Back in March 2020, I had the privilege of participating in an SCBWI webinar with amazing authors Rajani LaRocca and Erica S. Perl.
Naturally, I could not let such an opportunity go to waste and immediately invited both Erica and Rajani to gilagreenwrites. Both readily agreed and generously shared their time, but Rajani had one caveat: I had to wait to publish her interview until her newest novel came out in September to prevent any spoilers from leaking out, or as she put it "there is one thing that is still secret." Phew! Glad that wait is over. I won't hold you up anymore--after months of waiting---so, please welcome Rajani LaRocca to gilagreenwrites!
Bio: Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area with her wonderful family and impossibly cute dog. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, she spends her time writing novels and picture books, practicing medicine, and baking too many sweet treats. Her middle grade debut, Midsummer's Mayhem (Yellow Jacket/Little Bee Books), an Indian-American mashup of A Midsummer Night's Dream and competitive baking, was called a "delectable treat" in its starred Kirkus review. It was an Indies Introduce selection, an Indie Next pick, a Kirkus Best Middle Grade Book of 2019, and a Massachusetts Must-Read title. Her debut picture book, Seven Golden Rings: A Tale of Music and Math (Lee & Low, 2020) is set in ancient India and introduces the basics of binary numbers. She is also the author of the forthcoming novels Red, White, and Whole (Quill Tree/HarperCollins, 2021) and Much Ado About Baseball (Yellow Jacket/Little Bee Books, 2021) and picture books Bracelets For Brothers (Charlesbridge, 2021), The Secret Code Inside You (Little Bee Books, 2021), I'll Go and Come Back (Candlewick, 2022), and Where Three Oceans Meet (Abrams, 2022).
GG (Gila Green): "Midsummer's Mayhem" has a vibrant cover. Could you tell us if you had any input into it and how you describe its message?
RL: I fell in love with the MIDSUMMER'S MAYHEM cover from the first moment I saw sketches! I saw various configurations, but this portrait-style version was always my favorite. The book designer, David Dewitt, worked with artist Rachel Suggs to create the perfect cover and interior illustrations. My main character's Mimi's face is so cute, and I love her secret smile. And all the other elements—the mouthwatering baked goods, the herbs and flowers, the bright yellow bird—are important to the story. Even the lettering is perfect! I think the message of the cover is that this is a fun book involving baking, nature, and magic. And that's exactly what kids I've met on school visits have predicted, so the cover clearly does its job!
I gave my input on small details, but for the most part I left things in the hands of the design team.
GG: How long does it take you to write a book on average? Do you have a favorite?
RL: I don't think I have a good answer for this, because it depends on the book! MIDSUMMER'S MAYHEM was my first novel, so it took me a long time to write: I first drafted it in 2014, and revised it through 2017, when I signed with my agent. The second middle grade novel I wrote, MUCH ADO ABOUT BASEBALL, which will publish in June 2021, is a companion novel to MIDSUMMER'S MAYHEM about a 12-year-old girl and boy, math competition rivals who find themselves on the same summer baseball team. They can't stand each other, and their team can't win a single game. Then they start eating food from a new snack shop in town and solving math puzzles from books that mysteriously show up in their mailboxes, and everything changes for their team and their relationship. I started thinking about this story years ago but wrote it in 2019. I sold it to my publisher on proposal, which means I sent them sample chapters and a synopsis, and they made their decision to publish based on that. I then spent the next few months finishing the complete draft.
The third novel I wrote is actually going to be my next novel published, and it's the fastest novel I've ever written. (More about this later).
In terms of picture books, some take years to write (including my PB debut, SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS, which I first drafted in 2013!), and others are finished within a few months. In general, things have taken less time as I've become a more experienced writer—but I'm sure that will change as well.
GG: Can you tell us about your goals for your work as a creative?
RL: I read widely, and I love all kinds of stories, so I write variety of things: middle grade novels and picture books, fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry. I want to write books that entertain, that teach kids something new about the world, that make them smile and laugh—and some that make them cry, because the stories are full of emotions and experiences that readers connect with deeply.
GG: How important is Mimi's Indian identity? And in what way is it important?
RL: In MIDSUMMER'S MAYHEM, Mimi's Indian identity is an important aspect of her life, but not one that is an issue or problem. Mimi's mother is Indian-America and her dad is white, and Mimi has relatives in India and the U.S. Her sister performs Indian classical dance as well as modern, and there is a tradition of music in her family that has Indian roots. And of course, Mimi is heavily influenced by the Indian food her mother cooks and uses this as inspiration for some of her baking experiments.
But the most intriguing Indian connection in the book links Mimi to some of the magical characters who show up in the story. I won't give away the spoiler, but it has to do with one of my inspirations for the story, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream!
GG: Have to ask this one: tell us about your next work.
My debut picture book, SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS, will publish with Lee and Low Books on October 27, 2020. Set in ancient India, it's the story of a boy named Bhagat, who seeks to save his family from poverty by earning a place in the rajah's musical troupe. He travels alone to the rajah's city, taking with him all his family has left: a single rupee coin and seven tiny golden rings to pay for his lodging. But when the innkeeper demands one ring per night, and every link snipped costs one coin, how can Bhagat break the chain and avoid overpaying? There is a math riddle at the heart of this story, and an author's note that explains binary numbers--the root of all computing.
My next novel is a middle grade novel in verse! "RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE" will be published by Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins on February 2, 2021.
The story follows Reha, the 13-year-old daughter of Indian immigrants who is torn between the world of her parents and their immigrant community and the world of her school and 1980s pop culture. Then her mother gets sick, and all her worries are turned upside down. This is a book about being caught between here and there, before and after, and finding a way to be whole. I can't wait to share this novel of my heart with readers!
Thank you so much for joining me, Rajani. It was an honor and please come back for a follow-up interview.
Learn more about her at www.RajaniLaRocca.com and on Twitter and Instagram @rajanilarocca.