Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Interrogation Room Suspect #3: Sheela Chari

This week we've hauled in author Sheela Chari to face the glare of the Interrogation Room spotlight. She faces questioning from one of our detectives, Elisa Ludwig.

Sheela Chari was born in Bangalore, India and has lived in Iowa, Washington State, California, Massachusetts, and New York. She has degrees from Stanford University, Boston University, and New York University, where she received an MFA in creative writing. Sheela lives in New York with her husband and two daughters. VANISHED (Disney/Hyperion, 2011) is her first novel. VANISHED is the story of 11 year-old Neela, a young musician who loses her cherished veena, and, when she learns that it's at the center of a dubious legend that goes all the way back to India, she sets out to figure out what happened.

How did you come up with the idea for VANISHED? Was it always a mystery story?

VANISHED began as a birthday gift for my niece, Neela, who was eight years old at the time. She loved mysteries and played the veena, a musical instrument from India. So I started a mystery story with her as the main character, whose veena disappeared one day on her way home from school. That’s all I knew when I started writing the story, the rest I had to figure out along the way.

How did you plot the mystery? Do you have any particular method, or did the story evolve as you wrote it? What aspects of the story surprised you in the process?

I think most mystery stories are conceived best when you know the end and then work backwards. But I started at the beginning, and I didn’t know much more than Neela. I had to write to figure out the mystery. I did have a scene in my mind towards the end — I knew the book was converging towards that culminating scene, so that did help.

In terms of what surprised me, I discovered that even mysteries require well-rounded, thoughtful characters. Not only did I have to make sure my characters’ motivations were believable, I had to work on deepening them as believable people as well. No one wants to follow around a two-dimensional protagonist, or her cookie-cutter friends.

The other thing that continually surprises me — not just about mysteries, but about writing in general — is how serendipitous it all is. Sometimes we don’t know where we are headed, but we come up with these amazing solutions to character development and story lines, and we don’t know where they come from, except from our subconscious, which miraculously gets it right.

In the book Neela encounters some dangerous situations. Is there a limit to how much danger you can expose your MC to with MG stories? What are some other challenges in creating a mystery for MG readers? Are MG protagonists by default somewhat limited by their age and experience (e.g., in Neela's case, not being able to drive)?

Interesting question. I don’t know if danger played a role in my book, but there was a scene where I originally had Neela “steal” a piece of evidence from a church. She had the intention of returning it later, but at that moment, she took it so she could study its meaning at home. My editor felt uncomfortable with this scene, because she thought it suggested that stealing was okay. In the context of the story, I initially thought it was okay (partly because I wanted Neela to do a few wrong things and learn from them), but in the end I agreed with my editor and edited out the stealing part — I had her photocopying the evidence instead. I do think middle grade readers can distinguish right from wrong, but I now do consider the context and the necessity before I allow my characters to make bad decisions in my stories.

As for limitations, it’s strangely liberating when you have more rules and constraints. If Neela could drive, she would have been able to do things more readily — but it was far more interesting to put her on a bus to Harvard Square when she was hunting down a lead. Throughout she had to use her wits to get people to help her, and I think this kind of problem-solving really lent to her character.

What has reader response been like? How do readers react to the ending?

I haven’t had any specific reactions to my ending, but so far, I’ve found that the book has really struck a chord with children and adults alike. My family friends who bought the book for their children are pleasantly surprised to find my book readable for them.

Most people seem to really enjoy the mystery and the way it was plotted. Which is gratifying to me because I struggled hard to make sure that all the loose ends got tied up in a satisfying but unpredictable way by the end of the book.

Best of all are some of the Indian-American girls who read VANISHED and told me they loved it. In a way, this book was really meant for them, and for the girl that I once was growing up, who would have loved to read about someone like herself solving a mystery and having fun.

I've read in your interview with fellow Sleuther Diana Renn that you wrote literary adult fiction before VANISHED. Has this experience changed your work or your vision for it? What can non-mystery writers take away from the mystery-writing process?

Well, two things I would say. First, ALL books are mysteries — we always want to know what happens next to the characters we love, and good books make us want to keep reading. Second, I might write for children now, but I don’t think my writing has changed all that much. To be honest, when it’s just me and my computer screen, I don’t think of myself as a children’s writer. I just think of myself as a writer, trying to craft the best possible story I can. What’s changed is my vantage — the place from where I’m telling my story.

What are you working on now?

Oh — now that’s a mystery! All I’ll say is that it’s another book set in Boston, about an 11 year-old boy. Anything more, and I get terribly superstitious about jinxing the whole thing.

Are there any other MG mystery writers you admire? Do you have any other resources for mystery writing or reading that you'd like to share with our readers?

I’m terrible when it comes to suggesting resources. It seems like I’m always trying to take notes from other writers. ;-)

But I did recently read THE LONDON EYE MYSTERY by Siobhan Dowd, and I loved both the mystery, as well as the characters themselves. I really do love books that blend together several elements together. Books are that chance to catch a reader’s attention, to hopefully woo them with a good story while sharing a vision of the world with them at the same time, too.

We are giving away a copy of VANISHED by Sheela Chari and a copy of WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE by Tess Hilmo! To enter the contest, simply comment on any of the Sleuths Spies and Alibis posts between Wednesday October 19 and Monday October 24. Contest closes October 24 at midnight, EST. The winner will be announced on Friday, October 29. One comment = one entry in our drawing; limit one per day.


  1. Thanks for including a copy of my mystery along with your give away Sheela! And, you are so right -- all books are mysteries on some level. Love that thought.

  2. I love the comments about plot--so true about knowing the ending first.
    jpetroroy at gmail dot com

  3. I think I have a new motto for endings: "satisfying but unpredictable"!

    Thanks for this very thought-provoking interview, Elisa and Sheela.

  4. Love your point, Sheela, about how rules and constraints can be liberating. I try to pin down constraints as quickly as I can; the open road of possibilities I find totally paralyzing. Great interview; thanks Sheela and Elisa! (And Tess Hilmo: You're a Person of Interest at Sleuths Spies & Alibis! You can expect a summons from us soon!)


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