Zibby is joined by Saumya Dave, resident psychiatrist and author of Well-Behaved Indian Women, to talk about her latest novel, What a Happy Family. The two talk about what inspired Saumya and her husband to co-found the nonprofit, thisisforHER, why she finds herself drawn to intergenerational stories, and how her career in the medical field actually helps her career as an author. Read Saumya’s essay about the intersection of her two careers on Moms Don’t Have Time to Write.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Saumya. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss What a Happy Family.

Saumya Dave: Thank you so much for having me. I love this podcast, so I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: Thank you. That means a lot. Tell listeners what this book is about. Then I want to know, why this book? Particularly after the success of your last book and how that all happened and all of that.

Saumya: What a Happy Family follows all of the members of the Joshi family. They’re a South Asian family who live in the suburbs of Atlanta. All of them are going through different things in their lives. The book follows each character as they’re navigating their own battles and really asks the question, how do families hurt us, and how can they also heal us? I really wanted to talk about mental health, actually, in a family because I’m a psychiatrist. I write fiction. I struggled to find books that portrayed mental health through fiction. I thought, why not show through the lens of different family members and show that sometimes we might put the people we love most in certain roles? Instead of seeing them for who they are holistically, we put them back in those places and as those roles that we grew up seeing them as. That can make it hard for us to empathize and to really understand and connect as they grow and evolve. I wrote this book after my debut, Well-Behaved Indian Women, came out in July of 2020. Fun time for a book to come out. I’m sure everyone listening knows about that.

At that time, my husband, my baby, and I were living in Atlanta. We were living in New York. Then we moved to Atlanta for what we thought was going to be a few months. Then that turned into fifteen months. We found ourselves going from our apartment in New York City to this house with multiple generations. We had my grandparents in their nineties and then my son who was about seven months old when my debut came out. It was then that I realized that, wow, when family comes together, there’s such a tendency to go back into those roles that you may have played growing up no matter how old you are. There was this moment where I was in my childhood bedroom. The white noise machine was on to keep my son asleep in his little Snoo bassinet, which, for anyone listening, is a smart bassinet that’s supposed to put the baby to sleep on its own. I was reading through old journals from middle school. Downstairs, my mom was telling me what to eat. She was yelling from downstairs about what to eat. I thought, how old am I? Am I all of these selves. I am in my mid-thirties. I’m twelve. I’m sixteen. It’s so layered. It’s so complicated.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I know, there is something about when I walk in the room to my family home. You just lose any maturity, any skills, emotional tools for coping. It all just goes back. I’m like, what’s in the fridge?

Saumya: That’s so true. Then the food is such a big part of it, so that’s so true. What is in the fridge?

Zibby: Right? Then I’m like, you don’t have any food in here.

Saumya: I’m not prepared.

Zibby: Yeah. I didn’t know, or whatever. They always have ice cream sandwiches for the kids as long as there’s some bribery involved.

Saumya: Yes, that’s the key, I’ve learned, with my own one son. Bribery really works, especially with ice cream in the mix. I hear that.

Zibby: As a psychiatrist, were you practicing for those fifteen months? How did you end up writing this book and keeping your job and doing all of that? Did you take from any particular patients, or was this just an overall reflection?

Saumya: It was more of an overall reflection. The timing worked out such that I gave birth in December of 2019. I had graduated from my residency. I trained at Mount Sinai. I was finished in June of 2019. I had this six-month window between when I was done with residency and when I was giving birth. I also took my medical boards in the middle of that. My plan was to get an office space here in New York and start seeing patients in my own private practice when my son was about three months old. Of course, as we all know, March of 2020 is when things changed in so many different ways. I started seeing people virtually part time a few months after that. I’d say a little bit after my debut came out, I started seeing people virtually. I still do that part time. It was at that time that I also then started writing this book. It was a mix of a lot of different things going on. I imagine that was the case for so many people everywhere. I really learned about what it was like to work in different conditions, what it was like to switch tasks from one thing to another to another. I found a lot of things from my training coming back to me in a way that I relished.

