions. Fiction also let me drawn on a much greater range of materials, including books, movies, artworks, and other people's experiences.
GJR: Obviously where we are raised has a tremendous influence on who we become, how do you feel that India shaped Jana?
BW: Jana's is totally formed by India. She has grown up hearing the tinkle of temple bells, the calls of street vendors, the prayers from the mosque, the creak of bullock carts passing. She's accustomed to the smells of jasmine, sandalwood, burning cow dung, and pigeon droppings on sandstone. Street traffic to her means cows, rickshaws, horse-drawn tongas, and only the occasional automobile. Most important, in India, she has been surrounded by people of different races, colors, religions, and ways of life. She loves that variety, and needs it to feel at home.
GJR: How did your childhood of growing up in India and then studying abroad shape you?
BW: It left me with a passion for history, traditional cultures, and languages. I love dictionaries and atlases.
Woodstock School and its spectacular Himalayan environment gave me an excellent education and a love of mountain views. http://www.woodstockschool.in/
Lastly, living in both wealthy and poor countries made me aware of the huge global disparities in people’s life chances. I grieve that the world is still split up into friends and enemies. Spaceship Earth is small, and we’re all on it together.
GJR: What are some of your favorite books that are set in India? Or books that are about India?
BW: Hard question, since there are so many! Here are a few off the top of my head.
Big, powerful novels: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide
Brilliant intimate novel: Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day; Classic memoir of English children growing up in India in the early twentieth century: Jon and Rumer Godden’s Two Under the Indian Sun; Moving account of a whole Bengali village taking a rail trip around India: Heather Wood Ion's Third Class Ticket. There are some more suggestions in the “etc.” section of Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes, and I also sometimes talk about books on my own blog, http://www.betsywoodman.com/blog/
GJR: Have you thought about doing a children’s book series with Mr. Ganguly as the main character? If not, I think it’s a great idea! J I think it would be a great way to introduce children to the Indian culture and how multi-religious it is.
BW: That hadn't occurred to me. With tons of pictures! What a great idea. I’ll ask Mr. G what he thinks.
GJR: I know that there is another book planned in this series, can you give us a little morsel of what the 2nd book is about?
BW: Book two is called Love Potion Number 10. In it, a lot of people are thinking about love, wondering if it’s too late to find it, or worried they will lose it. I’ll let you guess whether Jana is one of them. However, I will tell you that she’s taken up Freudian dream analysis—with her own personal twist. Also, editor Rambir’s orderly life falls apart when he becomes a temporary bachelor, a reporter with ulterior motives interviews Jana, and Mr. Ganguly falls into dire peril.
GJR: You’re having an author get-together (aka dinner party): Who’s on the guest list, which recipe would you grab, and why?
I want to thank Betsy Woodman for taking time out of her schedule to answer the questions. For more on Betsy please check out her website and you can also follow her on twitter @BetsyWoodman.