Writing a Book with a Strong Sense of Location or Place
Karen Cushman asked Padma Venkatraman “My newest book, War and Millie McGonigle, started with a place: South Mission Beach, San Diego, where my husband grew up. You, too, have written books set in a place alive and rich. Will you share some insights into place in your story, Born Behind Bars?”
Q: Did you choose the setting first, before characters and plot? Did the story grow from the place or did the place grow from the story?
Venkatraman: Unlike my other novels, the idea for Born Behind Bars came from a news report, so the story and place came to me inextricably intertwined.
Q: How/where did you find the details that brought your place to life?
Venkatraman: I read detailed accounts of prison life, interviewed people who worked in prison systems, watched documentaries and fictional films, visited a prison, and also had the gift of being able to send a draft of my novel to a fellow-author, Dede Fox, who was kind enough to circulate it among incarcerated women with whom she worked, so that I could receive feedback from people who lived in circumstances similar to those in Born Behind Bars.
Q: Did the place enrich the story, or did it create limitations? Did you have to change details about the place?
Venkatraman: The place absolutely enriched the story. It forced me, and I think perhaps it forces readers, to consider what it means to be locked up, as opposed to experiencing a lock down. Amazing characters came alive to populate the place : like Grandma Knife, who is one of the coolest characters I’ve ever met—although there’s absolutely nothing “cool” about incarceration. Bringing the place to life makes, I hope, readers ask questions about why we lock people up, how we treat people when they make mistakes, and whether we might use our creative minds and compassionate hearts to consider other societal solutions. Most of all, I hope it makes us intensely uncomfortable with the fact that innocent people, even today, in our nation—way too many innocent Blacks are forced to live behind bars; and, yes, babies are born behind bars in our nation, too.
Q: What would you like us to know about the place you chose for your book?
Venkatraman: I would like to emphasize that prison reform is happening in India, where the book is set—and that in many jails, such as Tihar Jail, conditions have been vastly improved. That said, degrading jails and prisons still exist, all over the world. And, unfortunately, there still are people in India who, like Kabir’s mother in Born Behind Bars, are stuck in prison awaiting trial—not just for hours or days, which is cruel enough, but for years.
Thank you to Padma Venkatraman for explaining how she researched a book set in a prison.
Learn more about Padma Venkatraman.