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Alka Joshi: On Allowing Characters to Inform Your Sequel

In this article, historical fiction author Alka Joshi explains how the characters from her first book inspired the sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, and how their story managed to surprise her.

Alka Joshi was born in the desert state of Rajasthan in India. In 1967, her family immigrated to America. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from California College of Arts in San Francisco. Prior to writing The Henna Artist, Alka ran an advertising and marketing agency for 30 years. She has spent time in France and Italy and currently lives with her husband on the Northern California Coast.

Alka Joshi

Alka Joshi

In this post, Joshi explains how the characters from her first book inspired the sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, how their story managed to surprise her, and more!

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Name: Alka Joshi
Literary agent: Margaret Sutherland Brown, Folio Literary
Book title: The Secret Keeper of Jaipur
Publisher: Mira Books
Release date: June 22, 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: Malik, a former street child and protege of Lakshmi, the henna artist, in The Henna Artist, is apprenticed to the Jaipur Palace to learn the construction trade, and when he becomes ensnared in a smuggling scheme that threatens those he loves, including the woman he left behind in Shimla. This is book #2 in The Jaipur Trilogy.
Previous titles by the author: The Henna Artist

The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi

The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi

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What prompted you to write this book?

After spending 10 years bringing The Henna Artist into the hands of readers, the characters have embedded themselves in my imagination as a second family, letting me know what they want to say and do. Malik, Lakshmi’s loyal and charming helper, is no exception. Once the first novel had been sent to the printers, he kept asking me to tell his story: where he’s from, how he grew up in the Pink City of Jaipur, what sort of man he’s become. And a scene, as clear as if I were living it, came to me. The year is 1969. A young tribal woman is setting up her stall at the Shimla pedestrian mall when she notices a couple—a young man and a woman old enough to be his mother—making a beeline for her Himalayan flowers and herbs. At her feet is a large basket where her two small children are playing. I knew immediately that Malik had brought Lakshmi to the stall and that Nimmi, the tribal woman, and he would become lovers. 

Now, I had to answer some questions: Why was the tribal woman not with her tribe on their seasonal migration up the mountains? Why would Lakshmi be interested in Nimmi’s flora when she already has an extensive knowledge of herbs? Malik appears to be old enough to have graduated from the elite boarding school his benefactor paid for; what is he doing now in Shimla and what are Lakshmi’s plans for him? Does Lakshmi approve of Malik’s attraction to Nimmi?

(How a Strong Character Arc Can Make Readers Love Your Protagonist)

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

While The Henna Artist took a decade to mature into a full-bodied story, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur took only two years from idea to publication. The same characters appear in both, 12 years apart. I established their backstory and personality in the first novel so that now, no matter what situations I place them in, I have a clear understanding of how they might respond. They still surprise me though! I had no idea that the elite of Jaipur, especially high society women like Sheela Singh, would react so differently to the new and improved Malik of 1969. As with the first novel, the plot comes to me in scenes that I thread together to form a “story necklace.” While the plot never changes, it’s the transformation of the characters—their journeys, their learnings—that changes over the many drafts of the narrative.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

There is no substitute for hard work. It takes as long as it takes to get the manuscript in shape for a publisher. I remember asking one of my MFA writing instructors how long it took to publish her bestselling novel. “Nine years,” she said. I thought to myself, “Well, it’s not going to take me that long!” The joke is on me; it took me longer than that for the first novel. But I learned so much along the way about the characters that The Secret Keeper of Jaipur took just a few years and now I’m currently researching and writing the third book of the trilogy. Progress!

(How to Write a Series: 5 Lessons I've Learned)

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

I’ve always been fascinated by India’s obsession with gold. I remember when my father first graduated with his doctorate in civil engineering here in the U.S., there was a glut of engineers that made it difficult for him to get a job. My parents sold off much of my mother’s remaining gold jewelry to keep our family of five afloat during the six months he was unemployed. It came in handy, but wouldn’t a cash dowry have been just as helpful? Was it because gold was mined in India? Much to my surprise, my research revealed that over half of the gold sold in India is brought into the country illegally to satisfy the South Asian thirst for the expensive metal. Then I learned the many ways it’s smuggled in, which led me to the mysteries of the nomadic tribes of the Himalayas, and the story that follows.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

There are so many stories of a country and its people. In 1969—just two decades after Independence—India was in the throes of building anew, catching up to the 20th century. The intelligence and focus of Eastern minds combined with Western techniques produced amazing results; South Asians found ways to marry their traditional ways with the modern in business as well as in their personal lives. I wanted to pay homage to that.

Another takeaway is Lakshmi’s transformation from mother-figure to Malik, directing his future, to a compassionate observer of a boy growing to maturity. In my early years, I remember assuring my father that he couldn’t protect me from my mistakes; he would have to let me learn from them. Letting go of children is one of the hardest things for a parent to do but one which helps their charges find their own path to adulthood—a lesson my father (and Lakshmi) needed to learn.

Alka Joshi: On Allowing Characters to Inform Your Sequel

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Writing a novel requires the magic of the three Ps: Passion, Persistence, and Patience. You must be passionate about your intention: What are you trying to say, and why are the person to say it? Persistence will see you through the multiple revisions, writer’s block, and obstacles that are outside your control. Have patience with yourself when you don’t get the approval you’re looking for; you’re not perfect and neither is your manuscript. (HINT: it never will be perfect so go easy on yourself). Handle yourself with care, and you will get to the finish line. 

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