I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with author Amita Parikh about her debut novel, The Circus Train. I adore historical fiction of any time period, but novels that are based during or around WWII have a special place in my heart. My grandfather was part of the Canadian Air Force, and saw the war first hand. I grew up hearing stories and seeing photos and artifacts from the war, and it has stayed with me ever since. I have always been interested in hearing the stories of others, and I am in awe of the bravery and perseverance that people touched by WWII have. Amita's book is a beautiful example of all of my favorite aspects of historical fiction. But this story is also so much more than that - it is a story of love, finding oneself and of family. Further, the time period goes before and after the war, so you get to see so many interesting, fantastical and beautiful aspects of quite a range of years. I had such a wonderful time getting Amita's thoughts about the book, so without further ado, let's get into the interview!
Ashley: Hi Amita! Before we begin chatting about your novel, are you able to tell us a bit more about yourself?
Amita: Sure! My name’s Amita and I’m the author of the historical fiction novel The Circus Train. When I’m not writing I’m most likely involved in something related to tech or sports – or both!
Ashley: When did your love of reading begin, and when did you realize that you wanted to become an author?
Amita: I’ve always loved reading, since I was very young. I was super shy as a kid (kind of still am) and libraries were my home. Everyone was quiet and books were the best escape.
I didn’t decide to become an author until I was an adult. I did a bunch of writing alongside my normal job, but it wasn’t until 2014 when I got really serious about writing a novel and committed to it. The Circus Train is the result. Even now, I don’t think of myself as only an author – it’s just one facet of who I am.
Ashley: What books have had the biggest impact on you throughout your life?
Amita: My favourite book as a kid was Alice in Wonderland. I also loved anything in the Narnia world and anything by Roald Dahl. The His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman probably had the biggest impact on me, in that it showed me how powerful creating a different world could be.
Some of my favourite adult writers include Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read widely though — non-fiction, science books, humour. I’m an adult and I still read middle grade fiction. I love it.
Ashley: The Circus Train is your debut novel, which is so exciting! For our readers who may not have read it yet, can you tell us what it is about?
Amita: The Circus Train tells the story of Lena Papadopoulos, a young girl whose life is turned upside down after she rescues a mysterious stowaway onboard a travelling circus train that criss-crosses Europe during the Second World War.
Ashley: This story is haunting, heartfelt, intriguing and so beautiful. It also covers a fairly large time frame – beginning in 1929 and going through 1952. What drew you to this time period, and why did you choose to create your story throughout these years?
Amita: I’ve always loved history, so it was fun for me to delve into a world that no longer existed and learn more about it. I have also always thought we’re kind of spoiled in the modern world we live in. Especially as the daughter of immigrants and as a woman of colour, the freedom I have is not lost on me. I really do think about that, all the people who fought for the rights we now have. My life would have been very different had I lived in a different time and I always have that lingering in my mind.
The starting point for the novel was always Greece’s involvement in the World War Two. I’d attended a lecture and learned about their involvement and became fascinated by it. Sadly, most of that part ended up being cut out (in earlier drafts, the bulk of the novel was set in Greece). I also knew I wanted to have an illusionist and his daughter as the main characters. I built the rest of the world around that, but it wasn’t until much later in the process that the train was introduced, and it ended up being quite grand in scope.
Ashley: World War Two serves as a back drop for much of the story, and it is haunting, horrifying and ever present. I love stories about WWII – that feels like a strange thing to say, but I think readers understand. My grandfather fought in the war as part of the Canadian Air Force, and he would show me pictures and artifacts from the war as he told me stories that he lived through and remembered. I cannot imagine what that was like, and I think what I like about novels in this genre is that they shine light on a time in history that must not be forgotten. They bring stories of people who may not have had a voice at the time to light, and allow us to see not only the horrors of the time and how bad people can be, but also the hope, perseverance and selflessness that people can show to one another. They bring a humanness to what happened. Why do you enjoy historical fiction about this time in history?
Amita: Goodness that is amazing about your grandfather. Thank you for sharing that. Yeah, it’s like you said, I think looking back it’s easy for us to say ‘Oh it was all so horrible and sad.’ And it definitely was, I’m not trying to make light of any war, at any time. But the thing is, people are resilient. People still fell in love and took chances and conquered dreams, even in the face of great danger. I think it really speaks to the human spirit that we’re able to rise above our circumstances. I find reading books in this genre equal parts inspiring and sobering. They can act as a reality check but also, serve to give us hope.
