Kirthana Ramisetti, DAVA SHASTRI’S LAST DAY

Kirthana Ramisetti, DAVA SHASTRI’S LAST DAY

Zibby Books author and Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books guest host Alisha Fernandez Miranda is joined by former entertainment journalist Kirthana Ramisetti to talk about her debut novel, Dava Shastri’s Last Day, a GMA Book Club pick which is now out in paperback. The two discuss how Kirthana’s job covering celebrity deaths inspired this book, why it was important to her to fill the novel with her personal passions, and what her upcoming novel, Advika and the Hollywood Wives, is about.


Alisha Miranda: Hi, everybody. I am so excited to be here for “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” on behalf of Zibby. I’m Alisha Miranda. I am here today with Kirthana Ramisetti, the author of Dava Shastri’s Last Day, which has already made huge waves in hardcover and is going to be out in paperback on September 27th. Kirthana, welcome to the podcast.

Kirthana Ramisetti: Thanks so much for having me.

Alisha: I have to tell you that I read this book in less than forty-eight hours. I wept through at least half of it. I cried a lot. I loved the family dynamics element. My professional background before I got into writing has always been in philanthropy, so I found your take on the philanthropic field fascinating. Weirdly, there were a lot of things that Dava thought that I had also thought about my own life. I’m trying to decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing for my eventual future or not. Maybe you can let me know. I absolutely loved your book. Thank you for bringing it into the world. I would love if you could just start by telling everybody here a little bit about what the book is about.

Kirthana: My novel is about an Indian American female philanthropist and billionaire. When she learns she has a terminal illness, she decides to announce her death early so she could read her obituaries. She does this because she’s always been preoccupied with her legacy and how the world will perceive her. She’s just very curious to know what the covers will be after she passes. This plan backfires on her when her two biggest secrets are revealed to the world. With the limited time she has left, she must make amends with her four adult children while also coming to terms with the choices she has made throughout her life.

Alisha: It was amazing how much happened over such a brief period in which the book was taking place, this short time in which they’re together. Tell me a little bit about how you got the idea for this book.

Kirthana: I used to work as an entertainment journalist. In that role, one of the major stories that we would cover is celebrity deaths. Anytime a celebrity passed away, one of the first things I would do in terms of writing an obituary or any related coverage is to go to social media and see the real-time reaction to this person’s passing. I always was greatly moved by the outpouring of affection and sadness over this news of a person’s passing. Then it also made me have this weird thought. Do other celebrities see what is said about this person and wonder what will be said about them when their time comes? That thought just stayed with me for years until one day I was like, what if somebody was so obsessed with how they’d be perceived after they died, they actually would announce their death early just so they could read the coverage? That’s how the novel was born.

Alisha: Do you think you would want to know what people were saying about you after you died?

Kirthana: Absolutely not.

Alisha: I definitely would not.

Kirthana: No good would come from that. One of the interesting things of coming up with that premise is, okay, who is this person that would want to do that? Why would it be so important to them? I think most of us would have the reaction that we had. No, there’s no point in knowing that. That was one of the fun things and the challenging things about once I had this premise, is figuring out who Dava was. Why would this be so important to her? Why would she want to read this and risk everything just to know what was being said about her? That was the first building block that I had to come up with in order to write this novel.

Alisha: I’ve read some pieces that you were interviewed in and things when the hardcover came out. I know there’s lots of comparisons to things like Succession. Was there anybody that you really had in mind or people that you looked at, either fictional characters or real-life inspiration, for the story when you were putting together who Dava was?

Kirthana: I didn’t, actually. So much of who Dava was is born out of this premise when I had to figure out — I have a person who’s going to announce her death early so she can read her obituaries. Why would she do that? It would’ve been very easy to go down the route of, she’s an actress. She’s a famous person in some way, a celebrity. I thought it’d be much more interesting if part of her rationale for doing this is because she’d built a foundation or a business from the ground up, so the fact that she did this by herself. She didn’t marry into wealth. She wasn’t from a wealthy family. That is so much a part of her anxiety and how she sees herself that she just wants to make sure that the rest of the world views her accomplishments the same way she does. Really, Dava’s character was born out of fact of why she did this really strange and audacious thing.

Alisha: Let’s talk a little bit about your own journey. What was the jump from entertainment reporter to writing a novel? Now I know there’s a second novel coming too.

Kirthana: That’s right. I actually received my MFA in creative writing about twenty years ago. It’s always been a dream of mine to write a novel. I’ve also very much always been into entertainment and pop culture. For the past several years, I’ve been working in media and on my journalism, mostly with the focus on entertainment. I always had this preoccupation. I do want to write this novel. Eventually, I got burned out in terms of journalism and media. I was like, let me figure out what I’m going to do next. As I was trying to figure that out, I thought, let me try to see if I could finally write my novel that I’ve wanted to do for so long. I actually wrote two books before Dava that will never see the light of day. When I decided to write Dava, I’m like, if I’m going to do this and really go for it, let me make sure it’s filled with all the things that I am personally preoccupied by and obsessed by. That’s family and legacy, pop culture.

Alisha: Music. So much music in the book.

Kirthana: So much music. I took all these things that have great interest to me and very meaningful to me and found a way to take that premise and all these elements that are interesting and build a novel out of it. What was interesting to me in writing this novel is because I’ve written two books previous to this one and I didn’t see them through — I decided not to pursue them. I thought, if I’m going to spend more time writing a novel, let me make sure it’s personally meaningful to me. Even if it doesn’t see the light of day, at least I got something out of writing it. It ended up being one of the great creative joys of my life. I’m so happy that it worked. It’s a cherry on top that it actually got published. I remember at the time while writing it, I’m like, this is so fulfilling in a way that nothing else I’ve done before has. I just feel very lucky.

Alisha: I had so much fun reading it, which makes me feel like you must have had so much fun writing it. I totally feel that. What was your journey to publication like?

Kirthana: I had a very unusual journey to publication. I worked on this book for about two years. I had several people read it, which was so helpful, during the revision process especially. I started querying in February of 2020.

Alisha: Oh, fun.

Kirthana: Exactly. I ended up receiving four offers of representation, which was incredible. Then I decided to sign with my current agent, Andrea Somberg at Harvey Klinger Literary Agency, in March. This happened to be the day before the world changed. It was right before, the day before Tom Hanks announced he was positive for COVID. It was the day before the NBA shut down for the season. We just realized, okay, nothing will ever be the same. I was like, great. I finally have an agent after this long journey. Now the world is just — we don’t know what’s going to happen. To my agent’s credit, she was amazing. She said, “Let’s just wait a week before we go out with it,” which is what we did. Then by April 1st, we had an offer, a preempt offer. It just moved incredibly fast.

Alisha: That’s amazing. I did see a post on your Instagram sharing that you got an email rejection sometime this year for a book query that you had submitted in 2020. Is that right?

Kirthana: That is right. I was shocked. I was like, why is an agent emailing me about this novel? It had a different title at the time. It said The Matriarch, which was the title at the time. It was so confusing. Then it was a rejection. I was like, huh, that’s interesting. It goes to show you even if you get published, you can still be rejected. That’s a lesson I try to share on Instagram. You just have to roll with it because all you really do is need one yes, which is what I learned throughout that whole querying process.

Alisha: It’s so nice because I feel like you do hear a lot about people’s successes on social media, so it’s really nice. I always love to share that I queried forty-one agents before I got my agent. I’m like, listen, it could happen. It could happen. You just have to persevere. Sometimes you have to find the right person. It’s very easy to just brush all those things to the side when you have a success. You may not want to think about them, but it’s so helpful for others who are in different stages of their process.

Kirthana: Completely.

Alisha: How has your life changed since the book came out? I have to know. The hardcover’s been out for a while. I know there’s an HBO Max series that’s coming about the book. You’re working on a second book. How are things different from that February 2020, you’re querying hoping somebody’s going to pick it up, until now?

