The Henna Artist’s Alka Joshi fêtes hundreds at the 2023 John Cooper School Signatures Author Series

By: Sean K. Thompson
| Published 12/05/2023


THE WOODLANDS, TX – The Woodlands Waterway Marriott ballroom was transformed into an avatar of the magic and mystery of the subcontinent of India as the John Cooper School presented its 19th Signatures Author Series, an annual event event that brings the literati to The Woodlands by hosting a bestselling author as a keynote speaker to hundreds of attendees. The event also features a considerable book fair with dozens of authors

Bestselling novelist tells her tale during popular annual luncheon event

The theme of this year’s event was inspired by India-born author Alka Joshi, the bestselling novelist of The Henna Artist – which is now in production as a Netflix series – and its two sequels. The debut novel charts the personal journey of Lakshmi Shastri as she navigates life from a failed marriage to becoming the titular tattoo artist in 1950s India.

Joshi sat down with Woodlands Online before the event to answer questions about her novels, which were first discovered and promoted by noted Hollywood actress Reese Witherspoon.

“These books may be about India, but they’re universal in their storytelling,” she told Woodlands Online.

Other issues discussed in the Q&A session included:

Advice to young students who wish to pursue writing
First, you want to read, and read lots of different types of books, from the classics to personal favorites in genres. Then you start and keep writing. Maybe you don’t have to write right away; I didn’t start writing until I was in my 50s. It was a complete surprise to me. Always write or think about it. My husband is always telling me that whenever we go out – even grocery shopping – I am already in my head writing stories about everyone we meet.

Then, you have to know it takes a lot of time to get published, and that’s okay. That persistence and patience will pay off.

Comparing the early days of writing to becoming an international bestselling author
There’s a lot more focus on female writers. I think that Reese Witherspoon had a lot to do with that, because she developed a platform that was specifically for female writers; nobody had ever done that for us before. We had always had that disparity in the advantages of male writers versus female writers, and there was a comparable disparity in the amount of publicity these writers would get after being published. Now there is less of that disparity and there’s a lot more attention being placed on books being published by women.

Another major difference is social media. Now, we can get our work out by ourselves; we don’t necessarily need the publicists from the publishing house or hire publicists of our own. We can actually create our own publicity by creating Instagram accounts or developing TikToks that go wild. The promotion has gotten a lot easier and more global. I feel that social media is very much of a female platform, which is great for female writers.

Did anything change once your debut novel hit the international market in various translations?
I do get letters from all over the world. I had this Slovakian gentleman who’s 90 years old write to me – through his son Igor who knew English – to say, ‘I don’t know anything about India, but reading your words was like taking me back to my Slovakian village and the people I interacted with way back then there.’

How do you pull inspiration from your own life and background?
I think that so much of what I do has to deal with my own background, so I can harness things from my childhood memories. Until I was age 9, I was in India and I remember so many sounds and smells and events; then I also pulled from research by interviewing people from that era and talking with my family and friends who were alive then. I also read a lot of books whose plots take place in that era so I could get a feel of how things were culturally, economically, and socially. And then I also watched a lot of movies from that era, which was easy because the Bollywood era started so long ago, so there’s lots to choose from.

What were the benefits of traveling to India for your research?
Going there is so different. When I go to places for my research, I can really understand what the environment is all about. For me, going to India for the initial research, going to France to learn about perfuming for another novel, going to the museums to learn about paintings like Olympia… these things matter. I can’t just conjure them in my head; I need to be there in the environment to see what things look, feel, and smell like. I think that’s important for any writer.

After the Q&A session, the event featured a special VIP invitation-only session where Joshi met with dozens – if not hundreds – of fans who stood in line to meet her, get their books signed by her, and get photos with her. The ballroom also filled up with hundreds of attendees – many of them commemorating the occasion by wearing traditional Indian garb – who talked with the other authors present and bought their books.

During the luncheon itself, where Head of School Dr. Stephen Popp introduced Joshi, who delivered the keynote address after diners enjoyed an Indian-inspired fusion meal that included Garam Marsala Chicken and Saffron Panna Cotta, the Series’ annual Literary Beneficiary was named. Once again, Children’s Books on Wheels, led by Rita Wiltz, received a portion of the proceeds from the event in a program where more than $68,000 has been donated to local organizations to promote literacy in the community.

The luncheon concluded with ‘The Jaipur Trilogy Drawing,’ where prizes included a one-of-a-kind rosewood box containing a necklace and a collection of fragrances by Lila Nur Perfumes; a package vacation to New Orleans; gold bangles; cocktail makings; a literary collection packed in custom luggage; and a fashion package by Coco Chanel.

Previous authors who have been keynote speakers at this event over the years include Barbara Bush, Dave Barry, Mitch Albom, Anthony Bourdain, Nicholas Sparks, Kevin Kwan, and Elin Hilderbrand. The John Cooper School – an independent, non-sectarian, co-educational, college preparatory day school – is ranked the number one private school in The Woodlands. The school’s mission is to provide a challenging education in a caring environment to a diverse group of select students, enabling them to become critical and creative thinkers, effective communicators, responsible citizens and leaders, and lifetime learners.

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