Veera Hiranandani is the award-winning author of several books for young people. Her most recent middle-grade novel, Amil and The After, is a follow-up to her previous Newbery Honor winning The Night Diary. The Night Diary also received the 2019 Walter Dean Myers Honor Award and the 2018 Malka Penn Award for Human Rights in Children’s Literature, among several other honors. Her other middle-grade historical novel, How to Find What You’re Not Looking For, received the 2022 Sydney Taylor Book Award, the 2022 Jane Addams Book Award, and the New-York Historical Society Children’s Book Prize among other accolades. She earned her MFA in fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. A former book editor at Simon & Schuster, she’s now a faculty member with the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at The Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can find Veera on X @veerahira and Instagram @veerawrites.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
I had to think about this for a second because I was going to say that a character comes first, but I think I actually start with a setting, then the main character grows out of that. I think character and setting are so connected, especially in a historical context, that it’s hard for me to think of them separately. For example for my most recent book, Amil and The After, I first thought about setting the story a few months after the Partition of India in 1948 Bombay. The characters were already established, but I first thought about the setting, then I thought about putting the story in the young boy’s (Amil) point of view as he tries to navigate his new home after a difficult journey. Right now I’m playing with a YA story taking place in a New York suburb during the early 90s. The New York/90s setting came first and then my main character, a 16-year old high school girl, came into focus.
How do you conduct your research?
Because my historical settings are inspired by my own family history, I always start by talking to family members about the events and get all the personal memories and details that I can. Then I expand my personal interviews into other family, friends, and friends of friends. I also begin reading more academic texts on the subject to understand the historical and political context. I watch documentaries. I read old newspaper articles from databases that were published during that time. I find articles online. I sometimes look into the pop culture to see what books, films, and music were popular at that time. I end up with piles of notes that I use throughout the writing process. But I always need to continue my research as I write. Maybe I’m not sure of a certain detail, like what would have been a typical breakfast for that family during that time, or more details about a large historical event like Gandhi’s or Dr. King’s assassinations which I’ve covered in my books. It’s a complex process and different every time!
Do you have a specific system for collecting data?
I wish I did! It’s usually a lot of folded down pages in books, highlighted paragraphs, post-it notes, and scrawled notes in notebooks. My desk gets really messy when I’m deep into writing and research. The celebration of finishing a manuscript for me usually entails a big desk clean-up party!
What kinds of sources do you use? The more specifics here, the better!
I use all kinds of sources, but try to be as focused as possible. For example, while writing Amil and The After I read books specifically about Hindus leaving the area of Sindh during Partition. There are historians like Saaz Aggarwal and Nandita Bhavnani who write extensively on this subject. I watched the movie Gandhi again to see how the history was fictionally portrayed. I read articles from South Asian newspapers like Times of India, The Indian Express, and Dawn during the dates I was covering. I listened to Prime Minister Nehru’s speeches on All India Radio. I watched old newsreels covering Gandhi’s assassination. I also watched random footage of people just walking around in 1948 Bombay to study how many cars vs. carriages were on the road, what people were wearing, how crowded the streets were, etc.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
I’d say a few months, but then I do a lot of research on an as needed basis while I’m writing. I’m usually anxious to start writing, and don’t want the lack of research to stop me from writing, but then I take lots of research breaks during the writing. That’s probably why it takes me so long!
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I’m usually itching to start, so even if I haven’t finished my research, I get to the point where I can start figuring out the story and the characters even if I have some holes I need to fill in. I know I’ll hit certain “information” or “context” walls as I go. I recently spoke to another historical novelist who said that she ended up with much more research than she could or would ever use in her novel and I understood that. I usually do too, which is why it’s good to start when you feel like you know just enough about the events and setting. You don’t want to exhaust yourself with research before you even start writing. And if you pack your story with too many facts or historical information, it can feel contrived. A lot of my research is for my own ease with the subject matter and informs the characters choices, but it doesn’t always end up on the page in a literal sense.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I love researching food and music and can go down large rabbit holes on those subjects. You can never know too much about food or music!
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
I’m not sure if this is exactly what you meant, but in Amil and The After, I knew my timeline would cover Gandhi’s assassination. There’s plenty of information about what happened, but there are also many interpretations of how people felt about his death and Gandhi himself. I had to figure out how my particular fictional characters would react to real history and what my young character would already know and think about Gandhi. I didn’t want to mix up my contemporary knowledge about Gandhi and his death with what my characters might have felt, so this was sort of a “muddy” process. I did my best to serve my story and my characters even if other people might have different views or interpretations.
Thanks so much for taking the time to interview me!
I’m thrilled you were interested, Veera. Thank you for this look into your process.