Uma Krishnaswami has vivid memories of holding a green crayon and writing on a wall in her house in India when she was a child of five or six. At the age of ten, she remembers sitting at her father’s manual typewriter, tapping out stories and submitting them to magazines. At thirteen, her first poem appeared in a children’s magazine published in India. Yet, Krishnaswami says, “It never occurred to me that I was a writer.”
Krishnaswami always thought of herself as a reader. She remembers reading Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid when she was eight. Far from being the happily-ever-after Disney story with which today’s children are familiar, Andersen’s story is about love and sacrifice. “It was a revelation to me that words on a page could make me cry,” Krishnaswami says. “It occurred to me that books were about my emotions and how I felt.”
The birth of her son changed Krishnaswami’s life in more ways than she counted on. She began collecting children’s literature and fell in love with the books. “I remembered that the books of my childhood had been really important to me.” As an only child who moved frequently because of her father’s job, Krishnaswami says, “Books were my friends.” Becoming reacquainted with children’s books through her son sparked a need deep inside her.
Krishnaswami’s son is now 25 years old and a graduate student in Boston, but she is still writing. She employs a series of notebooks to test her ideas. “I scribble things down as they show up in my mind,” she says. “Ideas don’t all have the same weight. If I see something that thematically repeats itself, then I’ll start paying attention.”
Frequently, Krishnaswami’s stories stretch back to childhood memories. “The only child I can connect with is the child I used to be,” she says. “When I get stuck in a story, I think how I would see that if I were eight or 12.” For The Happiest Tree: A Yoga Story, Krishnaswami knew her character needed to be involved with yoga somehow, but she did not see a way into the story. She turned to her notebooks and experimented with questions, notes, and memories before recalling that she was a klutzy kid. “I was the kind of kid where paint would fly out of the jar and stick to her,” she says. “I grafted that trait on to my character and the story fell into place.”
Out of the Way! Out of the Way! tells the story of a sapling that grows into a towering tree as the village around it becomes a bustling metropolis. The emotion underlying the story goes back to Krishnaswami’s childhood again, when she planted a mango seed and watched it sprout. “I still remember the leaves,” she says. “Purplish shot with green. By the time we moved out of that house, it was on its way to becoming a young tree. I didn’t of course realize when I was writing this book that that’s where it came from.” In fact, Krishnaswami says if you stop to think about the seed of a story too soon, it can derail the entire thing.
“I don’t like the first draft phase,” she says of her writing process. “I’m trying so hard and my mind just hasn’t wrapped around the story yet.” Revision allows her to “muck things up” and disassemble the story to “get rid of some of the polish.” That may sound counterintuitive, but she uses revision to look underneath and determine what is carrying the story. During this phase, the words are expendable as she explores the characters, their motivations, and the story’s theme.
“I’m a messy writer,” she says, preferring to concentrate on one or two specific things during each sweep of the manuscript.” She uses a timer and dark chocolate with sea salt as strong motivators to keep her focused as she edits.
Today, Krishnaswami lives in northwest New Mexico with her husband and three cats. Still an avid reader, she divides her reading into two categories: books that make her want to read more and books that feed her writing. The poems, stories and music of Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, feed Krishnaswami’s writing. “When my word bag is empty, I pick up Tagore and he fills me back up again.”
Even after multiple books, Krishnaswami continues to grow and change as a writer. “And I don’t think I’ll ever be done,” she says. Two high points of story especially excite her: when she discovers the main point of a story, and when her readers figure it out and tell her. “I think they’re connected,” she says. “Those moments, when the writer gets it and later when readers bring their own perspective to it, those are magical moments for me.”