Padma Venkatraman is a woman of many talents and passions. A lover of science, math, history and literature, she always wanted to be a writer but felt there was more financial security in following a different path. At age 19, she moved from India to the United States to attend graduate school at the College of William and Mary School of Marine Science, and she is currently a professor of oceanography at University of Rhode Island.
“I used writing as an escape from science,” she says. While studying and teaching oceanography, she managed to write and have published a total of 20 picture books and short story collections for Indian children before writing her first novel for American teens. Loosely based on her family's history, her evocative Climbing the Stairs (Putnam), is the coming-of-age story of a young feminist who witnesses both violence and peaceful resistance in India during the WWII era.
“I knew this book would be very different from the ones I wrote before, and I approached it with much more seriousness.” says Venkatraman. She goes on to explain that the idea for it was “setting-driven,” stemming from her fascination with a dramatic time in India's history “when the violence of Hitler and India's colonization were in sharp contrast with the intellectual ideals of peace” promoted by Gandhi.
“The first character born in my head was Kitta, a boy who embodies that contrast,” the author explains. “But as I began writing the story, I heard the voice of a woman.” As the story grew, the woman evolved into the story's narrator, Vidya, who is in some ways linked to the author's mother. Like Vidya, Venkatraman's mother grew up in India during the 1940s, lived in an extended-family household where heated political arguments were prevalent, prompting her often to “climb the stairs” to the family library to broaden her mind and escape the conflict.
Once Venkatraman achieved her goal of interweaving threads of Indian culture, diverse religious beliefs, feminism, war and peace into a compelling story, it was more difficult than she imagined finding an agent willing to represent her work. “I received at least 20 form rejections to my queries before I found anyone who would even look at the manuscript.”
Steadfast in her belief that the story's themes did have relevance for contemporary Americans, Venkatraman eventually did find an agent, Barbara Markowitz, who had no trouble finding an editor, John Rudolph, senior editor at G.P. Putnam's Sons, who was eager to acquire the book. “My agent told me that John was 'her toughest editor' and I thought of him as my varsity coach,” the author says with admiration. “He helped me take my writing to a whole new level.”
Now spending less time researching and teaching oceanography and more time speaking at schools and book clubs (where she has discovered a large base of middle-aged fans), Ventrakaman has her eyes set on new goals. She is currently working on a second YA novel, which Rudolph has already purchased.
“It used to be that science was my career and writing was my hobby,” the author reflects. “Now I know I want to be a writer, and I'm starting to think of oceanography as a hobby.”