Q&A with Sonali Dev
Bollywood-inspired novelist from Naperville talks romance, ethnicity and women’s agency
For Sonali Dev, romance is empowering. The long-time Naperville resident spent her childhood and formative years in Mumbai, and the culture of India clearly informs her books. Part romance, part mystery, they are as rich in character as they are in humor and social commentary — a quality inspired, perhaps, by her favorite novelist, Jane Austen. Dev’s debut novel, The Bollywood Bride, won the American Library Association’s award for best romance in 2014. Her books have starred among Best Reads selections by NPR, the Washington Post, Library Journal and Kirkus. Dev is an active member and presenter at Windy City Romance Writers, a writing clinic serving the western suburbs. With her husband and two teen children, she is often to be found at Naperville Public Library. She lists Anderson’s Bookshop among her favorite places to be. Dev’s third novel, A Distant Heart, is reviewed on page 20.
Tell our readers about your background.
I came to the U.S. when I was 23 — I lived all my childhood and young adulthood in Mumbai, India. My family for generations has been very educated, very urban, very progressive, and doesn’t conform to the stereotypes people might have about Indian people. My father was a pilot, so we traveled all over the world. But it was also a traditional upbringing in terms of bonding and extended family, things like that.
What brought you to the U.S.?
I came to get a Masters and also to get married. I attended Eastern Michigan University for a degree in Communications. My bachelor’s is in architecture, so I have an interesting mix. I worked as a technical writer for almost 20 years.
When did you begin writing fiction?
I have always written — it’s probably one of my oldest memories . . . journaling, stage scripts for school shows. I loved to do it. But I was raised to believe you have to have a solid professional career. When I was in school for architecture, I was yelled at by my professor — “Sketches not words, sketches not words” (laughs). I worked for a year as an architect and I thought, oh my god, I need something more fun. I had met someone who was working as an architectural journalist and I thought, well, that’s my dream job — it combines two things I love. One day a friend, who is a Bollywood movie producer, complained about not getting good scripts and we both — famous last words — said, ‘Hey, how hard can that be?’ In a few weeks I had written a script! Of course, it was junk, but once I had created characters and lived in their world, I really got into it. It was addictive.
Was that movie ever produced?
Oh, no, no. When you write a script you’re laying out a story and characters to be colored in by someone else. You don’t really get to explore it. I realized that my interest was in the writing. I went to the library and checked out every book on writing fiction. I took classes at University of Chicago. Once I started to get into it, I realized there was a craft, a structure to writing. I finished my first novel in April, 2010.
Did you intentionally set out to write in the romantic fiction genre?
I didn’t even know what “genre” was! Growing up, apart from the classics, I read a lot of Sidney Sheldon and Jeffrey Archer — large, mainstream stories that didn’t fit into any genre. I hadn’t ever read mysteries or romance or genre-specific novels, so for me it was like, what do you mean a story has to be only one thing? That was a learning experience (laughs). Along the way, I started to realize that I was zeroing in on the love story part of my writing. That was really what I enjoyed. Stories of love.
What makes for a good romance?
Well, the non-negotiable is that it has to have a happy ending. There cannot be any death or destruction — or if there is, it has to be hopeful death and destruction (laughs). Also, the characters have to end up in a place of wellness. I think of romance as a journey by people who start out not being well and find a way to let happiness into their lives. Another non-negotiable is the love arc — characters have to be ready for love and follow their hearts.
What is a “Bollywood-style” love story?
Bollywood is the name for the popular Hindi-language movie industry. To me, it’s a two-pronged concept. On the stylistic side, it’s almost operatic — melodrama, you know, with heightened emotions. And the movies are character-focused. Romance novels are very much parallel. The point is to make you feel. Bollywood’s the popular face of Indian culture — families that are intensely tied, respect for elders, the fact that there is no concept of privacy. And then the little things, the flavor, the clothing. My books are emotionally very much in the Bollywood style. They’re written to be kind of operatic and cinematic. They also dig deep into the Indian culture.
