First Draft, Ep. 90: Sona Charaipotra (Transcript)
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
[Background sound of crickets and cicadas]
I met up with Sona at a writing retreat in Tennessee. I’d already met and completely fallen for Sona’s co-author and business partner Dhonielle Clayton [listen to her full FirstDraft interview here] so I was unsurprised to find that Sona is also super smart, funny, caring, and thoughtful. Sona is trained in journalism and non-fiction writing, and her natural curiosity shines through everything she does – including running Cake Literary with Dhonielle, which is focused on creating opportunities for diverse voices.
I’m so happy that Sona took a few of her precious writing hours to sit down and chat with me. So get out on the porch, pull up a rocking chair, and some sweet tea, and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: So thanks for taking the time to sit down with me. I appreciate it.
Sona CHARAIPOTRA: No problem.
ENNI: And Sona, do you mind pronouncing your last name for me?
CHARAIPOTRA: It’s (somewhat phonetically) char-a-pot-ra
ENNI: Charaipotra. It’s a beautiful name and I did not want to butcher it. So thank you for helping me out. Okay, so we love to start at the beginning, which is where were you born and raised?
CHARAIPOTRA: I was born in Iran. I’m not Iranian. I’m of South Asian descent, Indian-Punjabi specifically. But my parents are both pediatricians and they were both working in Iran when my sister and I were born. And then the Shah fell and we fled the country, because you had to, and we ended up moving first to Houston, Texas cause my dad’s brother was there. And we moved in with them for a little bit but my mom does not like living in somebody else’s house. So, then they decided to move to New Jersey because there were more opportunities for doctors there, and I grew up in Central Jersey.
ENNI: How old were you when you had to flee Iran?
CHARAIPOTRA: When we got here I had just turned four years old.
ENNI: Oh okay, so it was real early.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yes so I don’t remember a lot of it, but I’ve been told.
ENNI: Do you have memories of adjusting to the US?
CHARAIPOTRA: I do have some memories. My parents always tell me the story of the day we got here [and it] was Halloween. Obviously my sister and I, my sister is a year and a half younger than me, we didn’t know what Halloween was and neither did my parents. We saw ghouls and goblins and scary things walking around and we were like, “WHERE ARE WE?”
ENNI: That’s the most weirdly American day.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah, I’ve written that into a book because how can you not? So we got here on Halloween and it was just a surreal thing.
ENNI: I’m kind of obsessed with that.
ENNI: It’s such a great visual.
CHARAIPOTRA: In Texas. Halloween in Texas.
ENNI: It would have been genuinely terrifying!
CHARAIPOTRA: And my parents always tell me that the first time we had pizza, none of us liked it.
ENNI: Really? Oh my gosh.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah, I think it was Pizza Hut. I’m writing that into a book too but it’s in a different way. Because now our family - when it’s a big family gathering, and there’s like forty of us in New Jersey, so if it’s a small party it’s forty people - if it’s not at home, it’s at Pizza Hut.
ENNI: So English is not your first language.
CHARAIPOTRA: No. So apparently when I was little I spoke Persian and Hindi and when I got here I picked up English, but I lost the Persian. I can’t read or write Hindi cause my parents didn’t really focus on that. They really wanted us to solidify our English when we got here, so the way that my sister and I absorbed Hindi was through Bollywood films. And my brother is six years younger than me, he’s a surprise, and he can understand Hindi but he doesn’t really speak it very much. So he will answer in English.
ENNI: Interesting, but it can be conversational like with family?
CHARAIPOTRA: Like he can get by, but it’s not super comfortable for him. And I think my Hindi is pretty good but Navdeep, my husband, always laughs at it. He can read and write it. So it’s like a thing.
ENNI: So you and your sister were watching Bollywood and stuff.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah we were obsessed with Bollywood stuff. Like our first crushes and stuff were Bollywood stars.
ENNI: Awesome, I love that. Do you have many memories of Texas? How long were you actually in [Texas]?
CHARAIPOTRA: I think we were there for a couple of months.
ENNI: Oh okay, so really short.
CHARAIPOTRA: I think my mom got impatient with the situation and then they moved. And so really my first memories here are of New Jersey. And the first thing they did was they moved into a one room motel, and we had a king bed that all of us were sleeping on. And it was just on the floor, it wasn’t like an actual bed, and then there was like a hot plate in the bathroom. I remember the hot plate in the bathroom very specifically. And then we went to a Christian school. That was the first daycare I had, was a Christian school, and they gave us a bible and I scribbled all over it. I know, it’s sacrilege!
CHARAIPOTRA: I didn’t know! I was four. The funny thing is, both my kids now have gone to Christian daycare.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah cause it’s the closest to our apartment, and it’s the cheapest in Jersey City because daycare in Jersey City is crazy expensive. And they say things like, “Jesus loves me, yes I know, cause the Bible tells me so.”
ENNI: Do they know really what they’re saying?
CHARAIPOTRA: No, I don’t think so.
ENNI: I mean, when anyone’s four you sing a bunch of stuff that you don’t really [understand]. A lot of those songs we sing as kids are kind of crazy.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah, and it was pretty charming you know? We’re not very worried. I’m not super religious overall. My husband is more religious than I am. And they know all different kinds of kids. All different colors and everything because Jersey City is super diverse. I think that’s more important to us than like, “Oh yeah, they’re drawing pictures of religious symbols” or whatever.
