Natasha Deen is the author of the new young adult novel In the Key of Nira Ghani. Her other books include Thicker Than Water and Lark Takes a Bow. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for In the Key of Nira Ghani, and for your character Nira?
A: First off, thank you so much for having me on your blog. I’m so excited to be here!
To answer your question, I was working on a middle-grade story (translation, I was weeping and gnashing my teeth over a manuscript that would not behave).
At one point, I deleted 35K words and stared at the first sentence, the group of words I just *couldn't* get out of my head, “The cow’s eyeball floats in the formaldehyde. It’s disembodied, a part cut off from the whole, just like me, but there’s a difference between me and the cloudy orb. It stares out at the kids as though it knows the secret the rest of us are dying to find out.”
I took a deep breath and instead of trying to create the next set of sentences, I tried to listen for the words that wanted to be next (which sounds odd, but there we have it).
And I heard Nira’s voice. I felt her yearning for a place to belong, the freedom to be who she wanted to be, and the conflict so many of us face (whether we come from immigrant families, or not), how do we honour the places we come from while trying to set ourselves free to be who we are meant to be?
Q: Why did you decide to make Nira a musician?
A: That’s how she came to me—I had a very clear image of her, the dream she carried, and the problem she faced. That picture made it into the book: The sudden image flashes through my brain. Me, under the pink and yellow lights, eyes closed, wailing a solo on a shiny trumpet. Reality raises the house lights. My parents will never let me try out.
I loved the idea of her as a trumpet player. There’s something about the trumpet—the way the instrument shines and catches the light, the defiant nature of its sound, and the richness of the music as it emerges from the bell—that seemed to represent Nira, while the music she creates embodied the world and love she inhabits.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes as you wrote?
A: I had the ending in mind, but shout out to my agent (Amy Tompkins) and editor (Allison Cohen) for their input, because they really helped me make sure the ending I had in my head matched what showed up on the page.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
A: When it comes to stories I write, I take to mind the memory of being a kid at school. The bell would ring, and we’d scatter to the playground. Soccer, slides, swings, the bridge, skipping rope—the possibilities of what we could do and how we could have fun were endless.
I take the same philosophy to my writing. I want to create a story playground, a place where readers can play, and choose what they want to take away.
We all have our own backstory, history, and filters, which means none of us ever reads the same story, even if we are sharing the same book.
So, for me, I hope readers have fun in my story playground, and I hope they find a place to play and have fun and a soft spot to sit and watch the world.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Hahhahahahaaaaaaahhhhhhrrrggghhhh **weeping**. I have edits on a contemporary YA that are currently working me over! (When I get too frustrated or hysterical about it, I remind myself that I am well stocked with cookies and tea, the encouragement of friends and family, and the comfort of the small, inner voice that says, “It’s okay. You don't have to be perfect, you only have to try.”)
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I think I’ll take a page from Nira’s grandmother and echo something she says, “find strength and comfort in yourself. There are times in this world when you will have to set off on your own, when doing the right thing will mean doing it by yourself. Never fear these moments, never fret the lonely road. It will take you to beautiful vistas and lands of possibilities, if only you trust it. And if you let it, the moment will remind you of how strong you are.”
I hope we take a moment each day to remind ourselves that we are stronger than we believe, that we have value and a voice, and the world is made better because we are in it, sharing our stories.
Thank you for sharing your blog and readers with me, Deborah. I had a lot of fun!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb