Zibby speaks to USA Today bestselling author and repeat MDHTTRB guest Sonali Dev about The Vibrant Years, a sparkling new novel about three generations of Indian American women navigating dating apps, secrets, and ambition. Sonali describes her wonderful publishing experience as the inaugural pick for Mindy’s Book Studio (Mindy Kaling’s innovative new imprint!), and the two talk about the book’s most memorable elements–its humor, dynamic female characters, immigration narratives, and the myth of fraught mother-in-law relationships. Finally, she teases her next project!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sonali. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” again to discuss The Vibrant Years, your latest novel. Congratulations.

Sonali Dev: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. It’s always such a joy to speak with you. I can’t wait.

Zibby: Yay! First of all, The Vibrant Years is a Mindy’s Book Studio inaugural pick. Tell us about Mindy Kaling’s Mindy’s Book Studio, how it ended up at Amazon. Give me the whole rundown and what happened when you got picked and what that was like, so the whole backstory.

Sonali: Oh, my gosh, that’s going to be all of our thirty minutes.

Zibby: That’s fine.

Sonali: For me personally, the first thing to put out there is that I would’ve been thrilled to have any celebrity because that’s your reach, what you want. The only thing an author wants, and certainly, the thing I want, is more people to read my work. That’s all I want. I just want millions and millions of people to read my work. Right now, one of the best ways, most effective ways for that to happen is to have a celebrity get behind you, somebody who has a really big megaphone getting behind you. The fact that it was Mindy, it’s impossible to explain how special that is and how meaningful because for more than twenty years now, she has been one of the most impressive writers to me. What she’s able to do with humor mixed in with vulnerability and a very human place — her humor comes from a place where we literally open ourselves up to exactly who we are all the way on the inside. I think this is all the way from The Office. My children are obsessed with The Office, like everybody else’s teenagers and young adults. That and the movement she has made — all of us who are authors of color and haven’t had space on the shelves, who’ve been told our voices aren’t what everybody wants, she is someone who has actually moved that. She is someone who has changed the landscape for all of us. She’s a very special figure for me, what I’ve looked to.

The pandemic, for me, was something I survived so healthfully because of humor. I sought it out. Whether it was stories or TV or movies, that’s what I sought out. That’s what had me going to bed smiling at a time when that was hard to do. When I came out of the pandemic with my own writing, I knew that was going to be one change I was going to make. I was going to make the effort to make people laugh while still telling the kind of stories I want to tell. Making people laugh was such a healing thing. I wanted to do it. I took a lot of Mindy’s work and analyzed it and, in terms of craft, really got into it. Having said all of that, when I wrote The Vibrant Years, I just wrote The Vibrant Years as this story I wanted to tell, everything I’ve ever wanted to say about being a woman. It’s one of those preparation meets opportunity things because Mindy was out there trying to, again, use her platform to get marginalized voices or voices that haven’t had a megaphone out to people. That was entirely serendipitous. The way I found out, the funny story is that my editor at Lake Union at Amazon emails me on a Thursday and says, “Sonali, I have really great news for you. Can we meet on Monday?” I said, “What?” I’m like, “It’s Thursday. Give me something.” She said, “All I’ll give you is that you’re not going to be upset with me on Monday for making you wait.” It was the most restless, excited weekend of my life.

Zibby: Wait, why couldn’t she tell you on Thursday?

Sonali: I think it was the day of announcement. That was the day that they could announce it. They wanted to announce it with Mindy’s entire team on the phone call.

Zibby: I see.

Sonali: It was the only time in my life, for an entire hour, that I was speechless, that phone call. I was like, I can make words, but right now, I just need to be silent. The words were completely delighted and shocked out of me. I talked a lot on subsequent calls, but I was completely silent. I was just shocked out of my mind and so thrilled. It’s been great.

Zibby: Wow. Do you actually work with her? Have you gotten to know her?

Sonali: I have met her and hugged her. Probably, don’t shower after that . I’ve gotten to meet her. I have very strong opinions that are very inspirational about how she conducts herself and uses the space she has. It’s her team that I have mostly worked with. This is the most taken care of I have ever felt after almost a decade in publishing. This is my nineth full novel and my eleventh book. It’s been an absolute dream. I mean that with one hundred percent honesty.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Is calling it the studio — then I want to talk about this actual book. Does this mean that your book in particular, but all books, is the plan for them to all become screen adaptations? Is this like a Hello Sunshine model?

Sonali: I think that that is the vision. I think that the stories are cinematic. I have read the one that comes after mine. It is absolutely brilliant. It’s by Lauren Thoman. It’s called I’ll Stop the World. I’m not just saying that again because it is Mindy’s Book Studio. It is this genre-leaping, time travel, eighties nostalgia kind of book. One of the things, of course, is to get voices that aren’t — to give them a megaphone. Also, cinematic, large stories that leap off the page and would make good screen adaptations is certainly one part of her vision.

Zibby: Now The Vibrant Years. Tell listeners what The Vibrant Years is about, please.

Sonali: It’s a story of three generations of women in Florida. For me, one of the things was, I like to say this is everything I’ve ever wanted to say about being a woman. Bindu is how I feel we are — the sixty-five-year-olds I’ve seen, I always felt like what I’ve seen in the media and in fiction, women after a certain age have been turned into tropes. They’re either, the body’s sexy, for humor, comedic relief, grandmother, or then this fount of wisdom, which feels like you’re half a person. You don’t stop being a full person as you age. Your desire doesn’t go away. Your need for growth doesn’t go away, all of that. The grandmother is a hot, sexy, very fun grandmother who has just moved into a posh retirement community because she inherited a million dollars. The money is related to something shameful from her past that completely changed the trajectory of her life. Her daughter-in-law, who is divorced from her son — she has chosen to live with her daughter-in-law after the divorce. There is Aly, who is trying to make it in broadcast journalism in television in Florida and come up against all sorts of glass ceilings as a brown woman. Then there’s Cullie, who’s this genius coder. She’s always suffered from anxiety. At the age of sixteen, she writes an app to help herself.

The app becomes a big thing. Right now, millions of people use it to deal with their own anxiety on a day-to-day basis. Those people are going to lose that app because the company that she sold it to wants to slap a subscription fee on it. To save her app, she pitches this half-assed idea of a dating app that’s based on self-discovery, which comes from this conversation she has with her grandmother. Of course, they lap it up. Problem is, she’s never dated in her life. Now she has to come up with this app. What better way to research existing dating apps than to have your widowed grandmother and your divorced mom research them with you? It’s these three generations of women on the modern dating scene. I think it’s a metaphor for how far women have come because how we choose — how our grandmothers chose their life partners and how our daughters are choosing them, if that’s not a paradigm shift and if that is not a snapshot for how far we’ve now come in terms of choices, I don’t know what it is. I had a lot of fun with it.

Zibby: I know. I think about my grandmother and how she ended up with my grandfather. He actively pursued her even though she wasn’t really that into it. She was like, eh, I don’t know. I guess he had asked her to go on some trip with him or something, or she had to go on a trip. She didn’t want to go with him. He was upset. Anyway, when she got home, he was sitting in her living room with her parents and was like, “Look, it’s Mom and Dad.” She’s like, what? Oh, well, might as well. That lasted thirty years or something. It’s just so funny. I think about my daughter. It’s just crazy, crazy, crazy.

Sonali: It’s universes apart. My grandparents met in med school in colonial India. They were from the same part of India, all of that, but different sub-sub-castes. They had to elope. They had to run away. My great-grandfather got after my grandfather with a gun for ruining the family’s honor. It was this whole drama. Yes, completely different time. Just even in terms of what women look for and how they look for it, it’s the best metaphor for how we live our lives now and how different it is.

Zibby: I know. All this customization, does it actually work better? I don’t know. That’s the big question with everything.

Sonali: So much access. It’s a swipe. When the choices are infinite, you’re still the one making the choice. The pressure of that is a whole different thing.

Zibby: It’s true. You’re so funny, the way you write about everything. I know you said you love Mindy’s humor. I feel like your own sense of humor is so great, especially the way you have entering the vibrant years. You’re so funny too. You’re like, why would you call it Shady Palms? Palms don’t even give you any shade. What is up with that? Also, how even as a woman going into a retirement community, there is still that middle-school anxiety about friend groups and cliques. All those women, they only want to talk to my friend. They don’t want to talk to me. It doesn’t go away. None of the things go away.

Sonali: They really don’t. I think that there’s another whole layer that’s added to it by immigration, for one, because you’re literally leaving your comfort zone to go into this new place. I have opinions about immigrant narratives. I think that there is a difference between — my brother and I, we’re just two of us. I always say he’s a tree, and I’m a nomad. There’s an essential difference between a person who cannot or does not want to be outside of where they’re planted and a person whose eyes are on what’s outside. What more is there? There is this inherent sense of adventure that has to go with immigration, whether it comes from a place of being a refugee or just migrating for opportunity or whatever. To leave your home and go to another place and make that your home, you just have to have a certain base DNA that is different. Having said that, the sense of being an outsider is a whole different level. That is a big difference between first generation and the immigrant itself. I have that life experience where I have children that are born and raised here. This is the only home they’ve known. I came here when I was a grown adult.

There’s a lot of nuance that goes into my books because I’m continuously exploring what that means in terms of the human journey. For Bindu, I think that so many things that were absolutely not a possibility in the way that she was raised — again, I think this is universal. What women were told about themselves back then and what is possible for us now is entirely different. We carry all that baggage into this. In the end, it becomes about us laying down our conditioning because the world is no longer telling us to hold it, but it’s still armor that we’ve grown and nurtured for so long. For her also, that idea that suddenly, there this whole world and there’s this whole culture that she has not gotten to be a part of, her question is, why? When she was very young, she was this fearless person who completely owned her body and owned herself. It was beaten out of her by circumstance as a very young person. She put that little piece of herself away and then did the best she could. Now here she is, and she’s like, the best I could is not all I can do.

I always think of it as standing outside a window with your nose pressed against the glass. That sense is such a part of my life. I think everybody has this, even a child. The middle-school thing, when you enter a room, you’re entering it with this ball of ice in your stomach about how you’re going to be seen, what that means. You’re so conscious. I used to have to chant to myself. There’s no spotlight. There’s no spotlight. got over it. I think that that’s multiplied so many times over when you’re the only brown person entering a room. That inner invisibleness, that is really hard to explain. So much of that is her. She’s like, I’m not invisible. That experience is so much part of that. It’s hilarious because it’s almost like stomping your foot and saying, I’m not invisible.

Zibby: Wow. The juxtaposition, though, of not wanting to be invisible but also not wanting a spotlight on you, it’s that happy medium. It was so funny, I used to be so shy about going to things like entering new friend group situations when I was younger and everything. My mother would encourage me on in sixth grade and say, “Zibby, just be yourself.” I was like, who is that? What on earth? I don’t know. I’m twelve years old. Leave me alone. I think it takes until you’re much older to realize, really, nobody was paying attention to you back then at all. Everybody was just thinking about themselves and how to get through the situation.

Sonali: Everybody was sweating it themselves. What a gift to have those mothers. My mom was like that. She would literally push me into situations, whether it was friend groups, whether we were traveling. The adolescent shyness, I don’t want to go ask the museum guy something. He’s going to think I’m an idiot. She would make me do those things. She would push me. I used to hate it, but what a gift now when I look back at it. Another thing for me with this book and basically, just our own relationships with art, previous generations, I think is that sense of standing on their shoulders where they literally pushed us to have things that were not available to them. When I think of what that took, none of us would be where we are. The world would not be what it is if these women hadn’t had that level of generosity where they saw, this is the world today. I get only this, but my daughter will get more. She will be more. Then my granddaughter will be more. To me, that is incredibly important. To really give that form in fiction, I’d say it’s one of my most important missions, without sounding terribly self-important.

Zibby: I thought, also, it was so interesting, this relationship between the daughter-in-law and the mother-in-law, which can be an, often, completely fraught relationship, and then what happens after the fact and the fact that not only are they in touch, but living together for a while in the beginning. Traditionally, it’s always such a terrible relationship. I feel like everyone’s always picking it apart, but it can be so amazing. Talk about that.

Sonali: Again, we’re told so many lies right from the day we’re born. We are told so many lies about how we should look, who we need to be for everybody, how other women are going to treat us. These are things we’re literally told. Even before we meet the person we’re going to spend the rest of our lives with, we’ve been told, you’re going to hate your mother-in-law because she’s going to be in competition with you. We’re just told that. There is so much history for why that is. It’s not always untrue, but there’s so much history. It is the fact that traditionally, women were given only the domestic space to succeed, and so of course, there was a power struggle just the way at the office, men have that power struggle. When they go through it, it’s just called work. They’re praised for fighting that fight and finding their footing. In the domestic space, we are laughed at. Look at you women. You bicker. Look at you women in this power struggle. That’s literally our entire identity, generationally, in the past. This thing was literally set up. We were set up. I always feel like my mother-in-law and I are as different — being from the same culture, we’re culturally as different as two women can be. She’s basically never left a one-mile radius from the day she was born to the time that she was seventy. She sleeps in a sari. Her world has been very contained because of circumstance.

Yet here I am, this daughter-in-law who is outside of her comfort zone in every possible way. The only thing I’ve ever gotten from her is acceptance and love and encouragement and this sense that, you can do this, so why would you not? It is so beautiful. It’s not just my mother-in-law. They’re a joined family, so I have three — my father-in-law and his brothers. All of these women, exactly like that. I literally feel this push from behind me that’s also support. Anyone who tells me that that’s not possible, it’s my life. My mom has the same relationship with her daughter-in-law, with my sister-in-law. My mom had the same kind of relationship with her mother-in-law. We’re being lied to. I have that in my mom. That whole “you annoy me” thing is natural. My daughter feels that way about me. I feel that way about my mom. To translate that into, “Oh, you women always hate your mothers-in-law. This is power struggle over the man,” I’m like, really? This prince is who we’re all fighting over? That’s what you want us to believe, that we don’t have the brains to know ourselves and we’re fighting over this man who is our gift? So much of Aly and Bindu was that. They both treat each other with such care. They both have taken the time to develop their relationship outside of the son. He has to deal with that. The patriarchy and this whole structure of society harms men just as much. There’s a lot of that in this book where there’s so much he wants to do and cannot do because being the breadwinner is his entire identity, which comes from the same place. That was something, again, I had so much fun playing with.

Zibby: Amazing. When we were chatting before, you said you have been hard at work on your next novel. Tell me about that.

Sonali: Oh, boy. The Vibrant Years is the first time I’ve written out-and-out comedy because, of course, writing app dates, you can’t come up with anything more bizarre in fiction than happens in real life. This one is getting a little bit more somber. It’s a story of a best friendship, these girls who had a friendship where they thought they were each other’s soulmates since they were twelve years old. They get into a surrogacy arrangement because one of them’s unable to carry a baby. Their friendship breaks up over it twenty-seven years ago. Now the daughter is twenty-seven. She has gone missing. It’s this coming back together of this great love of their lives that they lost over motherhood and this deal that they made.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that sounds amazing. What else? You’re managing all these eight million things. Is it mostly writing and marketing of the book? Any other projects down the line?

Sonali: As of now, I think it is this. Like I said when we first started talking, I’m very intense. I’m a feast-and-famine writer. I had the best time with The Vibrant Years. I have had some amazing experiences. Got to be on The Drew Barrymore Show, on GMA. In terms of stories I will tell my grandchildren, it has been so great. I did that. Then my edits have come in. These three weeks, I’m completely lost to it. I complain about how immersive it is, how I don’t even have time to take a shower, but I think it’s one of my favorite things about my life, that I get to do that, that I get to completely lose myself. I don’t need to be human in my life outside of that. I’m just, right now, having so much, so much fun with that. Come the next year, I have an idea, and it’s onto the next one. Thus far, been really blessed that a story is usually knocking at my conscience long before I start writing it. I hope that never changes. That would be my one wish. It’s just this. Onto the next book. I have a twenty-one-year-old and a twenty-three-year-old. I’m here to tell you, Zibby Owens, that that does not mean that they stop needing you, the crises stop. I’m a very, very filtered down, focused person. It’s my writing. It’s my children and the family. Really, everything else, if it’s there, it’s there. If it’s not there, it’s not there. I’m able to really make myself that tiny.

Zibby: I love it. Yes, I’ve heard that about kids. I think it would be sad if all of a sudden, the communication stopped. I’m prepared. I’m prepared for it to not stop. I love that. Sonali, I am so excited for you. I’ve been watching as this whole ride has happened and all these great things that have gone on with this book and everything. My heart’s been swelling for you. I’m just so excited.

Sonali: Thank you so much. Same. You are a mile a minute, the amount you do and everything you do for writers. You’re publishing now. I am so excited to follow along. Thank you so much for all you do.

Zibby: Of course. Take care.

Sonali: Bye.

Zibby: Bye, Sonali.


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