I saw the lovely Rajdeep Paulus at her publisher’s launch party. There were about five authors who read excerpts from their new releases. I still remember the scene Rajdeep read with a conversation between two characters using happy and sad face sticky notes. It was my favorite of the readings and one of the reasons I (finally) read her first book. I’m thankful that I waited to read it until the sequel came out because then I got to read through both books without having to wait. :D Who says procrastination never gets you anywhere?
Both books are wonderful, providing your are tough enough to get through the first 25% of Swimming Through the Clouds. Not because the writing isn’t stellar, or the characters’ sympathetic–quite the reverse, actually. Reading about the evil one person can inflict on another in an effort to control them can be very uncomfortable. In this case, I think it’s worth it.
I’m delighted to introduce you to Raj and her books!
Me: You describe yourself as an author of masala-marinated fiction. So, stupid question for the culturally ignorant, what is masala?
Raj: Love it! Masala translated, simply means, spice. You should ask Chip MacGregor. He once told me that his favorite Indian dish was “Masala.” Still tease him about that one. :)
Me: Swimming Through Clouds and Seeing Through Stones combine to tell the stories of siblings Talia and Jess. The beginning of Swimming Through Clouds is very difficult to read. Was it difficult for you to write? What steps did you have to go through to make it so authentic?
Raj: Honestly, I wrote chapter two of Swimming Through Clouds. Then I read it over and sobbed like a baby. I was heart broken for Talia and horrified that someone could do something so awful. I know. I know. I created it, but it still hurts like a momma when you do terrible things to your characters. At least, for me, it does.
In terms of certain steps to making the story authentic, I don’t know if there’s a trick to it, but I try and let myself completely disappear when I’m in my characters’ stories, and just really try and live out their lives as I write. When I find myself slipping in too much, I take a break from writing. Because that slows me down and then I feel disconnected from the story. The best example of how to describe the story might be from the movie Avatar, that pretty blue thing that stole our hearts a few years back. Writing to me is a bit like that. Fall asleep and wake up in a new world. And then write it all down as fast as I can before I forget the details.
Me: Talia and Jess’s father is from South Africa. That seemed an unusual choice to me. Why South Africa? How the story might have been different if he had been American or Indian?
Raj: This is the first time someone’s asked me about Talia’s Dutch South African heritage. I suppose he could have been from anywhere, but I had a back story all worked out in my head to sort of explain how he turned out as he did. This involved growing up in an Apartheid present South Africa, learning to view anyone non-white as inferior from his parents and then falling in love with an Indian girl (not Gita) in his own country. He was then kicked out and disowned by his family for his choice to love this brown-skinned girl, but when he followed her to America, she decided he wasn’t worth the sacrifice of her own family so she ditched him. [Note: none of this comes out in the books.] Then when his whole rise to power through the invitation of a trafficking organization that needed young, bright lawyers takes flight, he decides he will never be hurt or abandoned or rejected again. This, at least in part, births his extremely controlling nature.
Me: I had wondered if the apartheid angle played into his domineering nature. That makes a lot of sense. Americans tend to only think in terms of American characters or prevalent minorities. I figured there must have been a reason you chose a Dutch South African. (patting myself on the back)
Part of the reason you wrote your books is to make readers aware of child trafficking. In writing your books, have you met any of the victims or had any read your books?
Raj: No, not as of yet. I hope to make a trip to India some time with Nomi Network and talk with the women and girls they are helping, many of whom are survivors of Red Light Districts. I have, however, been emailed a few times by readers who couldn’t read any more or couldn’t believe how similar their own stories of abuse resonated with Talia’s. This broke my heart. And does every time I get that kind of feedback.
Me: That is heartbreaking. We’d like to think that scenes likes the ones you’ve written are sensationalized, but there are real people out there who suffer. Knowing that your stories resonate with others is a reminder to us about the plight of others.
Before you go, what is one thing you’d like your readers to know?
Raj: Wow. You’re making me choose just one! :) Okay, I guess because I’m busy in the whole marketing of the books right now, I just want say a huge thanks to every reader who takes the time to read my books, giving this newbie writer a chance, and an extra huge hug to all who have a few minutes to write a short review on Amazon and Goodreads. The reviews don’t just brighten my day and help shape my writing, they actually help new readers to find the books. So thank you for that. And, thanks, Lisa, for this chance to chat with you and your peeps.
