Alumna Q&A: children’s novelist, playwright Tara Dairman ’01
Tara Dairman ’01 is a novelist and playwright whose children’s books have inspired praise, awards and even fan recipes based off the food in her books. Her debut novel “All Four Stars,” which stars the 11-year old food critic Gladys, was recognized as an Amazon Best Book of the Month and a Mighty Girl Top Book of the Year in 2014; its two sequels have also been received enthusiastically by reviewers and readers. Dairman’s plays have been professionally produced, and, as a creative writing major at Dartmouth, she won the Eleanor Frost Playwriting Contest.
In your bio on your website taradairman.com, you’re described as a novelist, playwright and “survivor of the world’s longest honeymoon.” How have your travels affected your work?
TD: At first, they slowed things down because I was about halfway through with [my first novel] when I started that honeymoon. I wasn’t able to write every day, or even every week, because we were traveling so quickly. But my travels also gave me a chance to eat a lot of foods firsthand that ended up in some of my books, so [they] definitely added to and deepened the descriptions of the foods.
Where do the specific places you traveled to appear in your work?
TD: In my first book, there’s a scene where my main character Gladys experiences Indian food for the first time at a big Indian feast at her friend’s house, and that was definitely informed by the six weeks that I spent eating all around India. There’s [also] a dessert from Malaysia called apam balik, a peanut pancake I ate in Malaysia. There’s a scene in the third book where she goes to a convention where all different types of dried meats and jerkies are being sold; I pulled details about every dried meat I had ever eaten in any country I could think of stepping into that scene.
Can you tell us about your most recent play, the dark-comedy play “PB&J?”
TD: That was my first full-length play, and I produced it in the New York Fringe Festival. A play that I really enjoyed when I was younger was “Arsenic and Old Lace,” so that was a bit of the inspiration behind “PB&J.” It’s about two old ladies who look innocent but are doing something sinister behind the scenes. I wanted there to be some moral ambiguity about what they were doing and whether it was justified or not. It was a chance for me to explore some feminist ideas and also make it dark and funny.
How is writing children’s books different from writing plays?
TD: When I’m writing novels, I’m in charge of all of the details — all of the responsibility of writing is on me. When I’m writing a play, I have to come up with all the dialogue, but I know that I’ll be collaborating with other people who do the acting, design the scenery and direct the play, so [it’s] much more collaborative. They both have their pluses and minuses.
What kind of messages do you try to convey to young children in through your novels?
TD: I don’t try to convey any sort of moral lesson in my books, and I think that most good children’s writers try not to do that. Of course, themes often emerge in the process of writing many drafts of the book, but I definitely don’t start out trying to teach anyone a lesson. Young readers will definitely pick up on if you’re trying to teach them something rather than focus on the story. For me, the story’s always the most important. If I’m doing a good job writing a story and writing realistic characters, then surely some interesting themes will emerge, but that’s not where I start the process.
“All Four Stars” has not only received praise and awards from critics and readers, but has also inspired a lot of fan recipes. You also provide recipes on your website for the dishes mentioned in the books. Can you talk about why food is such a big part of the “All Four Stars” trilogy?
TD: I was working at the time as a magazine editor, and I had a lot of freelance writers who worked for me that I never met in person or talked to on the phone. I thought one day, “If there was a kid who was a good writer, maybe I would end up publishing her if I didn’t ask too many questions.” Then I thought, “What kind of writer should she be?” It was my original interest in food that made me think that it would be fun to put it in the book and give me an excuse to do “foodie research,” eating at different restaurants and traveling around.
How did your time at Dartmouth contribute to your career as a writer?
TD: One year, a play that I wrote was chosen [for the Eleanor Frost Playwriting Contest], so I had the experience of having a play I’d written produced. That totally got me bitten by the theater bug, and all I wanted was to write more plays and see them up on stage. Having professors who were published, could explain how that process worked and thought that my work was heading in the right direction was [also] a huge boost in the many years that followed when I was trying to finish a book, trying to get published and working on producing my plays. Dartmouth played a huge role in getting me interested in writing and giving me the confidence that my work was good enough to be published and seen by the public.
Do you have any advice for college students who want to become writers and creators in the future?
TD: The advice that I’d give to students no matter what age they are is to read a lot, to write a lot and to have as many interesting life experiences and adventures as possible. If you’re on the fence about going on an FSP, definitely go on the FSP. Travel, try new foods and meet people who are different from you because you never know when these details are also going to serve your writing. I think that the more experiences that you have, the better. Even though it’s important to write a lot, it’s also important to go out and live an interesting life.