In Conversation With Betsy Woodman

After graduating from Smith College, she did African studies at the University of Zambia, and got a Master’s degree in Anthropology from Brandeis University. She’s taught languages, programmed computers, fact-checked history books, done survey research, and directed a Scottish music ensemble. Nowadays, when she’s not dreaming up scrapes for Jana Bibi and her friends, she work on my Baroque recorder technique and Hindi vocabulary. And brags about her granddaughter, Clara.

Q. You’ve taught languages, programmed computers, fact-checked history books, done survey research, and directed a Scottish music ensemble. Eclectic tastes! Anything common in all of them that attracted you to them in the first place?

Betsy Woodman

Opportunism on my part, I’m afraid. Several of those jobs just fell into my lap. However, here are some strands tying things together (sort of.) I love languages, research, figuring out a puzzle, and putting together disparate things and seeing what comes up. I trained as an anthropologist; projects with a cross-cultural angle always appeal to me.


Q. What plans do you have for Jana Bibi and Mr. Ganguly in the sequel?

In book two, Love Potion Number 10, Jana adds dream analysis to her repertoire, a reporter with ulterior motives asks way too many questions, and Mr. Ganguly falls into dire peril from potential kidnappers. Meanwhile, love is in the air—and also in a bottle, for Mr. Abinath of Abinath’s Apothecary claims wonderful powers for his latest concoction. All around her, Jana sees different kinds of love and connection, from arranged marriages to college romances to an attachment between intercontinental pen pals. What will happen when an old flame of Jana’s shows up?

In book three (still evolving), Jana needs quick cash–should she pawn her lucky emeralds? Her son Jack comes to visit with his fiancée; Ramachandran’s twin daughters try to seize control of their destinies; and Mr. Ganguly, who’s in a bad mood, increases his vocabulary. Meanwhile, the town faces a new challenge to its existence.


Q. Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes has an eccentric mix of characters. From the film-hating Feroze, to bagpipe playing gurkha keeper. How did you develop such a colorful cast of characters?

Oh, they came from all over the place. Feroze the darzi is one of my favorites. I have a soft spot in my memory for a real darzi who rescued a badly burned dress of mine by patching the bodice with cloth from a matching jacket. He took it away on a Saturday morning and was back in the afternoon so that I could wear the dress to a long-anticipated party that night!

Mary, the ayah in the books, is not based on a single person, but has the warmth and energy of several ayahs I knew. Ramachandran and Rambir, both good conversationalists, came from some intellectual friends of my parents. Kenneth, the American diplomat, was a composite of various real-life counterparts. As for the American schoolgirls, I certainly knew plenty of them, and, in book two, ideas for a schoolteacher character came from several of my teachers.

Sometimes an off-the-cuff remark suggests a character. A friend jokingly asked if I was going to have a Gurkha bagpiper, which made it inevitable.


Q. You have mentioned astrology, a Futurology Convention, and many forms of fortune-telling such as palmistry, tarot cards etc. Do you personally believe in fortune-telling and astrology?

Excellent question, and I’m surprised that no one’s asked me this before. Ninety-five percent of me says no. I’ve been trained to put my faith (so to speak) in random samples, double-blind experiments, and statistical tests of significance. But I leave the remaining five percent of my mind some freedom to roam. Re astrology, for example, it’s hard to resist reading one’s horoscope in the newspaper or using the vocabulary of sun signs, such as saying some people are “typical Leos” or “typical Scorpios.”

I love getting my palm or my cards read. I must admit, I only believe the good things I’m told.


Q. You have spent only ten years in India, and yet chose it as the setting of your books. Any particular reason that led to this? Have you drawn any experiences from your stay in India during your childhood and incorporated it in the book?

