The Second Act Is Only The Beginning: Alka Joshi On Writing & Reinventing Later In Life
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The Second Act Is Only The Beginning: Alka Joshi On Writing & Reinventing Later In Life

Alka Josh’s third novel, The Perfumist of Paris will be released on 13 April 2023

You might recognise Alka Joshi’s name from the cover of her bestselling novel, The Henna Artist. The formidable Reese Witherspoon selected it for her book club in May 2020, and a Netflix adaptation starring Freida Pinto is in the works. It’s hard to believe that Alka didn’t relinquish herself to writing until her fifties. Writing for C&TH, the author muses on experimenting and reinventing, and how later life can really just be a new beginning.

Alka Joshi On Writing & Reinventing Later In Life

Alka Joshi and her book The Perfumist of Paris

The Second Act Is Only The Beginning

My debut novel, The Henna Artist, skyrocketed to the New York Times bestseller list in 2020. I was 62. It had taken me 10 years and 30 drafts to get it into the hands of readers. I couldn’t have written that novel in my twenties, thirties or forties. My fifth decade catapulted me into my current act: I gave up my advertising/marketing mantle and became a full-time author.

Not in my wildest dreams would I have imagined myself writing a book. Or two. Or three.

I always wanted to be an artist. No one in my family knew how I learned to draw, but the moment I could hold a pencil or crayon or chalk, I was drawing. If nothing else was handy, I drew with my finger in the dirt (which irked my mother no end). 

I loved drawing people best, fascinated by the differences in their eyes, their noses, their mouths, and how those differences revealed so much about their personality. I watched for details – the way they held their body when they were happy, the tic that gave away their nervousness. The art of drawing gave way to the art of observation, which was natural for a shy child. And I was very, very shy. 

When it came time for college, I abandoned dreams of art schools in favour of something practical: Stanford University and books and midterms. There were no drawing classes. 

My first job out of college, then, was also practical: the management training program at Prudential Insurance Company. That’s where I learned that a non-creative career would never make me happy, and I started planning my exit strategy. After four years, I quit and spent the next two exploring classes in illustration, graphic design, industrial design, and advertising.

Perhaps a career in advertising was really my Second Act. I fell in love with it. As an immigrant to the US at age nine, TV commercials were my school of American culture. I knew all the jingles (I can still sing them to this day), and I marvelled at how they made me want, want, want. What if I could move people to want, too? I put together the best portfolio I could and set my sights on international agencies in San Francisco – the ones with the big budgets. 

I was hired as a copywriter at McCann Erickson. I loved it. I loved coming up with tiny stories that became TV or radio commercials. Each story had characters. It had plot. It had drama. It had comedy. All within a one-minute or 30-second timeframe. I put all those years of quiet observation to work.

Eventually, I quit to start my own agency and expanded into the marketing sector. I worked hard to get clients. I hired freelancers to do the parts of the projects they were better at. And I made a good living. I thought I’d keep doing that for the rest of my life. 

Then came the 2008 global mortgage crisis, followed by the biggest recession since the Great Depression. Clients cancelled projects or put them on hold. What would I do to bide my time until the recession abated? 

My husband had always encouraged me to try my hand at writing stories and novels. ‘I’m a hack,’ I would say, ‘Not a real writer.’ He would challenge me, ‘What is a real writer? Someone who writes their truth.’ At his urging, I’d started with evening classes in creative writing where a published author guided a cohort of eight to ten people to critique each other’s work. My instructors were as encouraging as my husband.

Which is why in 2009, at the age of 51, I enrolled in a Masters of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at a private college only two miles from my house. It was expensive. It was time intensive. But it was calling to me: the harbinger of my Third Act.

At the time I entered the MFA program, I’d been accompanying my mother regularly to India in between projects. Mom took me to sari bazaars, jewellery shops and fruit and vegetable markets. She’d say, ‘Bael is my favourite fruit, but I can’t get it in America.’ She’d point to a sari with tiny mirrors sewn on it. ‘That’s what village women wear.’ The unspoken message was not for us

She shared her traditional – and very restrictive – Indian girlhood and young motherhood with me. It struck me how little a life she’d been allowed! And I wished I could give her the life she’d given me – full of choices and independence and love and encouragement. The life I wanted for my mother became my protagonist Lakshmi’s life in The Henna Artist. And Lakshmi became my mother. I wove details about people and places and things my mother had shared with me into the fabric of the novel; I integrated the quirks, tics, eccentricities of people I’d been observing for five decades.

The moment I signed the contract with MIRA Books, a division of HarperCollins, I became a full-time author. The Henna Artist, followed by The Secret Keeper of Jaipur and The Perfumist of Paris, became my Third Act. 

As my husband had predicted, I spoke the truth: of my mother’s constricted life, and of the lives of so many women everywhere struggling for agency. I spoke the truth of an India excited to rebuild what the colonisers had destroyed. I spoke the truth about a people who have contributed so much wealth to the rest of the planet.

The shy girl I was could never have predicted that my voice would become stronger with time. Since 2020, I’ve spoken to tens of thousands of people about women’s agency, about my mother, about the country of my birth. And I feel as if I’ve just scratched the surface of what I want to say. 

In my sixth decade, my voice is loud. And it’s clear. Perhaps it will lead to a Fourth Act.

The Perfumist Of Paris by Alka Joshi


The Perfumist Of Paris is published on 13 April 2023. £20, preorder at

The Perfumist Of Paris is the third instalment of The Jaipur Trilogy, which begins with The Henna Artist and is followed by The Secret Keeper of Jaipur. All three books are published by Mira Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. 

The Henna Artist, from £7.20,

The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, from £15.90,

Featured image: Ketut Subiyanto via Pexels.