Interview: Techie, Foodie and Novelist
By Hemlata Vasavada
Writer draws on varied experiences: Always
ready for new challenges, the prolific writer
Bharti Kirchner tackles a different genre in Tulip
Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery, her latest novel.
Bharti Kirchner's many journeys to and from
India, Europe and the United States, jobs in
computer systems management, and hobbies in
cooking and gardening have provided a wealth of
ingredients for her writing. She recently spoke to
More than a decade ago, I met Bharti Kirchner at
the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference. The
petite woman—then the author of four
cookbooks, four novels, and many magazine
articles—spoke passionately about ways to improve setting and sensory details in fiction. She
had a gift for explaining how to be more attentive to colors, sound, touch and smell in writing.
Shortly after that, Bharti came to our area for a reading of her second novel, Sharmila’s Book,
where she patiently answered questions and explained her writing process to our critique group.
When we met again at an Indian function in Seattle, she recognized me. She and her husband,
Tom, are friendly and approachable. My husband and I have met them a few times at each
other’s homes and have shared their interests in traveling and cooking.
Using her keen sense of observation and creative concepts, she turned her skills to novel writing.
Like the author herself, her novels traverse continents, and describe the emotions of Indian-
Willing to take on new writing challenges, the prolific writer has undertaken a different genre
with her novel Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery. Even in this genre, she has continued to
depict the emotions of first and second generation immigrants. When Mitra says goodbye to her
mother, she thinks India “is another mother, at times nurturing, at times indifferent.” She feels a
stranger in her native as well as adoptive land, but she finally feels “at home” when she returns
to Seattle. With a garden motif that runs throughout the book, she contemplates working through
“cycles of growth, bloom, decline, death and challenge. Eventually balance [is] achieved, beauty
awakened, a miracle birthed.”
She came to our area, Skagit Valley, famous for the largest fields of tulips in the nation, to see
the colorful blooms, and I had a chance to learn about her new book, Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu
Mystery. I asked her about transition from cookbook author to novelist, and her venture into the
world of mystery writing, a genre that very few Indian women writers have pursued. What
follow are excerpts from that conversation.
What in your childhood instilled a love of the written word in you?
I come from a family of literature-loving people. My family looked upon literature as a high
form of expression of the human condition. In the evening, we’d sit around my grandfather who
would read from a Bengali classic, such as one written by Tagore, Bankim Chandra or Sarat
Chandra. I was too young to take part in the discussion that would follow, but found it exciting
nonetheless. As I grew up, I wrote poems in Bengali and read voraciously, not only classic
Bengali literature, but also translations of European, American and Russian novels. The Bengali
language is rich in both original work and translations of world classics, and those helped shape
my literary taste.
How did you decide you wanted to leave your job as a software engineer to become a full
The writing bug hit me. It hit me so intensely that I did what you’re not supposed to do—I quit
my fulltime job and plunged right into a most difficult profession: writing. Family and friends
were skeptical, but I stood my ground. I felt writing was in my bones and I had no choice but to
pursue it. It’s not an easy transition, especially when you’ve been immersed in a technical field
for so long. These days I am often asked by the Boeing types how did I make such a huge leap. I
can offer no formula. I jumped into the big unknown with both feet and fortunately was able to
land on solid ground.
Of the several genres you have written—essays, articles, cookbooks, and novels—what do
you like most?
Whatever genre I am attempting at the moment seems to engage me to the fullest. Fiction is the
most tantalizing and offers the biggest challenge. I fall under its influence quite easily. I believe
that natural curiosity and a sense of adventure propel me to try new avenues of writing. It is by
no means easy to switch from one genre to another. Each genre has its requirements and you
must read extensively and learn the conventions before you can make a go at it.
Do you only write about India?
No, I write with a global focus. For example, an earlier novel, Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and
Discoveries, is set in Seattle and Japan. One reviewer described the novel this way: This book
explores such cross-cultural issues as Seattle WTO, riots, wasabi cheesecake, and Zen in the
After writing four novels that deal with human emotions and universal themes of love,
jealousy, family traditions, social and cultural problems, what made you decide to write a
To make a long story short, this novel grew out of a short story published in the anthology
Seattle Noir (Akashic Books). The story was well received and some readers asked me if it’d
ever be a full-length mystery novel. That got me started. Now I am glad I went that route. A
mystery novel forces you to look at the darker side of the human nature, which I hadn’t done
previously. There’s a quote in the book: “A weed is nothing but a flower in disguise.” To the
extent I can, I’ve tried to humanize my villains and not just expose their misdeeds.
The protagonist in Tulip Season is an “accidental detective” who gets clues from her
mother, and from the taxi driver and dhobi (laundryman). Is Mitra going to leave her
landscape business to become a fulltime detective? Since the title of your novel is Tulip
Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery, is there a mystery series in the future?
I don’t know for sure what I’ll be compelled to do next. In Tulip Season, Mitra was forced into
being an amateur sleuth when her best friend disappeared and no one seemed to care as much as
she did. Will another devastating event happen in her life to spark her into action? We’ll have to
wait and see. Writing is often a game of waiting.
What are the challenges and opportunities for South Asian writers?
I think the South Asian writing we’ve seen so far is really the tip of the iceberg. There’s much
more to come, both from South Asian writers living in the U.S. and from writers who live in the
subcontinent. Many of the latter write in a regional language and haven’t thus far been translated.
Some people say that Indian writing is a fad and it’ll go away, but I don’t worry about that.
There’s a saying in the publishing industry, a cliché, if you will: Good writing will always
prevail. I believe that good writing, whether it’s about India or any other place, will always find a
[Hemlata Vasavada is a freelance writer based in Mount Vernon, Washington. Her articles have
appeared in newspapers, magazines and anthologies.]
Bharti Kirchner’s Author File
Bharti’s articles, essays and book reviews have been published in newspapers and national
magazines. She is a frequent speaker at writer’s conferences, book festivals and universities. Her
work has been translated into many languages,
including German, Dutch, Spanish and Marathi.
Her first novel, Shiva Dancing (Dutton), was
Her first book, The Healthy Cuisine of chosen by Seattle Weekly as one of the top 18
India (Lowell House), was an alternate books by Seattle authors in the last 25 years.
selection for Better Homes and Gardens
Book Club and named “one of the best Sharmila’s Book (Dutton) was praised as “smart,
cookbooks” by Food Arts magazine. swift and funny” by Publisher’s Weekly.
Her second, Indian Inspired (Lowell In Darjeeling (St. Martin’s Press), “Kirchner’s
House), made the list of “top ten melodic voice paints a vivid picture of modern
cookbooks” by USA Today, and “one of India and of immigrant life,” according to Booklist.
the best cookbooks” by Chicago Tribune.
Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and Discoveries (St.
Her third and fourth books, The Bold Martin’s Griffin) was selected for the Summer
Vegetarian (Harper Collins) and Washington Reads program.
Vegetarian Burgers (Harper Collins),
were praised by many cooks and Her latest novel, Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu
cookbook authors. Mystery (Booktrope Publishing), was released
earlier this year.
Published by Khabar Magazine, Features section July 2012 issue.