ENNI: Like crosses.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah. But my mom went to Christian schools, too, the whole time she was in India. She was taught by nuns because those are the schools that were considered better quality. She has seven brothers and two sisters, so there’s ten of them total. And I always say that the way I came to any kind of arts is because after the partition in India, which was 1947, they divided India into India and Pakistan and then later Bangladesh too. A lot of people fled the area that was Pakistan if they were Hindu because it was religious warfare essentially happening. Both my dad’s side and my mom’s side did that. And my dad’s side ended up straight in Delhi, but my mom’s side went to Bombay first, which is where the Indian cinema industry is based. My grandfather decided to take all the money that he had taken from Pakistan and put it into Bollywood films. He was a producer on two films, and they both flopped. He lost essentially all of their money and then they eventually moved to Delhi. So I blame him for the artistic side of our family.
ENNI: And all of the Bollywood love.
CHARAIPOTRA: And my mom remembers being on set and stuff like that. She was the academic out of the ten of them. Because of that, even though she was a girl and in India they don’t necessarily over-educate girls. “Over-educate”, that’s the word, you’re “over-educated” [meaning] no one is going to marry you. That’s like the sense. So she wanted to be a doctor from a really young age so because she was so serious about it they put her in the Christian schools, and she did become a doctor.
ENNI: Yeah, way to go your mom!
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah. She was a good role model for me.
ENNI: Being the kid of two doctors leads into my [next] question which I’ll ask you now. Growing up in your house, how was reading and writing a part of your growing up?
CHARAIPOTRA: My mom was really open to books. That was the one thing she would always let me spend money on. Whatever books I wanted, she would get them for me. That was always her thing. She was like, “Read whatever you want.” That doesn’t mean that they were thrilled when I decided not to follow in their footsteps and become a doctor. My dad still says to me, “Now, you know, you could still go to medical school.”
ENNI: Oh my goodness!
CHARAIPOTRA : Yeah! I was reading voraciously as a child, and I think I was writing stories pretty young, but when I decided I wanted to be a writer that wasn’t necessarily [pauses] the favored…
ENNI: Their like ideal…
ENNI: I would love to know what kinds of stories you were reading as a kid?
CHARAIPOTRA: I read THE BABYSITTER’S CLUB, and I was reading things like THE VAMPIRE DIARIESand all of those. But my favorite stories, as a kid, were probably ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and LITTLE WOMEN. I wanted to be the feisty, go-getter.
ENNI: Yup, Jo March.
CHARAIPOTRA: Jo and Anne from the start. You’ve talked to Dhonielle, and you know one of the things that brought us both to Cake is that we didn’t see ourselves in books. But I didn’t really realize it so much when I was little. It became far starker to me as a teenager. The first time I met a writer of South Asian descent I was in college at Rutgers, and her name was Ameen Amir. She wrote a book called BOMBAY TALKIE, which would now be considered YA, but back then I think it was just considered adult. And it was about an Indian Muslim girl who grew up in Massachusetts or something. So it was like the first character that I could sort of relate to. And she came to Rutgers to do a signing because her cousin went to Rutgers, and I got to meet her. I told her, “Oh I really want to be a writer too, but I didn’t know if I could do it.” And she said to me, “Don’t worry. You’re gonna be golden.” And my name means gold so she was playing off my name, and she signed the book for me, and I was just so excited.
ENNI: That’s amazing.
CHARAIPOTRA: And it was really. It was a surreal experience because [pauses], I sort of knew that people could write books and do that for a living. I’d seen authors. I hadn’t met any in person at that point, but you knew who Judy Blume was, and who Ann M. Martin was, and all those people.
ENNI: Like the pictures on the flap, and stuff like that.
CHARAIPOTRA: But it was still kind of removed and weird, and so that made it more like something you could actually reach for.
ENNI: Yeah. That’s huge. And not only to meet a writer for the first time, but to meet a writer that you’re like, “You look like me!”
CHARAIPOTRA: “You’re brown like me!”
ENNI: This is real. It can happen! Do you remember when it became real to you that you had not read a book that represented your experience?
CHARAIPOTRA: I think that the first time it occurred to me was [when] I discovered Chitra Divakaruni who is also a writer of South Asian descent. She’s now in Houston, or something like that, and she wrote adult. And the first short story collection I picked up of hers was called ARRANGED MARRIAGE and it was an immigrant experience exploration, sort of. And so I saw brown characters, but they were more like my parents, I think. But then I read every single book that she put out. I had to pick it up. And then after that, the next one I found was Jhumpa Lahiri’s INTERPRETER OF MALADIES. And by [that] time I had already started interning in journalism and I got to interview her. We did her for - I worked at PEOPLE Magazine - and we did her for the ‘50 Most Beautiful People’ Issue, after she won the Pulitzer. And I interviewed her. That was really cool.
ENNI: When you realized that you weren’t seeing yourself, I mean, I’m just curious, as a high schooler were you angry about it? Or did you have feelings about being removed?
CHARAIPOTRA: I mean, it was hard to be angry about it because I didn’t know it was an option, you know? It didn’t occur to me that it could be an option, which I feel so bad for myself now thinking about that. And it really pisses me off now because my daughter is six, and still she’s pretty desperate to see herself. And she always tells me, “Momma, can you put my name in a book?” And she says, “Momma can we write a book together?” And I say, “Yeah, we can. Let’s do it.”
ENNI: Oh, that’s really cute.
CHARAIPOTRA: Why should she have to wait?
ENNI: She’s a go-getter. I love it!
CHARAIPOTRA: And the thing is, it’s like 2016 and it’s like, “Come on guys.”
ENNI: Yeah. We’re pretty far behind in a lot of ways. I’m thinking even THE BABYSITTERS CLUB was taking like baby steps.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah, like Claudia.
ENNI: Yeah Claudia.
CHARAIPOTRA: Claudia was cool.
ENNI: She’s like the stand-in for every non-white person.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah, you put yourself in her shoes for sure. And the cool thing about Claudia was that she was cool. She wasn’t the put upon, harassed character. She was the cool girl.
