An interview with Mitali Perkins
Mitali Perkins is the author of 10 young adult novels, has taught middle school, high school and college, and worked with World Vision and other NGOs that serve the poor. She’s married to a Presbyterian pastor and is the mother of twin sons in their twenties.
When I asked about her age she replied, “I’m older now – 53 – but I love this quote from Madeleine L’Engle: ‘The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.’”
In an email interview, Mitali shared insights into her life as a Christian author.
Christian Courier: What was your childhood like? Did it have an impact on your writing?
Mitali Perkins: I was the youngest of three daughters born into a South Asian culture that venerates sons. My father didn’t listen to the relatives’ disappointment over my gender and focused on our education instead. He knew I loved to read so he took me regularly to libraries to get me fiction until I could go by myself. On the positive side, Bengali culture is highly story-focused, and both of my parents are excellent storytellers.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?
I always wrote, scribbling poems and keeping diaries. But I never considered it as a vocation until after my first book, The Sunita Experiment, got published. And then my second book, Monsoon Summer, was rejected more than 20 times and took 11 years to be published. My perseverance through those years revealed to me how much I wanted to be a writer.
You became a Christian as a young adult. Tell us about your spiritual journey.
I was raised in a Hindu family and we immigrated to the United States when I was seven. When I was 15, a friend was killed by a drunk driver and that incident spurred my spiritual search. How could a loving God allow suffering and evil? That seemed incomprehensible to me. The Hindu doctrine of reincarnation – being born again and again into this suffering world – made God seem even more unloving to me.
In college, I began reading and studying different religions and philosophies and a college friend gave me a New Testament along with a copy of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Lewis was an old, trusted source because I had loved the Narnia series as a child. I took both gifts with me to Vienna, Austria, where I planned to spend winter quarter through an overseas studies program. The cathedrals, art and solitude, along with the words and deeds of Jesus in the gospels and C.S. Lewis’ compelling argument all led me to an astounding conclusion: the only way to make sense of a loving God and a suffering world is through the intersection of love and suffering that Jesus revealed on the cross. I decided to follow him as my guru, not knowing anything else about the church or theology or denominations.
When I returned to California that spring, I was baptized in the fountain in the middle of campus. I’d say that was the day that everything changed and I was made new.
Has your Christian faith had an impact on the novels you’ve written?
I hope so. I pray so. The goal is for my Christian faith to permeate and define all that I say and do, including my vocation of writing. Katherine Paterson, a brilliant author of children’s stories, said it better than I can: “The challenge for those of us who care about our faith and about a hurting world is to tell stories which will carry the words of grace and hope in their bones and sinews and not wear them like a fancy dress.”
What does an average day of writing look like for you? What are the joys? The challenges?
I do a lot of teaching and speaking and so tend to write in spurts, mostly in coffee shops because I like the buzz. The challenge of writing is that I procrastinate constantly and despair over my lack of self-discipline. The joy of writing comes when I actually sit down and write, hit “the flow,” and time goes by unheeded as I get lost in storytelling.
As the mother of twins, how did you cope with parenting, as well as developing your career as an author?
The boys grew up as I was enduring those 11 years of rejection between book one and book two. I read a lot with them through those years. In retrospect, constantly reading aloud was probably the best way to develop my career. It’s also the one thing I know I did right as a mother.
I recently read your novel, Bamboo People. It was challenging, realistic and entertaining. Well done! How did it take shape?
Thank you! It started as a picture book. Editors kept telling me that it should be a novel. I first wrote only the story of Tu Reh, one of the two protagonists, and then added Chiko’s story later. No matter what I did, the book was rejected. I interlaced both boys’ stories in back-and-forth chapters, keeping both of them in the same chronological time until they met face to face. The book was rejected. I told the story in two halves, first in Chiko’s voice until they met, then Tu Reh’s voice moving forward after that. The book was rejected. I revised the whole thing from past tense to present tense and back again. The book was rejected. I rewrote it in first person, and then again in third person. You guessed it – more rejections. And so on, with me taking Tu Reh and Chiko through major upheavals until the present version of the novel was finally accepted and published.
Is one of your books particularly meaningful for you?
Rickshaw Girl is probably the most meaningful because it, too, was rejected quite a bit, and, when it came out, received little acclaim and no starred reviews. Bit by bit, thanks to my tenacious agent (Laura Rennert), publisher (Charlesbridge) and dozens of teacher and librarian advocates, the book gathered steam. Now this story of a rickshaw puller’s daughter in Bangladesh who is seeking to help her impoverished family has been translated into 10 languages, made into a stage play, and is being adapted as a full-length feature film next year.
In 2018, you plan to release your first children’s picture book. Tell us about it.
Gifts for Abuela is the story of Maria, a girl growing up in California with her brother and mother, while her beloved grandmother lives in a Mexican village on the opposite side of the two fences between Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, California. Once a year, during Dia de Los Posadas, a festival that celebrates Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging, families are able to pass through one of the fences and talk and touch each other’s fingers through the second, latticed fence. Gifts for Abuela describes that meeting, and the inventiveness of a girl who is eager to get a special Christmas present into the hands of her grandmother, fence or no fence.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novel set in Boston and then in Kolkata, India, that’s about trafficking and adoption. One of the two narrators is funny (I hope), and there’s romance. I always include humour and romance, despite the somewhat challenging themes in many of my novels (poverty, war, refugees, trafficking, racism, and so on).
How do you rest, relax and recharge after a day of writing?
Walk my labrador retrievers, play tennis, watch HGTV, spend time with my husband and sons, visit my elderly parents, and if I’m really burned out, I reread my favorite novels while eating potato chips!
Mitali Perkins is the author of numerous books for teens and younger readers, including Monsoon Summer and Secret Keeper. She was born in India and immigrated to the United States with her parents and two sisters when she was seven. Mitali Perkins lives with her husband just outside of Boston, Massachusetts.