Kirthana: That’s such a good question. I’ve never really thought of it that way. I think the biggest thing that’s changed for me is, if you’re a reader or a writer or had a lifelong dream to publish a novel, it’s kind of incredible when you actually realize that dream. I didn’t expect to realize it. I’m over forty. I got this book published when I was forty-one. To actually fulfill the thing you’ve been dreaming about since you were a little kid is surreal and amazing. Everything that’s happened after that has just been a pinch-me moment. Nothing will ever top the moment when I realized, okay, I do have a book deal. This is going to happen, and then seeing the book on shelves. My life has changed in the fact that I can actually say — I’m no longer nagged by this thing where I’m like, I just have to do this one lifelong thing I’ve always dreamed of. I did that, so I can let that dream be. I don’t have that anxiety and pressure on that anymore. That’s the biggest thing for me. I can just move forward and be happy with no matter what else happens. Publishing has a lot of ups and downs and shifts and changes, but I did this one thing I always dreamed of. That means the world to me.

Alisha: That’s so awesome. I imagine when you first saw the book on shelves and it got picked up by book clubs and there was so much, it must have just felt like, pinch me, pinch me, pinch me, all the time.

Kirthana: Completely. The thing about living with a book and working on a book for years, those characters just live in your head. Nobody else knows about them. Me personally, I didn’t share that book with anybody for the longest time because it was too personal to me. This was my “give it all” project. Go big or go home. This was it. It was too much to share with anyone else. I just kept those characters with me and wouldn’t talk about the book or the novel at all. It’s so wonderful when those characters now no longer just live inside my head, but other people relate to them and discuss them and talk about how a particular character’s journey means so much to them. That’s one of the most amazing things about this too.

Alisha: I know it’s a novel, but are there any characters that you really put yourself into in the book?

Kirthana: One of the funniest things about doing interviews for this book, when people ask, do you relate to your character? How are you like your main character? I’m like, well, we’re both billionaires, obviously.

Alisha: Obviously.

Kirthana: Which is not true. The one thing that Dava and I share, of course, is our love of music. Music was really important to me when I was a teenager. I always like to say that reading or writing were just like oxygen to me. They’re just like breathing. Music came later when I was younger. Probably for most of us, when we were in high school. I remember for the first time. Whereas with reading and writing, especially reading, I should say, it helped me look out into the world and experience different things I would never otherwise experience, the lives and the characters in these books. With music, for the first time, I was going inward. I was reflecting. Where are my truths? What is my goals? What do I think about anything? Music awakened that inner self for me. I really wanted to give that to Dava and show how music shaped the course of her life and helped her dream her life. She put herself into the life she always wanted. It was incredibly cool and meaningful to give that aspect of myself and give it to Dava and show the role music played from the early part of her life all the way to the very end.

Alisha: One thing that I thought was so awesome is that I have — my music tastes skew very basic. It’s a lot of Broadway, a lot of pop, a lot of Latin, so not tons of overlap in genre with what Dava liked. It didn’t matter if I didn’t know the artists that she was talking about or the albums that she was talking about. It didn’t matter at all. I guess they were not all real. Of course, Tom Buck is not going to be real. Then I saw you had a playlist in some of your content after. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know that music because I could relate it to music that would have that kind of impact on me. It really transports you somewhere in this way that — I think your other senses can also transport you places, but there’s just something about music and how it can bring you back to a specific moment in your life almost like a time machine, right?