ENNI: Yeah, she also wasn’t made to be the Asian girl stereotype. The really smart, put-together, Type A [person].
CHARAIPOTRA: She was a fashionista!
ENNI: Yeah! I mean I wanted to be Claudia. She’s the shit. It was a jumping point for better things. So was it [in] college when you decided you wanted to be a writer?
CHARAIPOTRA: I think the first time I had any inclination was probably sixth grade. I had a teacher named Miss Pinter (?) and she was awesome. She was that cool teacher you hope every kid has, but not every kid gets. At the end of the day – this wasn’t required at the time [but]I think more schools are doing it now - we would ring the xylophone. One person would get to do it every day, and they would get to sit in the butterfly chair and announce that it was reading time. And we would spend the last half hour reading.
ENNI: [Sighs] sounds like heaven.
CHARAIPOTRA: And then we would get to talk about the books. She had us writing a lot of short stories in that class. She was the first one who said, “Oh, you really have a knack for this!” I had never heard that before, and I was kind of floored by that. I think it stuck with me from that point, although I didn’t act on it for a really long time. And then again, in like eleventh grade, I had another teacher who recommended that I think about it. So, I think there were people along the way that sort of pushed it. But when I got to college, and I wanted to major in English, my dad was like, “What are you gonna do with an English Degree?” So, then I majored in Journalism because there was a job in the title. And he wasn’t thrilled about that. My majors were Journalism and American Studies, and I had a Minor in English.
ENNI: Really? Oh wow. Is American Studies like sociological or historical?
CHARAIPOTRA: Sort of all of it. It’s kind of interdisciplinary. My focus in American Studies was really Pop Culture. I did papers on Madonna and New Kids on the Block, and the Boy Band culture, and the implications that come with it. And how it’s a safe place for young women to explore sexuality.
ENNI: Oh, my gosh, I could talk to you about that forever. That kind of stuff is so interesting.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yes. And so half of me thought I would go into academia. But then I started interning at magazines when I was a junior, and that’s how I ended up doing journalism.
ENNI: So, you were starting to write stories pretty young, the sixth grade, was [that] the creative [start]? Or, were you doing creative writing in fits and spurts?
CHARAIPOTRA: I have a short story from when I was fourteen, and it was pretty much a knockoff of something I read. And it was all white characters. That was the only thing that I always remember. It was always white characters at that point. I took a creative writing class, it was a screenwriting class, [during] my junior year in college. Rutgers didn’t have very many, and they just had one that was sort of a random screenwriting class. You had to apply to get into it, and both my sister and I got into it. We were both writing, working on stuff, and those were brown characters. And then I decided to get a degree, an MFA in screenwriting, after that.
So, while I was working at People, I was getting a master’s in screenwriting at NYU. But my dad was like, “Oh you need to get a master’s. You need to get a master’s.” He was like, “Get a masters in something.” And I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna get a master’s in Screenwriting” which, again, was not what he was looking for, but you know, I have a master’s! I had to do Gallatin because you can’t do NYU’s film school part-time and I was working. It was really cool because you were allowed to take some really interesting classes. My thesis at NYU – I used to write screenplays with my sister a lot - and that thesis script was developed by MTV Films for about a year. It was right after MONSOON WEDDING and they wanted more brown girl projects. We had gone to LA to pitch something else, but then I mentioned the thesis script. There was a bunch of producers who were really keen on it at that point. Eventually we worked on it with this guy at MTV Films. By the time it was ready, it took a year to really edit it into shape for him to take it to his boss, and [by] then BRIDE AND PREJUDICE came out which was [pauses] not as good of a movie.
ENNI: It didn’t do so hot.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah. I was like, “How do I put this?” And so at that point, they were like, “No we don’t want any brown girl projects.” And that was that.
ENNI: Oh boy, one failure.
CHARAIPOTRA: Then I got into fiction because I decided to adapt that script into a book.
ENNI: Okay – let’s back up a little bit. I would love to hear a little bit about your decision to pursue screenwriting. What was it about that medium that really clicked for you?
CHARAIPOTRA: I think it was because there was such a lack of us on the screen, for one thing, and also it was a less intimidating medium. A script is 120 pages, 90 to 120 pages, and it’s so visual, and so fast, that it was less intimidating.
ENNI: There’s a lot less on the page.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yes, and I always used to say the words, “I don’t think I have a book in me.” That was a phrase that I liked to pull out. And I think it was my husband that was like, “Stop saying that” because he’s a writer too and he was like, “You definitely do have a book in you.” And he was the one that made me get my MFA in fiction because he knew I wasn’t gonna actively finish anything if I didn’t do that. He wanted me to have time to focus on it.
ENNI: I’m curious about when you were a reader as a kid. Are you a really visual reader too?
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah, I think so. Definitely
ENNI: Because not everyone is, which is funny. I’m also really visual but not as much as a lot of other people. I did know someone who, at some point, told me they read, and read a ton, but she was like, “I never visualize as I’m reading.” And I was like, “What?” [Laughing] like wait!
CHARAIPOTRA: But how do you not?
ENNI: Yeah, I was like, “I don’t understand.”
CHARAIPOTRA: Aren’t you seeing it in your head?
ENNI: She was just like, “No. I just read the words.”
CHARAIPOTRA: I can’t see… I can’t even fathom that.
ENNI: I know, it was totally shocking to me. It was this funny thing where I was like, “Oh!” But not everyone does that. I think the pull of screenwriting, or even looking at TV, is from people who see the movie as the movie.
CHARAIPOTRA: And I was very Pop Culture oriented. I think that was the other aspect of it. I was a big movie, and film, and music buff as a teenager and that’s why I ended up interning at Teen People first, which was new at the time. I was there for the launch. And then I interned at People. I ended up at People because I was so obsessed with Pop Culture, that’s what I thought I wanted to do.