They’ve been described as “steamy.” How do you respond to that?
(Laughs) Well, in some ways they are, because they deal with sex. For me as a writer, that sexual agency is important. It’s a focus of contemporary romance — women living life the way they want to, demanding what they want from life. The narrative is all about female agency, and sexuality is a large part of that. Women — or men — owning their sexuality is sexy. Sex is very important in any love story and I’d like to think of my books as having very good chemistry, which makes them steamy. That isn’t necessarily a criticism — it’s me hitting the exact note that I want to hit. I think steamy romance works in the middle of a story with social commentary about women finding themselves.
Does it surprise American readers, who may think of Indian women following more traditional roles?
It’s important for me to remove the exotification, remove the stereotypes and to let women — and Indian people — see themselves in the book. I hear from readers all the time that it’s fabulous to see Indians owning their sexual agency. I say, ‘But you know there are more than a billion of us in the world having sex, right?’ (laughs) There’s a large part of the older culture that’s trying to hold on, but the urban, more progressive Indian society has moved on in how they think about sex. It’s a culture that’s in flux. At the other end, I’ve had people who say, oh, Indians don’t have sex like this! What can you do but laugh at that, right? As though we’re all only supposed to have sex a certain way. We’re not a monolith and we haven’t seen quite enough of this in books. But it’s how we feel.
Living in Naperville, do you ever feel you are in a cultural “bubble?”
As a family, we feel very strongly about not “bubbling.”As far as friends who we socialize with or the things we do, we’ve always made a conscious effort not to keep it one note. That’s been the best part of living in our downtown neighborhood. We didn’t love that our kids were the only brown kids in elementary school, but this is one of those “everybody knows everybody” communities. It has been a very interesting experience to try to assimilate into that. Everybody wants to be accepted, so I think that’s why people tend to keep within their communities. But that has not happened with us and we like it that way.
Do novelists play a role in educating readers about ethnicity or race?
Absolutely. We need diversity and I feel I am part of that change. I have no immigrant angst because I grew up with a lot of exposure to other cultures. I came here as a fully formed adult, very confident in my identity. It didn’t matter if things about me felt foreign to people. With my children, it’s different. This is their home, but not everyone who looks at them feels that way. It’s personally important to me that that layer of “alien-ness” is taken out. I don’t want it to be there for my grandchildren, even if my children have to deal with it. Bringing diversity into literature is a huge step toward that.
Are you hopeful things will change?
Absolutely. Over the last year, a lot of feelings about race have come out from under the surface. And in some ways, that’s good — let’s bring it all out and shake it so we can address it. I feel this is a rite of passage if our society if it is really going to become inclusive. In our downtown neighborhood, we live in a very non-diverse part of this diverse city. It’s interesting to see people through different filters now. But I think the good news is that there is voice now. Even 10 or 20 years ago, I think immigrants felt silenced. You kept your head down and you kept being the model minority, so to speak. It’s as though an illness is manifesting and you can’t cure it until you see the symptoms. I’m not happy about where we are right now, but I’m hopeful.
What is your next project?
I have the next four books sitting inside my head. They have to live inside me for a while — they marinate.
How many languages do you speak? I’m tri-lingual. But I write
in English. I think in English, too.
If not a novelist, what would you be? A professional poker player!
Best places to dine out? We’re going to Hugo’s Frog Bar tonight! And we love little places like Gin 28 and Shinto. We’re such foodies!
How about for Indian food? We like Indian Harvest. And I cook a lot! Favorite places close to home?
We love the Riverwalk. And The Morton Arboretum.
Best romantic moment?
We’ll be chilling out, playing music, and my husband and I will dance around the kitchen. Little things like that.
What makes for a perfect Valentine’s Day?
It’s not about one day. For me, it’s celebrating each other spontaneously every day.