"She has no trouble finding her way around the Cholistan desert, but she can't figure out the streets of Harrisburg, Pa.," Suzanne Fisher Staples murmurs, poking fun at herself. There is a twinkle in her eye and a hint of a smile on her face, so it's obvious that she is not too upset about spending most of the evening lost in Pennsylvania's capital city, where she agreed to be interviewed by PW.
The writer, who has traveled and lived all over the world, now resides in Chattanooga, Tenn., where her husband works for an architectural supply company. Once every six weeks, however, she returns to her home state of Pennsylvania to visit her 81-year-old parents at their retirement community in Elizabethtown, about 20 minutes southeast of the capital. Being temporarily disoriented in a new place (and later discovering that her parents' car, which she had driven into the city, was locked up inside a parking garage) does not ruffle the worldly writer. Tall, slender and good-natured, she meets opportunities to explore new territory with the same sense of adventure that she conveys in her YA novels, which range over more exotic ground than Harrisburg.
Three out of Staples's four books are set in southern Asia, where she was assigned to work as a UPI correspondent for 13 years in the 1970s and '80s. Her latest work, Shiva's Fire (FSG/Foster), tells the story of a mystical Indian child, Parvati, whose birth coincides with the worst tornado her village has ever endured. Extremely talented as a dancer, and infinitely wise, Parvati follows her "dharma," or "true destiny," by leaving her beloved family to attend a famous dance school.
Staples's first two novels, the Newbery Honor book Shabanu (pronounced shah-BAH-noo; Knopf, 1989) and its sequel, Haveli (hah-VA-lee; Knopf, 1993), are set in nearby Pakistan and trace the struggles of a young woman reluctantly entering an arranged marriage. The first book focuses on the heroine's childhood as a nomad. Free-spirited Shabanu loves tending her father's herd of camels while her older, more domestic sister, Phulan, would rather stay indoors learning the tasks that will make her a "good" wife. Haveli is set several years later and encapsulates Shabanu's feelings of entrapment after she weds a wealthy landowner with three other wives, all of whom are jealous of Shabanu's beauty and youth. Dangerous Skies, the author's only book with an American setting, was published by FSG/Foster in 1996.
Possessing a reporter's eye for detail, Staples gives an "insider's" view of Asian culture without imposing judgment or injecting American values. "Shiva's Fire required a tremendous amount of research and two trips back to southern Asia," she says. Not only did she go to a renowned dance school in India to observe the practices of young dancers both inside and outside the studio, but she also visited a religious leader, who shared religious stories, ancient legends and principles of Hinduism. While the connective tissue of her novels is purely fiction, most of the images and characters come from true experiences. "My books are made up of real stories about real people," the author emphasizes, citing the inspiration for a tiger attack scene in Shiva's Fire.
"I was in northern India riding through the jungle on an elephant with two friends and their two daughters as we came across a beautiful tigress sitting atop a rock," the author says. "We didn't realize that we were walking between her and her babies. The tigress leapt on to the elephant's trunk and climbed all the way up to his forehead, so that she was face to face with the driver." Staples was "terrified," but seizing the opportunity to capture the dramatic moment, she had the presence of mind to grab her camera.
PW had the chance to see a photo of the lunging beast the day after the Harrisburg interview, when Staples gave a slide presentation about her books and travels at her parents' retirement community. Most of the slides could be illustrations for her books, depicting other memorable characters and scenes. Pictures of India relate to Shiva's Fire; pictures of America's southeastern shoreline bring to life settings from Dangerous Skies; slides of Pakistan evoke aspects of Shabanu and Haveli. One of the most haunting portraits is of a strikingly beautiful girl with an impish grin and dark, mysterious eyes. She is the 13-year-old after whom Staples modeled her first protagonist. "Although she was of age, this girl had no desire to get married," says Staples, explaining that this girl's independent-minded grandmother (like Shabanu's beloved Aunt Sharma) was forced to live a hermit's existence for leaving a husband who "beat her regularly."
Although the marriages of Asian women are not always happy matches in her books, Staples is not necessarily critical of parents choosing partners for their children. Like her perspective on many other traditional customs, her view on this issue is broad-minded. During her travels, Staples began to see the world through the eyes of others and, at the same time, came to understand why American practices are often judged so harshly by outsiders. She could, for instance, see how bizarre the American concept of dating seemed to Asians when a woman asked her "if it was true that American children were sent out to do the most important job of their life -- finding someone to live with -- alone, without the benefit of experience, age and people who love them." While living overseas, Staples found herself spending a lot of time explaining and "sort of apologizing for" American behaviors.