ENNI: I really love that you were studying the Pop Culture, and thinking about it sociologically, and thinking about representation, and sort of like dipping your toe…
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah, and I took Asian American Studies classes. And Women’s Studies, of course, you know? I was that girl, for sure, in college.
ENNI: It totally makes sense to me that screen plays would have a pull. You can see it’s less intimidating. But also, how creatively your non-fiction was feeding into that. It sounds like you [were] building this body of work all around entertainment and stories.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah, I think that [I] was very heavily it. And also, my sister – so she’s a talent booker and she worked at MTV - she was doing TRL at the time, [and] that was what she was booking. And so I think we were both just very immersed in Pop Culture and that lent itself very easily to screenwriting. Also we were over our day jobs. And so, we were writing at night. The cool thing about working with a partner – she was my first collaborator, before Dhonielle - was that you always had somebody to be like, “No. We gotta do it!” [During] my time at People magazine,I had days where I didn’t get home until 4 AM. Like 9:30 in the morning until 4 AM, cause it’s a weekly magazine and the cycle was just vicious. When we would get home, and it would be 8:00 PM, we’d always order in - because that’s what we did in New York City when you’re working in one of these crazy jobs - and then at 10:00 or 10:30 one of us would be like, “We need to sit down and write.” And we would do it, because we wanted to do something else with ourselves.
ENNI: To get out of that cycle.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah, and we got close, but it’s really hard to sell a script.
ENNI: When did you, in this whole process, meet your husband?
CHARAIPOTRA: The really fun thing was that I met him on a trip to LA. My husband is from California. He actually grew up all over the place. He’s British, but he grew up in Tanzania, and Nigeria, and then he lived in Dubai until he was about thirteen. And then his family moved to California. So, he spent his teen years in California, and he still has like a British-ish accent.
ENNI: He [has] the international accent.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah. He has [a] very British humor. Our humor is not the same, although I find him very funny. I liked him because he was funny. We met online, back before everybody met online. We met on a site called IndianDating.com which was like the non-committal Indian dating site.
ENNI: What do you mean by that?
CHARAIPOTRA: A lot of them are called like, Shaadi.com, and things like that. Shaadi means marriage. That’s what the word translates to. And that’s what a lot of people do. They go on there and they have a specific serious intent. I had never dated an Indian boy before, so I was like, “Okay let’s see.” I’d never met any because I was working in entertainment where everybody was either white, or old, or gay - a lot of them were gay.
ENNI: Or, white and old and gay [laughing]!
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah, all of the above! I was working crazy hours and stuff too. So, I was like, “Let me see what happens.” I didn’t find anyone of interest in New York, but his profile was just really funny, and he was getting his MFA in Creative Writing, and he was a writer. He just said funny things in the profile, so I sent him one of the wink thingies, or something, cause I hadn’t paid for the site.
ENNI: Oh yeah, a free thing.
CHARAIPOTRA: And he responded with the subject – my screen name was ‘Sugar Cube’ - and he had responded with, ‘Cheap Ass Sugar Cube.’ And I think it was a done deal after that! I was in LA doing script stuff with my sister and he lived in Fresno, which is actually [about] four hours from LA. He drove down to come and hang out, and I almost didn’t go downstairs. I was really nervous. And, you know, back then it was like, “Internet? What if you get killed!” But we hit it off, and after that it was just like…that’s it!
ENNI: That’s so cool.
CHARAIPOTRA: I think part of the reason we fit is because he’s a writer too, and he gets it. And I know that some people say: “Oh, two writer couple. That’s not gonna work.” But for us, it really works. Because I think, especially with the South Asian community, it’s not something that happens that often. You’re a doctor, or a lawyer, or an engineer, right? So, I know he’s had that experience too, where people have judged him for those choices, and I’ve definitely had that experience as well. I think that together, it’s like: “Well…oh well. Whatever. We get it.”
ENNI: And then being able to relate to one another, and also reinforcing each other’s choice.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah and being like, “Okay, we’re gonna be poor but it’ll be alright.” We’re doing what we want, and being able to be like, “I’m gonna go into this room for six hours and I will see you then.” And that’s fine [laughing].
ENNI: Understanding like, “I’m actually working. It looks like sloth, but it matters.” Yeah, that’s really important.
CHARAIPOTRA: And we have different writerly habits, for sure, but we know.
ENNI: And I also love that, obviously, he was the one who was like, “You’re underestimating yourself!” Helping to give you the confidence to try.
CHARAIPOTRA: A hundred percent. I wouldn’t even have met Dhonielle if it wasn’t for Navdeep. She always says that she’s my work wife, and I agree. But he’s definitely so integral to my writing life too, you know? It’s really weird, and he doesn’t always love the stuff I’m working on, but I wouldn’t be doing it without him.
ENNI: So, during your screenwriting [period], you’re working on your own stuff, and stuff with your sister?
CHARAIPOTRA: I was working on just stuff with my sister. It was like my thesis project, but it was with her. And then I finished that program in 2006, and my husband and I couldn’t figure out where to live. I was in New York, he was in California. I don’t drive. I still don’t drive. And so, we ended up going backpacking for six months through India. We were blogging while we were doing it, and making videos, and things like that. And it was really fun because we have very different travel styles. He lived in China for three years teaching English. He’s slept in a tent in Mongolia, you know? [He’s} done all this intense, crazy backpacking stuff, and I’m like, “Hey when we go to Rajasthan can we stay in like renovated palaces?” And so it was kind of a mish-mosh of both those experiences. It was the first time we had been extensively together because we were long distance for so long. It was a really fun trip, and I think a very interesting crash course in being a couple. When we got back from our trip, I started getting gigs, like journalism stuff. I ended up at People for a little while, and then I spent some time at ABCNews.com, and then I spent some time at Soap Net.
