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Bollywood, Heart Transplants, & the Indian Kennedys: An Interview with Sonali Dev

Sonali Dev

In 2014, Sonali Dev won the American Library Association’s award for best romance. Since then, she continues to craft excellent stories about love, family, and healing. In her latest novel, A Distant Hearta rare immunodeficiency confines young Kimi to her mansion, where she befriends her window washer, Rahul. Later, the sociopathic leader of a black-market organ ring targets transplant-patient Kimi, who eludes him with the help of Rahul, now a police officer.

A Chicagoland author, Dev met with me over coffee and tea to discuss her process for writing romances, as well as her forthcoming family saga.

 

BIZ HYZY: In A Distant Heart, Kimi and Rahul are borderline obsessed with each other, and they both know that’s problematic. The reason why they work as a couple is because they recognize and reckon with that obsession. How did you handle that so deftly?

SONALI DEV: Romance as a genre is about conflict. If you had to boil it down to the simplest form, it’s boy meets girl, boy can’t be with girl, and boy and girl figure out how to be together.

Naturally, why boy and girl cannot be together is the heart of it. The thing with genre—and especially a genre like romance—is that you know the ending going in. It’s really all in the telling.

The journey is about being well enough to let happiness in. I mean wellness in a very new-age way. That’s the driving force for all of these stories. These people are not well, and when you’re not well, you can’t be happy. The happily ever after is just a metaphor for letting happiness into your life, and the whole journey is towards wellness.

 

You use the tagline “Books with a Bollywood Beat.” A friend recently told me if I’m in the mood for a mystery, romance, or musical, I should watch a Bollywood movie, because they’ve got it all. A Distant Heart has everything I want, too, but I don’t exactly know how to categorize it. Did you mimic Bollywood in that regard? 

When I first started writing, I didn’t know what genre meant.

I’m taking these writing classes, and the teacher tells us to talk about our story and what genre is it. I’m like, “What does that mean?” I know what genre in music is. Growing up, my reading repertoire was people like Jeffery Archer and Vikram Seth. . . and Sidney Sheldon and Ken Collins.

At the time, I thought I was writing literary because I thought literary meant you don’t know what genre. . . which is kind of true.

A Distant Heart

When I discovered romance—which is a whole different story, because I discovered it late—I loved it. I absolutely loved it. That’s why I write it. Romance has such a specific structure that forms a really good foundation to my storytelling. I have a background in architecture, so it’s that idea of a foundation having to be really strong to fly with your design. When I know an arc works at a very basic level—where genre foundation is—then I can fly everywhere with that story, and I can push those boundaries because I have a place of turn back to.

You know how people do promo interviews? We have this joke in Bollywood. . . when [the actors] were asked what the movie’s about, they’d say—I’m going have to say it in Hindi—“Well, this one’s different. Because, you know, this one has romance, this one has mystery, this one has crime, this one has humor. I mean, you name it, it has it.”

I don’t think I was doing that. It wasn’t like, “Let me cram everything into this book.” But it was again the same thing: What is the conflict that keeps these people from finding wellness? In Bollywood Affair and Bollywood Bride, those conflicts are more social and emotional, and so it stays in this [narrow] space of genre romance. . . but in Change of Heart and Distant Heart, that conflict brings in crime, which brings with it suspense and the whole chase and thriller element. Conflict speaks to those genres, which is why it feels like crossover—[but] in the end, it’s just stories.

 

Three of your novels are connected. Side characters become main characters, and then main characters become side characters. Do you plan that out as you’re writing, or do you get excited about new characters and then run with them in the next novel?

When I was writing Bollywood Bride, Nikhil and Jen became these characters that you love. I knew their story, how they had met, and what her backstory was. They both worked for Doctors without Borders. They put themselves in these dangerous situations, so that whole tragedy happened when I started to write [A Change of Heart].

If she’s dead, his story is about coming out of that darkness, but how does that look? If he’s in this awful place, and the story is about healing from such deep grief, then who is his agent of change?

That’s when that whole transplant angle came about. . . What if there’s this really twisted way in which Jen lost her life because of the black market? What would your relationship be with the person who now owns the cause that lost you your loved one?

Kimi came as somebody who would pull Nikhil out of that, but my belief system is that if you come from a place of nurturing and a place of love, then you have the best chance of being a whole person. Kimi. . . is faced by dark circumstances, but on the inside, she’s a very bright character.

To me, Nikhil is basically a very solid character. . . I had two people like that, and there’s no healing there if you’re both basically whole, so Kimi didn’t work. For Nikhil to get pulled out of that darkness, he had to be faced with something that’s truly bad, somebody that’s really broken. Jess was almost a side character, but with a dark, horrible history. [Nikhil] had to find his inner healer again, and so Jess worked. But now I had Kimi sitting there, and I had to tell Kimi’s life because I loved her, and Rahul was also right there, and it was so, so accidental. I don’t think I really planned this series. It was organic.

Now, the next one I’m working on, that’s a fully planned arc of four books. It’s a story set in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it’s a family saga.

 

Selfie with Dev

Dev generously posed for a selfie with me.

I love family sagas.

It’s the Indian Kennedys.

 

Awesome.

It’s this ambitious Indian-American family who believes that their oldest son is going to be politically powerful. They believe he’s going to be the first Indian-American president, actually.

The books are set during his gubernatorial race for California. We start when he announces it, and the four books go through that race, but it’s the story of that entire family. It’s an extended family, what we call in India, a “joint family.”

Each one of the stories is a spin on a Jane Austin novel.

 

I’m so excited. When will they be out?

The first one, which will come out the end of next year, is Pride and Prejudice. The second one is Persuasion.

I already love this so much.

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About the Author:

Biz Hyzy works as an editorial assistant for Booklist's Adult Books department, where she pilfers the most appealing ARCs before anyone else gets the chance. Besides reading, she enjoys swing dancing and ninja training (though, in her case, both include a lot of bumbling around).

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