With her layered pearl choker, white-rimmed eyeglasses, ruby-red lips, silver hair and animated style of speaking, Alka Joshi’s infectious zeal emanates through the Zoom screen from California to the UAE. Joshi is accustomed to this sort of long-distance interview – over the past year and a half, she has participated in over 652 book clubs across the globe. The background of her screen shows large posters of her two novels – The Henna Artist (2020) and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur (2021), the former a bestseller on The New York Times list and selected by actress Reese Witherspoon's Reese's Book Club.
Joshi, who is 63, wrote her debut novel over the span of a decade. “It took me 10 years to really learn how to write The Henna Artist, how to layer it with all of the complexities, and how to grow a character in order for the story to come alive and make it meaningful to so many people,” she tells The National.
Conjuring characters with colour and soul
“During those 10 years, when I got frustrated and would stop writing for a year, leave it alone and think, ‘this is never going to happen,’ the characters came alive. I got to know them so well and would actually start talking to them in my imagination,” she says. “Eventually, they started talking back to me, as if they were whole entities outside of myself.”
The protagonist of Joshi’s debut novel is Lakshmi, who defies convention and creates a life for herself away from her family’s village. Having escaped an abusive husband, Lakshmi is now financially independent, applying henna art on Jaipur’s wealthy women and selling home-made herbal remedies while saving money for her own home. Together with her servant Malik and her sister Radha, the trio navigate the family politics and romantic entanglements of the city’s most elite.
Joshi attributes her detailed and descriptive writing to her background in marketing and copywriting.
“To imbue my narrative with all of these details is second nature,” she explains, saying that her writing process is lengthy and layered. Joshi imagines a scene, complete with all its details – from the clothing worn by the characters to what they can smell, taste and hear. “I envision all of this, I walk, I go for a bike ride, I think about it in the shower, and I make notes,” she says.
Next, Joshi embarks on further research to master the context of each scene. She fills numerous notebooks with all these details, creates visual storyboards for her characters and settings, and then, after months have passed, Joshi finally writes the scene in story format.
Although Joshi’s first book may have been a long labour of love, events progressed rapidly after the manuscript was out of her hands. In the six months between The Henna Artist being sent to the printers and appearing on bookshelves, Joshi started on a sequel, centred on Malik. She was only 20 pages into writing when she was given a contract for her second book.
“Book number one wasn’t even out on the shelves yet,” she recalls. “I didn’t realise when I first started that this was going to be a trilogy.”
While writing The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, Joshi couldn’t shake the feeling that Radha needed her own space to shine, too. “There were things about Radha that I didn’t have a chance to insert in The Henna Artist, but I also couldn’t shoehorn her into this story,” she explains.
Joshi is currently in the process of completing the third novel in the trilogy, which is scheduled to release in 2023, around the same time that a Netflix series will start, starring Freida Pinto in the lead role of Lakshmi.
A dream deal with Netflix
When the prospect of taking her work to the big screen first surfaced, Joshi says she knew it had to be a series rather than a movie. “I wanted a bingeable TV series, to watch episode after episode and season after season, I just don’t think that 90 minutes can cover everything that I’ve layered in this novel,” she says.
Michael Edelstein, who had been heading the NBC studios in London during its filming of Downton Abbey, will be executive producing The Henna Artist along with Pinto.
“He said, ‘we could turn this into an Indian Downton Abbey, it wants to be lush, it wants to be rich, it has all of the layers we’re looking for – the upstairs cast, the downstairs cast, the characters and their different stories,’ and it’s got the history of what is happening in post-independence India,” says Joshi.
“He asked his friend Freida Pinto to read the novel, and she said that not only did she want to play Lakshmi, but she wanted to executive produce this with him because she had been looking for South Asian stories told by South Asian people.”
Ensuring authenticity from story to screen
Joshi says that it’s important for the wider themes of her novel to translate on screen, and is confident that her work is in capable hands. “With Freida involved in the production, I wanted to make sure the whole idea of women having agency over their bodies, their lives and their destinies, which is a major theme of The Henna Artist, was going to be carried forward,” she says. When she travelled to Los Angeles to meet the team of writers who would be working on the script, Joshi was thrilled to see that out of six, five were South Asian, and four were women.
Production is planned to begin in late 2022 or early 2023. “Keep in mind, that it all has to be done in India, and with Covid-19, how is that going to happen? It’s really hard to reproduce the streets of Jaipur in Hollywood,” says Joshi.
In the short span of three years, Joshi went from becoming a novel-writing newbie to receiving book contracts based on mere sneak-peek paragraphs of her writing. She reveals that for her coming third book, she received four times what she was offered for her first, after sending only a few paragraphs to her agents to preview. Her stories have cultivated a fan base across the world – many of Joshi’s readers even dressed up as Lakshmi last Halloween.
Joshi is speaking at a workshop at Emirates Airline Festival of Literature called “How to write a bestseller”. In a separate session, she will also speak about The Secret Keeper of Jaipur. The event runs from February 3 to 13. Tickets can be purchased at www.emirateslitfest.com.