ENNI: Oh Yeah! Oh, my gosh – awesome!
CHARAIPOTRA: Which is funny…so I was doing these in-house things, which were all in New York City, and then he started teaching locally. He’s taught at like five different places in New York City. He teaches English and Creative Writing.
ENNI: There are so many schools there.
CHARAIPOTRA: So, he’s been teaching ever since then. I started adapting this screenplay that was developed at MTV, into a novel. But it was going very, very, slowly because fiction was new to me. I didn’t really feel like I had the skill set for it.
ENNI: And having your first fiction writing experience be an adaptation… there’s all kinds of stuff that goes along with that [laughing]!
CHARAIPOTRA: Oh yes, it was weird. I kept saying that like, “I don’t think I have a book in me” and he was like, “Go to school.” And I was like: “Are you crazy? I already have a masters’!” And, he was like: “You need it. You need to focus, and you need the ability to just be like, ‘Yes I’m gonna spend time actually focusing on writing.’” I was doing mostly freelance at that point. So, I applied to MFA’s when I was probably six months pregnant. The New School was the program that had the writing for children and I got wait-listed at NYU, but I think that would have been a really wrong choice for me. But I only applied for schools that were in the New York City area because we were already there and figuring stuff out and I was pregnant. When I got into The New School, my kid was a couple [of] months old. And so I decided I wasn’t gonna go, but he made me go.
ENNI: He was like, “We’ll make it work.”
CHARAIPOTRA: So Kavya was like eight months old when I started. So, she’s known Dhonielle ever since she’s been a conscious being.
ENNI: That’s so sweet.
CHARAIPOTRA: She calls her Maasi which means ‘Mother’s Sister’ and she thinks Dhonielle is her best friend.
ENNI: That is the most adorable thing I have ever heard. And also, really brave of you to be a new mom and…
CHARAIPOTRA: Nuh-uh it was him! It was all him, you know? I wouldn’t have done it. I would have just been like: “Nope. Not happening. Not meant to be…crazy time.” But he was like, “Do it!”
ENNI: Yeah and to know that you have the support.
CHARAIPOTRA: And I think that only another writer could be like, “Yeah, do it.” I think anybody else would be like, “Stay home with your kid. She’s really tiny.”
ENNI: She’s really tiny…it’s true! But I’m so happy to hear that that’s how it went.
CHARAIPOTRA: We dedicated TINY PRETTY THINGS to him. It was Dhonielle’s idea because she was like, “Yeah, this all is [because of him].” The only reason we met was because he made me go to grad school…again.
ENNI: You got into The New School, did you bring that project with you, or did you start brand new stuff?
CHARAIPOTRA: Well I knew I was gonna work on something else. I already had something else that I was working on, that was YA. So, because of that, I knew I wanted to do the writing for children program.
ENNI: That’s right; you were looking for the children specifically.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah, yeah, because the NYU program is very literary fiction oriented, and I think it would have been a very bad fit for me. I’ve talked to other people who have gone through that program, and it’s great. Really stellar instructors. But like I think it would have been a different experience [for me].
ENNI: If you know that children’s is what you want to do. And how did you know that? Were you reading a bunch of YA?
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah I’ve always read YA. It’s always been kind of my joint as far as books go. I’ve read a lot of adult too. Dhonielle doesn’t read adult books.
ENNI: I know she was very kind of proud of that.
CHARAIPOTRA: Although she is reading THE OUTLANDER now!
ENNI: Oh my gosh…
CHARAIPOTRA: Like obsessively!
CHARAIPOTRA: But like, YA I read a lot.
ENNI: So, what was the project that you went into school with? How did that come about?
CHARAIPOTRA: That was a project that’s called THE VENUS BOY TRAP. It still hasn’t…I haven’t even submitted it. It’s almost complete, but I haven’t touched it in a while. And it’s [about] Venus coming down to Earth to help a geeky girl get the guy. And the guy falls for Venus…because she’s Venus. And they have a band called The Venus Boy Trap, the three of them. And so, it’s a triangle.
ENNI: Oh, my gosh, that’s cute!
CHARAIPOTRA: So that was the first project I worked on at The New School, and I loved that project. It was really fun.
ENNI: So how did, obviously…
CHARAIPOTRA: I met Dhonielle there.
ENNI: Yes, it seems like that kind of started a lot. But how was your experience at the school overall?
CHARAIPOTRA: I liked it. I liked it a lot. Actually, because I was doing both, I considered doing a double program with the fiction program too. But I didn’t end up doing that because I would have had to stay another year. So, what I did instead was my thesis project. [It] kind of started out as YA but then, eventually, I realized the scope was bigger and it’s gonna be adult. It goes from the time they’re about five to the time they’re thirty-seven. It’s three narrators, all brown girls. And it’s a kind of going over the implosion of a friendship where two of the friends are sisters, and the third is not. It’s kind of like when you have that friend who is also like a sister. It’s based on my own experience with a friend, and the way that played out.
ENNI: So tell me about meeting Dhonielle.
CHARAIPOTRA: We met our first day of class.
ENNI: First Day!
CHARAIPOTRA: Yes, and we were like the “Yappers” in the group. We just talked and we were like, “Yep, we’re gonna get along!” And then we started Teen Writers Bloc which was a group blog. The reason Dhonielle went to The New School was because she was obsessed with the PIPPI LONGSTOCKINGS, which was a group blog with Siobhan Vivian, and Jenny Han [listen to her FirstDraft Interview here], and Coe Booth, and a few others. She already had in her head that she was gonna do that when she was at The New School and I, coming from a journalism background, obviously thought that was a great idea. We recruited the whole class, it was all twelve of us. I was pretty much like the editor of it, in the sense that I was like, “Okay everybody’s gonna write one blog a month.” That [was] their requirement. You upload it, we’ll clean it up, and that means three posts a week because there was twelve of us. And we ran that for, I think it was four years, or so. It started when we were right at the beginning of the program and it went through graduating, and a lot of books published, and stuff.
