July 03, 2013

Jennifer Bradbury

Tension and uncertainty as India splits in two
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Jennifer Bradbury’s debut novel, Shift, was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, and BookPage raved about her second novel, Wrapped, calling it "Pride and Prejudice meets The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles." In 2005 Bradbury lived in India, where she participated in a Fulbright Teaching Exchange. Her experiences there helped provide the inspiration for her new book, A Moment Comes, which is set in India in 1947, in the tumultuous period before partition. BookPage caught up with the versatile author in her office, a converted milking parlor in Burlington, Washington.

A Moment Comes takes place in 1947 in Jalandhar, a city in India near the modern border with Pakistan, just before India was divided into two separate nations. What drew you to this time and place and the challenge of telling a very complex story?

The story started for me when I was teaching in Chandigarh in 2005. Chandigarh was created post-partition to serve as capital of both Punjab and Haryana [two of India’s states] and is full of people with vivid recollections of partition. The friends I made were kind enough to answer my questions and share some of their stories with me, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to know. A few years later, the seeds of the story hadn’t left me, so I began writing the book, trying to find my way to a deeper understanding of the time and place.

Your previous book, Wrapped, was a mystery set in 1815 London. A Moment Comes undertakes very serious political themes. What appeals to you about writing historical fiction, and what led you to tackle a different kind of story with this book?

I love carving a story out of the existing narrative, of filtering the history through characters and a place. Most of all I love the chance to create something that could have happened and simply been forgotten. The act of figuring out that balance is really rewarding for me. And as for why I jumped from an adventure/lark of a book like Wrapped to A Moment Comes, I don’t really have a great answer. It was a little bit of the “do-the-thing-that-scares-you” motivating me, as the subject was difficult and the history huge and the responsibility to be faithful to it daunting. But mostly I was writing the book I wanted to read.

"I can’t pretend to know it all or have all the answers, but young adults know how important both these countries are for so many reasons and always have good questions."

One fascinating aspect of the book is the perspectives of the main characters: Tariq, a Muslim boy; Anupreet, a Sikh girl; and Margaret, an English girl new to India. What inspired you to tell the story from those three particular points of view? Was any character easier or harder to write than the others?

I decided early on that I wanted to try and write the book from those three perspectives in order to try and represent the three major groups that were at work on the partition of India. And I wanted to show the pain and the loss suffered by all sides, as well as try to make sense of why these wounds are still so near the surface even now. Tariq, oddly enough, was easiest to write initially, but then during rewrites with my editor, pulling Margaret’s voice out and having her see and taste and hear India for the reader became really fun and a wonderful way to sort of relive my first impressions of life in the Punjab.

You say in your author’s note that there were very few cartographers working in India at the time of the country’s partition. Why was it important to you to make Margaret’s father a cartographer?

The men working on the boundary award were under an impossible deadline and faced with an equally impossible task, so it was impractical to do much of what Margaret’s father does in the novel. It just seemed the best way to be close to the British Raj without going to the usual suspects of Radcliffe (who drew the actual boundary award) or Mountbatten (the last viceroy).

How did you conduct your research? Was there anything that surprised you as you delved into this time period?

Most of my initial research came from talking to people in the Punjab, even asking the students I was teaching about the history. I was sort of stunned by how little I knew about the roots of the conflicts between Pakistan and India and was very lucky to have people generously share with me. And once I decided to write the novel, I read a couple of books to anchor me in the events—Alex von Tunzelman’s Indian Summer is both immensely readable and painstakingly researched. I was also able to get copies of Margaret Bourke-White’s Life magazine pictorials. She was the field photographer for Life during the time the book takes place, and the images are haunting and powerful. What surprised me most was the scale of the devastation and how relatively forgotten it is in the West. The partition still stands as the greatest human migration in history, and some estimates at the loss of life rise as high as two million. Those staggering numbers, and the fact that more people don’t know about them, still surprise me.

Your descriptions of Margaret’s Western clothes and how ill-suited they are for India’s climate are so palpable readers will feel like sweating along with her. How did you manage to capture the sights, smells and feel of 1947 India?

Probably a lot of that was just my remembering what it was like to move from the Pacific Northwest (we live an hour north of Seattle) to India and the 100-degree temperatures. I quickly discovered the genius of a cool cotton salwar kameez. And when I started writing the story and began researching the clothes Margaret would have been expected to wear, the heat and discomfort became that much more palpable.

As far as how I managed to capture the time period, I just did my best to take what I experienced and try to dial it back several years. And having been to various parts of India made that easier—the architecture and traditions and foods have changed little in many places even though there are mobile phones and a great deal more cars than there were before.

The story leaves the readers with questions, especially about what might happen to Tariq. Are you thinking about writing a sequel?

No. I did want to leave the reader with questions, and I knew I was taking a risk with that, but I was trying to be true to the period. This is a time and place when people were completely lost to each other—either permanently or for extended periods. I spoke with one man who remembers walking out of Pakistan with his family only to become separated from his father. Seven years later, his father found them settled in India after they’d given him up for dead. It was important to me to end the book on that note of uncertainty because of stories like that one.

Tensions between Pakistan and India still exist, of course. How do you speak to American teens about this conflict, and what do you think they should know to have a better grasp of the political and historical context?

I do my best to share what I’ve learned, and I hope the book is a good starting point to develop awareness of the period and the roots of those tensions. I can’t pretend to know it all or have all the answers, but young adults know how important both these countries are for so many reasons and always have good questions.

What are some of your favorite time periods to read about?

I’m all over the place, but I do love the 1940s. Code Name Verity was brilliant.

What are you working on now?

I’m in rewrites on my next book with my editor, Giant’s Coffin. Set in 1838 at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the story starts at the tuberculosis hospital that was established inside the cave. It will be my first middle grade novel, and my first set in my home state of Kentucky.

Get the Book

A Moment Comes

A Moment Comes

By Jennifer Bradbury
ISBN 9781416978763

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