Deepa Varadarajan, LATE BLOOMERS

Deepa Varadarajan, LATE BLOOMERS

Zibby interviews debut author and law professor Deepa Varadarajan about Late Bloomers, a funny, witty, and big-hearted novel about an Indian American family that is turned upside down when the parents split up after 36 years of arranged marriage. Deepa discusses her favorite themes (parenting, divorce, dating in old age, and finding the courage to start over), her love of teaching, and her long publishing journey–from developing her character Suresh in a writing workshop more than twenty years ago to finally seeing a beautiful, finished book in her hands.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Deepa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” discuss Late Bloomers, your novel.

Deepa Varadarajan: Thanks so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: It’s always fun talking about dating later in life. Why not? Let’s go right into it. Tell listeners about both how you came as a former lawyer, or maybe you still are a lawyer, to write a book — former? Current?

Deepa: I’m still a law professor, actually.

Zibby: Law professor, okay. From that to writing a book about divorced parents who have to find love again and all of that, tell me the whole thing.

Deepa: I am fascinated by the idea of second chances. Are you ever too old to reinvent your life? Can you change at any age? I wanted to explore that idea through the story of an Indian American family living in a fictional college town in Texas. The couple at the center of the story, Lata and Suresh Raman, have recently divorced after thirty-six years of an arranged marriage. It was Lata’s decision to leave, but now they’re both figuring out how to start over. Lata has this job outside the home for the first time at a university library, which she loves. A professor there asks her on a date, which is this totally new and nerve-racking experience for her. Her ex-husband, Suresh, is online dating for the first time. It is not going at all how he expected. They’re trying for these new beginnings. They’re doing these things outside their comfort zone. Meanwhile, their two thirty-something-year-old children, Priya and Nikesh, are struggling to adapt to these changes, to their parents’ new lives. They’re also trying to sort out their own very messy relationship issues, which they’ve been hiding from their parents. The family members in the story are discovering these secret sides of each other. They’re learning how to let the people they love become these new and evolving versions of themselves.

Zibby: I love that. I got divorced and remarried in my late thirties and forties. Navigating all those relationships, it brought me back. I also, by the way, went undercover and helped my mom’s best friend go on dating apps at age seventy to try to find somebody for her, which was really funny. Nobody was looking for a seventy-year-old woman, I’ll have you know, on the apps. That was tough. All the people her age were like, we’re looking for someone in their forties. She’s like, what?

Deepa: Right. That’s one of Suresh’s frustrations in this book, that women are lying about their age online.

Zibby: The relationship, too, between the parents and the kids, all those adult-parent relationships are also hilarious. Can I read this little section?

Deepa: Of course.

Zibby: I think maybe because my mother can be like this also. She’s talking to her mom. She said, “I cut her off before she could bombard me with instructions for every plant in the yard. ‘Mom, why don’t you tell him? I’m never going to remember these instructions.’ ‘Oh, well, it’s his garden now. He can do whatever he wants with it. So, is there anything else?’ At the end of her question, Mom inhaled a quick but noticeable breath. ‘Anything else?’ This was how my mother ended all our phone conversations, the expectant pause, the tremulous hope before the word else. This was the point in the conversation where I imagined my mother bracing herself, desperate for some kind of announcement. That is, the nuptial kind, the kind that would finally relieve her of the fear that I’d die childless and alone. While my father’s lack of subtlety took the form of antagonist questioning in my living room, my mother’s took the equally exasperating, though less confrontational, form of the pregnant pause.” You go through all of this. Then at the end, you say, “I stuffed the indignation down my throat and swallowed. ‘Nope,’ I said. ‘That’s it. Nothing else, Mom. What about you? Everything okay?'” There was something on the next page. Then quickly, you say, “And just like that, my anger turned to shame. My mother was alone. She was growing old in a crappy condo. She spent her days working in a library with obnoxious college-age freaks. Honestly, what kind of daughter was I?”

Deepa: There’s that back-and-forth. On the one hand, she’s so frustrated that they seem to be obsessed, both her parents, with the fact that she’s unmarried. They’re so worried about her. At the same time, she’s frustrated by it, but then she also thinks to herself, am I doing something wrong? Have I gone off track somewhere? There is that back-and-forth for her. Being someone myself who got married in her early thirties, I remember that.

