At a time when bindis and henna are becoming pop culture, Sonali Dev has launched a work of fiction situated in a world that people are curious to learn more about.
How did you become a fiction/romance writer?
It's really a long story. I've loved to write and in fact I’ve written since I was very young. One of my earliest memories is writing couplets about anything and everything as far back as kindergarten. I wrote a diary through school, started writing reviews about all the movies I watched and books I read as early as middle school. As an adult, even though I went to Architecture school I realized early on that I wanted to write for a living, so I became an architectural journalist and loved it. I always thought I would only ever write non-fiction. I never thought I could actually create stories. But about seven years ago my best friend, who is a movie producer in India, was reading a slew of scripts and bemoaning not being able to find a good commercial script. And naively enough, I said "How hard can it be?" And she said, "You should write me one." And I did. Of course it never got made. But once I had created characters and they had lived inside me I was done. Hooked. I couldn't stop.
As for romance, in everything I read I search for the love story, zero in on it. To me any story worth reading has love at the heart of it. So, naturally romance is my genre.
Did you study fiction writing formally, or are you self taught?
I did take classes in writing fiction at the University of Chicago's Creative Writing Workshop. And I've taken a slew of craft workshops over the past seven years. I do have a master’s degree in Written Communication, but I don't have a degree in writing fiction.
What are some of the challenges of the world of romance fiction writing?
First, I think there are more advantages than challenges. For one, the community of romance writers, readers, and reviewers is incredibly close-knit and supportive. Those who love this genre are fiercely passionate about it. Which makes sense because they demand that same fierce loyalty and passion from their stories. And the Romance Writers of America (RWA) is one of the strongest, most effective professional organizations in the world and its support makes this world so much easier to navigate than if you tried to go it alone.
The challenge is in knowing and understanding the genre, because there is an incredible range in subgenres and styles to cater to the huge readership. So, it’s important to know where within that tapestry you fit, to identify the kind of story you want to tell and then to understand the structure and rules of the genre and to tell that story as close to the edge or the center of those rules and that structure as you want. What I'm trying to say is that if you love the genre and read widely within it you'll find your place in it without letting it restrict you.
Breaking into this genre is no easy job. How did you do it?
Truthfully, I wonder if it's any harder or easier than breaking into any genre. In fact I suspect it is easier now than it's ever been. For one I think readers are demanding more diverse and different books, and the world is no longer a set of homogenous pockets. Readers are much more aware and open than they've ever been before. Having said that, breaking into anything is a combination of too many factors to synthesize into any kind of advice. But generally I'd say it's a confluence of writing a story you love, believing in it with all your heart, working on it until you can work on it no more, blocking out the naysayers, and then being blessed by a whole lot of good timing.
Do you think 10 years ago, a Bollywood romance would have been acceptable in the mainstream?
I moved to this country nineteen years ago. At the time there was not one Indian character on TV. Not in commercials, not in shows, nowhere. Indians, in fact South Asians, were an almost invisible cultural sliver. When I told people I'm from India, it wasn't uncommon to be asked where that is (true story). Today when I tell people I'm from India they ask which part and often follow it up with stories of their last trip there, their favorite Bollywood movies, their favorite Indian food. So, has America come a long way in its desi-consciousness? Absolutely. Even so when I finished my book and started submitting it four years ago, Bollywood Romance was rather farfetched. But that was great because standing out from the crowd was never a problem.
My point is that whether something is mainstream yet or not is immaterial. Slumdog Millionaire came along in 2008. Big Bang Theory which in my opinion was the first mainstream show with a major realistic Indian character came along in 2007. There was a lot of cultural trickling before that and it's been growing since. If we sit around wondering what is acceptable in the mainstream and what is not we'll never become mainstream. Joining the trickle is the only way to influence mainstream in any way.
What are some of the challenges faced by South Asian writers in the field of romance fiction?
The only challenge I can think of is also our biggest advantage, that our cultural world has rarely been seen in this genre. So, making it feel familiar while staying authentic is the only challenge.
If I were to look at your to-read pile what would I find?
I am currently reading My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas and I swear that woman makes me useless. I have to use all my strength to drag myself away from her books and do anything else. And My Beautiful Enemy might be one of the most stunningly brilliant romances I've ever read. Other books on my TBR are Soniah Kamal's Kashmir-based An Isolated Incident. Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken and Nalini Singh's Rock Courtship.
Who are some writers that you turn to for inspiration and solace?
Vikram Seth's Suitable Boy is my own private MFA in a book. Jodi Piccolt turns words directly into emotion. Jane Austen still has the best most timeless plots. JK Rowling created a world so familiar, so comforting I'll return to it anytime, in fact I crave returning to it all the time.
Any favorite romance fiction authors?
Why, yes, of course. How much time do you have? Lisa Kleypas, for the perfect emotional pitch of her writing. Susan Elizabeth Philips for the most real, the most irredeemable characters and for redeeming them to a point where we forget why we thought them irredeemable in the first place. Kristan Higgins for creating families and communities you want to crawl into and never leave and for the biggest belly laughs in the business. Nalini Singh for the sheer intensity and sweetness of her romantic connections and her incredible world building. And Sherry Thomas for the complex intricateness of not just her language but of her characters as well. Everything I know about writing romance, I’ve learnt from reading these women.
What did you read growing up?
Very young it was all Enid Blyton all the time- faraway worlds, make believe creatures, perfect boarding schools, and Amar chitra Katha comicbooks -- Indian mythology in all its visual bite-sized glory. Then in middle school came the classics, the strong female stories of Austen, Alcott, and the Bronte sisters, and the adventures of Treasure Island, Gulliver’s Travels, Moby Dick with a lot of PG Woddehouse thrown in. And then high school was all about commercial bestselling fiction at its finest, Sydney Sheldon, Jeffrey Archer, Eric Segal, Ken Follet, Jackie Collins. And then in College I discovered Indian authors, Vikram Seth, Manohar Mulgaonkar, Salman Rushdie, Khuswant Singh, Shobha De.
|Sonali Dev at the Atlanta Romance Writers National Conference|
What advice would you give "wannabe" romance fiction writers?
First, write and refine and keep working at your story without letting rejection dissuade you and without worrying about what sells and what doesn't. The stronger your writing and your story gets the more confident you will become and that will help you find the right home for your story. And second, leverage the romance writing community, immerse yourself in it, volunteer, get involved, make connections, learn, teach. In the writing world this community is a rare and precious gift, embrace it.
Oh and stop referring to yourself as a wannabe anything. You write, you’re a writer. You’re not a wannabe anything.
What is next for you?
My second book, The Bollywood Bride, comes out in a year. It's with my editor right now and I'm really dying to get back into it when my edits come in. Then it's on to book three and four in the Bollywood series which I have been planning and researching for two years.