Writing Romance: The Rumpus Interview with Sonali Dev

By

Sonali Dev’s latest novel, A Change of Heart, tells a story of love and healing set against the violent backdrop of India’s illegal organ trade. Two years after the murder of Jen, a young doctor working in a Mumbai slum, the book opens with an encounter between Nikhil, Jen’s widower, and Jess, a single mother who claims to have been the recipient of Jen’s heart. As the book continues, Nikhil and Jess connect in spite of their painful histories—and the growing menace of Jen’s killers, who threaten both their relationship and their lives.

If you’re anything like me, A Change of Heart is the kind of book that you devour in a weekend, carried along by the chemistry between Nic and Jess, the momentum of the plot, and the novel’s wonderful supporting characters—from Nic’s mother to Jess’s roommate to the corrupt officials back in Mumbai.

In all her books, Dev writes compelling female characters wrestling with the tensions between traditional and contemporary roles, women who find empowerment in the face of family conflict, sexual violence, and repressive social norms. Throughout, she captures a broad expanse of modern India, transporting the reader to Bollywood sets, rural villages, Chicago condos, and Mumbai schools.

Readers of Dev’s previous work will recognize Nikhil and Jen, whose wedding provided the occasion for the dramatic climax of her previous novel, The Bollywood Bride. This novel and Dev’s first, A Bollywood Affair, have been recognized as best books of the year by NPR, the Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal. Dev’s work has also won numerous prizes including, in 2014, the American Library Association’s award for best romance.

I spoke to Dev about her latest book, along with the romance genre, writing non-white characters, and the parallels she’s found between writing and architectural design. Our conversation took place via Skype from her home outside of Chicago.

***

The Rumpus: At its core, this book is a love story, but there’s a strong suspense plot line here, too. What drew you to that part of the story?

Sonali Dev: Nikhil and Jen were in Bollywood Bride, and they were both characters that I loved so much—but their story had already been told as a part of Bride, so, as a storyteller, I was intrigued by what happens after. I knew how they met in Afghanistan [in Doctors Without Borders] and all of that… but when I started writing, I had these two characters who constantly put themselves in these very dangerous situations, and so, sure enough, in one of those dangerous situations, something bad happened. It totally took me by surprise, and then I was like “oh crap,” you know?

When you find your soulmate… what happens when that just blows up in your face? Especially for a person like Nic—he’s so happy with whatever he gets, and he’s done, he doesn’t question it. That started intriguing me. And then there was Jess, who was this really dark, damaged character, who was never meant to be a heroine: the story became about this woman who had enough darkness to pull him out of his darkness.

Rumpus: There’s something sort of poetic about the idea that Jess wasn’t supposed to be the heroine because that’s sort of what her life story is about—becoming the heroine after all this hardship. And her situation allows a mystery or suspense element to take center stage in a lot of places.

Dev: Right. It turned into this suspense plot almost organically—because her child is under threat. As soon as a character is under threat, suspense comes out of that. Amazingly enough, I’m not a mystery reader. My definition of hell is a murder on page one, and four hundred pages before I figure out who did it! So the emotional part of the story practically wrote itself, but getting the nitty gritty of the crime part was work.

Rumpus: It comes together so well. I was also thinking that this book has your first real villain. Before, all the characters we see are these really complex humans, but here you have a really deplorable person in the character of Asif. Did it feel different to write that character?

Dev: I find writing villains to be a very situational thing. I mean, you’re right, in the first two books, there are people who do the wrong thing, but they’re not really villains—because in life generally that’s how it is. But with Asif—putting myself in that situation, of being somebody who’s dark enough where he has no guilt about it, he’s so inside that evil it’s not even evil to him, it’s just mundane—that kind of madness was really kind of interesting to write. I actually had fun with it.

With things like the organ black market and human trafficking, that are just horrendous as concepts, you still have to put a face on it to really internalize it. Because it’s not just a concept. There are so many protagonists in that evil: the people who buy those organs, the people who meet to sell them, the middlemen—the same is true of human trafficking. There is such a human element that individualizing it in the form of a villain, for me, really worked.

Rumpus: Thinking now of the love story piece: something I enjoy about all of your writing is the attention you give to food in relationships. The moment that first got me choked up in A Change of Heart was early on when Jess is teaching Nikhil how to eat again, in spite of his grief over Jen’s murder. Why do you write about food? Why do you feel like it’s something that can be so moving to us?