Kirthana: A hundred percent. That was one of the coolest things about writing this book. I used to have a giant CD collection. I got rid of it one day because we all moved on to iPods and then our iPhones. I’m like, I don’t need this physical collection of music. Then I regretted it ever since. When I decided to write Dava’s journey with music, I had to go back and revisit the music that I used to listen to. I actually have a running list of every album I used to own just so I could have that memory. I would listen to all this music. Then also, I don’t want Dava just to be me. I want Dava to be her own person. In the novel, she’s actually a few years older than me. It was a great way to be introduced to other music as well that I think Dava would connect with, like PJ Harvey, for example, and all this music that I didn’t listen to at the time when I was growing up but I had a chance to listen to through Dava’s ears. It was a really fun time to listen to — I listened to music throughout the writing of this novel, some music I had listened to all my life, some music I had discovered for the first time. Then the weird and interesting part about this whole process is that this novel also turned me into a songwriter, in a way.

Alisha: No way!

Kirthana: I’m not sure if you know this. In the book, there’s a song written about Dava by the character Tom Buck.

Alisha: Correct. I remember that. Did you write that song? I assume.

Kirthana: I wrote the lyrics. I’m not a poet. I’m not a songwriter, but I had to write lyrics. Those are the lyrics I wrote. At the time I was drafting this novel, I was teaching myself the ukulele. I started getting this melody stuck in my head for the chorus of the song. I took my iPhone and recorded myself playing the ukulele singing along to the song “Dava.” Cut to two years later when the audiobook team at my publishing company said, “We want to produce that as an original song. Do you have any ideas?”

Alisha: What?

Kirthana: I said, “I do because I actually have the melody. I recorded myself two years ago.” I sent them the video of myself. They turned it into the most beautiful, gorgeous song that I can’t believe I had a hand in writing. It’s on my website. It’s on the audiobook if anyone wants to listen to it.

Alisha: Oh, my god. That is a hot tip. I’m going to do that as soon as we hang up this call.

Kirthana: That’s the amazing thing about this novel. It’s given me so many gifts. One of them is turning me — I always wanted to be a published writer, published author, but I never thought I’d have a hand in writing music as well. It gave me so much more appreciation of artists and songwriters and what they do. I don’t know how well I pulled it off, but the fact I even had a hand in an original song is just amazing to me.

Alisha: That’s so cool. Maybe Dava Shastri: The Musical, coming to a Broadway theater near you. You could write the score for it. Why not? I know you like Hamilton. Hamilton got some shout-outs in your book.

Kirthana: Yes. You never know. You’re right.

Alisha: You never know. I would sign up and see that musical, actually. I think this is what the world is missing, maybe, this kind of great American legacy musical. That’s so awesome. There’s so much on the horizon for you. Give us a little plug for all the things coming up next.

Kirthana: I actually have a second novel coming out in April of 2023. It’s called Advika and the Hollywood Wives. I have to admit that was inspired by a binge-watch of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I watched a lot of Bravo during the pandemic. I think it seeped into my brain. The novel is about a young Indian American screenwriter who is mourning the death of her twin sister. To pay the bills, because she’s an aspiring screenwriter, she’s working at a lot of A-list afterparties. While working at the Governors Ball, which is the afterparty for the Oscars, she meets a very successful Oscar-winning film producer. They have a whirlwind courtship and end up getting married after a few months. A month after the marriage, her husband’s first wife passes away. In her will, she says, “To Advika, divorce him, and I’ll give you one million dollars and a reel of film.” She is shaken out of her love fog. She is like, who did I marry? She decides to investigate her new husband through the eyes and the experiences of his exes, which is an actress, a pop star, and a reality star.

Alisha: Oh, my god, I’m so into it already. I assume it’s done. Pub date, April, so you must be done now, yeah?

Kirthana: Yeah. This is the cover. You can’t show it on the podcast, but I wanted to show it to you. Yes, it’ll be out April 2023.

Alisha: How was the experience writing your second book? Not your second book, but your second-to-be-published book, I should say.

Kirthana: I think we all, as published debut novelists think, oh, the second one will be easier. It’s not. You have to climb that mountain all over again. You’re starting at base camp. You’re looking up. That peak is so far away. It was a challenge, especially because now you’re kind of a known commodity. Some people or some readers have the expectation of who you are and what you write about. All of that was on my shoulders as I was writing this. It was also a lot of fun. I think what I’ve learned through writing Dava and now writing this new novel is I just need to inject something that’s of little interest and passion to me and also find ways to make it fun and interesting to write. It was very challenging, but it was also a lot of fun.