Staples's openness and adaptability led her to be readily accepted by Pakistanis and Indians, who, Staples points out, are "very hospitable" people. While working as a reporter, she traveled with Indira Gandhi ("bumping along the road with her as she campaigned for her second term as prime minister"), met Chinese refugees who were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and watched boys "as young as 10, 11 and 12" going off to war alongside their fathers.
A few years later, when she was invited to take part in a women's literacy project in Pakistan, Staples lived with a family in a small village. One of her favorite parts of the experience was sharing their evening ritual of telling stories around a fire. She recorded many of the tales in notebooks and, in fact, had gathered most of her material for Shabanu before returning to America to work at the Washington Post.
Staples experienced less culture shock in Asia than she did upon her reentry into the States in the mid-'80s. "I felt like I'd been away a long, long time," she recalls. "There were a lot of changes. The cars looked really weird, and everyone had gone to using computers on a regular basis. I was amazed by how frivolous Americans seemed. There seemed to be a lot of gossiping and backbiting going on. People would ask me about Asia, but they did not seem to comprehend what I told them. Their eyes would start glazing over when I tried to explain things that had happened to me."
The Fruits of Travel
It was when she was in Washington, D.C., that Staples began "making up scenes" from the stories in her notebooks. She attended a writers' workshop at the Washington Writers' Center, but found the class to be more "confusing" than helpful. "I finally decided that the only way to write a novel was to dive right in," says Staples, who revised her writing as she went along. As would be the case with all her works, Shabanu took three years to complete. When it was finished, a writer friend, David Finkelstein, encouraged her to send it to his agent, Jeanne Drewsen, who in turn sent it to Frances Foster at Knopf. Although Staples had to "wait a while" for Foster to read her manuscript, she was rewarded for her patience and she has worked exclusively with Foster ever since the editor accepted Shabanu. "I hope Frances lives forever! We have a wonderful relationship," says Staples, who feels flattered that people sometimes mistake her for Foster's sister.
Shabanu won a Newbery Honor award in 1990. Staples was thrilled by the prize, but also somewhat intimidated, for she felt pressured to produce other novels of the same caliber. "Sometimes I believed that my success was just a fluke," she confides. "But now I feel more confident that if I run into a problem -- and sometimes I do get a block -- that I'll be able to solve it."
Reassuringly, Staples's second novel, Haveli, was also well received, although one Asian-American reviewer criticized her for taking her characters' problems "too seriously." According to Staples, his view has been mirrored by a few other Asians anxious to promote their countries' modernization, who express some bitterness over her books' graphic depiction of poverty and primitive lifestyles. Once, Staples was even harassed by a Pakistani woman angered by Staples's novels. After passing out protest pamphlets and accosting Staples at lectures, the woman finally tearfully exclaimed, "I should have written that book!"
Staples's third novel, Dangerous Skies, marked a dramatic transition in the author's personal life as well as in her subject matter. Having just moved to the Chesapeake Bay area, Staples wanted to "make sense" out of all her "feelings of dislocation." The culture shock she had experienced upon her return to America was now magnified, as she felt very much an outsider among people "who were shore born and bred." She did, however, develop a friendship with two neighboring boys (one white and one African-American) who eventually became models for her characters Tunes and Buck, two children whose lives are deeply affected by their elders' prejudices. Before the publication of Dangerous Skies, Staples went through several more upheavals, including divorce from her first husband (whom she had met in Pakistan), yet another move (this time to New York City) and the news that her editor was leaving Knopf. The author, now working full time as a novelist, also had financial worries.
Life in New York City was not entirely grim for Staples, however. She enjoyed reuniting with old friends, rekindled her romance with a college sweetheart (Wayne Harley, to whom she is now married) and changed publishing houses with Foster when the editor started her own imprint at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
For someone who has endured so much upheaval in her life, Staples is remarkably even-keeled. Whether she is thanking a helpful stranger (like the one who opened the locked Harrisburg parking garage, releasing her parents' car), responding to questions from elderly people at the retirement community or giggling over life's little absurdities with an interviewer she has only known a few hours, she radiates a sincere interest in and respect for other people. A "terrible daydreamer" as a child, Staples shows her quieter, more p tic side most eloquently in Shiva's Fire. The book smoothly links Hindu mythology with protagonist Parvati's spiritual journey, and Staples expresses cycles of destruction and rebirth in allegorical terms.
Now in her 50s, Staples continues to strike out in fresh directions as a writer. She speaks enthusiastically about her current project: a novel about a girl soccer player from a "highly dysfunctional" family. (The idea came from her husband's experiences as a volunteer soccer coach.) Though it unfolds worlds away from southern Asia, the new novel has at least one thing in common with the writer's previous books. "I thought that this would be a fairly simple project," says Staples. "But," she adds, smiling sheepishly, "it's turning into something quite complex."
Comerford is a freelance writer based in Bloomington, Ill.