Born in West Bengal and raised in a family of voracious readers, Kirchner, a resident of Seattle, has been entranced by words since she was a child. But before putting pen to paper she had other journeys to take.
In the 1960s, she came to the United States to study and worked full time in a field unrelated to writing. Yet Kirchner longed to blend her love of literature and cooking. Her desire simmered until the early 1990s, when The Healthy Cuisine of India: Recipes from the Bengal Region was first published. The cookbook set her on her literary road, one that continues to lure her to intriguing destinations.
Prior to being a writer, you were a systems engineer for IBM, a systems manager, and computer consultant. How did you transition from an analytical field to a creative one?
Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be a writer. I always read a lot. But I didn’t see writing as a means of earning a living. So, academically, I pursued another interest: mathematics. Eventually, that led me to the software field. After working in the field for a number of years, I joined IBM as a systems engineer.
One day, while I was still employed by IBM, the writing bug hit me. I kept it to myself for a long time. Then I did what you’re not supposed to do: quit my lucrative full-time job and delved into the unknown world of 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. At my readings, I am often asked by engineer-types how I shifted gears. I can offer you no formula, I reply. I jumped with both feet and, fortunately, was able to make it work.
When did your passion for words become evident? Did your desire to write develop simultaneously, or did this come later?
The passion was always there. It spoke to me in the wee hours of the morning. For a long time I didn’t act on it.
I couldn’t, as I had to make a living. But I was always an avid reader and that, I believe, kept the flame alive.
What were your early explorations in writing? Short stories? Fiction? Or food-writing?
I started out writing magazine articles, the topics being food, fitness, travel, and life-style—all the areas I was interested in. I’ve written for Food & Wine, Eating Well, Northwest Travel, Walking, The Writer, and many other publications. To this day, cloistered at home during a long fiction project, I manage to whip up a few magazine articles. It’s a way for me to get back in touch with reality and receive feedback about my work.
Your collection of work spans many genres. How are you able to move easily from cookbook author to novelist, to magazine writer, essayist, and book reviewer?
Writing in a variety of genres keeps me stimulated. I believe it is curiosity and a sense of challenge that keeps me trying new avenues of writing. By no means do I find it easy to go from one to another. Each genre has its requirements, and you must keep on figuring out your steps.
When did you first develop an interest in cooking and begin to prepare your own dishes?
I came to the United States as a student and was hungry for home-cooked Indian food, which wasn’t so easy to come across in those days. I figured I’d have to learn to cook. Soon I found I enjoyed the process, so much so that after finishing my homework in the university library I’d pick up a cookbook from the stacks and browse through it.
When I began working full time, I was able to experiment more in my apartment kitchen. Then I went to work in Europe. Part of that time was spent in France. Not only did I study French, but I enrolled myself in various French cooking programs as well. I learned a lot about cooking. Although I no longer do French-style cooking—too much butter and cream and wine for me—some of the basic techniques have served me well.
Where do your ideas for themes, characters, and specific food subjects come from?
They spring from someplace within. You have to be quiet and listen, or they vanish.
How did you learn to write novels and cookbooks?
I am pretty much self-taught in both, although I’ve taken cooking classes and writing workshops and read many how-to’s. In the end, it’s your deep desire and commitment that pushes you to carve your path.
As to why I didn’t attempt a novel in the very beginning: coming from a highly technical software background, I couldn’t plunge into fiction writing right away. There was too much of a gap between the two disciplines.
Cookbooks constituted a comfortable intermediate step for me. Recipes are a step-by-step process, similar to the manner in which a piece of software works.
Incidentally, cookbooks and novels have little in common. When I made the switch, it was as though I was starting fresh. Knowing one didn’t help the other.
Who has influenced your writing and your cooking style?
In both cooking and writing, I’ve taken influences from all over, but not from any particular individual, at least I don’t think so.
Reviewers, however, might see it differently. In terms of novel writing, I’ve been compared with Anita Desai and Alice Adams. The truth is, I’ve always hoped to write and cook in my own style. I believe it was Oscar Wilde who once said: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
What current trends do you see in Indian cooking? Are American and Indian culinary traditions blending to create fusion cuisine?
My second cookbook, Indian Inspired, published in 1994 was a fusion cookbook that combined Indian flavors and techniques with that of other world cuisines. It was probably a bit ahead of its time.
In major cities like New York there have been attempts at combining Indian flavors with those of French, Spanish, or other cuisines. For the most part, Indian restaurant cuisine in the United States has remained pretty much what it was to start with: tandoori chicken and rogan josh, that sorts of thing. That’s perfectly okay.
Friends tell me that every so often they crave Indian flavors and nothing can satisfy that craving except for dishes like mattar paneer or chicken tikka, however commonplace they might sound.
In the future, I see much more blending, much more breaking of barriers. Home cooks are already experimenting. For example, they might throw curry powder in their salad dressings or sprinkle it on potato salads. They might use a bottled sauce to make their korma.
It has been ten years since your first novel, Shiva Dancing, was published. How have you grown as a writer since that time?
Each novel is a new challenge and I still doubt my ability to complete one. But readers often throw a more sympathetic light on this issue. For example, when my second novel, Sharmila’s Book, was published in 1999, a reader commented that I’d become a more confident writer. She saw it clearly on the pages of the new book.
The early drafts of Shiva Dancing were a struggle, as I was still learning the craft rules and trying to free my voice. Now, a decade later, with four published novels under my belt, I write faster and am better aware of craft considerations. Still it seems to me that one can never completely master the novel writing process. It is, at best, elusive. Someone once commented that there are three rules of fiction writing, but nobody knows what they are. That seems to be true.
That said, writing has become much more natural for me. These days I spend fewer hours in front of the computer. What little time I do spend brings infinite joy to me.
What project are you currently working on?
I am currently working on yet another new genre for me—a children’s novel—and having fun with it.
Over the years you have taught many writing classes. What is a common obstacle that new writers have?
New writers are often intimidated. They fear they have nothing to offer, and nobody will read them. The truth is that literary agents and editors are always looking for new voices. I tell my students to write the book only they can write. If they have a unique voice and write something relevant, they are sure to be published.
The Pacific Northwest is now your home. How has living in this place imbued your life with unexpected riches?
As I often say jokingly, I wouldn’t have been a writer if I didn’t move to the Pacific Northwest. There is a sense of solitude here that is conducive to introspection and writing. And the incessant gentle rain seems to form a barrier to distractions. Many talented authors live in this area, another inspiration, or so it was for me when I started out.
How do you stay connected to your Indian roots?
I visit India often and read Indian authors. Lately, I am finding myself reading a wealth of nonfiction titles. It is quite amazing the depth and variety being produced by new and emerging Indian writers.
Why is the South Asian voice important in the American literary world?
South Asian voices and, in general, voices from other cultures bring in a new sensibility and enliven the American literary scene. India is a living museum, and stories lurk at every corner. A writer has a tremendous amount of human experience developed over centuries to draw from, and this is perhaps what enchants the reader.
I’ve visited many book clubs in Seattle and other U.S. cities and found that readers are hungry for narratives set in different parts of the world.
I believe what we’ve read so far of South Asian writing is only the tip of the iceberg. The future is wide open. There are so many more stories for us to tell.
Books by Bharti Kirchner
Vegetarian Burgers (1996)
Shiva Dancing (1998)
Sharmila’s Book (2000)
Darjeeling: A Novel (2002)
Sarojni Mehta-Lissak is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, California. Her work includes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and food writing. Visitwww.sarojnimehta-lissak.com