ENNI: That’s rad.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah it was cool.
ENNI: Four year’s is a long time to keep something consistent.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah especially a blog.
ENNI: When it’s a group of people and no one’s making money off of this thing!
CHARAIPOTRA: I think that was the first real connection, because we decided to do that. Navdeep designed the site, of course, because we make him do everything! So yeah, ‘D’ came over with one other of our classmates to work on blog stuff, and she met Kavya, and they hit it off. I think that was the beginning of our friendship. She liked my baby. I was like, “Okay this works.”
ENNI: You gotta be in with the baby!
CHARAIPOTRA: Yup! Kavya loved her, like immediately. Yeah, kids love her.
ENNI: And working with her on the blog would be a good way to see that you work well together.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yes. We did work well together, right from the beginning. We were like critique partners from the beginning. We wrote very different stuff, both of us. But I think also, it was an interesting dynamic in the class, because it was relatively diverse. There was five out of twelve people who were of minority backgrounds and that is statistically pretty solid numbers. But still, that’s one of the things that came up at The New School while we were there. Faculty-wise there wasn’t much diversity, and that was something that was an issue for both of us, and we actively pursued that. ‘D’ had met Andrea Davis Pinkney who’s an editor at Scholastic, and she specifically talked to Andrea, and we got her to do weekend workshops specifically on diversity. And now Andrea’s one of the advisors for the program, so people get to work with her directly. And she’s amazing. She’s also one of our mentors for CAKE.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah, she gave us priceless advice.
ENNI: Amazing. So I’d love to transition into how you guys decided to work together on a fiction project. How did that come about?
CHARAIPOTRA: Well we were critique partners, and we had talked about maybe doing something together. We had actually talked about the idea of CAKE before we collaborated on the project.
ENNI: Oh okay, I didn’t realize that it went in that order.
CHARAIPOTRA: It’s really interesting because, I had interviewed at Alloy, but I didn’t end up taking a job. One of the things they say, which makes sense, is that if you work there…they own your ideas.
ENNI: Ah, yes. And actually, do you mind just for the listener, [explaining that] Alloy is a book packager.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah, Alloy is a book packager. They’ve been around for about thirty years and they’re responsible for books like THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, and PRETTY LITTLE LIARS.
ENNI: Didn’t they do GOSSIP GIRL?
CHARAIPOTRA: I think GOSSIP GIRL, and THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS. So, they’re huge, and a lot of the stuff you’re watching on TV is Alloy related. I had interviewed at Alloy and didn’t end up taking the job because I didn’t want to give up all of my creative ideas. That’s what they do. They come up with “IP”, which is Intellectual Property, and then they hire writers to do it. I had interviewed for an editorial position there because they actually hire a lot of magazine journalists. A lot of their staff comes from journalism and editorial.
ENNI: That makes sense.
CHARAIPOTRA: Dhonielle was interning for an agent who represented another packager, and so she sort of knew what packaging was. It was something we had discussed, because we both realized that we have a lot of ideas that we will never get to. And the other thing that came up so often in our conversations – we usually met up at Patsy’s Pizza and had like a pepperoni pie and chatted and traded pages - but we always talked about how little diversity there was in children’s lit. So that was something that we wanted to change, and even if we both wrote a hundred books each, that still wouldn’t be that big of a dent.
CHARAIPOTRA: So that was something that we thought, [that] packaging could be a way to actually have an impact on that. We were plotting that, and then we knew - because we weren’t a brand name and neither of us were published at that point - that we needed something to build that brand off of. That’s why we decided to collaborate specifically on something. Then when Dhonielle told me that she used to teach at a ballet school, and she wanted to do something in that world, I was like, “Yeah that’s it!” Because I used to dance when I was really little, and she used to dance when she was really little. I have pointe shoes from when I was sixteen and obsessed with ballet. I didn’t get on to pointe ever, but my…
ENNI: But you have the shoes?
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah my mom’s friend’s daughter was a professional dancer. She was taught by Patrick Swayze.
CHARAIPOTRA: Which was really cool. So she got me pointe shoes when I was sixteen and I still have them. They’re hanging over Kavya’s bed now. So, I was really obsessed with ballet when I was little. We decided to work on that and really kind of demonstrate, through that book, how you can do really layered, organic, diversity but in a really fun, high concept, page turner-y, kind of book.
ENNI: Because you were talking about having it be like PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, or fun teen stuff.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yes, that was the element we brought with it. It was a boarding school drama, with a PRETTY LITTLE LIARS element, but so much diversity in it. And that was the concept. We worked on it for a really long time. I think we started it in 2011, and it sold in 2013, and now it’s 2016 and the second book just came out.
ENNI: Yeah, it’s been a while with these characters.
ENNI: That is so interesting. I love talking to collaborators. What was the process like to figure out how you would write one book together?
CHARAIPOTRA: It was fun! We kind of were trading pages anyway, and she knew that my style was very outline oriented. That comes from screenwriting. I love three act structure, and building things around that – beginning, middle, end - you know? All of those things… and having a turning point, and then the climax. She was the opposite. She was very free flow. Sort of big picture, but nothing nailed down, and very character oriented. And it kind of worked, in that sense. She brought those elements, and I brought the structural elements. And together it made something that I think is very strong. That’s sort of how we work on all the projects. She’s a little more outline oriented now, and I’ve definitely done character sheets, but at this point [that’s] the meld that we bring to everything. And I think that works for us.
