Q: Rebel Queen is full of references to canonical works of literature. Like Sita, are you most inspired by William Shakespeare? Who would you name as your top five favorite authors?
A: Without a doubt I am inspired by Shakespeare, and he is definitely among my top five favorite authors, along with Janet Fitch, J. R. R. Tolkien, Douglas Preston, and Erik Larson. I was extremely fortunate to be able to study Shakespeare with a brilliant professor, Martha Andresen, who is now retired. She was phenomenal, and the way she brought Shakespeare’s plays to life made you realize that Shakespeare truly wasn’t of an age but for all time (as his contemporary, Ben Jonson, said). There’s a wonderful book by Harold Bloom called Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and he sums up better than I ever could what makes the Bard so unique among authors. Perhaps this is why Shakespeare is read in every part of the globe, including India.
Q: This novel, much like your international bestseller Nefertiti, recounts a story based on the real life of long-dead queen from antiquity. What draws you to characters like Rani Lakshmi and Nefertiti?
A: The characters from history who jump out at me are often women who managed to carve powerful roles for themselves in societies where women weren’t typically allowed positions of power or authority. They are also the ones who have lived through some sort of revolution and managed to weather it. Revolution is fascinating to me, whether it’s cultural, religious, or political. In Rebel Queen, the people of India are growing tired of England’s physical and political encroachment on their land. As they begin to voice their displeasure, however, England responds by tightening its grip, and once the people of India take up arms, England sees it as a revolution and acts accordingly, sending in an army to suppress what they see as a “rebellion”. Whenever a rebellion or revolution occurs in a society, new leaders emerge who are often tremendously charismatic or in some other way very interesting. In this case, one of those leaders was Rani Lakshmi.
Q: Why did you decide to tell this story from Sita’s point of view? Is she your favorite character? If not, who is your favorite?
A: I was drawn to Sita because her position in society was so unique. Here was a woman raised in purdah (where women are veiled and confined to their house) who became a part of the queen’s Durga Dal, an elite fighting force made entirely of women. What must that have been like? Women at that time were raised to believe that their place in society was at home–that to step outside the home was dangerous not only to their physical wellbeing, but to their moral and spiritual wellbeing, too. How would a woman like that feel to suddenly shed her veil and step outside? Would she adapt, or would she flee back to what was familiar to her? I wanted to explore all of these emotions, and I couldn’t have done that with any other character but Sita, who is definitely my favorite, yes.
Q: In your Author’s Note, you mention that you had to make a few changes to the story “in order to make nineteenth-century India more accessible.” How do you decide what should be changed and what must be preserved in historical fiction? Is it a fine line for you?
A: There is a fine line, but as an historical author you are always going to get mail questioning your judgment call on such things. For me, though, it’s not a terribly difficult choice. If names have changed over time, I go with what people are most familiar with today. If something in a character’s past is uncertain, I have no problem filling in the gaps, as long as the guesswork is plausible. If readers want a biography on Rani Lakshmi, plenty exist. But writing historical fiction means making history accessible to a wide audience.
Q: Along similar lines, what was the research process like for Rebel Queen?
A: With each of my novels, the research always begins in the country where the novel takes place. In this case, it was India. Because I married an Indian man, the research for this novel was considerably easier than it would have been without someone to translate Hindi documents for me or take me on a tour of various sites within India. As with each novel, the research involved a lot of traveling and reading, which for me is one of the best parts about writing historical fiction.
Q: Do you agree that loss is a major theme in Rebel Queen—both personal and shared loss? When you write, do you consciously choose themes or do they arise organically from the writing?
A: Loss is definitely a major theme in the book–the experience of it, why it happens, and finally, coming to terms with it. I don’t consciously choose the themes. I think each character I write about has events in her life which are so often repeated that they create a theme. Unfortunately for Sita, those events involved loss–of her kingdom, of her family, and of life as she knew it in Jhansi. But I also think Rebel Queen is a story of hope. That even in the most trying times, people survive; love survives.
Q: Do you think that Sita comes to terms with her losses in the end of the novel?
A: I think she comes to accept them, yes. There is something cathartic in the retelling of a traumatic story, and I believe this is what she is doing by sending her memoirs to England, particularly since England was the source of so many of her life’s troubles. There is an oft-quoted saying that while a person might never get over trauma they can certainly move past it. I think this is what she does.
Q: Would you characterize this novel as pre-colonial? What larger conversation about the nature of colonization do you hope to join? Is it important to you to show alterative points of view regarding this topic?
A: Yes, I would definitely consider it a pre-colonial novel, since England didn’t actually take over India until after Rani Lakshmi’s death. I think many people, myself included, hear the word colonization and immediately think of Africa. It wasn’t until I was married in India and began touring some of India’s historic sites that I began to think about England’s presence there and what life must have been like under British rule.
Q: Is Rebel Queen a book that suggests gender roles might be fluid rather than static? What characters do you think push the gender envelope furthest in this story?
A: There is no doubt in my mind that gender roles are fluid. Historically, it seems very clear that Raja Gangadhar was more attracted to men than women. English soldiers who were in Jhansi at the time and Vishnubhat Godse, a Marathi writer who witnessed Jhansi’s fall, remarked on this, even talking about Gangadhar’s desire to play women’s roles on the stage and his liking for women’s dress.
Q: The Boston Globe has said that your “artful storytelling skills bring(s)…to vivid life…ancient history.” Do you feel called to certain time periods or characters from history? How do you choose the setting for your novels?
A: Actually, I don’t feel called to certain periods in history. But I do feel called by certain stories, whether they’re set in Egypt, or Rome, or India. So far in my career, each of the books I’ve written have been inspired by various trips I’ve taken. In the case of Nefertiti, it was an archaeological dig in Israel, followed by a trip to Egypt. In the case of Cleopatra’s Daughter, it was a trip to Rome. And in the case of Rebel Queen, it was my marriage and subsequent tour of India.