Me: I feel lucky to have read your books and luckier to make friends with their fabulous author. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next!
Watch the book trailer for Seeing Through Stones:
Aren’t these covers gorgeous?
EXCERPT FROM SWIMMING THROUGH CLOUDS:
I live in the in between. Between what if and what is. It’s how I manage. It’s the only way I know. Everyone has their way. This is mine.
I flip my imaginary pen shut, close my invisible journal, and tuck my thoughts away in the only safe place I know exists. My heart.
A new school changes nothing in my mind—the other place I file the chapters of my story. A story no one can ever know. Instinctively, I tug at my sleeve, pulling the left one over my hand. Because my arm is where Dad prefers to write. Reminders to never step out of line.
Someone clears her throat. The brunette bus driver with smoker’s breath taps the top of the seat in front of me. “Bell rings in seven minutes.” Empty rows surround me—we’re the last two on board. “Might want to get a move on, hon.”
Move? Second week of September, and I wish I could move back. Back in time, that is. To a time when Mom made apple pie and my younger brother flew kites from the roof. A time that never existed. Until I wrote it down. In between my lines of reality. That’s my favorite place. Leave me there. And leave me alone.
“Five, now.” Coughing, Madam Bus Driver’s friendly, good morning voice dissipates like the sand in an hourglass.
Rising, I drag myself into school, plop my backpack next to my desk, slide into my chair, and bury my face in my arms. If I can’t see the other kids, maybe they can’t see me. Careful to keep my quads from brushing against the museum of chewed gum on the bottom of my table, I hug my left arm close to me when I notice a scrap of paper on the floor below. It’s a little, yellow, square Post-it note. I could have just as easily stepped on it. Maybe someone’s circulated a juicy love letter. I squint to read the writing without moving the paper.
Talia. My name printed neatly across the top is all I need to see before I do step on it. Who wrote this? Did Dad plant this here as a warning? That’s nuts. Dad hasn’t followed me to school. Or has he? Is someone else passing notes around about me? I excuse myself to the lady’s room, scoop up the paper as I go and crumple the sticky note in my hand to make it disappear. Then I walk-run until I stand safely locked behind the walls of a toilet stall. Trembling, I prop my back against the side with the least graffiti, leaning on my right arm, and open up my hand and smooth out the creases.
The Post-it reads: Talia. Dew drop by and have lunch with me in the cafe? L.
Huh? Who is L.? And how does this person know what my name means? Or maybe he or she is just a terrible speller?
Lagan. Has to be. The same tall, math geek who wears his Bulls Jersey at least twice a week and would offer to tie my shoes if the teacher asked for a volunteer. I ignore the offer. And him. I avoid his eyes during the rest of first period and tell Ms. Miller, “I don’t need any help with AP Chem today. I understand the material. I’m good.”
Good until I arrive at my locker after second period, and there’s another Post-it note openly stuck to the door for anyone to see. This one reads, I can balance a mean cafeteria tray on one hand while spinning a b-ball with the index finger of the other. Eat lunch with me? L. I quickly scrunch it up in my hand. How many people have read it in passing? Do all his friends know he’s leaving me notes? Did the basketball team put him up to this this? Like some kind of stupid dare to test the transfer student is? What would make this stranger want to have lunch with me? The strange girl?
If that isn’t bad enough, when I open up my locker over the week, a new sticky note falls out each day.
Tuesday’s boasts: I can open up a milk carton no-handed. Have lunch with me? L.
Wednesday’s says: I’ll buy you lunch. Throw in two desserts. Have lunch with me? L.
A stalker is all I need to add another layer to my already complicated life. And this guy clearly has an overabundance of free time on his hands. All week, I decide to hide in the girls’ bathroom and leave five minutes to eat lunch at my locker, standing and scarfing down my sandwich and guzzling down my water bottle before the bell sounds. Time is my enemy. I fear her more than the dark.
When Thursday rolls around, I spin the lock on my combination, suddenly aware that I’m half-expecting to find one. My heart sinks the second the lock clicks open. What if? And before panic sets in, a little, yellow, square sheet sails down like an autumn leaf, landing on my shoe. Can this tiny Post-it be trying to direct my steps? Towards Lagan?