ENNI: Yeah, that’s really neat. It’s reminding me of working with your husband, and knowing [you’re] able to be honest with one another about your strengths, and weaknesses, and asking for help when you need it. It’s not always easy with people to get to that level.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah and I think that – we went to get our Tarot cards read together recently, which is really cool because we both did our individual readings and then the lady did one for us together - and I think it’s the counterbalance that works. The things that are important to us are the same on a lot of levels. We both come from similar family backgrounds. We’re from close knit families who place a very heavy burden on education. That’s really the emphasis on figuring yourself out. She’s very Southern. I’m very Jersey. But there’s a lot of things that overlap in our value system. And the fact that, right off the bat, she hit it off with my husband and my kid. And also, that those things are important to her. I think one of her driving things is that she wants my kids to be okay financially, and emotionally. That’s a really important thing to her, and it’s rare to find that kind of partner. So, we know the quirks. And we know what needs to be done, and who needs to do what in order to get shit done.
ENNI: Yeah. Yeah.
CHARAIPOTRA: And I think that works. It’s a great partnership in that way.
ENNI: We talk a lot, as writers, about how every project is different, and we need to grow and change as a writer with every project. But knowing you can grow and change with someone, that’s also pretty amazing.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah and she knows I will slack off, big time, so she keeps tabs on me when I’m working on my solo stuff too. She’s like: “What did you do today? Where’s the chapter? Can you post it on Google Docs, so I can see it?” Even if she’s not gonna mark it up or anything, she just wants it there so she knows I’m getting shit done. Because she knows who I am, and what I will do, and how I will while away the hours.
ENNI: I wonder what it’s like to move from having Dhonielle be your co-author, to a teammate, to kind of [like] she’s your boss a little bit with the solo stuff?
CHARAIPOTRA: I think I need it. I think it’s the journalism thing, and you probably feel this too, I need the deadline. And if it’s my deadline, I don’t take it seriously.
CHARAIPOTRA: But if somebody else sets it – I have to meet the deadline, right? That’s the bottom line.
ENNI: Self deadlines just don’t work for me. They’re bad.
CHARAIPOTRA: No, me neither. And she knows that, and Navdeep knows that too. They both check in and I have a few other friends who will be texting me about stuff. Having two little kids… chaos is like the norm. It’s like… things happen. Days are gone. So, you need people on your back about stuff.
Enni: Especially having your husband who’s one of them, so that it’s like, “Okay if you really need to do something.”
CHARAIPOTRA: And he’s very specific about that. Even like right now, he’s in California. I went to go visit for ten days, and I was like, “Okay these are gonna be my kid days.” Because then I was gonna travel a lot because the book [had] just launched. So, he would go for two hours in the morning and he’d be like, “When do you want me to drop you off?” And he would drop me off at the bookstore for two hours to work. Because he’s like, “Otherwise, you’re not gonna get shit done.” And that was the bottom line. He was like: “You need to go. You need to leave the house.” And he says that to me even when we’re at home in Jersey City. Because he knows I will put on Days of our Lives, or whatever, and then just be lounging and answering emails, or on twitter. He’s like, “Leave. The. House.”
ENNI: So, I’m not asking as many questions about the books, just because we [already talked to] Dhonielle. I want to talk about what you’re doing. So, I would love to hear about how CAKE has evolved, and how you decided to try to do something on your own.
CHARAIPOTRA: Okay. So we’ve got a lot in the works for CAKE. It’s really exciting because we’ve been working on this for, god, five years now. The first two books are just me and ‘D’. We’ve had a couple others that are on sub that are gonna be [published by] us. But we’ve gotten to work with some really cool writers. The first two that sold are both debuts, and I think that’s really awesome. Honestly, to see somebody come on to a project - and the really cool thing is, yeah, it’s IP, and we come up with it - but these writers are bringing something to the table that we just could not bring. Like the book that Kaye…who is @gildedspine on Twitter, worked on. [It’s] one that is like a middle grade Jumanji that’s set in a Middle Eastern Bangladesh–ish world. And it’s [about] a little Punjabi girl. It sold to Salaam Reads, which is at Simon and Schuster, and it’s just amazing. The voice is amazing. The diversity is amazing. The flavor that she brings to the book is so cool.
[It’s] the same thing for the other one that is announced, LOVE SUGAR MAGIC . It is [about] a family of brujas in a border town in Texas. They’re Mexican-American. They run a bakery, and the baked goods are magic. And the youngest one didn’t realize her family was witches, and she discovers the book, and she starts doing magic. And chaos ensues! There’s flying pig cookies, and stuff like that. The author is Anna Meriano who is a New School grad and that’s where we met her. She’s Texan and half Mexican-American, and she just brings something to that book that neither of us could bring. It’s the first book deal for both of them. We’ve gotten to sort of walk them through the process and it’s just amazing. It’s so awesome to see somebody on the path. Sometimes it can be such a difficult road, and just to make the path easier for somebody is so cool.
ENNI: That’s actually something I really wanted to talk about, because you had a great quote from an interview that I read before and it says: “Find people who will lift you up. Find people who have the information you need. And when you have the opportunity, pay it forward.” And you talk a bunch about mentorship, when you’re talking about CAKE, and what your stated goals [are]. I think mentorship isn’t something we necessarily talk about all the time, but it’s so fundamental, especially for women and people of color, to share their experiences with each other.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah and coming from journalism, it’s really interesting. I actually talked to my friend Erica, who’s also [a] previous People person, about this a lot.
ENNI: [chuckles] Previous People person…
CHARAIPOTRA: Actually, there’s a Facebook group called “Former People People”, which is all previous People persons. But, being there at the time I was, I was one of the few brown people on staff. And I’ve actually talked to people who work there now, and they say there’s even fewer.
