Zibby is joined by New York Times journalist and memoirist Sopan Deb to talk about his debut novel, Keya Das’s Second Act. Sopan shares the actual details from his life that inspired the story, why he wanted to shift the focus away from his family story after publishing his 2020 memoir, Missing Translations, and how he manages to write for the Times as well as for a handful of personal projects without getting overwhelmed. The two also discuss why Sopan doesn’t outline his books and his best advice that all writers need to hear.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sopan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Sopan Deb: Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

Zibby: It is my pleasure. I want to hear about your latest novel. I know you’ve also already written a memoir. You’re a journalist. You have all this amazing stuff. Let’s talk about your latest book. Tell listeners everything about the second act for your characters and why this whole book came to be.

Sopan: The book’s called Keya Das’s Second Act. It came out on July 5th. I’m really excited about it. I started writing it in 2020 right after my memoir, Missed Translations, came out. I was thinking a lot about grief. I was thinking a lot about healing and forgiveness and redemption. I set out to write this story about this Bengali family who has been split apart by grief and aims to come together through art. They decide to stage a play after discovering it written by their teenage daughter, which they lost in a car crash. The book explores a lot of things that are interesting to me, particularly, South Asian family dynamics, LGBTQ acceptance in the South Asian community. A lot of the book is based on stuff I observed up close. For example, it takes place in the New Jersey suburbs where I grew up. All the characters are named after a family friend growing up. The name of the book is Keya Das’s Second Act. Keya is a family friend I had growing up, and so forth and so on. Also, I’m a big theater person. I grew up a theater kid. I was in musicals in high school. I was in a musical in college. I wrote about theater for The New York Times. I was able to bring that experience and combine that with my other personal experiences and put together this novel. I’m really excited for it to be out there.

Zibby: Congratulations. It’s so soon after pub day. Awesome. Take us back. Go back to the beginning for a sec if you don’t mind. You were born in New Jersey.

Sopan: Actually, I was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but I mostly grew up in New Jersey. I moved to New Jersey when I was three or four, so for all intents and purposes.

Zibby: Okay, fine, Lowell to New Jersey. Then when did you know writing was going to be a thing for you? Was the theater the overwhelmingly bright interest in your life? When did writing come into everything?

Sopan: Interesting question. I actually started taking piano lessons when I was six. Music was a huge part of my life growing up. I originally was thinking about going to Berklee College of Music for piano. When did I start writing? I started writing music shortly after I started learning how to play the piano. In that respect, that creative side of me has been in me since I was a kid. In terms of when I started writing specifically, I went to college for journalism. That’s when the writing career really, as far as putting words to paper, earnestly began. Then in terms of writing fiction, when I did my memoir, after the memoir came out, I said to myself, wait a minute, if you can write this and you already write for The New York Times, there’s no reason you can’t try a novel as well. I read quite a bit. I was reading other novels. I was like, I think I can do this, and so I gave it a shot. That’s essentially how the novel came about. It was such an interesting exercise. I really enjoyed it. It was difficult and challenging, but I really enjoyed the challenge of stringing the book together.

Zibby: Interesting. Start with the memoir, though. Tell me some of the main — I don’t have the memoir. I wish I had gone back and read it before this interview. I’m sorry. Tell me about that. It’s called Missing Translation? Missing in Translation?

Sopan: Missed Translations, M-I-S-S-E-D.

Zibby: Missed Translations. Tell me about that and what somebody who hasn’t read that memoir should know about you.

Sopan: When I was turning thirty, give or take, I realized I had not seen my dad in more than ten years. I hadn’t seen my mom in about, I think at that point, it was four or five years. I didn’t even know where they were living. I didn’t know anything about them. I didn’t know where they came from, how many siblings they had, their birthdays, their age, how they met. My parents were arranged to get married and had a very difficult arranged marriage. They got divorced after thirty years. The reason they stayed together all that time is because divorce is very stigmatized in South Asian culture. Even though we all lived in the same house until I left for college, we didn’t know each other well. We didn’t speak. We didn’t enjoy being around each other. After college, I just lost touch with my parents. At some point, my dad just went back to India and didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t even know until he was out there.

The book tracks a year of my life as I try to find my parents and, essentially, get to know them because I didn’t know anything about them. The big takeaway for me from the book was my generation — I grew up in middle-class New Jersey. I didn’t have to worry about where my next meal was coming from. I had the freedom to thrive because I’m growing up in middle-class America. My mom and dad, when they came here in the seventies, they didn’t necessarily know where that next meal — they came with very little money. They didn’t know that they were going to survive. Think about how that affects you and how that affects your worldview. For example, in the case of dealing with mental health struggles, for me, I have a language to talk about mental health, therapy, depression, etc. For my parents, they didn’t even entertain thinking about those things because it’s like, we got to get a paycheck. It was just a lot of getting to know them and trying to empathize with the generation before me and being the son of immigrants and learning about that story.

