Outside In: An Interview with Jennifer Bradbury

Selected for Bas Bleu’s Young Readers Book a Month 2018 package, Outside In by Jennifer Bradbury tells the story of a boy named Ram, living on the streets of Chandigarh, India, and his discovery of a magnificent garden of sculptures—created in secret by a factory worker named Nek. Inspired by the true story of Nek Chand, one of India’s most beloved artists, this enchanting novel entwines Ram and Nek’s story with a retelling of the Ramayana—the epic tale of two brothers, Rama and Lakshmana, and the beautiful princess Sita. A heartwarming tale of trust, healing, and family, Outside In provides an intriguing glimpse into life in India. Today in the Bluestocking Salon, Jennifer Bradbury talks to us about her own experience in India, how her high-school students help her write, and her claim to fame as a Jeopardy! contestant.

Bas Bleu: You taught in Chandigarh, India, which is where you learned of Nek Chand and his wonderful sculptures. Can you tell us a bit about your experience there?

Jennifer Bradbury: I participated in a Fulbright Teaching Exchange in 2005 and taught at Bhavan Vidyalya in Chandigarh. The entire experience was magical for many reasons. The people I worked with, the students I taught, and the sights and sounds of India all made the months we were there incredibly rich. I hadn’t published any fiction at the time, but wrote the first draft of what would become my first novel while there. But I knew immediately that there were stories related to the place I wanted to know more about. I’ve always been guilty of writing what I want to know. Nek Chand’s story (Outside In) and the greater story of partition (A Moment Comes) are perhaps the clearest examples of this tendency.

BB: You describe many of Nek Chand’s sculptures in your book, including the beautiful Sita and the awe-inspiring Shiva. Are any of them purely fictional, created by you for the story? What was your favorite sculpture in the real Rock Garden of Chandigarh?

JB: The Shiva sculpture does sit atop the cascade and is one of my favorite spots in the garden. I don’t know if an actual Sita exists, but there are dozens of the dancing ladies and their construction and ornamentation inspired Sita. My favorite sculptures were often the structural ones—the massive tree roots and walls studded with light bulb receptacles and broken pottery.

BB: We know Nek was a real person…what about Ram? Was he inspired by anyone specific?

JB: Ram is invented, but partly inspired by my own children—both adopted—and both who teach me repeatedly about the importance of creating for its own sake.

Author Jennifer Bradbury

BB: When retelling the Ramayana for the story, how did you choose what to include and what to leave out? Is there any part of the tale you really love but that didn’t work for the narrative of your novel?

JB: I love the Ramayana! I’ve taught selections of it throughout my teaching career, and there are indeed many iterations of the tale. I loved the challenge of retelling it for young readers and finding the universal truths that overlapped with Ram’s hero’s journey as well. All the parts I loved best ended up in the story, though there are some fantastic variations involving Hanuman dealing with some nasty sea serpents as he crosses to Lanka that would have been fun to include.

BB: How did you deal with writing a fictional story about a real person? Were you concerned with maintaining historical accuracy, or did you let the needs of the story guide you? Did you do any deeper research or speak to anyone who knew Nek Chand during his lifetime?

JB: I mostly let myself have free reign. I wanted to tell a story of a man who created because he had to, not because he needed to show his work to others. And at the same time, I wanted to tell the story of a family being built in unexpected ways. The real Nek Chand is absolutely the inspiration for the character in the story, but only based on what I was able to read about him and learn from interviews. And the details of his life and own family were changed for the sake of the story. Sadly, Nek Chand himself passed away the week I learned that Outside In had been accepted for publication. But I am lucky enough to have a second book about Nek Chand coming out in the next couple of years. This one will be a picture book biography much more faithful to the remarkable life and art of Nek Chand.

BB: Earlier in your career you were a high-school English teacher, which seems like pretty great training for writing young-adult books! How much did your work with teenagers influence your writing? What do their stories have to teach adult readers who think YA “isn’t for me”?

JB: I’m actually back in the classroom! I’m teaching every other day at the same high school where I started my career. I love working with student writers and find it energizes my own practice as a writer. I read drafts of chapters of my early attempts at fiction aloud to my students and got amazing, insightful feedback. And one of my students just grabbed the first draft I brought in to revise with them during our workshop the other day. It was so much fun to see his reactions and hear his questions. I think good stories—no matter the age of their targeted readers—are for everyone, and I am constantly recommending kidlit and YA titles to friends young and old.

BB: A little birdie told us that you were once a contestant on Jeopardy! We must know: Were there any questions about books on the board that day, and if so, did you ace them?

JB: Ha! Was the little birdie my mom? I won the first day and got destroyed the second day. There were many literature-based questions, but the only one I vaguely recall is of course one I missed. It had to do with Candide, which was ironic because I was teaching selections of it to my students at the time.

BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?

JB: Every book I ever read shaped me in some way, but I think one of the earliest books that clued me in to the fact that I was keenly interested in telling stories was The Trouble with Tuck by Theodore Taylor. That was one of the first books I read that I remember begging other people to read so that I could share it with them. I think I even waited by the mailbox one day to ask the carrier if she’d read it.

BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?

JB: I’ve been reading and recommending Jason Reynolds all over the place. I also read a lot of Steve Sheinkin and Deborah Heiligman for nonfiction. I love Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books and just read Uprooted. I love mysteries as well and read the Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King and the Chief Inspector Gamache books by Louise Penny. I’m also a science fiction fan and love The Expanse series of novels.

BB: What future projects can our readers look forward to seeing from you?

JB: I have two picture books coming out in the next few years, and a few novels I’m working on. Two of the novels are related to the outdoors. My family and I spend a lot of time hiking and climbing, and I’m really excited to pull those passions into my writing.

BB: Our thanks to Jennifer Bradbury for setting aside time from her busy writing and teaching schedule to offer insight into her wonderful novel and to introduce us to Nek Chand!
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