Ashley: In speaking to authors of historical fiction, something common I am told is that though there is so much research that needs to be done, only a fraction of it makes it into the finished novel. What are a couple of facts that either surprised you or you think people would be surprised to know that did not make it into your novel?
Amita: This is so accurate. There’s so much of this novel that I left on the cutting room floor because there simply wasn’t space, or because it was no longer relevant to the narrative. I suppose one of the big things is that there is a whole alternate ending to the book that was set in Toronto in the early 1950’s. I still have that and I love it but yeah, it’s not in the book!
Ashley: In that same vein, I can only imagine the amount of research that had to go into your novel. What did that process look like for you?
Amita: It was terrible. Because I hadn’t nailed the plot, I sort of just researched as I went along, and it took me six years to finish and edit the book. And then more edits with my publishers. There was a ton of research that went into this, I visited Greece, I trawled through so many archives and museums and spoke with so many individuals. It really was a labour of love because none of us authors are paid to do any of this.
Ashley: There is a passage in the book, which takes places when Lena is a child, that reads “Lena glanced sadly at the shelves full of books and trinkets her father had purchased. From a hand – painted dollhouse they’d found in Urecht, to a set of brilliant watercolors from Bern, to all the latest books by Beatrix Potter, Lena had everything a child could have ever hoped for. So why did she feel so empty?” What I remember most from when I was a child is experiences, traditions and fun times I spent with my friends and family – not so much the material things, though there are a few sentimental items. What is a memory from this age that really sticks out to you?
Amita: What’s interesting about what you said is that you had the memories with family and friends. Lena didn’t, at least not at the start. So that’s why she kind of focuses on the material things she has, but also realizes very early on that they don’t fulfill her.
Similar to you, most of my early memories involve my family or friends. My brothers and I are really close. We grew up in Scarborough and had a backyard that backed onto a huge field, which meant we had a lot of fun visitors. We’d find frogs in our vegetable patch and snakes too, sometimes. I hated them but my big brother isn’t afraid of anything and I remember him gathering frogs in a bucket – you know those plastic buckets and spades you could get? He’d put them all in and then we’d go show my Mum and it was not a great reaction. We loved to be outdoors, climbing trees, playing games. I had the best childhood.
Ashley: The scene describing Horace’s visit to Harry Houdini’s residency at the Hippodrome where he meets the ‘mermaid’ is beautiful, mesmerizing and emotional. It brought back memories for me of going to the circus for the first time, or going to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, being so close to danger, adventure and the strange. Why do you think we are still so fascinated by the odd, curious and fantastical things that could be found in the circuses of old?
Amita: First off, thank you so much for saying that, I appreciate it.
I think we’re inherently fascinated by things that are different or by things we’ll never be able to do. I could never be a trapeze artist. That kind of skill, that talent – I find it awe-inspiring. And I think circuses also transport us to a place that isn’t real and allow many of us to forget about our realities. For Horace, that was something he truly craved. He didn’t like his childhood and wanted more.
Ashley: In that same scene, you really see Horace come to life. You see hope sparked within him, and the beginning of his creative journey that will eventually lead to the Beddington and Sterling Circus. What sparks creativity for you?
Amita: The idea of creating something new. I love to make things that maybe people can’t understand what they’re going to be at the start, but they’ll get it by the end. This isn’t just reserved for fiction writing, by the way. I do a lot of creative projects, from musical theatre to composing to tech coding and building businesses. And it happens all the time when people will often try and prevent me from doing things. I hear ‘That will never work’ a lot. But I keep going and then three years later they’ll be like ‘Oh, you were right.’
Ashley: It is said in the novel that “…the Beddington and Sterling would elevate the circus into a luxurious sphere and bring together the best parts of these travelling shows and then some. It would serve to mesmerize and leave the audience stunned.” What, to you, elevated Beddington and Sterling, and why was it so important to Horace to create something so unique and fantastical?
Amita: Most of the circuses I read about in the past weren’t really luxurious. They also tended to have the same kind of acts – lion tamers, some acrobats, clowns etc. I drew inspiration from a couple of Montreal-based circuses for mine. I was just like ‘What if I take a circus and make it so elegant and this incredible experience from start to finish?’ It’s basically like taking a $10 t-shirt and turning it into a luxury item, right?
As for why Horace wanted that, he was a visionary. He wasn’t happy doing the status quo. If he wanted money, he would have just done what his father did or stayed with the family. Money never drove Horace. It was this ambition to be something, to prove to the world that he was a somebody.
Ashley: Switching gears a little bit to talk about Lena. I adored Lena’s character. She was sweet, fun and whip smart and she was also loyal and braved and loved so fiercely. What were your favorite parts of writing her, and what were some of the challenges?
