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BW Businessworld

'There Is An Element Of Luck In The Fiction Market'

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Why this book? How did the idea of writing this book come to you?
The idea for writing The Sari Shop Widow came to me because of a small enclave in New Jersey referred to as 'Little India', an ethnic community crammed with sari and jewellery shops, restaurants and grocery stores. Little India feels like a slice of India transplanted into mainstream America. The neighbourhood started developing in the early 1980s, and today it has mushroomed into a thriving business complex. Every time I visited this neighbourhood, especially the beautiful sari shops, I was convinced that they would make a wonderful atmosphere for an Indian-American novel. I decided to build on that theme when I wrote this book.
 
What does the book mean to you?
Although this is my debut book in the Indian market, it is actually my third novel published in the US (after The Dowry Bride and The Forbidden Daughter). Since the first two books were set in India, to me The Sari Shop Widow fulfilled a deep desire to tell a story that takes place against an American backdrop, and captures the Indian-American immigrant experience. It is a portrayal of a young widow's life in a mixed culture. The heroine, Anjali Kapadia, is widowed at 27 and now, ten years later, she is still struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of her young and dynamic husband, her own emotional and sexual needs, and her conservative family's expectations and hopes for her personal and business future.
 
What kind of research did you have to do to put this book together?
Since Little India is a community that I was already very familiar with and I was living in the New Jersey area myself, I had to do very little research for this particular book. However, I did speak to a few Indian-Americans who owned small businesses to get a feel for what it was to run a retail store in the competitive American marketplace.
 
The Sari Shop Widow
The Sari Shop Widow
By Shobhan Bantwal
Fingerprint Publications
Pages: 364 
Price: Rs 250
Who has published your earlier books in the US? How did you find a publisher for your first book as well as the current book? What did the whole process entail of finding a publisher for your first book?
Kensington Publishing, based in New York City, has published all six of my novels to date. Initially, as a novice writer, I had to learn all the hard lessons about getting a book published, that is, finding a good literary agent and then a publisher. I had never dreamt of becoming an author until I was 50 years old, when my husband was assigned to an out-of-town project. I took up creative writing then, strictly as a hobby, to keep my lonely evenings pleasantly occupied. But when my articles started to get published in several Indian-American publications and three of my short stories won awards and/or honours in fiction competitions, my ambitions expanded to a full-length novel. Subsequently came the multiple challenges of getting published. 
 
Once The Dowry Bride manuscript was completed, I went through the expected rejections from various literary agents. Fortunately, a very well-known agent and previous publisher at Penguin, the late Elaine Koster (who had published and represented famous names like Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and recently Khaled Hosseini) loved my unusual story and signed me on. She sold The Dowry Bride as well as contracts for five more books to Kensington. Elaine sadly passed away in 2010, but her expert guidance will always continue to serve me well.
 
Do you think there is an untapped market in US-based Indian (or expat Indians in US) writers writing about the blend of cultures?
I always believed that there was an untapped market, not for Indian-American writers as such, but for writers of Indian commercial fiction. There are plenty of Indian-American writers, but they have typically stuck to literary writing, perhaps because it is a safe bet. As a result, there were practically no romance and popular fiction writers amongst the ex-pat Indian community when I started got my start in the mid 2000s, a fact that troubled me, a lover of commercial novels. Therefore I decided to take on the challenge of becoming the first ex-pat writer of romantic fiction portraying Indian and Indian-American characters, what I call "Bollywood In A Book." 
 
My agent as well as my publisher loved my idea of mixing mainstream and romance genres to create a unique kind of ethnic fiction and introducing it to American readers, who are fascinated by subjects like arranged marriage, dowry abuse, female-fetus abortion, and the dynamics of conservative Indian culture. I touch on all these topics in my various books. Of course, all three of us were taking a risk in treading on previously uncharted territory, but the gamble has paid off. To date, Kensington has sold approximately 120,000 copies of my books.
 
Could you tell us a bit about the kind of responses you have received from media in the US on your books?
I have received great reviews from many local newspapers, magazines, bloggers with a nationwide reach, and fellow fiction authors who are themselves New York Times and USA Today bestsellers. While I would have loved to make the national bestseller lists, that kind of stardom has eluded me, hence the national newspapers have not given my books coverage. There is also a huge element of luck in the fiction market in terms of timing, topic, and the state of the economy.
 
Tell us about your writing habits...When and where do you write?
I write erratically, whenever the mood strikes me. I also work without an outline, and let the story unravel as I go along. It is like an adventurous journey for me; I discover delightful twists and turns that become colourful subplots to the main theme. Besides, I was juggling a demanding full-time career alongside an unexpectedly busy writing career for ten years. I worked sixteen-hour days, seven days a week, to fulfill the demands of my day job and my writing contracts. But I retired from my full-time job in 2011, so I could spend more time with my two young grandchildren. As for working space, my husband and I share a home office and that is where I do all my writing.
 
You have written several books. According to you, what makes a book a really good read or a bestseller?
What makes a book a truly good read is when the reader feels compelled to keep on turning the pages, and is eager to find out more. I receive e-mails from many happy readers who tell me that they just could not put my book(s) down and had to continue reading until the very end. There are in fact a few readers who have confessed to staying up all night to finish one of my books. That kind of enthusiastic feedback is very gratifying indeed. 
 
Nonetheless a good read does not necessarily become a bestseller. There are many ordinary books, and at times even not-so-good ones, that hit the bestseller list. On the other hand, some excellent books sadly never make it to the top. Like I said in a previous answer, there seems to be an element of luck involved in attaining that elusive 'bestseller' status.
 
What's the hardest thing about being a writer?
The hardest thing about being a writer is dealing with negative reviews. By negative reviews, I don't mean the ones that are constructively or objectively critical (these are actually helpful to the writer), but the ones that are malicious and vicious and clearly meant to inflict pain. Nevertheless most writers are good at developing a thick skin and they learn to ignore the obviously spiteful reviews. 
 
What are you reading now? 
I am currently reading Drop Shot, an old novel by Harlan Coben, one of my favorite bestselling crime fiction authors.
 
Do you prefer e-books or paper format?
Although I own an e-reader, I still prefer the comfort of old-fashioned paper books.
 
Apart from writing itself, what do you think is a role of the author in promoting his/her book? 
An author has to be fully engaged in promoting his/her books. In fact, in my humble opinion, promotion is approximately 70 per cent of getting a book released successfully. When all is said and done, publishing is a for-profit business, and every publisher expects the author to be actively involved in the marketing phase. Most of the time, the actual process of writing takes a backseat to promoting. 
 
To promote my books, I have my own website, a Facebook page, and a Linked-In account. I also actively participate in writers' conferences, workshops, and appear as an invited guest speaker at fundraisers, women's organisations, events at libraries, and on blogs.
 
So, what’s next?
I am currently taking a long hiatus from writing any new books, a much needed break after ten years of handling two demanding full-time careers. Fingerprint Publishing, my Indian publisher, based in New Delhi, recently bought the rights to all six of my novels. So, I am busy working with Fingerprint's editors to tailor all my books to suit the Indian readership. The Sari Shop Widow is the first title released by Fingerprint. The other five titles will be following soon.
 
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