Zibby: That Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, taking me back to Psych 101 or whatever. First, you have to worry about survival. Then you can work your way up to having an anxiety disorder like me. I’m at the pinnacle of overthinking. Thank you. Too much food, too much thinking, great. Perfect. Wonderful. Wait, how did you lose touch with your parents? It’s an interesting way to say that. You go to college. Did they not check in on you? Did you feel abandoned? What was that like?

Sopan: It’s funny. When you say it like that, it’s like, oh, wow, that is pretty weird, but for me, it was totally normal. I didn’t feel that at all. I’ll tell you why. I liken it to if you had a college roommate that you occupied the same space but you didn’t speak to. You weren’t really friends. You just lived in the same space. That was the case with my family and I. We lived in the same space, but we didn’t speak to each other. We didn’t know each other. When I left for college, we just had no bonds to fall back on other than sharing the same DNA. Then my dad left for India unexpectedly freshman year of college after my parents officially got divorced. What happened was, we did have some contact during college, but the conversations increasingly became strained and ultimately petered out because we just didn’t have any common frames of reference. We didn’t have anything to talk about. They didn’t know anything about me. I didn’t know anything about them. Part of it was, we didn’t make the effort either.

A micro-example is — my parents grew up in India, moved here. It’s not like they’re particularly into American pop culture or anything like that. They’re not particularly reading the news a lot. Here I am, a journalism major at Boston University. They don’t know my friends. They don’t really understand what journalists do. They don’t understand what it is that I’m trying to do. It made our conversations just very stilted. Then I woke up one morning. I realized, oh, my god, it’s been a long time since I even talked to them. It’s incredibly strange when you say it like that. In that moment in my twenties as I went through this, it didn’t register for me. For me, what was weird is when I’d go to friends’ homes and I’d see very warm parents. My friends are talking about intimate details of their — I’m like, wait, what is that? That’s weird. How do you do that? For me, that was weird. As I got to a couple years ago, I realized, wait a minute, no, no, no. I’m the one with a strange situation. I should probably examine this in some way.

Zibby: Did you feel love? Did you feel like they loved you?

Sopan: That’s an interesting question. See, it’s not like — I think this is the case for many South Asian parents. It’s not like love is an easy language. It’s not like my parents were growing up being like, I love you. Wow, what a great kid you are. That’s not how it worked. You have these cultural expectations. You have this and that. They weren’t warm parents, but that’s culturally pretty common. Did I feel loved? I don’t know, but I didn’t know that that was an obligation. It wasn’t something that I knew that I was lacking. I will say, once I went through the memoir process, we had a lot of very difficult and, ultimately, interesting and satisfying conversations. Yeah, I think my parents very much do love me. It’s just not something that comes easy for them to express because, again, that requires very much being in touch with your emotions and being able to talk through them, being willing to talk about that stuff. That was not something that came easy to my parents. I would say it was a loveless household. I would say, generally, it was a loveless household. I’ll tell you a quick story, which is when my parents got arranged to get married. My dad was living in New Jersey. He was an engineer. He had just moved to the US. He was working one of his first jobs. He was lonely. He puts an ad in a matrimonial newspaper targeted towards Indians. “I’m X age. I’m an engineer living in New Jersey looking for a wife,” and blah, blah, blah. He gets a couple responses. Then he gets this response from my mother, a headshot. It was pre-internet Tinder, essentially.

My dad flies to Toronto at the invitation here to meet, eventually, my mom. He knocks on the door. My mom opens the door and goes, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” Essentially, what had happened was that my mom’s mom, so my grandmother, responded to the ad pretending to be my mom. That’s how my parents met. My mother did not want to marry my father but was pressured by her mother to marry him. Then cultural expectations being what they are, she, of course, did it. That’s how my parents got married. They weren’t a good match from the start. If you think about this, if you marry out of love, then you have children out of love. That’s the process. Whereas in an arranged marriage, especially one like my parents, it’s a little bit more of a business transaction. You have kids because that’s what you’re supposed to do. You get married because that’s what you’re supposed to do culturally. The parents help set that up because that’s what’s supposed to happen. The question of, did I feel love? when you’re the product of a business transaction that’s supposed to happen, it just creates a little bit of a different dynamic. That’s not to say that children of arranged marriages are not loved. I know plenty of South Asian children who have parents who got arranged to get married, had a very loving household and a loving relationship with their parents. Their parents love each other. In this particular household, I would say it was a loveless home growing up.