I think I focus on India because I lived there at such a formative age (six to sixteen.) My memories of people, places, and events from that time are particularly rich and emotion-laden. Also, the Himalayan setting of the books reflects nostalgia for the years spent at Woodstock School, in Mussoorie. I can still feel the excitement of exploring the bazaars and the exhilaration of being surrounded by spectacular mountain views. An American reviewer described the setting of the first book as a “dreamscape,” which pleased me very much because it described the feeling I wanted to create of a far away home.

The plots of the books are in no way autobiographical, but the sounds, smells, scenes, feelings, and even fragments of conversation have their origins in real life, as do many of the characters, as mentioned above.

My website ( has photos and additional material related to those two questions.


Q. According to you, how important is the reading habit for children?

Oh my goodness, in my family it’s practically an article of faith! I would have been mortified to produce a non-reader. Happily for me, my son early on was attached to his “bookies,” and he’s passing this on to his daughter, who is still at the board book stage.


Q. How do you deal with your critics, if any?

I remind myself that tastes in fiction are subjective and vary widely, and thank goodness for that!


Q. What are you reading these days?

I just finished Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken and Farahad Zama’s The Marriage Bureau for Rich People.


Q. What type of atmosphere are you most creative in, where you are able to be most productive? Do you listen to any background music? Light candles? Work at night?

No music or candles. The best formula for me is to get up early, have breakfast, and go straight to the computer. However, I also like writing on a bus or train (with pad and pencil) and sometimes a café works, too. Also, lately, I’ve been using dictation software, which lets me lie in bed and think out loud. That’s okay for first drafts, not for hard editing.


Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes

Q. Any message to struggling writers?

Here’s a trick I use to ward off writer’s block, perfectionism, performance anxiety…whatever you want to call it. Sit down and say firmly to yourself: Today, your assignment is to write the worst garbage possible. Clichés, choppy prose, repetition, unnecessary words, irrelevancies, contradictions…go to it! Somehow that makes it possible to open the file or pick up the pencil. You write for a while, and then you have a draft that probably will have something salvageable in it, and you can throw out all the junk and keep the good stuff and build on that. It’s like getting a cat to come to you…you have to pretend you don’t care. Call to it and off it goes with its tail in the air. Look the other way, and there it is in your lap, purring away.

Thank you, Ms. Woods, for your time! All of us at Vault of Books wish you luck.

“In the first of a charming series, we meet Jana Bibi, who has inherited her grandfather’s house in a quaint hill station in India.

Casting aside the conventions of her upper-crust upbringing, Janet (Jana) Laird moves with her chatty parrot, Mr.Ganguly, and her loyal housekeeper, Mary, to Hamara Nagar, a town where local merchants are philosophers, the chief of police is a bully, and a bagpipe-playing Gurkha keeps wild monkeys at bay. Settling in, Jana meets the town’s colourful local characters who gather at the Why Not? Tea shop – the contemplative darzi who struggles with his business and family; a kindly shopkeeper whose shop is bursting at the seams with objects of unknown provenance’ a newspaper editor who burns the midnight oil at his printing press; a head of police who rules with an iron hand; and a young man with a golden voice, who wants to be a singer in the movies.

When word gets out that a new government dam will flood the little hill station, forcing everyone to move and start over, Jana is enlisted to save the community. Will Hamara Nagar survive? With some luck and Mr.Ganguly the fortune-telling parrot, the townspeople may have fate on their side.”


This post was written by

Shriya – who has written posts on Vault of Books ||.
I am an eighteen year old who likes to bite off more than what she can chew, and on most days that includes this website.

My love for reading began when I accidentally came across Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince in the school library. It was the first time I’d read of the bespectacled wizard and I hardly understood the story, but had enough sense to know true love when it looked me in the eye. This is why J.K. Rowling will “always” be my favourite writer. Judith McNaught joined the rank in my late teens, and I also hold immense respect for Arundhati Roy.

I have been blogging (off and on) since I was in class eight and web-designing from about the same time. In addition to blogging, my free time is spent running my book reviewing website, writing and hanging out with friends.

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