A Wonderful Week of Words: interview with author Chitra Soundar
In the lead up to the UKC Hogwarts Society’s A Wonderful Week of Words, Website Culture Editor Julia Mitchell spoke to children’s author Chitra Soundar, who fans will be able to meet on the first day of the event.
When did you first realise that you had a talent for storytelling?
I grew up in a family that told stories all the time. We listened to stories, retold them, and repeated them. When I was seven and in year two at school, I signed up for the storytelling competition and asked my aunt to tell me a story I could tell at school. She then told me the story in Tamil, which is my mother tongue, and I had to retell the story in English at the assembly. I won the first prize in that competition! And also of course as a teenager when I made up excuses for staying out late – that surely is a mark of the talent, isn’t it?
It definitely is! So how has your own childhood in India had an influence on your writing?
India is in my writing in all forms and shapes. You can take the girl out of India, but not India out of the girl, I suppose. The smells, the food, the colours and the sounds always enter my writing both consciously and intuitively.
As a number of your books have been written for children, how do you weave this influence into your stories for young readers?
Many of my stories are set in India, either because I love a particular place or scene or story, or because I’m fascinated by its brilliance. For example in the Farmer Falgu books I bring an Indian farmer to life. Then in Where is Gola’s Home? I wanted to showcase the humble yak that climbs the mountains of the Himalayas everyday. In A Dollop of Ghee and a Pot of Wisdom, there are sweets, mangoes, farms and justice all mixed up, and I adapted folk tales from the 16th century for the two clever and fair-minded boys Veera and Suku.
So which of your titles has been the most fun to write so far?
I love writing picture books and funny stories. In that regard the two series I write, Farmer Falgu, which is for for younger children, and A Dollop of Ghee and a Pot of Wisdom are my favourite ones. There are a lot of jokes in a dollop and its sequel.
Can you let us in on any exciting literary plans that you have for the future?
A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice follows the first title, including double the stories and double the jokes too. I also have a new picture book coming out this autumn that tells an ancient untold flood tale from the tribes of Irula in South West India. I’m quite excited about it as this is my first picture book in the UK.
I know that you spend a lot of time running workshops in primary and secondary schools around the country. How does it feel to inspire the younger generation to tell their own stories?
In most of my workshops the aim is to show children the power of their imagination. I have ran both oral and written story-making workshops for year two children, and their ability to imagine and create is amazing. Most writing workshops are less about grammar, sentence structure and writing, and all about freeing up their minds to put seemingly unrelated things together, and come up with an adventure or something funny or magical.
We have created stories about going to the moon in a bullock-cart and making cakes with comets, stars and clouds as icing. We’ve also created stories about an eight-headed monster in an undersea cave that’s scared of being tickled. My job is to cut through the layer of obvious logic and set them free in a world where anything can happen. And the rest, as they always realise, is magic.
Do you have any advice for university students who would like to pursue a writing career after graduation?
I pursued writing long after my university days and had to find a different career to earn a living before I could indulge my love for writing. Whether you are going to pursue this as a career or as a hobby, here are a few tips: Write what you enjoy. Even if you are writing copy for the local community newspaper, make sure that you put your heart and soul into it.
Also, make sure that you observe everything – people, things, signs, nature – and find out what makes people tick. You will always need it.
And finally, what does it mean to you to be supporting the charity Lumos as part of UKC Hogwarts Society’s A Wonderful Week of Words?
Lumos does wonderful work and it reminded me of the fundraising I did as a teenager for the SOS Village children’s charity, which is still going strong after 50 years. My mum is a social worker and while I was growing up we worked actively with children in India, something that we still do now.
By being a part of this event I’m proud to support Lumos. I’ve added my name to the pledge on the Lumos website and will be following their work closely.
A Wonderful Week of Words is running from 29 February to 4 March 2016. Chitra will be attending the event on the first day. For a full list of events please visit their website here.