I learned a lot about family therapy during my training. We actually had family therapy cases. It was in those cases that I learned how powerful it is to actually sit in a room with people you may know very, very well, but you may not sit within that context. I put together that, even with my own family in recent times when I’d go back to Atlanta to visit, we would be on our screens. We would sit in a room, but we would be on our screens. One person would be doing one thing, another person doing another thing. There were no moments where we’re all just sitting and staring at each other in a circle. That’s not normally a natural thing one does. Having to put these characters in situations like that that I had learned about and seen in my own training was a really fun and interesting exploration of what happens to people when they feel more vulnerable and exposed. I had heard from a lot of readers who did move back in with family, things were jarring for them because of that and how that brought up a lot of their own dynamics. I think family just always creates such a rich foundation for any story, really.

Zibby: Yes. There’s no lack of material. By the way, I’m on the board of Mount Sinai. I’ve been involved there forever. My mom was on the board. She started all these things for them, and the whole renovation of the pavilion. It’s been a lifelong accompaniment for me. I remember when the medical school started.

Saumya: Wow, that’s amazing.

Zibby: Maybe we’ll pass in the halls if you’re ever over there again. Not that I’m there that often. I don’t even know why I said that. It must be hard to see patients virtually and build up a practice. Not that this is even remotely related, but I was just thinking of — not that you can’t migrate successfully, but to build up something new, it’s so hard to do.

Saumya: Yes, absolutely. I feel very fortunate that I’m in a field where a lot of it is based on communication and not equipment. So many other fields in medicine, there’s a physical exam. There are different things in a room someone needs. I do think that’s been really hard for providers who have to have that in consideration. I haven’t had to have that, but I really do miss seeing people in person. Especially for therapy, I love looking at body language. I love seeing someone getting really comfortable with something we’re talking about, or uncomfortable. Reading those ques and being able to connect in that way I think is very hard to do across a screen. I’m excited for the time, hopefully soon, where I get an office space and start seeing people in person.

Zibby: Sometimes I wonder, maybe I should schedule a Zoom with one of my family members. Let’s do thirty minutes. I’ll sit here and give you my undivided attention. You don’t do that for the people closest to you.

Saumya: Oh, my gosh, I love that. That should be posted somewhere because I think we all need that reminder. I’d never even thought of that. You’re right. We don’t make that space. I think we just assume that space will come, but we do make it for other people.

Zibby: We make it for total strangers. I just met you.

Saumya: Exactly. You’re so right, though. That’s such a good point.

Zibby: All right, you can post it. You post it.

Saumya: I love it. It’s your quote, so I’ll quote you.

Zibby: Okay, great. What I really loved about this book is that, first of all, you immediately get the reader hooked on the way you write and talk. Your voice in writing is approachable, not super literary and inaccessible, and yet it doesn’t poke too much fun. It’s a light sense of humor without it being over the top. I feel like sometimes in other — this is a massive generalization. When someone’s trying to depict what’s specific about their culture, like if I were to make fun of my family’s Passover meal or something, it becomes like caricatures. There’s not as much depth sometimes when I think about it. Yet you seem to have paired the light humor with the depth at the same time without making it too focused on every single sentence. Do you know what I’m saying?

Saumya: Thank you. That means a lot.

Zibby: Tell me about how you learned to write this way and if this has been something you’ve always loved to do. Where did this come from?

Saumya: I’m very fortunate to have been surrounded by really wonderful people since I’ve been growing up. My mom has just the most vivacious personality ever. I eavesdropped a lot as kid and adult. I’ve been an eavesdropper forever. I’m the oldest of three just like Suhani is and always felt like I didn’t know exactly where I fit in, especially growing up. I would listen to people. I would observe. That, a lot of times, ended up being my mom, even though she wasn’t happy about that, when she was on the phone and when she was with friends in person. What I found was that when a lot of these women in my community got together, they oscillated from topic to topic with ease. One second, they’d be talking about their mothers-in-law. Then the next second, they’d be talking about a dish one of them looked up and got a recipe for. The next second, especially more recently, they talk about something from social media. Then they talk about something that happened in India generations ago. I just found that so fascinating because I thought it reflected the complexities of people and how they interact with their peers and all the things that come up.