Dev: I think that is entirely my family. My mother is the youngest of four sisters, and there’s nobody on earth who can cook food like they can. I mean, I swear to God, these meals could pull you from the edge of disaster, and so it’s such a big part of me. I moved [to the US] twenty years ago, and I’ve lived my entire adult live here, and we’ve had so many nieces and nephews that we’ve parented because they’ve come here to go to college, and they come home and our home becomes their home, and a big component of that is food. When you’re an immigrant, food is also a little way of holding onto your culture, which people who live in that culture naturally sometimes lose.

Food is also such a way to connect, it truly is, to nurture, to invite people into your home. I think it’s part of everybody’s life and people don’t even realize it. I mean, as women now, when we work, when we’re part of partnerships and relationships, a man who can say, “You’re tired, what can I bring you to eat?” That just changes your entire relationship, from someone who doesn’t say “Honey, I’m home,” when you’re slaving over a keyboard.

Food is a language, but the funny thing is that even though I never set out to make my books about food, everyone says, “Don’t read these books hungry.” I didn’t expect it—it just came naturally. My fourth book, which I’m revising right now, is actually my first book that’s set entirely in India—it’s set in one suburb of Mumbai—and someone said, “I hope there’s one of your kitchen scenes in there.”

Rumpus: Another sensory pleasure that I wanted to ask you about is sex. When you set out to write your first sex scene, what was that like? How do you approach that piece of it?

Dev: I love that you blushed when you asked that question!

One of the first scenes that I write is that pivotal sex scene—that turn, finally, from dancing around each other to getting that connection. This is what I am thinking about when I talk about the genre structure of romance. These first four books are structurally, absolutely romance in terms of hero/heroine conflict and the emotional turmoil of growing to allow love in. So the sex scene is metaphorical in many, many ways in these stories. When you’re writing and you’re starting from a place of complete disconnection, or a place of disillusionment, or a place of darkness, I know that’s what I have to hit. It’s one of the first scenes I write because I know that in all their interactions [the characters] have to slowly be coming to a point where they can become that open, where they can let each other in to that extent. For me, the sex scene is that—it’s that opening up physically, a representation of opening your heart. I have a teenager, and I keep trying to explain this to her—yes, sex is fun and all of that, but there’s a vulnerability in it.

And there’s a vulnerability in it especially for women in cultures where you’re not allowed to own that, where it’s given so much importance in terms of your worth, and certainly in these three books, for all of the characters, it is that. They don’t own their own bodies, they don’t own their own sexualities, so the moment that they do, something integral changes—so that’s what a sex scene is to me, too. I don’t know if you want to quote me on this, but I remember we were in a workshop one time, and I said, “All my characters fuck with their hearts.” And I have friends who will now throw that in my face all the time—“Well, that’s so classy, Sonali.”

Rumpus: I feel like we see that vulnerability you’re talking about even more in A Change of Heart because Jess is a survivor of sexual violence. How did you deal with that when you were sitting down to write that scene?

Dev: Usually, sex scenes are very easy for me to write. This one was not. Idealistically, I wanted it to be a certain way. I wanted it to be the experience that I would wish upon any survivor, and I think a lot of Nic’s character developed because I wanted him to be a guy who could do that. But finally working that scene out so it doesn’t minimize, so it is convincingly healing—that was hard. Because that scene is all vulnerability. I think it was aspirational, more than anything else. And I think that’s one of the things I love about writing romance—people will say this is not realistic, but I so badly want it to be. I so badly want these things to be possible.

Rumpus: Your training originally was as an architect. Do you feel like that informs the way you approach writing?

Dev: Absolutely. There are just so many parallels. One of the things is the process of revision, the process of imagining something or conceiving something as a concept, which is your first blast of design or your first blast of story, your first dirty draft, as we call it. That’s how I write—it’s very hard for me to write my first draft. I hate it; it’s like pulling teeth. It only turns into a story in revision. That is how design works also because you’re layering and layering and revision and redoing it until everything is in its place and meeting standards while still not just keeping with your original design, but enhancing it as you go along. So that’s the easy parallel to make, I think—the fact that you’re completely okay with your first shot not being your final shot. Revision, revision, revision, in both things. In design, it’s often where your client says, “Well, this isn’t just right, that isn’t just right,” and you tweak it while keeping their vision and your vision. And in a story the process of critique partners and editors—so taking feedback and pouring it back into your work—is another thing.

