Listening In – Bijal Vachharajani talks writing for young people, the climate crisis, and the magic of picture books

Listening In is a series of author interviews, featuring authors whose works have been transformed into audiobooks! Bijal Vachharajani is the winner of the AutHer Award for Best Children’s Book in 2020 and 2022 and the author of the recently released Savi and the Memory Keeper, a “funny, thoughtful, and deeply moving” middle grade children’s book narrated by Soneela Nankani.

Bijal Vachharajani has a habit of hugging strange trees whom she meets on her travels. When not hugging trees and talking to caterpillars who live on those trees, she’s either reading or writing or editing a children’s book. She is the winner of the AutHer Award for the Best Children’s Book in 2020 and 2022, the former editor of Time Out Bengaluru, and is currently a commissioning editor at Pratham Books. She has a master’s in environment security and peace from the University for Peace. Part of the Abhiyan Library movement, she is now a certified climate worrier.

Please tell us more about Savi and the Memory Keeper! Why should we listen to it?

Savi and the Memory Keeper is a story about love and loss. It’s about personal grief, a girl who has lost her father; it’s about our collective loss of the natural world in the face of the climate crisis; and it’s about the spaces we find to heal a little bit amidst lush tree canopies and precious memories. It’s also about wasps, figs, and some seriously scary classmates. And yes, there’s a cat. And some dancing. Listen to the audiobook because Soneela Nankani is just fabulous in telling the story of Savi and her Tree. And also because my readers tell me they find some solace in their grief.

Could you please tell us about your career as an author? What first drew you to writing?

Reading drew me to writing. I was a shy child who poured her emotions into her diary following a big city move. From there writing and reading a bit of an everyday occurrence for me and if anyone told my ten year old self that she’d grow up to be a writer, she would have rolled her eyes and gone back to her book. When I grew up, I began working as a journalist, and later became the editor of Time Out Bengaluru, where I continued to focus on environment and the Kids section. I used to review children’s books, and was pretty amazed by the sea change I saw in publishing since the time I was young. When I came back from my Masters in Costa Rica, an editor asked me if I want to write about the work that I have been doing in environment, and that’s how I got my first book contract! 

We’d love to hear about your writing process. Please elaborate!

I’m a serial procrastinator. I dust, bake chocolate chip cookies, dust some more, and even finish bank work before I sit down to write. Apparently, that’s when I am sifting through ideas. At the same time, I also read tons of nonfiction for research, depending on what I am planning to write. Once I sit at my desk, which resolutely faces away from the window, and instead is by a wall papered with post-its and chalk scrawls, I begin drawing my story, my characters, my settings. When I know who they are, where they live and if they like pineapples on pizza (they rarely do), I begin to write. Then it’s pretty much non-stop from there. My first draft is really rough, it’s my second draft that makes any sense.

What drew you to Young Adult Fantasy? When did you know these were the genres you wanted to write?

I think I always knew that I wanted to write for young people, because honestly, they’re the most interesting readers. For me, nature’s really the most fantastical realm, whether it’s the myriad worlds we find on top of a tree, the stirrings under the forest floor, or the many secrets of the animal queendom. And I think that’s really what I write about, giving nature a voice.

Where is your favourite place to write?

Pre-pandemic, I used to love writing in cafes. But since 2020, I have set up my study with my bookshelves, an old, weather-beaten desk which used to live in an industrial office once, and gorgeous artwork by artist friends. And dust bunnies.

Describe your writing style in five words or less.

Umm, hmmm, gulp, whaaaa? (A reader called me funny, and another started a changemaking journey by kickstarting trash recycling drive in their building, so maybe those?)

Any advice for emerging writers?

Read a lot. Read good stuff, terrible stuff, books that intimidate you, books that are old friends, stories that challenge you. And get that one story out first. The other ideas, write them down, and come back to them later. They will be right there.

What do you do when you experience writer’s block or reader’s block?

I think a terrifying thing for me was when in the midst of fresh grief I found myself unable to read. Writing was not even a thought. When I can’t read, I sit with picture books, and find magic in their words and images. When I can’t write, I just don’t. Until I find myself so antsy that I have no choice but to sit down and write, even when they’re really terrible words.

What has been the most exciting part of having your novel transformed into an audiobook?

The words we write live in our heads, except when I am reading out a section in a classroom. Just listening to Soneela Nankani’s narrating the opening chapter of Savi and the Memory Keeper gave me goosebumps. I had to pause and catch my breath. It’s indescribable to hear your words spun into beautiful sound by someone. That too someone so talented.

Soneela Nankani does a great job narrating. Did you have any say in her initial casting? What made Nankani right for the job?

Blackstone Audio was just fabulous, and when they sent me Soneela Nankani’s details, I was really excited. And I was absolutely right to be. She is just perfect for Savi and Tree’s story. In fact there was so much of care that was taken about the pronunciations of the Indian words that I use, and the names of the characters and fictional city of Shajarpur.

Please recommend an audiobook you absolutely adored!

Last Chance To See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. One of the most compelling conservation books, the audiobook is brilliant. 

What are you reading (or listening to) right now?

I just finished Tom Lake by Ann Patchett. Apart from the picture books manuscripts that I edit as part of my day job, I am reading The Skull by Jon Klassen.


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