Julie Sobowale interviewed schoolteacher-turned-author Anisha Lakhani about her debut novel, Schooled, and her inspiration to turn to fiction writing.
Interviewer Julie Sobowale: What prompted you to write this book?
Anisha Lakhani: My story is the story of my character Anna Taggart, working as teacher and a mentor in a broken system. Recently, the CW network showed an episode from a show where grade school students were turning in homework that they had others do for them. People donít talk about tutoring and kids not doing their own work. Itís a dirty secret.
You worked as a middle school teacher in the same setting as Anna, your main character in the book. How did your experiences shape the book?
I remember doing the Robert Frost reading described in the book in class and thinking the students are going to love it. Then they were asking questions like why is the girl walking alone? I had no clue at the time. I thought the kids would clap after I read the poem but they just stared back at me. (Laughing) It was horrifying. I tried to use lots of humor but also have a serious message about cheating.
You were an English teacher up until a few years ago. Why did you decide to stop teaching?
When I was in school, my parents emphasized working hard. They grew up at a time when you would ask your teacher questions if you had any problems with your homework. After school, parents would ask their kids about what they did at school. Nowadays parents donít do that anymore. We have a generation of cruisers who donít learn how to learn to cope with stress or doing their own work. I started asking myself what am I teaching for is the students and parents donít put in the effort?
What was the most important aspect of your writing that you focused on?
I didnít want to write one-dimensional characters so I pulled multiple composites of students for each character. I didnít want to get into attacking affluent families either Ė itís not about money. Some families wanted their children to do the work but they didnít want their kids to fall behind. I remember one parent who didnít want to hire a tutor but they would spend up to 2 a.m. helping their child with homework. What choice do they have? I wanted to show both sides.
As a first-time novelist, describe your writing process.
Last May I was working on the first chapter and my mother asked a friend who knew an agent to set up a meeting for me. I met with Ellen Archer in May, the agent who worked with Greg Behrendt, author of Heís Just Not That Into You, and we had a good chat. She said the publisher loved the idea and I had until September 1 to finish. I only had 10 pages written at that point. (Laughing) I wrote like a banshee for the entire summer on my couch.
Your main character Anna Taggart describes her financial difficulties in detail. Why did you decide to devote much of the first few chapters to this topic?
I wanted to bring out the point of what it feels like post-graduation. What does it feel like to just graduate and see others living comfortably? When youíre paying over $1,500 in rent, itís hard to stick with it. You live in a crap apartment and youíre left with $400 for the rest of the month after bills and you want a new shirt, itís hard to stick with whatís important.
Randi is an interesting character since she is a friend and enemy at different points in the book. Describe what you think this character represents in your world?
Randi is the type of teacher that should give off warning calls regarding the education system. There are teachers who are caught up in being best dressed and caught up in all of that. There are Randis in the system but no one wants to fix the problem. Itís a terrifying vision.
How difficult was it to write about a topic where you knew people directly involved?
I wanted to be careful not to start a witch hunt. I dramatized and embellished so not to hurt parents and children. It was a bit uncomfortable to write about people I know but there are parents I know who are innocent. I want this book to prompt discussion about the educational system.
Any plans for a sequel?
No. I might want to start teaching again.
Whatís the next step in your writing career?
Iím working on another novel thatís more about the New York City culture and working in the eye of a storm.
Until 2006, Anisha Lakhani taught English at the Dalton School on Manhattanís Upper East Side. Soon after she started teaching, she was named chair of the Middle School English Department. Lakhani received both her B.A. and M.A. degrees from Columbia University. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and their beloved Shih Tzu, Harold Moscowitz.
Julie Sobowale is a contributing
reviewer for curledup.com.
Her interview with Anisha Lakhani was written in conjunction with her review of Schooled. © Julie Sobowale/2008.