I don’t know whether to hide or to laugh when I read Thursday’s sticky note. I’m in good with the cafeteria ladies. Chocolate or vanilla ice cream? Have lunch with me? L.
Leaning against my locker, I imagine the cool sensation of ice cream on my lips and before I finish unwrapping my sandwich, a hall monitor busts me. “No eating allowed outside the cafeteria. Proceed there now, or I’ll have to write you up.” She stares at me, holding a pen and clipboard with the intensity of a cop dangling handcuffs.
Put the cuffs, I mean pen, away, I think to myself as I toss my lunch in the nearest trash bin rather than face the lunchroom. And Lagan. The short, pudgy hall monitor lady with tight red curls a little past her ears just shrugs her shoulders and returns to her post and her pile of People magazines. I’m not mad at her. She’s just doing her job. I get that.
I mumble, “I’m sorry,” as I walk past her down the hall and up a flight of stairs to English class.
Sinking into my chair, the bell sounds, and Mrs. Benson announces the first formal writing assignment of the semester. “Well, Seniors, I simply loved reading the journal entries on your summer adventures! Only two weeks in and I sense this is going to be a superb fall kick-off to the culmination of your secondary education, don’t you think?”
Superb. Sure. I guess she bought the made up story of my trip to Disney. If my life were a Disney flick, I’d ask the Genie for one wish. Dad—go poof.
Mrs. Benson smoothes her lilac business skirt down from her hips like she’s drying her hands and continues talking. “Pay attention, now, because I need each of you to pair up and interview a classmate. I expect you to approach your write up as a chapter out of a biography rather than a Q and A format.”
Lagan’s hand shoots up so fast, it’s a wonder he doesn’t pull a muscle.
“Yes, Lagan,” Mrs. Benson says with an adoration-soaked tone.
“It’s La-gan!” a few kids chime. Then George, his basketball bud adds, “As in, La la la la, and when the bell rings, we will be gone!” George stands up to give Lagan a chin-raised, high-five, then sits back down.
“Thank you for that phonetic breakdown of La-gan’s name, George. I stand corrected.” Then she turns to Lagan, eyebrows raised, waiting for his question.
“Well, I was just thinking—” The classic start of so many of Lagan’s responses since school started. “Most of us have been together since Kindergarten.”
“Go on.” Mrs. Benson lowers her bifocals and looks at her manicured fingernails over the top of them.
“So most of us already know each other.” Lagan shrugs, and several kids throw in, ‘Yeahs’ with their nods of agreement. Maybe he hopes she’ll cancel the assignment.
Mrs. Benson emits a teacherly throat clear to quiet down the class. “Which means most of you have no excuse to find each other and get your assignments in on time. As for you Lagan, can I trust you to work with Talia? Help her to feel welcome and complete this assignment in the process. Yes, why don’t you pair up with Talia? But realize that interviewing the new student does not buy you any extra days. Talia, I vouch for this one.” Mrs. Benson steps forward and pats Lagan’s shoulder like he’s her son. “You’re safe with Lagan. Does that work?” Lagan nods once as he beams a smile to the teacher.
Umm? I think she was asking me, but my voice fails me. I suppose Mrs. Benson takes that as a yes, too.
Then she addresses the entire class again. “Make time to meet during study hall or lunch or after school in my classroom, if you need to. I’ll just be grading papers at my desk. All typed copies, double-spaced are to be placed on my desk at the start of Friday’s class, a week from tomorrow. I’ll be grading them for content, grammar and creativity. And I’ll bet even those of you that think you know each other will discover something new. Because we’re always changing. Always.”
Sure. My burns change to blisters. The blisters change to scabs. The scabs to scars. Back to burns again. Is that what you mean by change, Mrs. Benson? And what about those of us who don’t want to be discovered? After school is not an option, and no one else is jumping up to ask me to be partners. So, Lagan, it is.
Seems like this place is no different than the last place I lived. Benton Harbor, a few hours east of Chicago in the mitten State, was a sea of chocolate while Darien, Illinois, my new home, is a loaf of white bread with a handful of “others.” When you’re an ethnic cocktail like me, you never know where you belong. Or if you belong at all.
