Sonali Dev is a writer who combines her love for words and Bollywood to conjure up stories that make a crazy tangle with her life as wannabe supermom and domestic goddess, and disgruntled corporate minion. Sonali lives in the Chicago suburbs with her very patient and often amused husband and two children who demand both patience and humour, and of course her characters who can’t stop doing Bollywood dances inside her head. She is a Golden Hearts (2013) finalist and her debut novel, The Bollywood Bride, will be available from Kensington in November 2014.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how long you have been writing.
Hi Adite! Thanks so much for having me. It’s been a year since I’ve visited home and I’m going to pretend this is my India visit for the year. A little about myself… hmm. I was born and raised in India and I’ve lived my entire adult life in America. So, I’m your quintessential first generation immigrant mom living the desi American dream and globe-hopping for leisure every chance I get. I think I’m essentially a nomad who fancies herself as someone who puts the mad in nomad. As for writing, I’ve written for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories, in fact, is of my mother sitting me down at the dining table in first grade to do math homework when the illustrations on the cover of the text book (those little + and – symbols) started dancing around and I had to, just had to write a little poem about them. And no, I didn’t get in trouble, which explains why I’m here writing books instead of designing buildings after spending five years in architecture school. If my mother hadn’t broken the mould and let me follow my heart back then and encouraged my crazy little passion for capturing everything in little ditties, who knows what I’d be doing today.
Please give us a brief synopsis of your Bollywood books.
The Bollywood Bride (that’s the working title) which is my debut novel comes out in November 2014 and it’s about a Bollywood star who returns home to Chicago after ten years to escape a scandal in Mumbai and comes face-to-face with the man she betrayed for stardom. It’s essentially a second-chance-at-first-love story set against the backdrop of a big fat Indian wedding in Chicago and delves into the trauma of a child growing up in the shadow of mental illness and the prejudices and fears that go with it.
The Bollywood Bad Boy (also the working title) will be released in 2015 and its the story of a child bride who grows up and discovers she’s married to the wrong man. Unfortunately, the right man is her husband’s brother and he’s only charming the pants off her to help his brother get rid of her. This one deals with the clash of tradition versus freedom and breaking from convention to find happiness. And it’s bit of a romantic comedy.
Why did you decide to have a Bollywood angle to your books, given that the vast majority of international readers really don’t get Bollywood?
They don’t? That’s news to me. The way I see it, it’s impossible to pin down what the vast majority of readers do or do not get. Which is a great thing, because it leaves us with such an array of genres and sub-genres, books set not just in every corner of the earth but on planets we haven’t even discovered yet, and an ever-changing, virtually connected readership, who constantly surprises us by being taken up by things as unexpected as red rooms of pain. If there is a genre with universal appeal, I haven’t heard of it, which makes it, um, not really universal. I know as many people who turn their noses up at romance novels as people who consume one romance novel a month if not a week and break into a cold sweat at the thought of their stash running out. As for Bollywood, that’s just a gimmicky word for stories that centre around Indians and the Indian state of mind — which is essentially as rich a background as you could find for any story. I mean a history that spans centuries, a culture that holds within itself hundreds of sub-cultures, the meeting and melding of the urban and the rural, the eastern and the western, the opulent and the wretched. And against this backdrop we have familial bonds that are so tight they have the power to stifle the life out of you as much as yank you back from the edge of tragedy. Whether you enjoy huge sweeping stories about ordinary people or ordinary stories about larger than life people, how can these stories not appeal?
As for me deciding on this angle, I write what I know, and this world is who I am, it’s the people I grew up with in the worlds I inhabit. It’s the reality I’ve seen, on steroids.
How difficult was it to find a publisher and what have you learned from your experience?
The Bollywood Bride was my first finished manuscript and I completed it in May 2010. I found my publisher in January 2013. Between those two events I revised, rewrote, and revised and rewrote, and then revised and rewrote the book until I had lost count of how many of these cycles I had been through. But I also essentially learned the craft of novel writing after I had finished that first draft. This involved taking a ton of classes and workshops, reading every craft book I could find, entering writing contests, joining and nurturing critique groups, having the manuscript critiqued by as many people as would agree to read it and then doing it all again. Finding the publisher itself wasn’t the issue, getting the manuscript publisher-ready was the real trick, because for one, every writer thinks that first draft is publisher-ready. And there’s no way for anyone to tell you when you reach that point with your first novel, except when it’s ready it will find its home. Which brings me to the one and only lesson that means anything in this context and that is to never give up. When I first started querying, one of my published friends told me that getting published was not a race of speed but endurance. Golden words.
You have been a screenwriter too. Could you tell us a bit about the script/s that you have written. How different is writing a novel from writing a script? And which one do you enjoy more?
I have written scripts, which I think is different from being a screenwriter. The way being a writer is different from being a novelist. Which is to say that I’ve written several scripts but none of them have thus far been made into films. Having said that, writing scripts was where I first sprouted my fiction-writing wings and for me it was an excellent proving ground. When you’re writing scripts you have to think visually. You automatically think in terms of actions speaking emotions. You think in terms of setting. Of the pink and orange sunset against which your white sari clad heroine might be siting on a rock waiting for her hero. You think in terms of scenes and turning points. And you think of these scenes in terms of wide angles with rooms full of people and the world within which your action in happening. All of this is priceless when telling a story in print as well. But writing scripts is about what is happening. With writing novels, on the other hand, you get to play the director’s part as well and get into the how the stuff is happening. You get to treat your story with prose and fill in the details. You get to really sink into it with language and bring it to life. To me personally, words are the best part of writing. I love language, love the way words arrange themselves in various cadences. I love the lyricism of prose, love clever turns of phrase. To me words are the colours with which writers paint. As a reader, how a writer uses her colours is why I read. In my favourite books, I love the colours as much as the paintings themselves.
What are you working on currently?
I’m working on my next book, which is loosely related to my first book. Oh and I’m also chewing my nails to stubs while I wait for edits from my editor and my agent on Book 1 and Book 2 respectively.
What do you love most about writing and why?
I might have answered this question a couple questions ago. But because you couldn’t possibly ask me a question I love to answer more, I’ll indulge myself. The short answer is ‘everything.’ But if I had to pin down the specifics, my two favourite things about writing are words and opinions. I love to play with words. They quite literally turn me on. I think I knew I was going to marry my husband when he used a big word the first time we met. But much as I love words, the one thing that draws me to writing even more than words, is being able to express myself. The ability to opine, to take a stand, to examine the stands I may never take. I think the need to write comes from a need to have your say and to be heard, even if it’s only by a hypothetical audience. Anyone who knows me knows that I could talk your ear off. If you stopped me from writing, I might never stop talking. Because really, when you have so much to say, you have to say it, right?
Thank you, Sonali, and all the best with your writing adventures!