Rumpus: I’m so interested in that. Can you talk about your transition from working as an architect to starting to write fiction?

Dev: So, really simple transition for me: I always wrote. I started writing very young—it wasn’t something I ever set out to do, it was just something I always did. Being raised in India and being raised with that whole, “You do something and you stand on your own two feet” kind of family, making money as a writer was not—well, even today, it’s a dream, it happens to very few people. It’s not even happening to me yet. So I’d never even considered writing as a career option in my twenties. Obviously, I loved art and design and all of that, and architecture seemed like a perfectly good fit, but all through architecture school, I perpetually heard the words, “Sonali: sketches not words. Sketches not words,” and that should have been my indication. As early as six months after I graduated, I was working in an architect’s office, and I had a friend who was working for this trade magazine called the Indian Architect and Builder in Mumbai, and I said, “Really? How did you get that job? That’s my dream job!—it’s architecture and it’s writing!” and she said, “Really? It’s your dream job? Come in and talk to the editor.” I had just come out of a pretty brutal breakup, and I was feeling pretty powerless, and every time I feel powerless, I want to do something to assert my power. I said, what do I really want? I want to work for an architecture magazine—that was my extent of my dreams at that point, and so I picked up the phone and I called the editor. I went in the next day, and this was the first time in my life, I’m sitting across from this woman, and she says to me, “Well, do you have a need to write?” and I said, “Seriously? You have it too?”

I never thought I’d write fiction… but my best friend is a movie producer, and she had just made an award-winning movie, and she was reading a lot of scripts that were not connecting with her. We’ve lived on different continents for twenty years now—we’ve been friends since grade school—and we’ve talked almost every day. So, we’re on the phone, I have little kids, and we say, “How hard can it be to write a good commercial script?” And she says, “You know what? You write—you should just write me one.” And I said, “I think I will.” Famous last words. Two weeks: I wrote a script, and once I had done that—and of course, it never got made, it still sits under my bed—but once I had lived with the characters and created a world. Once you’ve done that, I don’t think there’s any going back…

I went to the library, borrowed every novel-writing book I could find, then took classes at the University of Chicago and all of that, and finally… I was trying to write this really complicated literary novel, which was just my way of saying I didn’t know what genre meant, and people kept saying, well, write what you love. And I always loved love stories. I didn’t read that much genre romance, but in everything I read, I was always seeking out the love story. And then I read my first romance, which was completely accidental. My husband went to the library when I was sick, and I asked him to pick me up something to read, and he picked me up Katherine Coulter’s Rosehaven, a medieval romance. He comes home, I look at it, and I’m like, “Really? You’ve been married to me for ten years and you think this is what I read?” Then I started it, didn’t sleep all night, finished it, went back to the library the next day, read her entire backlist, and I’ve never stopped since. Again, I called my best friend on the phone, and I said, “Did you know there’s actually an entire genre that’s just love stories?”

I was trying to put together this story of these four couples through four socioeconomic backgrounds in Mumbai and it was—you know, of course, I took on the hardest possible thing, and was struggling with it. Then I got sick, and I was quarantined for six weeks, and feeling very sorry for myself, and I was on the phone with my friend, and she said, “You know what? You should just write something that you love.” And Bollywood Bride was a story that had been in my head for years, so I just sat down and wrote the whole thing down, and there was no looking back.

Rumpus: That transition into thinking about writing romance leads us to something else I wanted to talk about, which is this idea of the romance genre, and how it’s perceived in the industry and outside of it. You’re talking about how this literary novel that you had originally conceived of was about class, and about these relationships between couples, and a lot of the thematic material that I feel like is very much present in your work now. Do the books that you ended up writing, which are marketed as romance and women’s fiction, and you said you feel like, structurally, are romance—do they feel all that different from what you originally wanted to write?

Dev: Absolutely not. When I found romance structure, genre structure, it completely set me free because, again, another thing writing has in common with design: you have to understand structure to play with it. Once I had the confines of genre structure, I realized I could tell any story I wanted and all the stories I wanted, and so to answer your question, these are exactly, absolutely the themes I wanted to address, these are exactly the kind of stories I wanted to tell. I think romance, especially today, is a genre where you can really play. There are more subgenres in this genre than, I think, in any other one, and you can just about tell any story. There are very few rules.