Alisha: It’s funny. I am working on a novel now. I’m doing the editing and the drafting phase. I had an idea for another novel the other day. Then I was like, how could I possibly do this over again? It’s kind of like childbirth where you forget. Then you go through it because you forgot what happened the first time. I feel like writing is sort of like that. I’m like, this is going to be great. Then you just start a new project, and you’re like, oh, my god, what have I done? At least once the baby’s out in the world it doesn’t require so much maintenance, I suppose, as an actual child.

Kirthana: Good point.

Alisha: My normal podcast is called “Quit Your Day Job,” so I have to know, if you were not writing, what else would you be doing right now?

Kirthana: If I could do anything I wanted or if there’s just other things I could be doing if I wasn’t writing?

Alisha: Anything you wanted. Your dream.

Kirthana: My dream, because music is a big part of who I am and foundational to me, I always thought it’d be a lot of fun to be a music supervisor on a TV series. I just finished watching The Bear. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. It’s a show on FX. It’s about people working in a restaurant in Chicago. The music ques, the music drops are just really amazing and so well-timed. I always thought it’d be so much fun to be the person who listens to all the music from all the different albums and times them for certain scenes. That would be my dream. I just think that would be fun.

Alisha: That’s an awesome job. You could write it. Then also, you could put the music in. You could just do both.

Kirthana: Sure. Why not?

Alisha: Sure. Why not? We always like to ask what advice you have for aspiring writers who are listening to this and thinking they would want nothing more than to be able to be just like you.

Kirthana: It’s kind of what I’ve said earlier. Because I’d written two books before Dava, then when it came to tackling Dava, I had to think about, what would I do differently this time that didn’t work the previous two times? For me, again, it was about, what can I inject into this book that is so passionate and personal to me and something that’ll sustain me writing it for years? As we were just talking about, you work on a book for years. You have to have so much interest and passion that it will put you back into your chair every day, sit at your desk, back to your laptop. You have to find something that’ll sustain you for a long period of time. Really think about what you’re writing about and why you’re writing about it because that’s what’s going to keep you going every day.

The other thing is just, think about your process, in a way. I really had to change my process for writing this book. It’s what writing this book effected for me. Before, I was a “pantser,” which means I kind of came up with the idea as I went along. Because my debut novel had such a big cast of characters, I just thought that wouldn’t work. I had to figure out things ahead of time. That’s what I did. I outlined the novel in advance. That really worked for me. You don’t have to decide if you’re a pantser or a plotter, but just give yourself a lot of thought about, what can I do for myself to make this book a lot easier to write and help me keep going every day? I figured out a system for myself that really worked that I took into my second novel. I think that could be really helpful, if you just gave it a lot of thought about how you’re going to write this novel beyond the idea itself. How do you make it easier for yourself to sustain every day?

Alisha: That’s such good advice. Did you finish your first two novels that you wrote? Did you abandon them midway through?

Kirthana: They’re completed drafts, but I found myself bored at a certain point. If I’m bored as the author, why would anyone else be interested in it? That’s why I decided to set them aside.

Alisha: Fair enough. Good thing that you started Dava Shastri’s Last Day, a book that I completely loved. This has been such a great chat. Where can listeners find out more information about you, what you’re working on, and things happening with your book?

Kirthana: You can visit my website, which is I’m on Twitter,

Alisha: Love it.

Kirthana: I came up with that Twitter handle when I was still an entertainment journalist. I was like, do I want my name associated with — this is so long ago. That’s why Twitter is @PopScribblings. Instagram is just my name, @KirthanaRamisetti.

Alisha: Amazing. Kirthana, this has been awesome. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Kirthana: Thank you so much for having me. This was so fun.

DAVA SHASTRI’S LAST DAY by Kirthana Ramisetti

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