A. Thank you so much for having me. I am a romance writer from Mumbai, and my first three books have been traditionally published. My three favorite words are Happy Ever After - ergo, why I write romance. I currently write sexy-to-steamy contemporary romances starring complex, South Asian millennials in a global setting. Sometimes, there are guns and car chases too.
I have also had the good fortune of being associated with a lot of national literature fests such as Women Writers Fest (Mumbai Edition), Hyderabad Lit Fest, Goa International Lit Fest and the debut edition of the Noida International Lit fest as a speaker and moderator, where we touched on the art and craft of writing thrillers, romances, crime and more.
A. I used to read voraciously as a child. From local comics such as Tinkle and Indian mythical retellings for children in a series called Amar Chitra Katha to international classics such as Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and more. As I grew older, my interests diverged and I gobbled up more adult fare such as Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, Penny Jordan, Diana Palmer, Harold Robbins etc. - Basically, everything my mother and aunt read, I would read after them.
This, in a way, was my first flirtation with words and influenced my career choices greatly, because I always knew I would either be a lawyer or a writer-journalist. But the very first time, I consciously saw writing romances, specifically, as a viable career was when I read my first romance writer Nora Roberts for the very first time.
I was fifteen and the book was The Calhoun Women and my fate was sealed.
Of course, I devoured everything by her and subsequently read a number of prolific authors as well as classic writers such as Austen, Hardy, Steinbeck, the Bronte sisters among many, many others, it was reading Nora Roberts which made me internalize the idea that telling stories could be an actual, fulfilling occupation.
A. It’s the funniest story, how Kingdom Come, which was published with Harlequin in April 2014, (now acquired by Harper Collins) happened. My first book White Knight was out by March 2013 and I was desperate to see where my writing would take me. Also, my folks were very sure that I was a one-book wonder. (I don't blame them. I think so even now, after four books!)
So I decided to pitch this book about an ex-MI5 spy who comes to Kashmir, India to capture the world's deadliest bomber terrorist. I Googled for Harlequin's phone number and cold-called them. Deepika, the then marketing head graciously gave me her email and I sent them the proposal. This was July 2013.
In October, when I had given up hope, I got a surprise email from Deepika, looping in Amrita Chowdhury, the head of publishing for Harlequin to my query. Apparently, my email had gone into their spam inbox so it took them a few months to find it. Two days later, I got a call from Amrita and they made me an offer I couldn't refuse. And that was that! It was Diwali week so that call remains a special and cherished memory for me.
A. In a nutshell, I am obsessed with telling stories. All of them are some form of romance, because according to me, no other genre can capture the highs and lows of the human condition like romance does. Romance also has the greatest capacity for redemption and subverts social themes regularly in the subtlest of ways.
My unpublished back list (most of which has stories that need serious updating now) was something I was unsure of for the last few years, for many many reasons. The first fear as always is: What if no one reads me?
But, in August 2017, I realized I was about to turn 31 and it is ridiculous to allow fear of failure and ignominy hold you back. So I sat down, made a plan, did not execute it but basically bifurcated my unpublished back list into books that I’d publish myself because the writing speaks to a more international audience and also because I want creative control over the story (something you give up when it comes to traditional publishing) and leave the rest for my agent to pitch.
Basically, I decided to take myself and my art seriously and see if I could actually get my books out as and when I felt like it and not once a year or less - which is the traditional publishing schedule.
Luckily, for me, my gamble, and it was a huge gamble for me, has paid off and the first book Still Not Over You broke into several #1 Bestseller categories in India, UK, Australia and has remained in the Top 200 ranks on Amazon India, which makes up my core audience for now, surprisingly.
A. My third novel “With You I Dance” (Fingerprint! Publishing) debuted in the Amazon India Bestseller (Romance) category when it released in April 2016. My first two books are romantic thrillers called “White Knight” (Leadstart Publishing, 2013) and “Kingdom Come” (Harlequin MIRA, 2014).
Most recently, I have taken the plunge into indie publishing with the contemporary romance Geeks of Caltech series. Book One was released in January via KDP and on Kindle Unlimited. It is called Still Not Over You and is so far holding its own on the charts in Amazon India. The next book in the series Crossing Lines comes out in March, but it’s the one after that I am extra excited about.
It’s tentatively called The Heiress Bargain and is set in Melbourne, Australia where I studied creative writing at Deakin University for my post-grad. The Heiress Bargain comes out in April 2018 (fingers crossed!)
And, I am attempting (heavy emphasis on attempting) to write a Young Adult Urban Dystopian Fantasy set in futuristic India.
Q. Where would you sell most your books? Are they mostly sales in India or do you also have a strong international readership?
