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Alka Joshi, '80: Alum's Debut Novel Achieves Great Success

Garry Bailey

Alka Joshi (BA in Art History from Stanford University, 1980) was too busy prepping for her big day to anticipate how the dire news from around the world was about to come careening into her own life. A decade earlier, at 52, she’d put her marketing business on pause to start an MFA program in creative writing. Now, the book she’d begun as a grad student was about to be released by one of the world’s largest publishing houses. It was the realization of a deeply personal project: a reimagining of the life her mother might have had if she hadn’t been pushed into an arranged marriage and motherhood as a teenager in 1950s India. To celebrate, Joshi was planning a launch party near her home in Pacific Grove, Calif., complete with sitar, tabla, and classical Indian dance, and based on a scene in her book. The countdown had begun on her Instagram page. The Henna Artist—the 30th and final draft of her novel—would hit bookstore shelves on March 3, 2020.

Then came a call. The event space she’d rented was closing. And so, too, she realized as she scrambled for alternatives, was everywhere else. Her launch party, her book tour, her panel discussions were falling apart in the face of the not-yet-official pandemic. The excitement vanished. She was an unknown, first-time author with fewer and fewer ways to get a distracted world’s attention. “I said to my husband, ‘Why did you think I could do this?’ ” Joshi, ’80, says. “ ‘Obviously I was never meant to do this. Obviously this is a total sham.’ I just thought all the cards were stacked against me.” It was a pity party, complete with crying under the covers. She began putting out appeals on social media. “ ‘You guys, I wrote this book and nobody’s going to get a chance to read it,’ ” she recalls. “ ‘Would you please call me if you have a book club?’ ”

As it turned out, somebody did, and a week later she called. Reese Witherspoon wanted The Henna Artist as the next pick for her book club, whose cover stickers have become one of publishing’s sought-after seals of approval. “Witherspoon—of Legally Blonde and Big Little Lies and Wild and Cruel Intentions—has become, like Oprah Winfrey before her, one of a select few tastemakers who can launch a book into the stratosphere,” Vox journalist Constance Grady wrote in 2019. 

Witherspoon revealed her decision via Instagram on May 1, 2020. “It just took me to another land and another place and really opened my eyes to a whole other way of life,” she told an online audience largely locked down and craving just such an escape. By the end of the month, The Henna Artist was No. 14 on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover fiction. In June, the e-book and audiobook versions made similar appearances. In August, Joshi sold the film rights to Miramax Television, which promised to emulate the most iconic of historical dramas. “ ‘We’re going to make The Henna Artist into an Indian Downton Abbey,’ ” she recalls them saying. “ ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘I don’t think it gets better than that.’ ”

At an age when many are contemplating retirement, Joshi had stepped up to the plate in a whole new game and hit a home run, maybe a grand slam. Her only other published piece of literary writing was an essay in a community college magazine. The Henna Artist would sell more than 800,000 copies and spawn two sequels, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur in 2021 and The Perfumist of Paris in 2023. (The television adaptation of The Henna Artist remains in production, she says.) A recently completed fourth book, part of a seven-figure, two-book deal with HarperCollins, moves beyond the characters in her debut. 

Joshi has been embraced by many as a symbol of the potential for growth, reinvention, and success in later life. In October, Forbes invited her to its Fifth Avenue headquarters in New York as part of her inclusion on its 50 Over 50 list of women, an honor that placed Joshi alongside names such as Judy Blume, Katie Couric, and Viola Davis. “I just sometimes feel like my world sort of exploded,” Joshi says. “What happened? Like, how did I get on a list like that with all these other women? I’m constantly pinching myself.”

Witherspoon is an obvious answer. Joshi says she still wonders almost daily what would have happened without her help. And, certainly, Joshi did everything she could to maximize that boost. An effusive speaker with an eye-catching style, from her asymmetrical silver bob to her statement jewelry, Joshi has an energy and charisma that helped her transcend the limits of lockdown by popping off the screen in Zoom calls, which she has been all too willing to do. Since the debut of The Henna Artist, she has spoken to more than 900 book clubs and discussion groups, only recently limiting herself to one such event per day. “She has got to be in the top three hardest-working authors I’ve ever worked with in terms of promoting herself and putting herself out there, and just being open to everything and anything,” says Ashley MacDonald, who handles Joshi’s marketing at HarperCollins.

But none of those factors would have mattered if she hadn’t persevered to write a book that spoke to people—especially women, whom Joshi says make up the bulk of her audience. The Henna Artist is the page-turning tale of Lakshmi Shastri, who escapes an abusive marriage in a small Rajasthani village in the 1950s and remakes herself, becoming an independent woman in Jaipur by tending to the city’s elite, painting them in exquisite henna, moonlighting as a matchmaker, and providing more secretive services. As a traditional healer, she is in demand for herbal remedies to prevent pregnancies, or to end them. It’s a niche she maintains only by staying in the good graces of her patrons, a balance that becomes impossible when the life she ran away from catches up with her. 

Kathy Sagan, the editor who acquired the book for HarperCollins in 2018, says she generally reads the first 75 pages of a manuscript to gauge interest. She started reading Joshi’s manuscript on the train home, then stayed up late that night finishing it. “I was just drawn into this novel, the world she creates, the sense of place and time,” she says, but amid the particulars Sagan saw themes as familiar now as ever. “The challenges that Lakshmi faces are relatable to any woman trying to be empowered.”

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