Begin Again

When it comes to your first novel, sometimes the 30th time is the charm.

May 2024

Reading time min

Alka Joshi sitting in a chair.

Photography by Garry Bailey

Alka Joshi 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.

Alka Joshi

Joshi has an energy and charisma that helped her transcend the limits of lockdown by popping off the screen in Zoom calls.

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.”


When Joshi graduated from Stanford in 1980 with an art history degree, she had a firmer sense of what she didn’t want to do than what she did. All her peers seemed to be heading to graduate school, a path she had no interest in. Instead, she heeded her father’s advice and did something even less fitting: She joined a management training program with Prudential in Los Angeles. “I knew from day one I did not want to be doing what I was doing,” she says. “I said, ‘Alka, you always wanted to be in a creative field—what are you doing pushing paper and learning about insurance? Who cares?’ ” She soon landed on advertising as her way out.

She lived off peanut butter sandwiches and cashed in her 401(k) after four years in L.A. to pay for a move back to the Bay Area, where she took illustration, graphic design, and advertising classes at local colleges. Eventually she began sending out her portfolio with a winking cover letter, purportedly from a brother. “It said, ‘This is my sister Alka. She’s 28 years old. She has forgotten to have children and forgotten to get married, and if you don’t give her an interview to see if she can get a job, then we will have to take care of her as a family for the rest of her life,’ ” she says. “It was a bold move, but, you know, I had nothing to lose.” In 1988, she got a bite from global advertising giant McCann Erickson in San Francisco. But the people interviewing her didn’t see her as Joshi saw herself. She wanted to be an art director, in charge of illustrations and photo shoots. They offered her a tryout as a copywriter. “Immediately, they put me on radio ads and TV ads,” she says. “And at the end of 30 days, I realized I really liked this thing called copywriting.”

Book covers for "The Henna Artist", "The Perfumist of Paris" and "The Secret Keeper of Jaipur"

In 1995, she founded Alka Joshi Marketing, the company she would run until The Henna Artist took off. Advertising taught her to create mini-stories, bursts of comedy or drama tucked within a 30- to 60-second time frame, but even as she prospered in the field, she didn’t consider herself a real writer. That, she says, was an exalted term far from the reality of crafting copy for the likes of the Milk Board and Safeway. But the year she started her business, she married someone who urged her to think differently of herself: Bradley Jay Owens, MA ’89, who had graduated from and taught in Stanford’s creative writing program. Not long after their wedding, the two were driving from the Bay Area to Sun Valley, Idaho, where Owens would attend a writers conference. To while away the hours on the road, Joshi began telling stories of her childhood in India. When she was 9, her family moved to Ames, Iowa, where her father was getting a doctorate in civil engineering at Iowa State. It was a stark transition from Rajasthan, where the family had a comfortable if peripatetic existence as her father helped realize public works projects such as dams and roads. In Iowa, they had undreamed-of extravagances—a television and a refrigerator. And yet they were scraping by, living in a two-bedroom Quonset hut for grad students, with corrugated iron sides and an oil heater. To make ends meet, her mother would sew and sell neckties piecemeal, a skill for needlework she’d also use in her attempts to satisfy her rapidly Americanizing children’s desire for denim. Joshi and her two brothers were teased at school for wearing homemade jeans, just as they were avoided on the school bus for smelling of curry. In the late 1960s, people from India were so rare in the Midwest they were often mistaken for Mexican.

“I told her, ‘You have great stories—you should tell them,’ ” Owens says. “She would say, ‘No, I’m just an advertising hack. I couldn’t do that.’ I just kept pushing her that these stories were worth telling and she should tell them.” Around 2007, Joshi began taking evening classes at the Writers’ Grotto in San Francisco. She lacked many of the nuts and bolts of fiction—pacing, plot, and character development—but from the start, ideas flowed. “It was this weird thing where [the teacher] gave us a prompt and I could just write,” Joshi says. “Like, I didn’t even have to think about it.”

Plot Twist

Lakshmi, the titular henna artist, is modeled on Joshi’s mother. Her green eyes are her mother’s green eyes, and her courage is the courage of her mother, who eventually reinvented herself in America soldering electronics on an assembly line and rising to supervisor. It was her mother who encouraged Joshi to study what she wanted, date whom she wanted, wear what she wanted, and do what she wanted, things she herself had never had a chance to do. “When I think about Lakshmi now, that’s my mother,” Joshi says. “I see her face.” The message of independence has resonated through Joshi’s life—from her decision not to have children to her dramatic career shifts.