I can read the words behind the stare-downs I get, especially from the girls. Labels they stamp me with that I’ve heard my whole life. Weird. Uncool. Out there. And then the word they think I can’t hear, because they spell it with hand gestures: Emo.
If they’re thinking I’m emotionally unstable, they should meet my younger brother, Jesse. Funny thing is, he looks normal. About the only ordinary detail about me is my average height, but stature doesn’t help a person blend into the crowd when the other details scream, “Check me out, I’m a freak!”
My face and hands are a shade of brown lighter than your average Southeast Asian, but not quite light enough to be considered Caucasian. Most people guess I’m Hispanic or Middle Eastern. Once or twice, I’ve been called an Islander. Not sure which island they were referring to, but I knew they were confused. Not even sure what to call myself since I’m half Indian and half South African. If White Chocolate, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup were an option on forms, I’d check that box.
I instinctively brush under my nose with the top of my pointer finger. My nose is petite on the whole, but my nostrils flare up slightly, making a nose ring out of the question. I leave my hand there as a curtain. Usually, I keep a few strands of my hair pulled over to my mouth—my futile attempt to hide my lips—the part of me that draws the most attention.
No matter how much Chapstick, lip gloss or lipstick I apply, I cannot make my deformed, deeply ridged, lips disappear. My bottom lip looks worse than the top, and no respectable cover for lips exists yet. Have to look into that. Start a trend. Invent some lip-glasses. Call them Lip-Shades, for when you can’t find the perfect color or get a cold sore or in my case, your lips always look like your vampire boyfriend prefers lips to necks. If a pair of these puppies could keep a kid from talking too much, teachers might endorse it, and I’d be a billionaire. Run away. Fly to the moon. Take Jesse with me, of course.
Since that’s not going to happen today, or ever, I attempt to draw the least amount of attention to myself. But even that seems to backfire in this new school. Between the redhead Hall Cop’s eagle eyes and Mrs. Benson’s assignment, I’m left with little choice the next day. At least it’s Friday. Time to buy lunch and face Lagan.
As I walk into the cafeteria after Bio, a parent volunteer offers me a tray. I could have picked one up from the pile myself, just as easily. When I spot a Post-it curling up off the far corner, the plastic tray slips from my fingers, but I manage to grab it before it hits the floor. Relieved I didn’t put down my spoon and fork as I lift the tray up to the counter and flatten the note to read it.
I’ll put your tray away for you. Sitting on the right side at the back table. Saved you a seat. Have lunch with me?L. So he’s taking a day off being a social butterfly, surrounded by his high tops-sporting teammates and mathlete buds to sit with me? How did he even know I would show up today? Four words comes to mind: Get this over with.
Tucking my lower lip under the top and reasoning that one meeting will be enough to finish the English homework, I join Lagan at the rear of the cafeteria. Sort of. I know better than to sit right next to him or even across from him. Instead, I walk over to his table and sit two seats down, on the opposite side.
He blows into his hand and sniffs. “I brushed and flossed this morning if you want to move over. I’m not saving seats for anyone else.”
“I’m good.” I stare at my tray of food, aware that I haven’t thought of one question to ask him.
“Well, okay, then.” Lagan starts to rise up as he pushes his tray down toward my end of the table.
Startled, I half-scream, “W-W-Wait!” Catching myself, I pull my sleeves down past my wrists, push his tray back to his old seat, and lower my voice. “I mean, let’s just try this. If it’s okay?”
Relief washes over me when he resumes his seat. He doesn’t even ask why. Makes me wonder if we’ll end up friends someday. I don’t have any friends, so one friend…if I keep him on the D.L. My family doesn’t have to know. My dad, really. Especially Dad. If he ever finds out… Well, let’s just not go there, because he is not going to find out. Ever.
Lagan speaks first when the awkward moment passes. “Let’s start over.”
“Okay.” I look at the wall in front of me.
“I’m over here.” I can see Lagan waving his hands out of the corner of my eye.
“I know.” I speak slowly. “I see you. I hear you. I’m. Here.”
“O–kay.” His voice falls flat with an all too familiar sound. Doubt.
