Saturday, April 15, 2023

Q&A with Alka Joshi


Photo by Garry Bailey



Alka Joshi is the author of the new novel The Perfumist of Paris. It's the third in her Jaipur Trilogy, which also includes The Henna Artist and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur. She was born in India, and moved to the United States as a child.


Q: The Perfumist of Paris is the third novel in your Jaipur Trilogy. How do you see this new novel's relationship to the two previous books?


A: The Henna Artist takes place in 1955 and highlights Lakshmi’s growing independence at the same time the Indian people are experiencing their newly found independence after 200 years of destructive colonial rule.


The Secret Keeper of Jaipur focuses on India’s engineering ingenuity as seen through the eyes of 20-year-old Malik, street kid turned sophisticated entrepreneur.


The Perfumist of Paris is about Radha, the third central character of the Jaipur Trilogy, who is living in 1974 Paris—a part of the global diaspora—as she struggles with the modern-day dilemma of balancing career ambition with family responsibilities.


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: While writing The Perfumist of Paris I had to immerse myself in the making of perfume. I didn't know anything about it, but I was able to get a contact in New York City. When I went to meet her, she took me to a fragrance lab and introduced me to a few Master Perfumers. They said, “You need to go to Paris and talk to so-and-so.”


So I flew to Paris and talked to master perfumers there. They said, “You need to go to Grasse where scents are compounded and bottled.” So I went to Grasse in southeastern France, and from there, even further to Lisbon to interview boutique perfumers. Everyone I spoke to was gracious and generous with their time and their knowledge.

My most exciting discovery was that the major ingredients that go into almost any kind of fragrance (whether it's for your home or your body or your bath) have their origin in India. For centuries, traders from France, Germany, England, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Spain traveled through the Indian subcontinent to buy raw ingredients like sandalwood, cloves, cinnamon, jasmine, and tuberose and sold them to fragrance houses in Europe.


This discovery presented yet another opportunity for me to inform readers of the contribution India has made to enhance the beauty of our lives.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I didn’t know how the novel would end; I never do. I let the scenes build chronologically in my imagination.


There comes a turning point where the main character could go one way or another, and explore what would happen either way through writing. The hard part is choosing what makes the most sense for the intentions and sensibilities of that character. When you get that right, your readers can feel the truth of that character’s journey.


Q: The writer Sarah Penner said of the novel, “Joshi proves yet again that she's an exemplary storyteller, effortlessly weaving together a tale of long-buried secrets, the pursuit of one's true calling, and the moment of reckoning when it all collides.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love Sarah’s description! It accurately covers what Radha has been holding back and the resulting maelstrom when the secret is revealed, both as it relates to her family life and her career.


Q: What are you working on now? Will you bring back any of your characters in future books?


A: My fourth novel is not part of the Jaipur Trilogy. It will focus on a real-life painter, the Indian Frida Kahlo, who dies mysteriously at a hospital in New Delhi. The nurse put in charge of looking after her will journey to Europe in search of the truth.


The story takes place in 1937, between the two world wars. I’m having so much fun researching what was going on in Delhi, Prague, Paris, Florence, and London in that year.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Life is full of remarkable and unexpected experiences. I had no idea that I would become a full-time author at age 62. More surprising is that many find my age an inspiration for them to pursue their dream projects. I also had no idea I would end up writing a trilogy and couldn’t have predicted that I would love these characters so much that I couldn’t easily let them go.


These days, we all work with people who are from other areas of the world, and it behooves us to learn more about where they're from, their unique cultures, traditions, family structures. When I came as an immigrant to the United States in the 1960s, I realized that many people did not understand India at all or that their understanding of India was incorrect.


Through fiction, my goals is to expose readers to the many contributions this wise, ancient culture has made globally to the fields of the arts, technology, and entertainment, thus allowing for a different, more accurate perception of my birth country.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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