We couldn't be more excited for Bethany Hegedus's new picture book, Grandfather Gandhi, illustrated by Evan Turk and written with Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi. Out now from Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, the book has already garnered starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus.
Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson tells the story of how his grandfather taught him to turn darkness into light in this uniquely personal and vibrantly illustrated tale that carries a message of peace.
How could he—a Gandhi—be so easy to anger?
One thick, hot day, Arun Gandhi travels with his family to Grandfather Gandhi’s village.
Silence fills the air—but peace feels far away for young Arun. When an older boy pushes him on the soccer field, his anger fills him in a way that surely a true Gandhi could never imagine. Can Arun ever live up to the Mahatma? Will he ever make his grandfather proud?
In this remarkable personal story, Arun Gandhi, with Bethany Hegedus, weaves a stunning portrait of the extraordinary man who taught him to live his life as light. Evan Turk brings the text to breathtaking life with his unique three-dimensional collage paintings.
Welcome, Bethany! We're so glad you could stop by. Tell us, what was the spark that ignited this book?
Thirteen or so years ago, I heard Arun Gandhi speak at Town Hall in the months after 9/11. I was there that Tuesday morning, across the street from the WTC at the WFC where I worked. My head and heart were broken that day and I went to this event, sponsored by Unity of New York, to help myself heal.
That night, Arun shared stories of living with Gandhi on the Sevagram ashram as a boy. I wasn’t published yet, I had applied to and was to be starting VCFA that January, but on that October night, I knew those books should be picture books. I tried to talk myself out of the idea that I should be the one to help tell them, but I didn’t. I finally realized that because of what I witnessed on 9/11, and how Arun’s stories, in particular, his grandfather’s sharing of how anger is like electricity, I could help these stories reach the world.
I emailed Arun, asking him to work with me, an unknown. He said yes.
How wonderful! Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?
Grandfather Gandhi took eight years and in that time, two agents had repped the work, and countless editors read and responded, all who were intrigued but many who wanted the text to get turned into a chapter book/middle grade and not remain a picture book, which was the original vision we had for the text and for the stories.
Before a contract was offered I spent a year revising for Namrata Tripathi, who at that time was at Atheneum/ S&S. When my then agent, Regina Brooks, called me on the phone to tell me that Grandfather Gandhi was offered a contract, I jumped around in my living room. I was home sick that day, down with Austin allergies, and I became a nasally jumping bean. I tossed both hands in the air like I’d run a marathon and I then basically crashed on the couch from the joy, exertion, and allergy induced mania!
There were countless revisions before the contract and only some word tweaking after the contract. We always knew we wanted to tell a personal yet universal tale and tapping into Arun’s hidden shame about not living up to his grandfather was really the way in we’d been searching for as we worked all those years.
Now that the book is out, with stellar visuals by debut illustrator, Evan Turk, I am so proud that Arun and I stuck to our original vision of telling the tale in the picture book form, with starting with the youngest audience, and having the story reach both children and adults alike.
What authors do you love for their sentences? How about plot? Character?
For mastery of language, there is no one finer than Kathi Appelt. Take a gander at these sentences:
“From the rooftop of Information Headquarters, Bingo and J’miah stood on their back paws, and watched Little Mama and Daddy-O trundle away, their stripy gray and black silhouettes grew smaller and smaller in the deepening dusk.” True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (Atheneum/S&S 2013).
“Trees are the keepers of stories. If you could understand the language of the oak and the elm and the tallow, they might tell you about another storm, an earlier one, twenty-five years ago to be exact, a storm that barreled across the sky, filling up the streams and bayous, how it dipped and charged and rushed through the boughs.” The Underneath, illustrated by David Small (Atheneum/S&S 2010).
There is vibrancy, pacing, detail, complexity, humor where needed, and lyricism throughout.
For character, Sara Zarr sleighs me. So does Rainbow Rowell and Nikki Loftin in her recent release Nightingale’s Nest (Razorbill, 2014). The characters are so beautiful and the magical realism so special. The book breaks my heart and puts it back together again.
For plotting and pacing, I study all authors, poets, essayists. I went to VCFA to learn structure, and I now teach it to my own mentees, but because I don’t believe plotting and pacing should be formulaic, I continue to pick apart everything I read for ah-ha moments for myself and my mentees and writer friends.
Do you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?
I write in silence, or to birds chirping, or the wind waving through the grass and the trees. I spent many years writing from a reception desk in Manhattan and now that I can write outside in Austin, Texas (when the temps are cool enough) I head to my front porch, to The Writing Barn, or an outdoor coffee shop and I can’t get enough of writing to the sounds of nature: grasshoppers, dogs barking, rain storms, whatever. And in coffee shops, if indoors in the summer, with the AC cranking, I work best if the music is on but where it is not loud enough to distract me. I like lyrics and I don’t want to get pulled out of my story into song. I want to stay with the character, as much as possible.
You were in the VCFA class of January 2005, the Wild Things! How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
I’ve been a grad for a long time now, and each and every year, VCFA and my time there continues to affect me and my work. It’s given me a community of writers to reach out to for advice, inspiration, craft and critique. (Some of the brainaic alumns I turn to for reads are: Alicia Potter, K. A. Nuzum, Kekla Magoon, Sarah Sullivan, Katie Bayerl, Amy Rose Capetta and more!) I’ve continued to make friends and follow the careers of so many who went through the program, just like I did. Whether we were there at the same time or not, going through a rigorous MFA program, and one that is also as supportive and creative, bonds me to the writers I meet online or in-person who are also grads.
The learning doesn’t end after marching across the stage in College Hall and with each year the VCFA community thrives. Graduation is really an induction into a group of writers that continue to push themselves, to study craft, to teach and pass the torch. At The Writing Barn, a workshop and retreat space I run in Austin, Texas, we’ve had the pleasure of hosting VCFA gatherings, and having both alumns and faculty teach with us and study with us. It’s that commitment to staying in the craft conversation that is the biggest take away from my time at VCFA. It’s what makes me and keeps me striving to stretch my writer muscles and develop new ones.
Love the idea of graduation being an induction. It's so true. What is your favorite VCFA memory?
Once, the semester after working with Norma Fox Mazer, I ran into her in Grand Central Station. We both lived in NYC and the small town moments of running into friends and family never ceased to amaze me, but this run-in, was especially special to me as it was THE day I sent my first packet to my new advisor. I was so amazed by the serendipity of it, and how much I missed working with Norma, I threw my arms out and hugged her. Norma was a petite woman for such a mighty writer and I swear, if her husband Harry wasn’t also standing right there, I may have spun her around and set her down in front of the clock at Grand Central, and worshipped right there at her literary feet. After that by chance meeting, Norma and I would meet for tea and when she died a few years after I graduated, I had the honor as Editor of the Children’s and YA section of Hunger Mountain to put together essays by those who worked with her, not just at VCFA, but also with the editors and readers she touched. I still miss Norma, but I am so grateful I got to work with her, and got to know her as a woman and as a writer.
What do you wish you had known before you first set foot on the VCFA campus?
That I’d never want to leave! And each time I return, I still don’t!
We couldn't agree more. Thanks so much for joining us today, Bethany, and congratulations on your launch!
Find Bethany and Grandfather Gandhi online at www.bethanyhegedus.com and www.grandfathergandhi.com. And for extra inspiration, check out The Writing Barn, Bethany's workshop and retreat space in Austin.