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October 21, 2004 - Creative Writing, Part 1 - 2004-10-21

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: October 21, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: we have a special guest to discuss creative writing.

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "My name is Chitra Divakaruni, and I am a writer and also a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston."

RS: "Creative writing is something you can teach?"

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "Only if you already know how to write. We can help you get better and we can help writers see what are their strengths and what are their weaknesses. And this is something that many writers, and myself included, sometimes have a hard time with, because we are so close to our own writing that it's hard to be critical about it."

AA: "And you have to think about, I suppose in some cases, commercial considerations, if you want to actually make money from your writing. I mean, what's the market demanding right now?"

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "What we are dealing with in creative writing programs is really literary fiction. So over there the market is very open and looking for new talent, people who can tell a story in a different way, people who create characters that are unique. That's what publishers are looking for, people who have a voice that is different from other voices."

RS: "You talk about strengths and weaknesses. When you look at a story, what would be some of those strengths and weaknesses?"

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "Well, one of the things that I would look for in my students' stories is, how well are the characters depicted? Are these characters coming alive? Are they believable? Do they have a unique voice when they speak in their dialogue? That would be one of the first things. Does the reader feel sympathy or empathy or at least some kind of strong reaction to these characters?"

RS: "Wouldn't that be highly subjective?"

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "Creative writing, as you continue to work in the field, you see that it is often subjective in the ways in which people express things. But certain things are universal about good literature, and one of them is that good literature makes the reader think about a lot of issues and makes the reader feel about a lot of issues that are central in the novel. And if that connection is not created right away, then your book has failed on some level."

RS: "You say 'right away.' What do you mean right away, in the first sentence -- "

AA: "The first chapter?"

RS: " -- in the first chapter, in the first paragraph?"

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "If it's a story, yes, the first paragraph. If it's a novel, then you have a few more pages to work with, but within two or three pages, the reader must want to continue reading. The reader must say 'wow, this is really exciting and worth my time.'"

AA: "So, now, you are out with your latest novel. It's called 'Queen of Dreams.' Why don't you just talk a little bit about the process you went through. Did you feel a bit like a student, or do you talk to your students about -- did you have to do many rewrites? Tell us a little bit about the process."

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "Yes, definitely. When I was doing 'Queen of Dreams,' when I was writing that, I had to do a lot of revision. I always do a lot of revision. I'm kind of one of those addicted, compulsive revisers. And for me, each word just has to be right, or I'll keep worrying the text, I'll keep working with it.

"And one of the first things that's always important to me in my writing, and certainly in 'Queen of Dreams' but also in earlier novels like 'Mistress of Spices' and 'Sister of My Heart,' is that I have to have a very strong idea of the protagonist or at least two or three of the major characters before I can start writing. I have to be able to visualize them, I have to understand their inner thinking, and I have to get a sense of their voice, how they speak. And I can't start stories until I have that clearly in my head."

RS: "Are any of the voices, or students, in your classes, are they from other communities, other cultures, so they're speaking with a wide variety of voices?"

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "We have a very multicultural program, and I have students who are Indian American. I have African American students. I have Latino American students. I really have students from just about, so many cultures, and that creates a really wonderful mix in the classroom, because everyone is bringing their own culture into their writing. And even though they're writing in English, they have the rhythms of their own mother tongues."

RS: "And what is your mother tongue?"

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "My mother tongue is Bengali."

RS: "And is that voice heard in your novels?"

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI: "Very much so. In 'Queen of Dreams,' the title character, who is a dream interpreter, comes from Bengal. She's living in the United States right now."

AA: And, next week, we’ll hear more from Chitra Divakaruni, a novelist, poet and professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, in Texas. That's all for now. Our e-mail address here is And find our interviews online at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.