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Naazish YarKhan Headshot

Atlas of Unknowns Keeps Readers Engrossed Until the Last Page

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I had the pleasure of listening to Tania James read from her novel, Atlas of Unknowns, a few weeks ago. The few paragraphs she chose, had me hooked. The entire novel, now that I've completed it, didn't disappoint either. Set in New York and Kerela, India, it kept me engrossed to the very last page! Given my increasingly short attention span, that is saying a lot! Here is a book I didn't skim through!

Tania James, 28, has degrees from Harvard and Columbia and this is her debut novel. Until recently, one of her grandmothers was under the impression that she was on her way to becoming a Supreme Court Justice. Instead, Tania found herself becoming a novelist! Not a bad detour, many of us would think!

I had some questions for Tania, some of them as a reader and others as a fellow writer working on a novel ! Enjoy!

Q. At the heart of Atlas are two sisters named Anju and Linno, and in a way, two close female friends, Gracie and Bird. Are your sisters the inspiration for the bond between Anju and Linno?

A. Yes, I have two sisters -- one older and one younger -- and we are very close. I wouldn't say that any one sister directly correlates with Anju or Linno, but I do think that the depth and intensity of my sisterly relationships have influenced the relationship between Anju and Linno. I also have this (maybe erroneous) theory that the dynamic among 3 sisters is very different from the dynamic between 2, because in a trio, one sister can act as a safety valve. So when two out of three are fighting (Sister A refuses to hand over the TV remote to Sister B), Sister C can diffuse the situation by suggesting a game of UNO. Between Anju and Linno, there is no such safety valve (nor is there UNO), and so there arises a silence between them, a tension more difficult to surmount.

Q. Was there alot of research you had to do for the book?

A. I once went to Jackson Heights, in Queens, to interview a group of threaders at an Indian beauty salon for the New York Times. The newspaper ultimately took a very compressed version of our conversation, but the pages and pages of transcripts kept me wondering about those women, the salon, their neighborhood. I began looking through archived articles on Jackson Heights, ones that mentioned South Asian immigration in particular. One of the first articles I read involved the abuse of the legal system by fraudulent lawyers, who offered illegal aliens a fantastically swift path to citizenship, basically in exchange for the client's life savings. Of course those clients ended up broke and unable, as non-citizens, to report their grievances. And it seemed to me that this was exactly the kind of thing that might befall one of my characters.

Probably the most complicated world to navigate was that of the American immigration system, despite all the time I spent scouring official websites that purported to make things clear. In the end, what saved me was a conversation or two with an immigration law expert named Arlene Lyons who set me straight on the messy ins and outs of the system. And in retrospect, questioning her was probably a safer route than emailing Homeland Security to see just what an illegal alien can get away with these days.

Q. With the publishing business folding in on itself these days, what advice do you have for aspiring authors? Would you suggest self-publishing?

A. It seems to me that the pursuit of writing a beautiful thing shouldn't be a fairweather pursuit, and as you mentioned, the publishing industry is currently undergoing some ungodly weather. I think it helps to be working on something while you're waiting to hear back from an agent or a publisher or a literary magazine. It keeps your mind focused on evaluating your writing, rather than evaluating your rejection letters, which may sometimes be based on economic factors, rather than the merit of the writing. (That said, as a former slush pile reader, I can't stress enough the importance of taking your time with the writing process, and sending out work that is as good as it can be.) I don't know too much about self-publishing, but have heard of success stories, though each of those success stories involved a massive amount of work on the part of the writer to get their work and their name out there, a more grassroots effort.

Q. What is the hardest part about getting a book into print?

A. For me, it was acquiring an agent, only because it seemed the scariest part. Suddenly, I was no longer in a workshop, receiving single-spaced letters of critique about my work. I was sending my work out to strangers, for the most part, and it seemed a make-or-break moment. Somehow I ended up with my dream agent, Nicole Aragi, and it's meant everything to have her in my corner.

Q. Besides the eloquent writing, what were the qualities that helped sell your book to an agent and then publishing house?

I think that in literary fiction, it all comes down to the writing. I guess I can't speak for my agent or my editor, but I do know that they are utterly passionate about the books they love and about bringing those books into the world, so I can't imagine them making judgments based on anything else. That said, certain elements in a cover letter to an agent/publisher can help, like having publications in literary magazines. Sometimes an agent may contact you based on something they've seen in a literary magazine. But ultimately, the book you're trying to sell to an agent/publisher has to stand on its own merit.