Amita: Thank you! That makes me so happy. My favourite part of writing Lena was the challenge of making her vulnerable but quietly confident. I see a lot of female characters being written these days where, to me, they’re too one-dimensional. It’s like everyone wants to create these strong, proud, girl power characters. And that’s great but I don’t know what 8-year-old has that kind of gumption. I never did. I was a mix of shy and curious and proud of my academic achievements, but also wary of certain things in life. You’re a kid, you’re finding your way – how can you be fully formed at 8?
So for Lena, it was so important to me to make her realistic. That also goes for the time period when it was set. It’s easy for people to criticize and say ‘we wish she’d done this’ but I think they forget that you can’t transport a 2022 mentality to a historical fiction novel. It doesn’t travel well.
Ashley: Lena is unable to walk and must use a wheelchair after she contracts polio as a baby. “Lena’s world was rooted firmly in reality. She had used a wheelchair since she was old enough to remember, and her condition acted as a great divider, separating her from the other children and adults she lived with. Though they ate the same food, slept in the same carriages, and enjoyed the same music, Lena’s disability had taught her a hard truth: she was different, and people didn’t like different.” For those of us who don’t know much about polio, can you tell us a bit more about it?
Amita: Sure, Poliomyelitis (also known as polio or infantile paralysis) has been around for centuries, but large-scale epidemics didn’t occur in the Western world until the twentieth century. In Europe, Greece and England experienced polio epidemics in the 1950s. At the time Lena caught it, it would have been endemic. It wasn’t until the 1955 mass rollout of the polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk that cases began to fall. Polio is an infectious disease that primarily affects young children. At the time the novel is set, it wasn’t uncommon for children who contracted polio to be hospitalized, wear leg braces, and/or use wheelchairs. In some cases, children were not allowed to move at all, as treatments that favored immobility were the norm.
Ashley: In that same vein, what were some of the challenges of writing a character with Lena’s disability in terms of accurate representation?
Amita: This was one of the most challenging parts of the novel. The initial research and conversations with individuals who are disabled were a huge help to me getting the character right. We had sensitivity readers go through it and the regular rounds of edits.
I portrayed this character in the way I wanted to. What Lena went through, as a young child with polio, her entire journey was accurate. There are many true, documented cases of real people experiencing what she did.
What’s been hard is that people hear you wrote a book with a character in a wheelchair and automatically think it’s meant to be representative of an entire demographic. And that’s wrong. How can one single character represent the lived experiences for an entire body of people? It’s just not possible. No book is going to be please everyone, but I stand firm in my writing and in this character. I’ve had way more people with disabilities reach out and thank me for creating Lena than I’ve had criticism.
Ashley: Diverse stories are something that we definitely need more of, I believe that the more stories we can read about people who may be or believe differently from us, the better off we are. It opens us to new ways of thinking, to better understanding, to having conversations instead of judgments. I have two questions for you regarding this. First, why do you feel diverse stories are so important, and, second, where would you like to see more growth in representation in books right now?
Amita: Well they’re important because of what you said. I kind of think reading is like armchair travel – you can learn so much about worlds you may never get a chance to see in real life.
However, I’m going to counter that by saying I personally never felt unrepresented growing up. And I say that as a BIPOC woman. Not once did I watch tv or read a book and think ‘Oh I wish that person looked like me.’ Not once. For me, books have the power to break barriers. I find they unite us, not divide us. I saw myself in Matilda Wormwood, in Harriet the Spy, in Claudia Kishi and in Elizabeth Wakefield. I actually love that I could find relatable parts of all these fictional characters in me. I don’t know, maybe I had a weird sense of confidence, but I’ve never used my gender or colour or background to limit myself. I’m not saying I haven’t experienced it – trust me, as a woman of colour in tech, I’ve had a ton of discrimination and misogyny. But I don’t let it stop me. If I want something, I just go do it.
What I would actually love to see more of are BIPOC authors writing about things that aren’t necessarily related to their own ethnic backgrounds. I get a lot of questions from people who are like ‘Why didn’t you write about India?’ and I’m always so amazed. I didn’t grow up in India, I grew up in Canada. I can write about freezing cold ice rinks and Tim Horton’s, that’s my childhood summed up. But honestly, me researching a book on India is the same amount of work as me researching a book on WW2. Often, writers of colour get pigeon-holed and that’s one thing I’m very proud of doing, breaking out of the box.