Zibby: I feel like our parents, there never ceases to be expectations of any kind, whether it’s professional or personal or related to the kids or something. I just feel like there’s always some way of falling short or something.

Deepa: There is something. One of the themes in this book is, is it harder to parent young children? Is it harder to parent older children? I think the answer is it’s just all hard. Every stage you’re parenting at, it is hard. Now that I’m on the other side of it and I am a parent too, I think I feel a lot more sympathy for my own parents. In a way, that process of becoming a parent myself helped me understand these characters a bit more and helped me find, particularly, Lata’s voice.

Zibby: I read that the inspiration for this came at a dinner with your husband’s friend. His parents had gotten divorced or something like that. Tell me about the inspiration.

Deepa: The characters are this product of my imagination, but the very first spark of inspiration came almost twenty years ago. At the time, I was dating an Indian American man. His parents had recently divorced. His dad was experimenting with online dating. I remember him saying something to us along the lines of, “I want to try it your way this time.” I remember being struck by that and thinking it’s a really brave thing to try to start over later in life. At the same time, I was in my twenties. I was having these relationship issues. All of that got me thinking, I haven’t read a story before about a recently divorced Indian couple my parents’ age and their adult children all going through romantic turmoil at the same time. I want to read that story. Maybe I could figure out how to write it. At the same time, the parents in the story, Lata and Suresh, they had an arranged marriage. Theirs didn’t work out. My parents also had an arranged marriage. Lucky for me though, they have been married for almost five decades. They have a very successful marriage. When I was younger, it was always this object of fascination to me, how they met, the fact that they didn’t really know each other, and then they got married. I’ve always felt like it’s kind of the stroke of luck that they turned out to be so compatible. There have been moments where I’ve thought, what if? What if it had gone another way? This story is kind of that alternate path, that imaginary, what if?

Zibby: I run a publishing company also. Our first book was called My What If Year. It’s about a woman who decided that she wasn’t that happy with her life and took on four other internships. The reason I bring it up is when you started off saying the whole theme of the book and something you’re so interested in is, “What if? What about second acts? Is it ever too late to redo where you are? What does that mean?” I feel like it’s very much aligned. It’s a question on everyone’s minds these days.

Deepa: You asked me earlier about my own process, how I went through becoming a lawyer and then writing this book. That whole idea of a second act, a second chance really resonates with me now because I’m a debut author in my forties after having had this career as a lawyer and a law professor. That question resonates with me in my own life too.

Zibby: Tell me that whole story. How did this all happen?

Deepa: Like the title of my novel, I’m kind of a late bloomer too when it comes to writing. I didn’t really know that I wanted to start writing fiction until my mid-twenties. Like a lot of writers, I’ve always loved to read. I grew up in a small college town in Texas much like the setting of the novel. I grew up in the eighties and nineties. I was one of just a few Indian kids in my school. I felt like an outsider. Like a lot of outsiders, I found my solace in reading fiction. I’ve always loved to read. It didn’t really occur to me to start trying to write fiction until I was in law school. It’s funny. I went to law school, and I discovered — well, I discovered I wanted to be a law professor, but I also discovered I wanted to write fiction. I think part of the reason is there were a few people around me who were publishing nonfiction and publishing novels. There’s something about physical proximity to people who are doing the thing you want to do that makes you think to yourself, okay, can I try doing this thing too? I graduated from law school. Then I started working at this big law firm in New York, not unlike the kind of firm that Nikesh works at. Much like Nikesh, it was not a good fit for me. It was not something that was quite right for me. I signed up for my very first-ever creative writing workshop while I was working at this law firm in New York in my mid-twenties. Once a week, one evening a week, I would go to this workshop. I would share my work. It was just the highlight of every single week for me. Ever since then, fiction writing has been a part of my life.

Zibby: What was the workshop? What was it called?

