Tête-à-tête Rhea Saran, debutant author of Girl Plus One, tells Nita Sathyendran that she has developed a taste for writing novels
M umbai is the new Manhattan. Or so it would seem in Girl Plus One , a new novel by Mumbai-based debutant author Rhea Saran, an associate editor at GQ magazine. The novel, published by Random House, is an ode to the opportunities that Mumbai presents for upwardly mobile young people living and working and, of course, dating in the city of dreams; it is narrated through the life and loves of a 27-year-old called Laila, who, like Rhea, is a features editor and columnist at a popular men's magazine. In an email interview with Metro Plus , Rhea talks about her novel. Excerpts…
Writing the novel…
It wasn't easy. It took me several months to work out the balance between my day job, my social life and book writing. In the end, to be disciplined, I had to sacrifice a fair amount of my social life for a few months. But the further I got into the story, the more the characters began to drive the narrative, and at some point, it seemed less like an uphill battle. And of course, having the book out in print has made all the sacrifice worth it.
The actual writing was pretty difficult. For one thing, I'd never written anything quite as long as this. Then there was the whole discipline thing, which was certainly a lesson. I write and edit for a living, so doing it again on my own time on weekends or after work was certainly challenging, to say the least. And also, the fact that this book is fairly open about sex and the fact that I knew people were going to see it as an at least semi-autobiographical story... that came with its own set of moral dilemmas.
How much of Laila, apart from her job, is based on your experiences?
Much less of Laila is based on me or anyone I know than I think people will assume. I've noticed – and perhaps it's natural – that people want to draw parallels to your life when you write fiction. It's this assumption that every writer's first novel is autobiographical. I beg to differ. While I acknowledge that the background and general setting of this book is similar to my own, I am quite emphatic about the fact that this is not a mirror of my own life. I think that, yes, one naturally tends to borrow little bits and pieces from one's own life experiences (or from those around you), but this is, at the end of the day, a work of fiction. Girl Plus One isn't a tell-all, it's just supposed to be a realistic portrayal of at least a certain segment of young Mumbai.
What makes Girl Plus One stand out?
I think Girl Plus One has a unique voice. The protagonist, far from being an angst-filled Bridget Jones type, has a more confident voice, which I think is unique to the time we're living in India now. I also think the book deals with topics in a matter-of-fact way, rather than as a loaded moral quandary. And also, I think Mumbai, the city, is a strong character in the book.
What is your opinion of the ‘chick-lit' genre in general?
I do think that people use the term chick-lit in a dismissive way, which is kind of sad, because I think a lot of the chick-lit I've read has painted a pretty accurate portrait of the way women see popular culture at any given point in time. I think a lot of it has interesting insights on relationships and issues that are unique to women, so I think dismissing it as an entire genre is a bit close-minded. Frankly, I consider Jane Austen chick-lit; Pride and Prejudice was all about getting the bad boy! And yet, she's considered a classic, so.... That said I never intended to do anything but write a fun, readable, relatable book; something that makes you laugh a bit, makes you think back on that guy you knew, or that time you hung out with your best friends... So if people enjoy my book for being just what it's meant to be, I think that makes it a success!
About Rhea …
I was born in Bombay [Mumbai], and when I was seven, we moved to Bangalore. I did my undergraduate degree at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. My masters in journalism was at New York University. And I also worked in Manhattan after that. Growing up, I was exposed to a lot of great things in life, culturally, and in terms of the people I knew. It broadened my world view. Funnily enough, though, I avoided journalism quite deliberately for a while because my mother [Ammu Joseph] is an accomplished journalist, herself. But eventually I realised that wasn't a good enough reason to not do something I was naturally good at and enjoyed.
On the anvil…
Nothing that I can talk about, yet. But will I write another book? Yes. I've developed a taste for it!
The ‘Mallu' connection
I can't say a whole lot about that because, frankly, I didn't spend a ton of time in Kerala - except occasionally to visit family, or later, to do the whole backwater thing (which I love!). My mother's (Ammu Joseph) side of the family is Malayali – we're a family of writers and so I certainly inherited these particular genes from this side. And appam and stew is a favourite!