Ashley: “And it was in science that Lena found her passion, science that thrilled her. Science, Lena thought, was where the real magic lay.” I find the science of this time period fascinating. It all seemed to be changing so fast, and we were learning so much in such a short time. Having said that, I also love the magical, whimsical and extraordinary. I love how Lena ties these two ends of the spectrum together saying that the magic lies in the science. Which do you prefer – the magical or the scientific? Do you think the two are inextricably linked?
Amita: I love both! And yes, I think they are definitely linked. I will never forget Dec 25th, 2021. Not because it was Christmas, but because it’s the day the James Webb telescope was launched (also the same day an amazing interview with the rapper J.Cole dropped on the Nardwuar channel but I digress). And then to see the images that were captured months later from the telescope? I mean, how incredible that we’re living in this time?! It’s magical really, that we have the technology and science to do that. I find science and creativity so inter-linked, and I think you can’t have one without the other. I studied science at university and my mind has always processed mathematical and scientific concepts better than artistic ones. But if you think about it, you also must be very creative and have that element of magic and discovery in science and math and medicine.
Ashley: Theo is such an amazing character. He is a loyal and loving father, albeit a tad overprotective. He cares about the people around him, and is flawed in a way that makes him complex and so interesting. One day, when Lena is down, he tells her “In Greek we have a saying. Epimeno. It means ‘to persist’. If you think about it, life is like one long maze. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes we get stuck. But if you persist, if you can find it within yourself to endure the hardships, you will reach your goal.” How much did persistence play a role in your writing career? And, if you are comfortable sharing, what is one example in your life of you having to remind yourself “epimeno”?
Amita: I disagree with your comment about Theo being overprotective. Again, I’ve heard that from readers and I think they forget that this book takes place in a different time period. What father is going to let his disabled daughter have that kind of freedom, especially at a time when people with disabilities were treated horribly? I wrote Theo to be true to the time period and I stand by him.
In terms of persisting, well I guess this book is a good example. I had a lot of people tell me I should quit. So many people over the years were like ‘why is it taking so long, why don’t you stop?’ There were definitely some who took a weird pleasure in seeing me struggle and fail over and over again. But I think those types of people also don’t have the guts to really live out their dreams, so they just find joy in criticizing others. It’s a lot harder to take the steps to change your life than it is to point fingers and laugh.
It was immensely hard. Working on the same book for 6 years while holding down a full-time job and everything else that life throws at you? It was incredibly challenging. And the book didn’t sell overnight in some big, fancy auction. I still work full-time while promoting this book and writing my second and running a business. It’s not easy.
But, you know, I just kept going. And I will keep going. Even when no one else wants to bet on me, I will always bet on myself. (Shout out to Fred VanVleet for those words!)
Ashley: I want to switch gears for a moment and talk about the incredible cast of characters that you have created. They all have their own individual stories, problems and motivations, and are complex and feel so real. I grew to deeply care about each one of them, even if I did not always agree with or understand why they were doing the things they did. Do you know exactly who your characters are and what they will do before you begin writing, or do they grow organically throughout your writing process?
Amita: I kind of have an idea of who they are. I make character sketches of all of them. I do visuals like moodboards of what they look like. I put them in situations, I’ll say ‘If Theo was caught in a rainstorm, what would he do?’ And the way characters react to certain scenarios, that can be really telling. I’m also very big on figuring out their wants and needs before I start writing.
So, I always have a starting point but then it usually evolves over the course of the book.
Ashley: Which of your characters do you relate to most, and why?
Amita: I don’t know. I can’t honestly say. Sorry I know that’s not the best answer, but I relate to all of them on some level.
Ashley: The characters in this novel overcome so much and never give up or stop reaching for their dreams, and it is emotional and not always easy to read because of the bonds that you were able to create between character and reader. But, I could not put this novel down and loved every page because to me, this is a story of hope, love and faith in oneself and others. What do you hope readers take away from this story?
Amita: Wow, that really is such a lovely thing to say. Thank you. As for what I hope they take away, I would say a sense of hope! It’s a hopeful, magical tale at the end of the day.
Ashley: Are you able to share anything about what you are currently working on?
Amita: Yeah, it’s a historical fiction novel with a bit of a magical twist again. It’s set between Paris and New York. That’s all I can say right now!
If you would like to keep up to date with Amita, you can visit her on Instagram at Amita (@amita_parikh) • Instagram photos and videos. I absolutely cannot wait to read more by Amita, and I would love to hear your thoughts on The Circus Train! Are you going to pick it up, or have you already read it? Let me know in the comments below or over on Instagram at @bent.biblios.podcast.