I pick up my tray to leave. Better to fail the assignment before disappointment turns to disaster. How do I interview Lagan when I can barely bring myself to talk to him? How else do individuals close the gap between space and silence? People draw near to each other and communicate. Face to face. Eye contact. That is normal. But normal isn’t in my cards. I’ve been dealt a hand that I can’t lay down. I step away from the table and turn to face the direction of the conveyor belt where other students are placing their trays.
“Wait.” Lagan’s voice rises.
“I’m not hungry.” I lie.
“Don’t leave yet.”
But it’s too late. I lied to myself too. Somewhere between the Post-it notes and all the times Lagan offered to help me, the new girl, I gave into the hope, perhaps only a crumb’s worth, that he might be different. But if he can’t handle this, he probably can’t handle any of it.
“I’ll see you in class.” My eyes focus on the red exit sign.
“You forgot something.”
That is the first time he tricks me. I stop and turn around to scan the table where I was sitting. He is frantically scrawling something in his lap. Then he reaches over and slaps the table where I sat moments ago. A little yellow Post-it note curls up where my tray had just lain. Everything inside me tells me to run, but I have been running my whole life. My feet are tired. And I am a little hungry. Against my better judgment, I return to my spot and sit again.
This note reads, I’m sorry. I don’t understand. This is new. Let’s start over. I nod. Then fold up the note and put it in the back pocket of my jeans.
Lagan clears his throat and smiles. “Take two. Or three. Ahh. Who’s counting, anyway?”
My peripheral vision has sharpened over the years and I see his profile exhale. While we eat in silence, I memorize his appearance. His dark brown eyes squint when he smiles. His silky black hair falls to right above his shoulders and a few wisps fall across his forehead, over his left eyebrow. Lagan’s skin reminds me of milk chocolate. A tiny black mole on his right cheek dances as he chews. His thinned out goatee draws attention to his oval jawline—a nest for breadcrumbs which he instinctively wipes away after every few bites. I can see his black Nike high tops extended beyond the cafeteria table that his long lanky legs barely fit beneath. And he raises his dark, thick eyebrows whenever he looks in my direction and smiles, introducing a heart-skipping dimple on his left cheek.
“I’m sorry.” I mutter the confession, but it’s true. I am sorry. I want to undo the last few minutes too. I don’t really know what I want. I just—
“How’s the chocolate milk?” he asks, drawing attention away from the past.
That’s when I know he’s different. And different has potential.
“Fine.” A minuscule snort escapes me, and I feel something loosen—around my heart. “Are you still buying?”
Wow. That dimple again. As he walks back to the drinks section of the cafeteria line, I survey the room, always aware that everything can change, for the worse, in a fraction of a second. Nothing but noisy students eating lunches and oblivious monitors walking around. We are safe— for now. When Lagan returns with a carton, he hesitates. Then he places it caddy-corner from me rather than on my tray. I fold my bottom lip inside my top, and wait for him to take his place.
“Thanks.” My whispered word falls onto the lunch tray, but Lagan hears it.
He coughs “Y.W.” into his right fist, and we both giggle.
I reach over and drag the carton closer. I lift it up to open it and find a sticky note on the bottom. The guy must keep them in his back pocket. I peel it off and smile. I can see out of the corner of my eye that he is smiling too.
I reread it to myself: If I ask you ‘yes/no’ questions, you can answer “yes” by nodding to your food and “no” by looking at the exit sign. Is that cool?
I flip the note over and there’s more: And don’t worry about me. I’m always talking to myself. No one will suspect a thing!
I resist the urge to bust out laughing when I reread the last line. I shake my head and nod to my tray, but before he can ask the first question, the bell rings. Lunch is over. It’s a B schedule today, so my next class is not the same as Lagan’s. We both stand at the same time. I remember my manners. I fish a pen out of my book bag, write “ty” on the last sticky note, tack it to my tray and head to gym.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.
You can download the beginning of both books at amazon “Try It Free.”
For those of you who don’t own a copy of Swimming Through Clouds, I am giving one e-copy away. Just comment below or on my Facebook author page and tell me you want to be entered for a chance to win. Winner announced April 2.
Now readers, let me here from you. What topics/subjects are you particularly sensitive to that would cause you to put a book down without finishing it?