Deepa: It was called The Writers Studio. It was the very first workshop I ever did. In fact, this character of Suresh actually grew out of my very first workshop assignment in my very first creative writing class almost twenty years ago. I remember the assignment was — we had read a little part of a short story from a collection called Sam the Cat by Matthew Klam, which is a terrific collection. We were supposed to come back with two pages written in a first-person narrator point of view. I had this idea for this character of a recently divorced Indian man in his late fifties who was trying to start over. I brought in these two pages. There’s something about being in a workshop. You can tell when something has gone over well when people are responding to something. I thought, okay, I have something here. At the time, I thought it was just going to be a short story because I did not have the confidence at that moment to think, oh, I can write a novel. I thought it was going to be this short story. I worked on it. I couldn’t get it to work as a short story, and so I put it away for a couple of years. Then I came back to it because I hadn’t forgotten about Suresh. When I came back to it, I started thinking a lot more about his ex-wife Lata and his daughter Priya. I started wanting to write from their points of view too. At that point, I realized this is not a short story. This is a novel. I just kept working on it in fits and starts, putting it away, taking it back out. I really didn’t have a very straightforward process at all. It was just me sort of fumbling my way in the darkness trying to figure out how to write a novel. Seventeen years later, it’s coming out.

Zibby: Did you have a period where you were working on it much more intensely? Did the pandemic help you finish it? How did that all play into it?

Deepa: There were periods where I was working on it more intensely. In fact, during the pandemic, I was revising it. I remember thinking to myself, this — part of what I struggled with — I struggled with two things. One was, when do you let go of something? which can be hard to know. When is the right moment to send it out to try to get an agent? Do you keep revising? Do you keep tinkering with it? Because I encountered periods of rejection, I also struggled with, should I put this away and move on to something new? In the pandemic, I went back and looked at this. I was revising it. I thought to myself, okay, this is the last time. I’m going to send it out. If it doesn’t work out, then I’m going to move on to a new project. Luckily, I sent it out, and I found this amazing agent in December of 2020. It was strange to have this joyful news at a time where there was so much pain and hardship. In my mind, that was going to be my last time with this. If it didn’t work out, it was time to move on.

Zibby: Turns out the timing was perfect. There you go.

Deepa: Who knew?

Zibby: Did you ever read the children’s book called Leo the Late Bloomer?

Deepa: No, I did not.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you have to get that. You should get it. It’s really great. It’s about a little tiger and his parents. They’re really worried about little Leo. All the other animals could start doing things better. He couldn’t write as well. He couldn’t jump as well, or whatever it is. All the way towards the end, there’s this beautiful forest with all these leaves. It’s like, and then one day, Leo bloomed. It’s so sweet. I get chills every time. There might be some fun tie-in with your book and the picture book, like a Mommy and Me type event or something.

Deepa: I love that. I have to get that for my nephew.

Zibby: It’s really cute. Honestly, it’s good for teenagers. Blooming is at every stage of life. This person’s doing this first. This is happening to this person. It never ends.

Deepa: It’s true. It definitely does not.

Zibby: What was the experience like getting the news? I know you were so happy in the face of dire times. When you finally sold the book and all that, what did you do? Did you jump around? Give me a visual of how excited you were.

Deepa: Gosh, there was definitely some screaming, some joyful screaming. Yes, much celebrating. This was something that I had worked towards for so long. There were moments where I’d almost given up and thought, this is really not going to happen for me. It was just really this amazing, amazing feeling when it happened.

Zibby: Are you working on another book now?

Deepa: Yeah. Right now, I am working on a few new short stories. I love the short story form. I find it really gratifying and challenging in a totally different way than writing a novel. I’m also working on something that I think could turn into a novel, though I’m not sure. I’ve sketched out some scenes and some characters. Like Late Bloomers, it involves an Indian American family. They’re discovering secret sides of each other. There’s adult sibling relationships and rivalries and wounds and regrets and forgiveness. It has some similar themes to Late Bloomers.

Zibby: That sounds great. What in the process so far, of the publishing process at least, has surprised you or wasn’t what you thought it would be when you had hoped to get a book published for those years? What has happened that you weren’t expecting, good or bad?

Deepa: One of the things I have learned is just how many people it takes to turn a Word document into a book with a beautiful cover that ends up in these amazing stores, including, hopefully, your wonderful new store.

Zibby: Yes, yes.

Deepa: Everyone from your brilliant editor to the art designers who have this beautiful aesthetic sense and can come up with a terrific cover, to the copyeditors who are so meticulously finding things that you had not anticipated, it’s just so many wonderful people that are contributing their talents to help your book reach the world. That, to me, was something that was very pleasant to discover.

Zibby: Tell me about what you teach at law school and how you marry these two different pieces of your life now.

