By Danielle Wilkinson
Today we’re pleased to welcome Varsha Bajaj to the WNDB blog to discuss middle grade novel Thirst, out since July 19, 2022!
The riveting story of a heroic girl who fights for her belief that water should be for everyone.
Minni lives in the poorest part of Mumbai, where access to water is limited to a few hours a day and the communal taps have long lines. Lately, though, even that access is threatened by severe water shortages and thieves who are stealing this precious commodity—an act that Minni accidentally witnesses one night. Meanwhile, in the high-rise building where she just started to work, she discovers that water streams out of every faucet and there’s even a rooftop swimming pool. What Minni also discovers there is one of the water mafia bosses. Now she must decide whether to expose him and risk her job and maybe her life. How did something as simple as access to water get so complicated?
Can you tell us about what inspired this book and the research process that went into portraying these circumstances and characters as accurately as possible?
Many decades ago, I worked in a community health center in a neighborhood that was very similar to Minni’s. Water scarcity was an issue then, and it’s possibly worse now. When I learned that 700 million plus people around the world didn’t have access to clean drinking water, I was shocked. I knew that this story needed to be told.
What was your process for outlining and writing Thirst?
In January 2020, I returned to Mumbai to visit my father, and to revisit the neighborhoods where I’d worked, and talk to people from all walks of life. I returned with a wealth of stories. I explored the water crisis and the work being done by dedicated organizations like water.org.
At some point, I forced myself to emerge from the research rabbit hole and started to focus on discovering my characters and their story.
I brainstormed, scribbling on a yellow legal pad for weeks or it could have been months, until Minni emerged. I outlined using the three-act structure; it works for me. My outlines though, as always, changed and evolved in the process of writing.
Why did you choose to write this as a middle grade story as opposed to young adult, adult or a children’s book?
I’ve had the opportunity to interact with thousands of middle schoolers who’d read Count Me In in their classroom, and sometimes across the school. I enjoyed speaking to middle school children. They were delightful, sincere, committed to the words on the page and thoughtful. These kids owned the characters as if they were real. It’s what I did and continue to do as a reader. I knew I had found my audience. Middle grade is my sweet spot.
Going off of the last question, middle grade has changed a lot in the last few years to incorporate more diverse stories and tackle more complex real-world issues. Do you believe because of the world we live in right now it’s important to educate young readers on these types of issues?
I think middle schoolers are watching and learning whether we educate them or not. They have access to information that we didn’t when we were their age. I think more than tutor, we need to have conversations, communicate, learn what they are thinking and feeling and process together.
Minni is very brave, determined, and resilient despite her circumstances. Why was she the perfect protagonist for this story and what do you hope readers learn from her?
I want them to empathize and care about Minni and her family and struggles. I want readers to keep dreaming and trying even when their own lives get tough. My protagonists’ can-do spirit is inspired by all the real-life Minnis in the world. Some of my readers might even be inspired to help by raising funds for organizations like water.org. and others.
There were a lot of impactful scenes in Thirst but one of the scenes that was very heartwarming was when Minni hugged her mom for the first time near the end. Can you tell me what it was like writing that scene and how you wanted to portray family in this book?
Minni’s innocence and happiness at the beginning of the story comes from the love and protection of her family. Her resilience and bravery also come partly from her family. Writing that scene when Minni hugs Ma, felt like a reward for writing all the difficult, heart wrenching scenes I’d written through the story.
I believe reading a fictional story about real events has the power to resonate more than reading about real events through articles or history books. Did you write Thirst with the intention that it would be able to be taught in schools and impact young readers?
I wrote Thirst because I felt compelled to shine a light on water inequity and how it impacts the lives of millions of kids and families. I hoped it would be published and find the right editor and home. Nancy Paulsen books was the perfect home. The School and Library team at Penguin inspire me to work harder. They’re dedicated to getting books into the hands of readers and educators.
What was the most difficult chapter/scene for you to write? Which chapter/scene was the most enjoyable?
I love this question. I’m going to try and answer it without revealing spoilers. I cried when I wrote the scene when Minni’s mother imparts life lessons and prepares her for her job.
The scenes when Minni’s brother teases her and calls her Minni meow made me smile. Also, Minni’s walk to school with Faiza was fun to write.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Especially in regard to writing about issues close to them?
Write from your heart, especially during that first draft. Don’t be afraid to show that you care. Be vulnerable on the page, so your characters can be too. And most importantly, read, read, read.
Who first made you want to write? Who do you get inspiration from?
Always a voracious reader, I first started writing when my own kids were little. I wrote partly for me, but also partly because I realized that my Indian American kids needed to see themselves in books. Back in the early 2000s there weren’t many diverse books, and I am eternally grateful for the work done by WNDB.
I get inspiration from my lived experiences and from the world around me. There’s so much I care about, and so little time.
What are some books/movies/tv shows you’ve been loving lately?
I’m reading The Last Queen by Chitra Divakaruni. Before that I read Hummingbird by my friend, Natalie Llyod. My TBR pile is high and always growing.
I binged watched and laughed through Season 3 of Never Have I Ever. Devi Vishwakumar is such a funny and flawed character. Only Murders in the Building season 2 just ended and I’m already waiting for Season 3. The last movie I watched in the theater was a feel-good treat, Mrs. Harris goes to Paris.
Varsha Bajaj is the New York Times bestselling author of the middle grade novels, Thirst, Count Me In, and Abby Spencer goes to Bollywood, which was shortlisted for the Cybils Award and included in the Spirit of Texas Reading program. She also wrote the picture books The Home Builders (a Dolly Parton Imagination library selection) and This is Our Baby, born Today (a Bank Street Best Book). She grew up in Mumbai, India, and when she came to the United States to obtain her master’s degree, her adjustment to the country was aided by her awareness of the culture through books. She lives in Houston, Texas.
Danielle Wilkinson is a 20-something aspiring author from Atlanta who has always loved the feeling of getting lost in a good story. In 2021, her blog Danielle The Writer was selected as The Write Life’s 100 Best Websites For Writers. She also started her first business the same year, where she teaches new and aspiring authors how to dominate on Instagram so they can grow a community of loyal fans. When she’s not working or writing, you can find her reading with a cup of tea, listening to podcasts, trying to take the perfect photo for her Instagram, or fangirling over K-Pop videos.