Neesha was born in Punjab, India, grew up in Toronto, Canada, and currently lives in New York City. She holds a BA in Film and Media Arts from Ryerson University (Toronto), and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School For Social Research (New York). SHINE, COCONUT MOON, her first novel, made the Smithsonian’s Notable Books for Children list and was selected for the Top 100 Books of 2009 by the New York Public Library’s Stuff for the Teen Age. Neesha’s second novel, JAZZ IN LOVE, was picked as a top YA selection by the Pennsylvania School Librarians’ Association and was selected for Bookslut’s Recommended Summer Reading List. INTO THE WISE DARK, a time-travel fantasy, released March, 2012. For more info, visit her website.
Let the conversation begin!
When did you want to make a career out of writing? Is it everything you dreamed?
The first time I discovered work by women of color authors, it was like the gates of Heaven opened up for me. I had no idea women of color could write books and be published and sold in stores! As soon as I realized there was space for me, that my work could be valued, that what I loved doing as a child (reading!) and what quite literally saved me in adolescence (books!) was open to me as life work, I was off and running. Is it everything I dreamed? Not exactly. The road has been much bumpier than I ever thought and I’ve had to revise my dream several times. But the reward – reaching young readers and opening their worlds, expanding their Possible… that has been everything I dreamed.
What advice would you give a younger you?
Don’t worry about external validation; you may never get it. Don’t focus on “legitimacy” or stamps of approval or awards. Just create the best work you can and keep studying your craft, honing your craft, refining and polishing until it’s the best it’s ever going to be. And then study some more, hone some more. Keep refining and polishing and putting new work out. Remember: What we create creates us. Keep creating and the rewards you find will be more valuable than any external validation, “legitimacy,” or stamp of approval could ever be.
What is the worst part about writing? Best part?
The best part is the work. When a book is published, I stare at it sometimes, thinking, “Wow – I did that. All that came out of me from I-don’t-know-where and now it’s out there, affecting lives and shaping perceptions.” (I do this with my kids too – almost the exact same sentiment). And I am always, ALWAYS, a different person after writing a book than when I began it. Better. Always a better person. Worst part? At one time I might’ve said the loneliness and isolation, but I have come to realize that I crave that space. I like being alone with myself. Not to mention the fact that I am now hooked into a wonderful community of writers who know, almost exactly, what I’m going through as a writer. So the worst part now might be the business end. I don’t mind conferences and traveling and school visits because I love people and I love to socialize, but I do avoid numbers and sales percentages and other forms of math.
Are you messy or organized? How does this trait affect your writing life?
I’ve learned through observant friends and neighbors that I am extremely organized. I think this has been tremendously helpful in my writing life because it lets me get multiple things done at once. I’m a mom, too, and to be quite honest, I don’t know how else anything would get done.
If you could remove one thing from the world, what would it be?
What is your best personal characteristic?
If you ask me, which you are, I would say my best personal characteristic is my passion. Sometimes that gets me in trouble – like, deep dog doo-doo kind of trouble – but I still think it’s my best characteristic.
What is your favorite quote?
“Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow.”
~ The Talmud
If you could be invisible for a day, what would you do?
I would probably sit in on all the President’s meetings and whisper subliminal “suggestions” in his ear. In fact, I might fly around to every world leader’s meetings and do the same thing.
What is your favorite weird food combination?
I used to love rice crispy treats slathered with crunchy peanut butter then microwaved on high for a minute-and-a-half. I don’t do that anymore, but now I put salt on my watermelon. I also cannot eat apple slices without salt. Is that weird?
If you had to be a flower, which one would you be and why?
A rose. Because roses are stunning and perfect and hardy, and they’re still beautiful even in their decline. Also, you can eat them. You can make rose syrup, rose water, and candy the petals to eat with ice cream!
What is your biggest pet peeve?
People, especially of the grown-up variety, who don’t clean up after themselves.
Name a turning point in your life that makes you smile.
The best turning point in my life was also the most tumultuous. It literally turned my world on its axis. It was when I cut my hair. As a Sikh, Punjabi, teen girl, this was a HUGE no-no in my family (even though my brothers and father – and all my uncles and male cousins – had their hair cut ::sour face::). If you want to read a muted version of how this went, read the makeover scene in Jazz In Love. My personal experience was a zillion times more explosive. But the chutzpah and courage of my sixteen-year-old self still makes me smile. And the fallout is something I can now laugh at, even though it was an unmitigated disaster at the time.
Think of the craziest What If question. Do you think you could write an entire book based off of this question?
The last What If question I had resulted in my most recent release, Into the Wise Dark. The question was, “What if four exceptional girls – three of them of color, two of them a couple, and one of them Punjabi and Sikh – saved the world from evil?”
What is your worst personality characteristic?
The flip side to being passionate is that I can be extremely impatient. I have been working on this, especially since having children, but I can identify it in myself, even when others can’t. It’s definitely a characteristic I am constantly wrestling with and trying to guide into more creative and positive channels.
What was the best thing that happened to you this year?
The release of my first fantasy YA novel! I’m so, incredibly excited about Into the Wise Dark. It’s the first fantasy I’ve ever seen out there featuring a Punjabi, Sikh protagonist and four teen girls who, through collective action (as opposed to individual heroism), save the world. I also made a conscious effort to incorporate South Asian mythology and the sunken land mass of Kumari Kundam into the story. Seeing this book out in the wild has given me the motivation to get more titles out there featuring mythologies that people often don’t hear or read about.