Rumpus: Yet there so many people out there who belittle romance by saying that it’s formulaic. I think what you’re saying is that that formula is actually a tool, like any tool that a writer would use to tell a story, and that allows for this huge diversity of kinds of stories to be told.

Dev: Exactly. It’s about understanding a craft, and using that understanding to then break rules and build upon that. And as far at that whole snobbery against romance—I have no patience for it, truth be told. I think there are good books and bad books in every genre—it’s what calls to you. Evidently, there are a lot of women that romance calls to. And anyone who chooses to judge that, well, it doesn’t surprise me because what women choose to do has been frowned upon for years. But we’ve continued to do it and people will either continue to judge us or walk away. I have no patience for having to explain myself. Have I read formulaic romance novels? Yes. Have I read formulaic mysteries and fantasies and all of that? Yes.

Rumpus: Are there formulaic literary fiction novels? Yes!

Dev: Exactly. And do literary authors follow structure? Yes! It’s a looser, wider structure, but there is absolutely a structure to those novels, too. As far the romance genre and being part of it, I think anyone who’s ever attended a convention or meeting of RWA—you have to be there to believe it. I always say that the romance community, which is almost all women—all businesses should be run that way. Any good business has to focus on the bottom line, absolutely, focus on the product—we love our product like nobody’s business, we understand it, we continue to develop it, we continue to evolve it. And there’s community—we try to grow the community as a whole, all the time, everyone from the biggest bestseller to a newbie. Everybody’s helping everybody else. You can say this is a warm and fuzzy feminine thing, but it’s not, it’s amazingly powerful and it makes a lot of money.

Rumpus: And with the state of book publishing being what it is, that’s pretty important.

Since we’re talking about publishing more broadly, I know you’re often referenced as a quote-unquote “diverse” voice in the industry. Can you speak to that and where you feel like we are now with respect to diversity?

Dev: Well, timing is everything. I think even two years before my book sold, my book would not have sold. So have we seen evolution? Absolutely. Have we seen growth? Absolutely. We’re definitely not where we were when I first tried to start to selling these books. So, it’s the clichéd answer, where we’ve come a long way, but we have such a long way to go.

Some of it is that the expectation from editors and agents is that there has to be absolute excellence before they will take you on. I’ve had an agent say to me, “Well, you write a Kite Runner and no one can stop you,” and I remember asking him, “So every white book that comes to you, your expectation is that it’s Gone With the Wind?” and he said, “So what you’re trying to tell me is that you want your mediocrity to do well?” and I said, “Not at all, but what I want is for the definition of mediocrity to be a level playing field, and it is not.” There is that expectation, that of my hundred clients, I will take on one brown client who has to be this supernatural being of literary brilliance—but that’s not how it works. Debut novels are seldom the best work of authors. Authors develop like every other professional, every other artist, and they develop with the support of good editors and good agents. You need to take us on for promise, you need to take us on unpolished, and you need to be part of that development, just like you are a part of that development for authors who write white characters. So in those more nuanced ways, we have a long, long way to go.

I actually do not like the word “diverse” at all because, you know, I’m not diverse, I’m Indian! But anyone who writes books about characters who are not white has had editors who say to us, “Well, why don’t you…? Why don’t you change one of the characters to white?” And it’s nothing against these editors: they want to sell books, they perceive of their readership as demanding something, but that readership is only demanding more of what the publishers have given them for two centuries. If you don’t start giving them more choices, they won’t even know what to demand. At least now, because of smaller houses and because of self-publishing, readers have read more and so readers are demanding and readers are accepting a wider array of things, but it’s despite big publishing, not because of it. I think if big publishing got behind it, we would have some really spectacular results.

We are now in a place where, at least, growth has happened—where there are agents and editors who put out calls for diverse books. I mean, when they get one or two they’ve had enough, which is not okay, but at least they’re doing that. They’re not hitting delete on a subject line that says Bollywood Bride. Long before I came on the scene, people had advocated and worked really hard, and I’m definitely reaping the benefits of that. I hope that somebody else in the future will reap the benefits of whatever work I’m doing now.

***

Author photograph © Vernice Dollar.


Maggie Cooper is a fiction writer, a teacher, and a maker of fruit pies. She holds a BA from Yale and is currently pursuing a MFA at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. You can follow her on Twitter @frecklywench. More from this author →