Deepa: I teach intellectual property law and innovation. That’s my area. I love being a law professor. I love teaching students. They’re very different. They’re totally two different types of jobs, fiction writing and being a law professor. For me, in a way, they have gone well together. Time is always tricky. You’re always trying to find the twenty-fifth hour of the day, as I’m sure you can imagine. You manage to do so many things. Because the fiction writing process is so full of uncertainty — it’s uncertain at every stage. You start a short story or you start a novel, and you really don’t know if you’re going to get it to work until deep into it. I have this short story that I’ve actually been working on, on and off, for three years. I’m thinking that I might ditch because I can’t figure out how to make it work. There’s uncertainty at the writing process. There is uncertainty at the stage when you’re sending your manuscript out and hoping that you’ll get an agent. When that happens, if that happens, then there is uncertainty in sending it out and hoping that you’ll find an editor who also loves your book. Then if that miraculously happens, you’re sending it out into the world and hoping reviewers will like it and people will buy it. There’s just uncertainty at every stage of the process. I’m a person, by nature, I don’t really thrive in conditions of uncertainty, so it’s been really nice to have this other career which offers more certainty and offers more daily sources of affirmation. I can teach a class, and a student might email me and say, hey, that was a really great class. I can carry that. That helps me power through this other part of my life where, for many years, I was sending things out into the world and getting only rejection. In a way, they do go together for me.

Zibby: I love that. That’s so nice. What advice would you have, then, for the aspiring author?

Deepa: My number-one piece of advice would be to be persistent. Keep trying. Don’t give up. Try to power through the rejection and the hard moments. I would also say try as much as you can to focus on what you love about the process of writing. Focus on trying to get better at the craft. Focusing on ends and outcomes, you really don’t have much control over those. For sanity’s sake, it’s much better to really try to focus on, how do I get better at this? What do I love about the process of writing? One other thing I would say is try to be patient and kind to yourself. I know that pretty much every birthday I hit from age thirty on, I would spend a few moments kind of scolding myself. Why aren’t you done yet? Why haven’t you gotten an agent yet? Why haven’t you published yet? Why are you failing at this? I just wish I had been kinder to myself because I don’t think it made the process any faster. I would tell people that too.

Zibby: That’s great advice. I love it. How about any online dating advice or dating in your older years or dealing with your kids while you’re dating? Any of that?

Deepa: Oh, goodness. I don’t know that I have good advice for that. I had a very brief period where I tried online dating, and it really did not work out for me. I don’t think that I’m the right person to give advice about that.

Zibby: Did you ever pretend to be the character, or is it all in your imagination? I can see making a profile of the character, which would actually be really funny to do now, have him be a character on a dating app.

Deepa: That’s true. It was my imagination, but I’ve also definitely had friends who have gone through the process of internet dating. I’ve definitely asked and picked up information along the way.

Zibby: Are you reading anything good?

Deepa: Yes. I just finished a couple of great novels, actually. I just finished this novel called Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason.

Zibby: I love that book.

Deepa: That book is so good. I think I missed it when it came out. It came out during the pandemic. I was just in Zoom-school craziness mode, so I think I missed it. It is just such a beautiful book. It has that wonderful combination of humor and heartbreak, which I just love in books. I loved that. I recently read Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, which I keep hearing about. I thought it was great. It gave me this new appreciation for video games and video game designers, which my nine-year-old son is very happy to hear, trying to convince me how video games are the best. Then I always like to have a couple of short story collections in the mix. I like to read a short story before I go to sleep. I’ve been revisiting two collections I read a while ago which I loved. One is called Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee. It’s wonderful. The stories are funny and surprising and so smart. Then a collection called Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley, which I think is terrific too. A lot of these stories feature Indian American characters in Wyoming. It’s really interesting.

Zibby: Wow, that’s exciting. Awesome. By the way, great job having that all thought through. Whenever anybody asks me, I’m like, um, what am I reading? What did I just finish? I know it was really good.

Deepa: Luckily, I’ve had a really good run of reading lately. They’ve been really good.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Late Bloomers. Best of luck with everything coming down the pike. Exciting.

Deepa: Thank you so much. I’ve enjoyed this so much. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care.

Deepa: Take care. Bye.

Deepa Varadarajan, LATE BLOOMERS

LATE BLOOMERS by Deepa Varadarajan

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