Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Jacqui L'Ange

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Melissa Siebert’s ‘The Garden of Dreams’ is The Next Big Thing

Melissa Siebert is a writer and journalist, lecturer in narrative non-fiction (among other things) and very cool guitar-slinging blues maven. I have the pleasure of hosting her Next Big Thing post here this week. Can’t wait to read this book!

Melissa’s Q & A:

What is your working title of your book?

The Garden of Dreams


Where did the idea come from for the book?

From many places, some I am sure remain undiscovered. The book takes up the conflict between the personal and the political – asking how grand a stage we choose to play our lives out upon, and at what cost. More specifically, how far we are willing to sacrifice those closest to us for something perceptibly ‘larger’. The horrific global reality of child trafficking informs the novel, but it was an experience closer to home that probably seeded it. Plus I’m an insatiable Indiaphile, so India itself plays a huge role, in all its crazy chaos and humanity.


What genre does your book fall under?

Somewhere between literary and commercial fiction.  Cross-cultural. Something of a thriller, but also a coming-of-age adventure story. I’d say the writing is strong, evocative and cinematic — I hope without the kind of self-conscious ‘polishing’ often found in ‘literary’ fiction, sometimes to the narrative’s detriment, in my mind.


Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Funny you should ask. As many writers have with their books, I have envisioned The Garden of Dreams as a film.  When I sent the novel to Vikas Swarup (author of Slumdog Millionaire, formerly Q&A, Six Suspects and his latest, The Accidental Apprentice) for an ‘authenticity check’, he kindly read the whole book, and responded enthusiastically, adding that he can’t wait for the film version. Here’s hoping! This is a tough call, though. The main character is a 13 year-old American/South African boy, Eli; there are four other primary characters, all having point of view. Can’t think of an ‘Eli’ – maybe an unknown, someone who could transform from a troubled, lonely boy obsessed with rock music and derailed by his parents’ estrangement to a wise, much more confident and courageous leader more at home in the world…His dad, Anton, a South African international mediator who has virtually abandoned his family to serve children in other countries – and ultimately goes into the jungles of Nepal to look for his missing son…Maybe Leonardo di Caprio?! As for Margo, Eli’s crazy, self-destructive mom – probably many contenders for this one.  Naomi Watts, maybe? The two main Indian roles – the villain (child trafficker, madam) Auntie Lakshmi and her nemesis, Inspector V.J. Gupta, head of Delhi’s Child Crimes Unit – should go to Indian actors. Not sure who would play Lakshmi – someone capable of being diabolical as well as amusing. Then there’s Gupta – an offbeat cop who dresses up in drag to cruise Delhi’s G.B. Road (red-light district) and interrogate his sources – wish he could be played by Saeed Jaffrey. I’ve always loved Jaffrey’s performances; he’s in his eighties now, though. Maybe he could still do it, if interested?! He’d be perfect. Minor roles include Lakshmi’s gum-cracking goonda/henchman, a Bollywood actress-turned-madam, a Maoist guerrilla commander hiding out in Nepal’s jungles, and a hijra (eunuch) who works as one of Gupta’s informants. Among other characters…


What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A coming-of-age adventure tale collides with the underworlds of child trafficking in India and Nepal.


 Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

At the moment I am trying to get it published by a reputable publishing company, without an agent.


How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Three years, part-time. I also worked as a freelance writer and editor, and full-time mom, during that period.


What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

That’s a tricky one. Nothing comes to mind as a really close comparison. I think the book has aspects of Slumdog Millionaire and maybe even Shantaram, dealing as it does with the criminal, sordid worlds and victimization of the poor in Indian cities (and globally).  Much of the story is told through the eyes of a young boy; some people have compared it vaguely to Kipling’s Kim, though I hope without the colonial perspective! (Like Kim, Eli goes on a picaresque journey through India – and in Eli’s case, into Nepal.) I’d like to think there may even be elements of Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener, just about my favourite novel – in terms of taking a hard look at how the poor are exploited, further victimized – by their own people and by foreigners professing to be there to help. At how certain individuals dare to rise up against these crimes/perpetrators and fight for justice.


Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My family situation – fractured, and somewhat similar to the ‘triangle’ – Eli and his parents – in the novel. And my ongoing interest in children’s rights and abhorrence of trafficking. I’m a journalist, and these are issues that I wish were much more boldly and consistently covered in the media. But covering trafficking is obviously dangerous – so I wimped out and wrote about it in fiction – though any stats/`facts’ in the novel are accurate. Trafficking from Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries, into India, one of the world’s biggest trafficking networks, is rife. I did a lot of research for the book, both online and through interviews/observation in India and Nepal.


What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I think/hope that readers will especially warm up to Auntie Lakshmi, the madam/trafficker, and her rival, Inspector V.J. Gupta – I can’t let go of them. They are both slightly mad, with quirkiness that I hope entertains. One reader at a publishing house has suggested writing a series of books based on Gupta, she was so fond of him (he’s my fave character in the book, too). But I’m not planning a series. I’ve already started my next novel – about child witches (or children being – mostly falsely — accused of witchcraft) in Limpopo, one of SA’s weirdest and most fascinating places. I’ve spent a good deal of time there. It’s a growing phenomenon across Africa – and most of the time it’s the church leaders, in cahoots with the sangomas – all trying to make a buck, shore up their power – making the accusations. My American ancestors are from Salem, Massachusetts, famous for the witch trials in the late 1600s, so I’ll probably be working in this somehow as well.

Melissa is passing the blog baton to Carol Graham, Carol Campbell and Anne Rogers, who will be posting next week.  Details of where to find their posts coming soon.

(Come back tomorrow to read about Michele Rowe’s literary Next Big Thing…)



Please register or log in to comment