In 2008, she made another big decision. The Great Recession was beginning to bite, and Joshi knew such downturns typically run about two years, during which marketing budgets dry up and clients stop calling. So, in September 2009, she handed off most of her ongoing projects and put her career on hiatus to start an MFA at California College of the Arts, two miles from where she and Owens lived in San Francisco. The timing was fortuitous. Her younger brother, Piyush, had recently bought a condo in Jaipur, and their mother—now divorced—was embracing his invitation to use it. With her newfound flexibility as a student, Joshi would join her in India for weeks at a time.

Growing up in the Midwest, where it seemed like the only thing people knew about India was its poverty, Joshi had learned to feel embarrassed about her heritage. The trips enabled her to see India though her mother’s eyes. “She loved India,” Joshi says. “She never wanted to come to the United States.” And it was a chance for Joshi to ponder an old question. Ever since she was a teenager, she had wondered what kind of life her mother could have had if she’d been able to make her own choices instead of marrying at 18, bearing three children, and moving to a country far from her family, friends, and culture in a traditional marriage that gave her little power. The query evolved into Joshi’s MFA thesis. “When I started to write, I thought, you know, ‘What if I could turn it around for her in fiction?’ ” During their stays in Jaipur, Joshi would take notes during the day and write at night, often reading passages to her mother. “She was just like, ‘Oh, OK, that’s nice, honey,’ ” she says. “I don’t really think she thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be some big novel.’ ”

Joshi's Stanford Quad yearbook photo in 1980

Ever since she was a teenager, she had wondered what kind of life her mother could have had if she’d been able to make her own choices instead of marrying at 18, bearing three children, and moving to a country far from her family, friends, and culture in a traditional marriage that gave her little power.

Her mother was in attendance when Joshi presented an early draft of The Henna Artist as her MFA thesis in 2011, but she died shortly after. Bereft, Joshi stopped writing. The book was meant to be a gift to her mother, and there was no point to that now. But a year later, Joshi got a call from her thesis adviser, author Anita Amirrezvani, asking how the manuscript was coming along. When Joshi told her what had happened, Amirrezvani suggested that returning to the book could be therapeutic. “She said, ‘That story has so much promise,’ ” Joshi says.

The two began working together. Eventually, Amirrezvani connected Joshi to her agent, who liked what she saw but wanted more character development and a focus on a single point of view, among a raft of other changes. It was the beginning of a multiyear back-and-forth that Joshi says pushed her to the point of quitting several times. Seven years in, after receiving a 15-page letter from a developmental editor advising still more major revisions, Joshi—again busy with her marketing company—threw the manuscript into a drawer and gave up. “Why am I putting myself through this torture?” she recalls thinking. “Maybe I can write, but I’m not publishable.” A year later, she chanced upon the draft. With a cooler head, she could appreciate both her own work and the feedback, and she resumed writing. And this time, the book sold.

She started her second novel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, before The Henna Artist was published, and found the sequels less arduous to write. They’re just as beloved. Each of her titles has a 4.5-star overall rating on Amazon, but The Henna Artist is the biggest seller of the three. Joshi likens the relative ease of her subsequent writing experiences to parents who fuss over every little moment in their first child’s life, then relax with the next. “The second one becomes so much easier because you’re like, ‘OK, I know what not to do, and I know what to do,’ ” she says. 

Success has led to some material changes. She splashed out on a Porsche, and she and Owens remodeled their house in Pacific Grove down to the studs, but mostly, she says, her life as a literary star is not very different from before. She’s been happy to accept the mantle of role model for those who want to embark on writing later in life or to write about their culture. She doesn’t have time to read manuscripts, but she loves to give advice and make connections. Her one sadness is that her mother wasn’t alive to witness the success she inspired. The topic still brings tears to Joshi’s eyes. “I know she would be inordinately proud of it—I feel it,” she says. But she also knows The Henna Artist is an homage that could not have come much earlier. “In my 20s, 30s, and 40s, I could not have written this book,” she says. “I didn’t understand enough about life.” 

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at sscott3@stanford.edu.

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