Holly Bodger interview: on India and women

It was a book meme that brought my attention to 5 to 1 — naturally. And at first, it was the cover that caught my eye. I reminded me of an Indian bride’s hands on her wedding day, filled with henna designs — mehndi. The artist draws the designs freehand, usually the night before wedding when the bride and female members of her family (and friends) gather to celebrate the wedding — and get the designs done. They’re always amazing and intricate and I love getting them done.

For all the joy the hands on the cover represent, 5 to 1 actually tackles something far more intense — set in a future India, where men outnumber women, the story is of Sudasa and Kiran, and the test Kiran has to go through to win Sudasa’s hand in marriage. The problem is neither one wants to be married, yet they find themselves in a situation where that is what they have to look forward to.

To add to this, Sudasa’s POV is written in verse and Kiran’s in prose — Holly studied poetry in university, but as she says below, Sudasa is the one that determined her POV be written in prose. To find out more about Holly, Sudasa, Kiran and what inspired this provocative book, read on!

What book are you going to read next and why?

I’m hoping to finally have time to read Skyscraping by Cordelia Jensen. It’s a verse novel about a girl whose father battles HIV and is set in New York.

I think it’s assumed that if you work in publishing, jumping to writing is easier – was it a seamless transition for you?

I used to work in technical publishing and now work in scientific publishing, so there are some things that are similar (printing, copyright, proofreading…) however most elements of the fiction industry are quite different.  It did help that I am used to writing every day and on deadline, but even that is different with creative writing.

After writing and going through the publishing process as an author, did it change any assumptions you’d had about writing?

I absolutely believed it would get easier after the first book was out, but I was very wrong. It does not get easier, it gets harder! Yes, you get better at certain things and you learn a lot about what NOT to do, but it often feels like the bar moves higher after you’re published so reaching it is certainly not any easier the second time. In fact, many people find it is significantly harder because they now know how it feels to get negative reviews or sales numbers that don’t meet expectations.

What inspired 5 to 1? And setting it in India?

5 TO 1 was inspired by a journal article I read about the consequences of son preference and sex-selective abortion in China and other Asian countries. This article was discussing what future life might be like for the boys who will not be able to marry or have children, and that got me thinking about how this might change the dynamics of gender relations for teens. When I considered it, I realized that life might be a lot like it is for the girls of today but in complete reverse.

I chose India because the article I read was mostly about China and India and I have always been fascinated by Indian culture.

After all your research and then writing – what was the most important thing you found you had to remember when writing about India, even if a future one?

I’d say language choice was the thing I had to keep an eye on the most. It’s natural to want to use words or metaphors that make sense to you (the writer), but they need to make sense to the character. Mine live in a walled city in the future so I could not use any language that might refer to things that did not exist or that they would not know about. For example, if I wanted to describe the male character having a headache, I could not say something like, “my head felt like I’d eaten ice cream too fast,” because my character would never had had ice cream.

The alternating chapters in the book are written in prose and verse – what made you go with verse for Sudasa’s POV?

I studied poetry in university and had wanted to write a verse novel for a while, although the choice to do Sudasa’s part in verse was really up to her. Sorry, if that sounds cocobananas. That’s just the way she spoke in my head! Her father is a former poetry professor who is no longer allowed to teach, and I somehow imagined that she would communicate much like he taught her. I also saw her as a girl with a lot of time to sit around and think about things and this fit well with the introspective qualities of verse.

Chapters are from a male and female POV: despite the various (obvious) differences between them, did you find any unexpected similarities?

I actually didn’t feel any different writing the boy or the girl. Once I was in character, I was in character. I didn’t have to think, “okay, act like a boy now.” I think I thought I would and it would be hard to switch, but it wasn’t. I did have to be careful about switching back and forth, of course. I only ever wrote or edited one POV at a time.

This seems like an intense topic for a very young audience – how did you keep this accessible to your intended audience?

The wonderful thing about verse novels is that they use a lot of metaphor and symbolism, rather than just spelling things out. They also leave a lot of white space (both literally and figuratively) which means they let the reader delve into things on their own. These characteristics made it easier for me to discuss things without really discussing them. For example, there’s a reference on page 20 to a towel, a pail and a grave. Without thinking about it, someone must gloss over this and assume it’s talking about cleaning, when in fact, it’s referring to how some female babies are smothered with a towel when they’re born, and then dumped into a pail, and taken out to a grave. In a regular prose novel, I would have been more likely to use words like MURDER or INFANTICIDE, while in this one, I was able to let the reader discover these meanings on their own.

India has been in the news far too much for the violence women there endure, so a look at the country’s future is eye-opening. Could this be where India is headed with genetic advancements? What do you think?

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