I struggle to find that in books, those points where we go from one thing to another to another. At the beginning of the book, there’s a part that actually was directly inspired from reality — my mom knew it right away — where Bina, the mom in the book, she’s talking to Natasha, her daughter. She’s kind of paying attention, kind of not. Her friend Anita is there as well. Natasha says, “What are you actually looking at?” Their gaze is darting from Natasha to their phone. They turn around the phone, and it’s just this close-up of Priyanka Chopra on Instagram. That happened with my mom. I was trying to talk to her while we were living at home. She kind of was looking from everywhere. I said, “What are you actually doing?” Her phone was kind of down on the side. She turned it around. It was literally a selfie of Priyanka. I said, “What are you doing?” She said, “I can’t help it. I wanted to look at it.” I thought, these women are just so funny. They have so much complexity. They have so many really fun dynamics. I wanted to show that in a story. What would it be like to be in the world I grew up in for a little bit?

Zibby: That’s awesome. Tell me more about how you inserted the mental health angle and what your commentary on it is.

Saumya: What I found is that there can be a lot of stigma surrounding just the discussion of mental health in general. A lot of that stigma relates to shame. One thing I learned in my training is that whatever brings shame tends to also bring silence with it. People tend to stay very quiet. They tend to hold in their shame, which we all know is very heavy. It tends to grow with time. I wanted to show how each member of this family is keeping things from each other and also maybe even from themselves. Maybe there are things that they’re in denial of that are hindering them in some way in their own lives, in their own growth, in their own ability to connect with people. With each character, I plotted through, what makes sense for this person to struggle with? What makes sense for this person to need in order to grow and become a better version of themselves, a more empathetic version of themselves? My hope really was that anyone who struggles at all in whatever form, whether it’s through mental illness or whether it’s through just accepting themselves and giving themselves some self-compassion along the way, saw one character and thought, okay, I’m allowed to do this for myself too. I’m allowed to take that time for myself and take that space for myself.

Zibby: You’ve dedicated your career to psychiatry. You’ve now written this book with all of this woven in. Is there anything aside from the amazing amalgam of the cast of characters around which you orbited that — what do you think it is about psychiatry? What is it about analyzing mental health? Did something happen to a friend of yours? Was there something where all of a sudden you knew you wanted to do it? Were you just in med school and you were like, this sounds interesting?

Saumya: You know, a little bit of everything you said. Growing up, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment. First, in a basement apartment, actually, a family friend’s basement when my parents and I moved to the United States. I didn’t have any social interactions at first. My dad was actually studying for his medical boards. He had to get recertified from moving from India. My mom worked at different stores. She worked double shifts. I always wanted company before I had my siblings. I found that in books. A lot of the books I loved — the Baby-Sitter’s Club series comes to mind right away, especially, actually, the Karen books. That first series of Karen books, I loved those so much. I loved how they gave me an insight into how other people lived and how they thought and how they dreamt and how they connected. I felt I was getting this special access into this world that wasn’t mine. It was actually that, just being so fascinated by why people are the way they are that made me always read. Then it was that that also eventually drew me to psychiatry. I just didn’t know that there were fields where people could then do these things for a living. It’s so interesting because when you think about yourself as a kid, you might have certain interests, but you may not always know they can lead to a career or some kind of pursuit. They might just seem like this is what you like to do, and this is what you don’t like to do. It felt kind of magical to learn growing up then that, oh, there are people who work in fields that actually do this full time. They explore this in-depth. They dedicate their lives to it. I love that. I think that both of those careers really stem from the same curiosity.

Zibby: I share that curiosity with you. I feel the same way about books. I was very shy. I also was such an observer of people, always wondering. That sounds creepy now that I say it like that. I was spying on everybody. I do think there’s something that psychology, psychiatry — when I went to college and I realized psychology was a thing that I could take all my classes, I was like, this is the coolest thing ever. This doesn’t even feel like school. I was going to maybe be a psychologist, but then my life went a different direction. That’s my dream other job.

Saumya: I was going to say, I could see you doing that. I imagine, especially with hosting podcasts, you’re asking people questions and digging into things, so there’s a lot of overlap.

Zibby: Yeah, I just get the one session.

Saumya: Exactly, then the next person.

Zibby: One and done. You get thirty minutes. I’m going to fix you up and boot you out on your way.

Saumya: The most efficient kind there is.