A. Haha. This is a question I have been trying to tackle for the longest time. So, what little advertising I do and my own social and digital circle is predominantly Indian or Indians living abroad, so most of my sales so far have been from Amazon India and a bit from the US.
If you guys know of any magic tricks for a South Asian writer to reach out to an international audience, I am all ears. But on the whole, it's just been about two months since I hit publish - let's see where the journey takes me.
A. Patience and perseverance. Both to hone the craft of writing and also to understand how the marketing aspect of it works. I have been tempted to give up writing novels for a living (even a second living) too many times to count. But each time, I am pulled back in because I have a lot of stories to tell and I hope, finally, I am able to tell them all. Wherever and with whomever I choose.
Basically, it's like the greats say. Don't give up, even when it feels like the right thing to do. Make mistakes. Fail. And be fearless enough to understand that some day, one day, all this will pay off in the most unexpected of ways.
Q. Anything you’d do differently?
A. I'd be kinder to myself, honestly. Not just about the writing thing - where once upon a time I, in my infinitely naive early twenties wisdom, contemplated moving to New York and living as a starving writer. I didn't, of course, haha.
It's very hard, especially with the penetration of social media and the plethora of content swimming all over the internet to feel like your work doesn't matter. That it doesn't even get noticed, much less read. I still struggle with this notion, on a few bad days.
So yeah, be kind to yourself. It's OK if everything doesn't happen today. If you don't make that bestseller list. If you don't make X amount of money over Y sales in week one. There is always week eleven. Or thirty. Or fifty. Be kind to yourself and the rest will come.
A. It's bursting at the seams. The writing scene in India has been triggered by an interest in writers, which is a brilliant thing to have happened.
Whether it is an appetite for Indian mytho fantasy like Amish Tripathi's bestselling Shiva trilogy or Falguni Kothari's Age of Kali Trilogy, desi-flavored romance by bestsellers like Ravinder Singh or solid mid-listers such as Shilpa Suraj, racy thrillers by Ashwin Sanghi, Kuldeep Yadav or a more recent fad for historical fiction such as Padmavati, the discussions are endless and fascinating and the writers bring such diverse viewpoints that have a uniquely relatable feel to it.
Recently, I was fortunate to have been part of a panel of women writers writing crime and one of my fellow panelists, Puja Changoiwala, talked about interviewing a cold-blooded serial killer for her true crime novel and the account was fascinating. It's like you said, the whole country is reading. It's just up to us writers to find our audience. They are there. They do exist.
A. Seeing as India is India, a vast smorgasbord of cultures, traditions, languages, mores and socioeconomic divide, yes the way themes and genres are treated here is markedly different than from the West. A few differences that come to mind are the huge appetite for mythological fiction and mytho fantasy, first love and campus romances do extremely well. But the audience is now opening up to a broader and more nuanced way of storytelling and other genres such as fantasy, thrillers, horror, true crime etc. are picking up steam.
Language is an extremely important part of a good story but this is not necessarily the case with a few of the titles floating out there. But, Indian writers have never been shy of exploring the darker side of humanity and exposing it for what it is.
Still Not Over You features a character who's a substance abuser and whose actions have consequences that basically form the core of the series for the next decade for a lot of the leads. My fellow romance writer Sundari Venkatraman has tackled the very, very thorny subject of incest and child abuse in her latest romance novel.
While our Bollywood films are being gagged by the moral police, literature, even subjectively bad literature, has been spared the rod so far so no subject is taboo, nothing is beyond discussion.
A. I mostly grew up reading Western Romance, like I said, so my own writing sensibility has been greatly influenced by what I gleaned from those. But, when I began to tell love stories of strong, damaged, vulnerable characters a few key themes began to emerge for me. And, I guess, this is the difference for almost all of us writing Indian romances in English.
Our characters have a global sense of space, place, and identity but with Indian sensibilities - we live in New York or Adelaide or the moon, but family plays an important role in the decision-making process as does food. Traditions (whether adhering to them or questioning them) is again an important turning point for our characters.
Almost all of us write about sexually active, consenting adults (in most cases) but the way they handle situations is again, more mindful and influenced by our own upbringing while keeping in mind a larger, more global perspective.
Q. What tips would you give authors for appealing to readers in the Indian market?
A. Read up on what's popular here. And then try and give your own true version of that particular story. We like our stories with a lot of drama, family, friendship, local zeitgeist, and food.
Honestly, there is no telling which writer will appeal to which kind of audience. But there are readers here. Hoards of them. They are waiting to discover brand new storytellers with interesting, cleverly told stories.
Thanks Aarti. We've got to go but thank you for engaging with us and we're sure our readers will be fascinated with your story.
Book Name: Still Not Over You: Book 1 of Geeks of Caltech