Indo-American Shobhan Bantwal is a prolific writer who loves writing the most...but it took her a while to realize her love for words. And serendipitously, at a mature age of 50 she started churning out a new novel every year, in addition to essays, short stories and articles. Here, she reveals more about herself and her books in conversation with Smita Dwivedi. Besides penning novels, Shobhan Bantwan also writes and directs plays in Konkani, her mother tongue, and acts in them occasionally, too. Being a self-acclaimed rebel child and teenager, it was not a surprise that she’d veered away from the stereotypical literary novel and taken up the subgenre of her choice - women's fiction with romantic elements. In other words, Bollywood in a Book.
AABP: How and when did you get start as a writer?
Shobhan: I did not pursue a writing career until I turned 50 years. I serendipitously stumbled into it at that late age, as a hobby, to keep me creatively occupied while my husband was working on an out-of-town project that kept him away from home during weekdays, for several years. Only after my freelance articles began appearing steadily in reputable Indian-American publications and my short stories won a few awards (First Place Award in New Woman magazine's fiction contest, Honorable Mention in Writer's Digest magazine's fiction competition, Honorable Mention in New York magazine's contest) did my ambitions expand, and I earnestly started to work on a full-length novel.
AABP: Tell us something about your novels, highlighting the making of the first one?
Shobhan: I have five novels published to date, part of an anthology of short stories, and a sixth novel scheduled for publication in July 2012. My first one was The Dowry Bride, published by Kensington Publishing Corp of New York, in September 2007. After that came The Forbidden Daughter, The Sari Shop Widow, The Unexpected Son, and The Full Moon Bride.
The Dowry Bride took me about a year to complete. I wrote in spurts, by turns enthused and dispirited, because I was very skeptical about its merits, since it did not seem to fit into any established genre and I was not sure if any literary agent or publisher would give it serious consideration. But I managed to persevere and write it to the very end.
AABP: What are the major challenges that you faced in your career?
Shobhan: Besides the usual challenges of a beginner, such as breaking into a competitive fiction arena teeming with talented writers, signing on with a reputable agent and publisher, I had my own unique hurdles to overcome. For example, most South Asian authors living in the United States and Europe are known for somber literary novels. Mine was strictly commercial fiction, Bollywood-in-a-Book, oriented mostly towards entertainment and not intellectual stimulation or debate. Consequently, bucking the stereotype has been most significant challenges as an author. Secondly, there is the issue of writing ethnic, India-based stories that will appeal to American and European readers. However, post publication, the most difficult component has been the effective promotion of my books in a marketplace flooded with romance and women's fiction. Nevertheless I fortunately managed to prevail, despite the odds.
AABP: What inspired you to write your book on women?
Shobhan: I have master's degrees in sociology and public administration. The sociology background led to interest in women's issues in contemporary India. Additionally, as a female born in a household of five girls and no boys, the subject of dowry was always very disturbing to me. Consequently I decided to weave my first novel around the theme of dowry abuse, which continues to thrive in today's India, in spite of all the modernization and technological advancement. The Dowry Bride was my way of bringing awareness to this demeaning social practice by incorporating it into a Bollywood type romantic drama, and making it an entertaining story.
AABP: What books have most influenced your life and what are you reading now?
Shobhan: Jane Austen's books have had a great influence on my writing career. To kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is an old classic that I have read and reread many times. R.K. Narayan's stories set in the fictitious town of Malgudi have continued to inspire me through the years. Amongst the more recent books, Khaled Hosseini's
The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns touched me greatly. In fact, they had such an impact on me that I approached Hosseini's literary agent, and she agreed to represent me. I am proud and honored to be a client of such a well-respected, New York based agency along with Hosseini and many other bestselling authors.
I am currently reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, the international bestseller that I had not dared to pick up all these years because of its intimidating volume, over 900 pages. But I am enjoying it thoroughly now, since I have retired from my full-time career and have more time to read lengthy novels.
AABP: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Shobhan: As a fan of commercial women's fiction, my all-time favorite author is Daphne du Maurier. Every one of her books has the right amount of intrigue, emotion, dramatic elements, and hauntingly beautiful characters that capture the imagination. In some ways, she has been a role model for me.
AABP: What inspires you to go on and on?
Shobhan: My loyal readers are my inspiration. The thousands of letters I have received from my enthusiastic readers, with encouraging feedback and requests to keep them entertained with stories about Indian and Indian-American characters, continue to motivate me and my muse at all times.
AABP: Tell us something about the target audience of your books?
Shobhan: I am very excited that an Indian publisher is in the process of purchasing the rights to all my novels for publication in India and several other countries in the near future. While it is too early to discuss the name of the publisher or the details yet, I can say with certainty that I am looking forward to the project and the potential for having my books reach a wider audience outside the United States and Canada. I frequently receive queries from Indian readers about where to buy my books in India. I hope all those new readers will be happy about being able to purchase my books more easily and at considerably lower cost.
AABP: What can the readers expect next?
Shobhan: After the successful publication of five novels and one anthology, a sixth novel is in the works. The Reluctant Matchmaker is scheduled for release on July 1, 2012.
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