Zibby: Then I find it so interesting because in your novel, right away, there is so much love. There is the loss and the deep feeling of a loss of a child. It’s that sensation and heightened emotion, whereas the way you’re describing your home was completely the opposite.

Sopan: I would say that’s right. I examined my own parents in the memoir, so I wanted to do something different with the novel. With that being said, there are parts of the novel — there’s the character of Shantanu, who’s the father. When we meet him at the beginning of the book, he’s living by himself. He’s alone. He’s separated from his family. My father remains in that position because he lives in India by himself. He’s spent a good portion of his life by himself. My wife, Wesley, we just got married last month. The joy that I felt with her and feel with her, that thirty seconds of “You may now kiss the bride,” my parents never felt — they’re now, combined, 160 years old, give or take. They’ve never felt that for thirty seconds. I examine that a lot in the memoir. There are parts of that that I think exist throughout the book. It’s just in a different form, if that makes sense.

Zibby: Wow, so interesting. I was relating to the dad in the book whose joints were cracking as he’s up there and trying to get — I’m like, why can I not even stand up anymore? This is pathetic.

Sopan: Fair enough.

Zibby: Thanks for that. You’re throwing this aging rapidly forty-five-year-old a bone with these creaking joints and all the rest. Quickly, to — I hate the word pivot because it’s so used — to jump back and forth between journalism, covering sports, doing all the stuff that you’re doing at The Times and everything and then dipping into the other part of your brain, how do you go back and forth? To be honest, I’m working on a novel that’s under contract now. I keep putting it off because I’m like, I need a day where I can just focus only on that. That day is not coming. Can you go back and forth in a day? Can you jump into it for an hour the way you could an essay or an article or something?

Sopan: The way I do it and the way it works for me is I set a cap for myself. I write for The Times. I do that, obviously. I have a bunch of creative projects. What I do is — let’s say I’m writing a novel. I say to myself, I’m going to write a thousand to 1,500 words today. Take an arbitrary number, or this section. No matter how much energy I have when I get to the end of that section, I stop. I don’t care if I could write more. I just stop. Let’s say your book is 75,000 words. I look at it as seventy-five one-thousand-word essays. This way, I can maintain the energy to keep going. Also, it makes the book seem a little less daunting that way. You see it as a bunch of little things to write rather than one giant book. That’s what helps me. In terms of your other question, how I bounce back and forth, I really enjoy writing creatively. Journalism is not a particularly creative endeavor. It’s not. At The New York Times particularly, The New York Times is an editor’s medium, not a writer’s medium. I get the byline, but the editors are often the driving force between what gets written, why it gets written, how you write it, etc. That’s the case at all levels.

For me, what’s great about writing fiction or writing a play or writing a pilot or whatever else, it’s your domain. You get to really put your voice into it. You have ownership over the characters or memoir or whatever it may be. It makes the writing a lot less — it makes it more fun. It makes it feel like you’re driving the conversation a lot more because you literally are. That’s not as much the case in journalism. Journalism, it’s a lot more of an editor’s medium, and for good reason. They are amazing guardrails against, sometimes, your own worst impulses. They’re fact-checking or whatever else it may be. To your point, you’re using a different part of your brain. I have a lot more fun using that part of the brain, so it doesn’t feel as onerous on a day-to-day basis. I’m writing for The Times and also writing a novel and also writing a play. When you put it like that, yes, it does seem kind of exhausting. If you put it this way, if you are doing your day job but then you’re also — I’m just going to make up a hobby. You’re a knitter. You love knitting. I’m just making this up. You play basketball or table tennis. You wouldn’t ask yourself, how do I manage playing basketball and my day job? because you like playing basketball. That’s how I feel about creative writing.

Zibby: That’s a great analogy. I love that. Even putting on music, you don’t have to fit that in.

Sopan: A hundred percent. I view creative writing as therapeutic. I get to interrogate parts of myself that I wouldn’t necessarily otherwise interrogate. Other people, like Wesley, my wife, Wesley, her outlet is cooking. She loves to cook. She loves experimenting with recipes. She doesn’t even like eating. She loves just cooking. For her, that’s her thing. For me, my thing is writing.

Zibby: My husband also loves cooking. I’ve gained thirty pounds, but it’s okay. It’s fine.

