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Most experts on writing advise authors to find their special skills and hone their talent in that genre. But Bharti Kirchner has defied that rule.

She left her job in computer systems management to pursue writing and has written hundreds of short pieces for magazines and newspapers, including articles for Food and Wine, Vegetarian Times, Writer’s Digest, The Writer and The Seattle Times. The author of four cookbooks, she also applies her keen sense of observation and creativity to fiction writing.

For her sixth novel, Goddess of Fire Kirchner has explored yet another genre—a historical narrative, with a romance element. The story set in Rampore, India, in 1684, is in the point of view of a teenage girl, Moorti, who is about to be burned alive on her late husband’s funeral pyre. She is rescued by Job Charnock, an employee of the English East India Company. Her rescuer gives her the name Maria to protect her from in-laws who could come after her. She is offered a job to help in the kitchen for the officers of English East India Company. Starting as a lowly kitchen maid, she rises through the ranks to gain a management position.

The novel follows Maria’s trials, failures and successes, and her struggle with the snobbish attitudes of the British officers. It highlights the romance that develops between Job and Maria as well as emphasizes the goal Maria has to help her fellowmen. Kirchner describes camaraderie among workers and touches on the caste system and Hindu-Muslim relations.

Will Maria be able to fulfill her dreams? This question drives the rest of the book.
The readers can almost see and smell the dishes prepared with various spices, and touch and feel the fabrics the merchants bring to sell to the English East India Company. Kirchner’s gift for description of colors, sound, touch and smell helps the reader vividly experience the locations and emotions of the characters. I asked the award winning author about her writing process and about her novel.

Why did you decide to leave your job to become a full time writer?

BK: Ever since childhood I dreamt of being a writer and I always read a lot. After many years of working in the software industry, I felt it was time for me to try my hands at this new endeavor. What I did was drastic—quit my full-time job with a major computer manufacturer, and started taking writing classes. I thoroughly enjoyed the learning process and from the very beginning was able to publish articles in local and regional magazines. That gave me the confidence I needed to attempt writing books.

Your other novels have contemporary settings. What interested you in this seventeenth century story?

BK: Born and raised in Calcutta (now called Kolkata), the first city of the British Empire, I was curious about how the metropolis had been founded. The sketchy and perhaps controversial anecdotes provided by historical texts didn’t fully satisfy me. Then, too, I noticed that titles about Kolkata are few and far between in the American book scene. Such is not the case, however, with other major Indian cities. Examples are Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (a nonfiction work by Suketu Mehta) and Capital: The Eruption of Delhi (also a nonfiction book by Rana Dasgupta). Kolkata hasn’t been explored, not in a literary sense. So I felt compelled to write about it, if fictionally.

I was under the impression that the Sati tradition, where women were set on fire along with their late husbands, was mostly among the Rajputs, mainly royal class of Rajasthan. How common was this custom in Bengal?

BK: The custom, a way of keeping a young widow from inheriting her husband’s property, was quite common in Bengal. It was in the 19th century that Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a reformer of social and religious practices, abolished the tradition.

How much research was involved in creating this historical fiction? How did you decide to stick to some historical facts and let the creative side take over at other times?

BK: The book needed extensive research and took a long time to finish. The 17th century hasn’t been written about as extensively as some of the later periods in Indian history. Oftentimes, facts and answers to my questions were missing. It was in those times that I used my imagination to fill in the blanks.

How did you research details about the village setting, clothes, food, trade and customs of the time period more than two centuries earlier?

BK: Although the lives of Mughal monarchs were well documented, those of their common subjects weren’t. I devoured whatever I could find about that period, regardless of the subject matter: art, architecture, travel, religion, and socio-political matters. Some members of the Mughal royal family actually kept diaries that I came across at the library and found them to be helpful.

Plenty has been written about the British East India Company. These books helped me understand the trading customs. Coincidentally, my family and I had once lived near the town of Cossimbazar in India, which plays a large role in the book. That gave me a sense of the setting I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Of the several genres you have written—essays, articles, cookbooks and novels—what do you like most?

BK: Every genre I’ve attempted thus far has been a challenge and joy. I must admit I don’t get into a new genre lightly. Each genre requires a considerable amount of preparation. There are conventions you have to follow. And you have to know what’s already been done. In the end, however, it’s all about telling a good story.

Any new novel on the horizon?

BK: Yes. I am finishing up my seventh novel, Season of Sacrifice. This book is completely different from Goddess of Fire in that it’s a literary mystery set in modern times in Seattle. For a change I am happy to be writing about a time and place I am familiar with. To do research, all I have to do is get out of the house.

Hemlata Vasavada is the author of a novel: The Cascade Winners. Her articles and humor pieces have appeared in magazines and newspapers.