Zibby: It’s funny, though, my daughter — maybe I shouldn’t share this story. They have this feelings time that’s required in their school. She’s in second grade. You have to pick a feeling out of a bag. They call it talk time. My daughter, just yesterday, was like, “You know, everybody else always complains about talk time. I really love talk time, but I don’t want to say it because everyone’s like, ugh, talk time.” I’m like, “No, no, no, see, that’s what you have to be on the lookout for, is the things that everybody else doesn’t like and you inherently love because that means you have something that draws you to that. You’re going to be great at that. That’s what I love too. I love talk time. That’s all I do all day.”

Saumya: That’s amazing. To add to that, hearing that as a kid I think goes such a long way. When someone tells you, hey, what you love is telling you something about yourself and it’s worth putting that time into, is such a great thing. Also, talk time sounds great. I wish I had that in elementary school. That’s really nice to hear that that’s what’s happening in school.

Zibby: Yes. Talk time versus history, I’ll take talk time.

Saumya: Seriously. I’ll take that any day.

Zibby: Biology? Are you working on any other books now?

Saumya: I am. I’m working on my third book. It is about a woman who is a founder of a startup. She’s also a new mom. It’s really about how she actually navigates both areas. Because of her position as this female founder with a company that’s doing really, really well in New York City, she’s gotten a little bit of Instagram fame. She turns into this type of mom influencer, but unintentionally, actually. The book really follows how the world treats the women who go after everything they want. That’s the central question in the book. What do we do to the women who really go after everything they want?

Zibby: Very interesting. I’ve found that the more I post on Instagram, it makes people — you know how people usually are very guarded when you meet them? It takes a while. I feel like the main thing that Instagram has done, at least for me, and not that I’m a famous mom influencer by any stretch, but it just cuts all that out and immediately creates this place of warmth, which is so great. We get to just skip it all. There’s this trust.

Saumya: Totally. I also think the things you post about, and then with the perspective of moms not having time to do certain things and all of that, that’s really relatable. I don’t think we see enough of that. I do think that that resonates because it’s not this picture-perfect thing where nothing’s ever wrong and we’re not dealing with nuances and different complexities of daily life. I think you’re right. That does create a lot of warmth. I’m sure people feel like they know you before they meet you in person.

Zibby: I mean, they really do. I don’t know them. Anyway, for your character, you can infuse some of that. There are a lot of benefits, I think.

Saumya: There are. I’m a big fan of finding the benefits of Instagram. One thing I do in therapy sessions, actually, is if somebody’s struggling with social media, we do an inventory of their feed.

Zibby: That’s interesting, oh, my gosh.

Saumya: I have them go through their feed and then just tell me how they’re feeling after a minute of scrolling and if they’re engaged in the scrolling, if it’s mindless, if it’s inspiring, if it’s draining. I have a list. Then depending on what comes up on the list, we then actually mute and unfollow and then add accounts to curate the feed so it feels like a more enjoyable experience.

Zibby: I was thinking you were analyzing their feed and what it says about them. You do that too?

Saumya: Sometimes. I will if it comes up and they ask me to. Otherwise, I won’t really bring it into the appointment. It just kind of depends. If they’re saying that it’s a place where they want to be but they’re struggling with how to be there, then I’ll do the curation piece of it. A lot of people have really wanted to stay on, especially with the pandemic because that was their way of connecting with others. Then some have also wanted to just completely delete the app either for short periods of time or for longer periods. Depending on where they’re at, that might change.

Zibby: That’s a really interesting niche to market yourself in, by the way.

Saumya: The social media therapist.

Zibby: No, seriously, it’s a crisis. All parents are like, what should we do? Especially of teen girls and everything. If you become the expert on “I’ll help your daughter” or whatever, people would be like, get over here.

Saumya: I started doing news segments on NBC News recently in the last few months. One of them was about the new TikTok mental health guidelines that actually came out because of the concern with teenage girls. That is so true. It’s a lot. There’s a lot there.

Zibby: Awesome. That sounds like a great new novel. I feel like some of these have movie potential. Have there been bites, or not yet?

Saumya: There have, which I’m hoping to be able to announce soon. There have been bites which I’m very excited about. I’m very grateful. Growing up as someone who loved Sweet Valley High and Baby-Sitter’s Club and always will, always will love those books, it’s really fun to see more books out in the world that just reflect a broader range of experiences. I’m excited to continue seeing that.

Zibby: I feel like you’re going to end up with a middle-grade, YA-type book at some point.

