By Hank Hoffman
For writer Chandra Prasad, fiction is a collaborative effort between herself and her characters. And Prasad has created — or, in the case of famed and doomed aviatrix Amelia Earhart in Breathe the Sky, re-imagined — some truly compelling characters.
In Prasad’s second novel, On Borrowed Wings, Adele Pietra — a granite quarryman’s daughter from Stony Creek — attends the pre-coeducational Yale College of the 1930s in the guise of her brother who was killed in a quarry accident shortly after being accepted for admittance. It is perhaps telling that Lor Cole — the African American lead character in Prasad’s first novel, Death of a Circus — is a high-wire walker. Crafting a successful novel can be a tightrope act, and Prasad’s fiction deftly balances extensively researched historical detail with sharply drawn characters, tense plot turns, allegory, and social comment. Her work has garnered praise from writers Tom Perrotta, Wally Lamb, Debby Applegate, and Sara Gruen. On Borrowed Wings was a finalist in the fiction category for the 2008 Connecticut Book Awards.
“I like writing about people and getting under their skin and really figuring out their inner character,” Prasad tells me in an interview. “Not necessarily what they’re showing to the world but what they’re keeping inside and what only emerges in bits and clips from time to time.”
Prasad, a North Haven native and Yale University alumna, began writing in earnest in her mid-teens. Her confidence that she could make a living in publishing was buoyed by the example of an aunt, Maggie Swanson, who has enjoyed a successful career as a children’s book illustrator.
“I took the whole industry pretty seriously,” recalls Prasad. “I researched it and figured out if you were going to publish a book, you needed a literary agent. And to get a literary agent, you had to figure out how to make a submission and make a proper query letter.”
Prasad secured a literary agent at the age of 16 to shop a collection of short stories. She came close, she says, but didn’t get published. Out of Yale with her desire to write undiminished, one of her first jobs was producing “content” for Vault.com, an Internet site specializing in business and employment issues. Prasad used the knowledge to write her first published book, Outwitting the Job Market.
Prasad also edited Mixed, a 2006 pre-Obama anthology of short fiction by mostly younger mixed-race writers on the multiracial experience. She says her own background as half Indian and half a mix of Swedish, Italian, and English inspired the theme of the anthology.
“I definitely felt out of place through high school,” Prasad says. “I grew up in North Haven, which is a very Italian town. It was a curious thing to be Indian, or part Indian. I didn’t really know what it meant. I had never been to India before and all my relatives around this area are Italian. It’s interesting to be perceived as one thing but think of oneself as something else entirely. Now I really embrace being mixed race. I like that people can’t really pin down what I am.”
Prasad created all the separate contracts for all the writers based on her advance, did the first round of editing, and had first say on the order and sequence.
“It was a really rewarding experience,” she says. “I got to see how other writers work, got to read some wonderful stories, and came out of the process making some wonderful friendships.”
But writing fiction remains her real passion. Prasad says she parlayed that first non-fiction book into the opportunity to write Death of a Circus, which was published in 2004.
“I used it to convince publishers I could write a book. And why not a novel? It’s not the path I thought I would take but it’s what ended up happening,” says Prasad.
These first three novels inhabit an overlapping universe, taking place in roughly the same time period of the 1920s and 1930s. A young New Haven girl who is enamored with aviatrix Amelia Earhart and is tutored by Adele Pietra, the main character in On Borrowed Wings, reappears in Breathe the Sky, Prasad’s fictionalization of Earhart’s life and her final, fatal flight. The Bringlebright Circus of Death of a Circus is referenced in On Borrowed Wings. As she notes on her Amazon.com profile, “From a literary standpoint, the economic, cultural, and social turbulence of that era — the sense of being on the brink of vast and permanent change — appeals to me.”
“No matter what I set out to write, it seems that gender weaves its way in there, identity, race, sexuality, family. These are the themes that usually emerge as strongest in my books,” says Prasad.
Those themes are seamlessly woven into the fabric of On Borrowed Wings. Prasad’s heroine, Adele Pietra, is the daughter of a marriage that embodies class and ethnic tensions. Her father is a second-generation Italian quarryman, a working-class dreamer slowly being consumed by the toxic dust accumulating in his lungs. Her mother is — or was — a WASP “cottager,” the daughter of a well-to-do professional couple who regularly vacationed in Stony Creek. But when Adele’s mother took up with Gianno Pietra she was disowned; Adele has never met her grandparents.
“Throughout the day, whether I’m washing dishes or getting my older son ready for school, things pop into my head — characters, plotlines. It’s the thought that lasts longest, that lingers, that’s usually the winner. Something about On Borrowed Wings and that plotline — Adele and that journey — really took root,” says Prasad. “Once I put it down to paper on an outline I wanted to write about her. That’s key. In writing a book, you have to commit for a number of months — if not years — and I was willing to do that for Adele.”
In the book, which is a lively page-turner rife with period detail, Adele assumes the identity of her older brother Charlie after he and her father are killed at the quarry. In the 1930s, Yale — as were so many routes to advancement and independence — is closed to women. (The university didn’t admit female students until 1969.) Boyish in appearance, Adele navigates her freshman year at Yale as “Charlie Pietra” by binding her small breasts, lowering the register of her voice, and constantly monitoring her behavior even among friends. Prasad, who studied English and women’s studies at Yale but took many courses in history and particularly American history, spent a couple of months at the Sterling Memorial Library immersing herself in materials about Yale’s history.
She works from an outline that roughly details plot and character development for each chapter. But the intricacies of character flourish in the writing process.
“I get a general sense of who this person is but how they emerge is by their own actions and decisions in the narrative,” Prasad states. “Sometimes they surprise me. I’m not the master puppeteer. I know generally who these people are and where I want them to go.
“The outline focuses on the plot but also the allegorical levels and what I’m trying to say socially or politically. By the same token, some things just emerge whether I plan it or not,” Prasad says. As an example, Prasad offers an extended subplot in On Borrowed Wings. Adele works for a professor in the eugenics department to fulfill her financial-aid work requirement.
“There was a eugenics department at Yale at that time but the way it all developed in the end” — and here I’ll let you read the book to find out what happens — “that just came in the few days or couple of weeks when I was writing that scene,” remembers Prasad, who expresses shock that the racist eugenics pseudo-science once had a place at her beloved Yale. “It’s always a pleasant surprise for any writer when you make a full circle and a scene comes together how you want it and almost in spite of your best efforts.”
I tell Prasad that the characters in On Borrowed Wings are so vivid that once I was finished, I was left wondering what might have happened to them if the story had continued. According to Prasad, that’s as it should be.
“Ambiguity is more realistic. Most of the time I don’t like really tidy endings,” asserts Prasad. “Books are all about using your imagination. When you leave something a little open-ended, it allows the readers to draw their own conclusion.”