Sopan: Same.

Zibby: I’m like, but I don’t want him to stop. It’s so good. I love that. Then do you have an outline? When you jump into it for a thousand words, do you know what’s coming? I feel like part of the time would be spending figuring out what’s coming next, or not?

Sopan: Yes. I did a lot of improv comedy in my twenties. For any of your listeners who are thinking about either writing a novel or — I actually think taking improv is incredible training to write a novel because it teaches you storytelling. It’s fun. It teaches you arc. It teaches you how to make your brain think in a different way. For me, I don’t like to outline. I’ll have a general idea of what I’m trying to explore, but I don’t like to outline because I like getting to know the characters as I write them. To your point, part of the process is trying to figure out what’s next, whether it’s the next project, whether it’s the next page, whether it’s the next paragraph. Most of the time, I enjoy that because I love, okay, what am I doing? How do I write myself out of this corner? Then there are times where you go, oh, man, I’ve written myself into a corner. I should’ve probably outlined this. I should’ve probably planned where I was going here. This is where, actually, I also send pages constantly to friends. I say, “I’ve got ten thousand words here of an eighty-thousand-word novel. I don’t know what to do. Read it. Tell me what you think.” Some writers, they hold onto their writing. They go, no, no, no, I can’t show it to anybody. No way. Me, if I have a thousand words, I’m sending it. I’m sending it. Oftentimes, friends and trusted people are giving you great feedback. They’re like, wait, why don’t you try this? Have this character do X and Y instead of do this. That’s really helpful to me. I know not all writers like doing that because they’re very possessive, so to speak. I understand that too. Whatever works for you.

Zibby: Interesting. I only send it to my editor because I’m afraid if people don’t like it, then I have to start over. Then I’ll never get anywhere.

Sopan: I will say, to your point, I wrote a novel last year while this one was in development that I thought was really good. I didn’t show it to many people in the process. I had the idea. I actually outlined it. I had the idea. I wrote it. I thought it was really strong. Of course, I would. I’m biased. You work six months on it. Some people that I really trust read it at the end. They look at me. They go, “This should not be your next book. This is .”

Zibby: Oh, no.

Sopan: I’m like, “What do you mean?” I sent it to some people in the business that I really trust. They agreed. That was when I resolved to myself, I was like, okay, I’m going to go back to sending people stuff as I go and not outlining. This way, I avoid this calamity.

Zibby: That’s really interesting. I feel like the second novel is so — I keep hearing all these cautionary tales about it. That’s interesting. It’s so nice that you have a group that you trust that much.

Sopan: I’m very fortunate. I don’t know that they consider themselves fortunate. I force them. When your friend comes to you and says, “Hey, man. I really need you to read my pages,” they don’t feel like they can say no because I will badger them until they do. I don’t think they consider themselves lucky, but I certainly do.

Zibby: Excellent. Reading by shoving pages down the throat, maybe that’s why they didn’t give you such good feedback.

Sopan: That’s right.

Zibby: Maybe you should find some more willing readers and see what they say about this. Before you toss it altogether, I would get a second read from a new group. What advice do you have to aspiring authors?

Sopan: Oh, man. I just gave one away, which is to always send pages to people. One other thing I would say is — I’m sure you know this better than anybody. Yes, your talent matters. Of course, it does. Work ethic matters. I also think that networking is really, really important in the industry, whether you’re writing nonfiction, whether you’re a journalist, especially if you’re a journalist, frankly, whether you’re a fiction — we are brought up with the myth that the world is a meritocracy. If you work really hard and you have a talent, you’re going to get to where you need to go. Oftentimes, a lot more stuff comes about because you are, A, easy to get along with, and B, you know the right people at the right places. I think it’s really important to cultivate relationships. I’m very fortunate that I’ve had amazing editors who I’ve developed really deep relationships with that I hope will continue on for a long time but likely won’t because they’ll get sick of me. I don’t blame them. I really think it’s important as you begin your writing career to have mentors, have rabbis where you can so that when opportunities come about, they consider you for them or they already know who you are. I think that’s a really important, underappreciated thing about coming up as a writer. I wish writing was just about writing, but it’s not, unfortunately.

Zibby: Very true. That’s true, especially if you want to sell it. Thank you so much for coming on. Congratulations on your book. I’m wishing you all the best. I want to know what happens with the second book and if you can revive it at all. Good luck.

Sopan: Thank you. I’m thrilled. I’m really excited. Looking forward to chatting again.

Zibby: You too. Take care. Buh-bye.

Sopan: Thank you so much.


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