Saumya: That would be really fun. There are some really great middle-grade, YA authors out there whom I’m lucky to be friends with and I’m very inspired by. That would be really fun to join that group too because I think that’s such an interesting time in anyone’s life. Anytime I ask anybody about middle school, they have so much to say. I get why.

Zibby: I try to explain that to my kids. If you can just get through this, you’ll be all good. It’s all good.

Saumya: It’s true. I should have had that as a note on my wall, actually, in middle school. If you can get through this, you’re going to get through anything. You’re going to be fine.

Zibby: It’s true. You’re all good. Maybe I’ll start making some notebooks or something. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Saumya: Sure, a couple things. I recommend reading as much as possible, and even reading things that you don’t enjoy because there’s a lot to learn from things that we don’t like. I didn’t realize that until much later in my life. When we pick things apart and we dissect them, we see what works and what doesn’t work, what resonates with us, and maybe what doesn’t. The second part, which I think is maybe a little bit more doable now with social media, I hope it is, is to find some sort of writing community because it can be a very solitary pursuit. Sometimes the milestones are a little bit hazy. We deserve to give ourselves credit for writing that one sentence or that one page or one chapter, whatever it is. Having that community can go such a long way. I know in November, there’s a community for writing a novel in the month. Even online on Instagram and Twitter, there’s just so many people out there sharing their writing goals and their progress. I would just encourage that, to find that space.

Zibby: I’ve interviewed a few authors who wrote their novel during that month, NiNo — whatever. I don’t know.

Saumya: NaNoWriMo, I think.

Zibby: Yeah, NaNoWriMo. That month. It works. Oh, I meant to ask you about your nonprofit. Tell me about this nonprofit that you are involved in and everything.

Saumya: My husband and I cofounded a nonprofit called thisisforHER. We actually started it when I was in residency. We first made a trip during one of my first vacation blocks my second year of residency. We went to Kampala, Uganda. When I was in medical school and an intern, I had been in touch with a lot of nonprofits doing a variety of work in the women and girls empowerment space. I’d wanted to visit them all in person, and so we organized a trip. He and I went. It was so interesting because — we didn’t see this coming — all of the heads of the organizations asked me, “Do you have a guide that just explains emotions in a basic way that we can give to our participants? We don’t talk about that openly enough. We need a guide that’s done by maybe a mental health provider.” I said, “I’m sure there’s something. Let me get back to my training program and then get back to you.” I went back, and there was nothing. I couldn’t find anything. I couldn’t believe it, that there wasn’t a simple, maybe two-to-four-page guide that said, this is what depression looks like, this is what anxiety looks like, this is what general resilience means, and all of those things.

I created the guide. Then we went back the following year. We met with those organizations again. In that time, I also learned that in a lot of places around the world, it’s really hard to directly talk about mental health and say, hey, we’re going to sit in a circle and talk about mental health. What can make it a little bit less overwhelming is integrating other exercises into it. I designed a series of art therapy exercises. When we went back the following year, we revisited all of those organizations. We did workshops with every single one. Then we left the materials with them. Then we continued to just basically check in with the leaders and do virtual sessions to make sure that they’re able to continue on with those workshops and keep that conversation going. Our goal is really to just keep partnering with organizations already doing incredible work and help them add some mental health education into their work.

Zibby: I want you to do a workshop. I’m sorry, this is not even the career that you’re — . Here I am talking about your books. I’m like, this is what you should do. I want you to do workshops because I want you to talk to my daughters and their friends or come into the schools and share all of that from someone who’s in it.

Saumya: I would love to. I’d be honored to do that. One of our favorite ones that we do, actually, is with a group of girls in middle school age. It’s called Draw Your Mind. You can just draw a circle on a piece of paper and divide it into quadrants and actually put down everything that’s on your mind and then discuss it in the group. It’s a really, really powerful way to hear what everybody else is carrying too and to make sense of what you might be carrying.

Zibby: I love that. Amazing. I’ll get your email.

Saumya: Anytime. I’m here for you, Zibby.

Zibby: How can you help me? I’m kidding. Thank you so much. Congratulations on What a Happy Family. Congratulations on all of your success in all of your endeavors. I hope to meet you soon, perhaps tonight.

Saumya: Thank you so much. Congratulations to you on everything. Good luck.

Zibby: Thank you.



Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts