Zibby Owens: Sonali Dev is the author of Recipe for Persuasion as well as several other books. She is a USA Today best-selling author who writes Bollywood-style love stories that let her explore issues faced by women around the world while still indulging her faith in a happily ever after. Her novels have been on Library Journal, NPR, Washington Post, Kirkus Best Book of the Year list, and she’s won the American Library Association’s Award for Best Romance, the RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Contemporary Romance, multiple RT Seals of Excellence, and is a RITA Finalist. She’s been listed for the Dublin Literary Award. Shelf Awareness calls her “not only one of the best, but one of the bravest romance novelists working today.” She lives in Chicagoland with her very patient and often-amused husband and two teens who demand both patience and humor, plus the world’s most perfect dog.

Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to talk about your latest book.

Sonali Dev: Yay, thank you for having me. This is very exciting.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. You are a Bollywood, passionate — you’re just obsessed with the Bollywood theme. Tell me about how you started writing about all of it. Just tell me everything. Tell me about Recipe for Persuasion and everything.

Sonali: Great, my favorite thing to talk about. I grew up in India. I moved here many, many, many years ago, but I grew up in India and basically was raised watching Bollywood and Hollywood both. There’s this concept that we have in India about being film-y, which means basically treating your real life like it’s a film or a movie. It fits the Indian state of mind very well because it essentially means being very dramatic and, as my kids say, extra. Bollywood films definitely are very much woven into who I am as a person, but not only in terms of being dramatic. I think that it’s really a way of looking at the world or dealing with relationships. It’s where the emotional lens is just a little bit more aware and dialed up. I say a little bit, by which I mean very. Of course, I’m being facetious here. Bollywood films, over time, have been such a great way to trap the Indian psyche. They’re always community set. The families are always huge influences. No human stands alone in terms of being part of a community.

Stylistically, I think in terms of storytelling. I very much consider my style of storytelling a Bollywood style. By that, I don’t mean ridiculous. There is one kind of melodramatic, ridiculous component to it. What I mean is just seeing story through a lens of emotion and seeing story always through a lens of community and every character being individual, but their individuality being entirely wrapped up in family and community. That’s the impact it’s had on me, and then of course seeing your world as ridiculous, wanting to really feel things. I think a lot of people who watch Bollywood films, the most fun part of it is that you actually feel things. I don’t mean even that you’re forced to feel things, but you’re just in there. Even the musicality is just these songs bursting in your head when something terrible or something fabulous happens. It’s almost a way of processing stories and a way of processing life. For sure, my books are very much that.

As for Recipe for Persuasion, it is my homage to Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Of course, it stands completely alone. I use the term homage because it’s not a retelling, really. You won’t be able to find scenes that directly translate. It’s not Jane Austen’s Persuasion set in the Indian community. It’s its own story that pays homage to what I learned from that story as a young girl. That was that you can make mistakes and there’s always a second chance, that mistakes are not absolute, that hope is a real thing, which I don’t think until I read Austen I was seeing a whole lot of in classic literature. It’s my homage to what I learned as a little girl from her. As a story, it’s the story of this chef in Palo Alto who is trying to save her father’s fine dining Indian restaurant. For twelve years since her father died, she’s been trying to rescue this restaurant. As a last-ditch effort, she goes on a Food Network show called Cooking with the Stars. Of course, since it is Persuasion, the celebrity she gets stuck with is the man whose heart she broke back in high school. He believed it was under familial pressure. He’s back for closure. She needs her own closure with her issues with her family. All of that gets tangled up.

While it’s a love story between her and this man who’s gone on to become a World Cup-winning soccer player, it’s also a love story between her and her mother. It’s these two parallel stories of second chances that are entangled because who Ashna is and what she allows into her life has to do with these two relationships which have been almost the stone around her neck, so to speak. It’s a fun story, but it really also is a story that explores familial relationships and especially mother-daughter relationships when a mother is a woman who refuses to do what society expected of her. We are, as women, continuously taught that if we slip up, if we’re not good mothers, if we’re not good wives, then we destroy the family structure. We destroy our children’s lives. It actually happens because that’s the situation we’re put in by society. When a woman stands up and says, no, I’m going to put my own desires before everything else, then there’s collateral damage. Ashna, who’s the chef and our protagonist, is the collateral damage. It’s these two women navigating that distance.

Zibby: Wow. There’s a lot in there to discuss. You keep coming back to this idea of second chances. Is there a time in your life that you really wanted or needed a second chance? Does that come from something personal, or not?

Sonali: Growing up in India at that time, there was this sense of absolutes. One mistake could throw — at least, this is what we were told. I think it was a completely nonsense narrative. What we were told is that if you slip up, then your entire life is going to go off the rails. Say you get involved with the wrong man, your honor is gone forever. If you don’t get the right grades and get into the right college, then your career is gone forever. You do the right thing at the right time was this overarching motto that we were raised with. It was all around us. Somewhere in my heart, I knew that was not true. Books and stories which focused on reinforcing that, I gravitated towards. Yes, absolutely, I feel like the one truth in life is that there is always a second chance no matter how much it feels like there isn’t. That’s why we say things like everything happens for the best. It’s a stupid thing to say when really awful things happen, but it’s really not because something good is going to always come, maybe not from that one thing. You always have the ability to make something good happen again no matter how badly you mess up. So yes, it’s very personal.

Zibby: Sonali, when did you start writing? When did you know you wanted to be a novelist? Have you always loved to write? How did you embark on this part of the career and the business of writing?

Sonali: I always loved to write since I was a very little girl. In fact, there’s a story in my family where I was doing my math homework. This was back in kindergarten. Instead of doing my worksheets, I was writing couplets about the cover of the worksheet, the plus and minus signs. I was making up these little poems based on that. Instead of yelling at me for not doing my homework, my mom got on the phone with her sister and raved about how, “You should read these cute poems Sonali wrote,” which explains a lot. I think one of my oldest memories and a lot of my coping mechanisms as a child were always related to writing. I always kind of identified as a writer. Growing up, it wasn’t something that was deemed a career that you could use to feed yourself. It was very sensibly not deemed so because it is a hard career to use to feed yourself. It takes blood, sweat, and tears. Even then, it doesn’t happen for a lot of people. So that was wise. I went to architecture school. I have several degrees in things. I have worked as many things.

This was the overriding dream. I really got obsessed about it or it became a thing that I thought I really wanted to do after — This is the drama that I was talking to you about, the Bollywood-style drama. About ten years ago, I got TB. I was quarantined. It was for six weeks, ten weeks. I was basically stuck in the home for a very long time and feeling very sorry for myself. I had been trying to write. I had already gotten into the whole, I’m going to write a novel someday. I was trying to write a very complicated novel and really failing at it. It had become this big thing that I didn’t know how to do. Then when I got sick, a close friend said to me, “Why don’t you write something you love? Why don’t you write something you’d love to read?” I had this love story sitting in my head. It just poured right out of me. Those three months when I was stuck at home, I fell in love with the story and wrote it. From that point on, I became obsessed with publishing it. Of course, the publishing journey is a different beast from the writing journey. It took me a good two years to finish that novel, another two years to sell it. That’s basically where it started. Once you have created a world and a character and been part of that magic, I think it’s impossible to back away from it. That was how I felt.

Zibby: What advice do you have, then, to aspiring authors who don’t have TB and can’t dedicate themselves for — although, I feel like as a society now we have all been through, in part, the experience that must have been so unique to you and so awful and isolating at the time.

Sonali: Unfortunately, yes. Of course, when it becomes a community experience, it’s a whole different thing. Let’s talk about the writing advice. I do want to stop and say those three months were just the time I vomited that story out. It was not anywhere near ready for public consumption. It wasn’t like I got those three months, I wrote that story, and I was done. I did have, at the time, two children who were in elementary and middle school, a husband who traveled five days a week, a large extended family, so a very full life. If you love to do this thing, you have to start becoming very focused on what you’re willing to drop off your plate because you do have to. We’re not going to be quarantined forever, and none of us want to be. Time in isolation is never going to be handed to you. It is something that you have to choose and curate your life to make space for that. That’s the first thing.

Then one of my favorite quotes is if you can stop writing, you should. I do believe that the only reason anyone should really be doing this is — because it’s such a heart-wrenching and hard thing to do in the first place, if you’re doing it for any reason other than the fact that you really simply cannot not do it, then it’s going to be that much more of an uphill battle. Why would you want to do that? My advice is learning how to distribute your energy and learning how to focus your time and making space for this thing which needs a huge amount of emotional energy, even more than time. One thing that these past months have taught me is that isolation and solitude don’t equal productivity. Productivity is a factor of how you manage your mental and emotional energy for a creative endeavor. We all also live our lives. Without lives, you can’t create meaningful story. You have to find that balance of what you’re willing to let go of in terms of your time and energy and what you’re willing to focus on. I think once you have learned that, then most everything else follows, is what I want to say.

Zibby: All right, I definitely need to be a little more conscious of how I’m expending my energy. That’s my main takeaway here.

Sonali: It’s not like I’m great at it either. It’s a day-to-day struggle. I sound like I’ve got this, but I don’t.

Zibby: At least you know what you’re working on. That always makes it better. Sonali, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for sharing Recipe for Persuasion and all of your great stuff. Thank you.

Sonali: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s a great show. Thanks so much for all the support. Stay safe and healthy.

Zibby: You too.

Sonali: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.