CHARAIPOTRA: And I think that as much as I denied it to myself at the time, there was a lot of racism there. And not a lot of opportunity for mobility, and I think a lot of it was because I didn’t have that mentor. People looked at me and they didn’t see themselves in me, even though I worked my ass off. And I think that having that experience, it changes you. And it makes your approach to things different. And I think, for Dhonielle too, it’s so important. In publishing, it can be such a closed world, even though you can query and get an agent, and this and that [pauses] it’s a small community. And it’s hard to get in the door.
ENNI: And the gatekeepers are…
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah there are a lot of gatekeepers. And so, I think that’s really important to us. To help demystify some of the stuff that is in the process, and especially for people of color and other marginalized voices, where it’s just that much harder.
ENNI: Yeah, and more intimidating I would imagine. To just hold a hand out, and to be able to answer even the most fundamental questions.
CHARAIPOTRA: And not everybody can afford to go to The New School. That’s the thing. Especially marginalized voices, it’s hard. It’s expensive. MFA’s are really expensive. It was a very worthwhile experience for me, but dude, I still have a little bit of debt to pay off that I am working on. Hopefully it will be done within a year, but you know? I can’t wait. And not everybody has that opportunity. I think that now there’s a lot more community, where you can learn things about this in a different way. If we can be part of that process, making things clearer for other people, we’re so happy to do that. Because we’ve had people who have really held a hand out to us, and I think that it’s so important.
ENNI: I wanted to make sure we hit on that because I would love for people to think about it more concretely. I think it’s important for aspiring writers to think: “How can I find mentors? And who do I want to look up to?” You have to be proactive sometimes to reach out and find that.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah and I think that social media has really opened that world up a lot. You can really connect with other people in a different way than you could five years ago even. And I think that also, YA can be very - it’s like such an awesome community - but also it can be a very clique-ish community.
ENNI: Yeah, intimidating.
CHARAIPOTRA: There’s both sides of it. And I think that you have to find the people that are the right fit for you, and it’s not going to be everybody. And it [is] something that you need to accept. It’s like… find the people who are going to cheer you on and be part of your path, and do whatever they can to help you. And know that it won’t be everybody. Because there’s a lot of competitiveness as well, which we’ve experienced firsthand.
ENNI: Yeah, less than Adult Fiction I think? But obviously, definitely still there. And actually, kind of like the lesson you learn when you go into any professional industry. When you leave school, and enter the real world it’s like, “Argh!” Find your people and build a life raft together, and fare the high seas as best you can.
CHARAIPOTRA: So much of it is failure, and I think that being able to share and commiserate, and have people be like, “Hey! You’ll get ‘em next time!”, is really important. Otherwise it’s so easy to just be like, “Oh god, I can’t do this anymore.” It can be a really long road.
ENNI: But I almost think it’s even more telling when there’s success. People who aren’t able to honestly and genuinely welcome and cheer and celebrate with you…
CHARAIPOTRA: And people who you’ve cheered on and then they cannot do that same thing for you. That, I think, is the most telling. We’ve definitely experienced that too. Especially because with CAKE, it was a different thing, because when we announced our debut [and] we also announced CAKE and [pauses] yeah.
ENNI: That’s a lot!
ENNI: It’s a lot you know? [And] it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It just tells you something about people, and you just need to listen to that.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah and who you can rely on I think is really – it’s important to know who you can rely on - and I haven’t always been the best judge of character.
ENNI: Oh, my god, yeah. It’s a learning phase, right? It’s such a thing. I think it’s important to say it’s not being judgmental, it’s just looking out for yourself, and for who’s gonna be your best help.
CHARAIPOTRA: And also knowing what you can share, and what to hold close. I think that’s the other aspect of it.
ENNI: Oh, my gosh yeah. I think especially as women. As a kid, my friendships were so tight that it was like literally share everything. Don’t keep secrets at all! And then growing up it was like, “Oh no, but… I mean, don’t.” And learn when to keep it to yourself.
CHARAIPOTRA: And that’s the thing. There are a lot of things that people don’t talk about. We were talking about this earlier, you know? Especially about money and bills, those kinds of things. People hold that close. And maybe a little more clarity there would be something that would be beneficial to everybody. And I know you guys are working hard on that.
ENNI: Trying to [laughing].
CHARAIPOTRA: But on the other hand, not everybody needs to know every detail of your experience. There is a lot of zero sum game, and jealousy, and who wants to deal with that? I dealt with that in high school and I don’t want to relive it. And honestly, I don’t have time for it. I don’t. It’s just not a thing.
ENNI: It’s true. I would love to hear [about] your solo projects. How did your ideas for these come about?
CHARAIPOTRA: I get a lot of ideas from random [places]. I think it’s the film and TV junkie in me. Dhonielle and I, a lot of the time that’s where we’ll start spinning stuff off of. Like the VENUS BOY TRAP for example - the one I told you about earlier, that I will eventually get back to because it’s just so fun - I was watching a documentary on Roman gods and goddesses. And I was like, “Ah, that Venus, she’s such a character.” And then I was like, “What if she really was a character?” And, of course, everybody falls for her. So, that triangle is sort of natural.
I’m working on something right now. It’s set in the Mughal raj, which is like the time the Taj Mahal was built. How it came about was, there’s a movie called Bajirao Mastani, which is a Bollywood Film, and the visuals of it are just stunning. Gorgeous. I had just seen the trailer of it, and it was very vague. And I was like, “Oh what is the story here?” And I started spinning a story in my head, and that turned out to not be the story of the movie, but I was like, “THAT is a kick-ass story!” And so that turned into the story that I’m working on.
ENNI: Cool! So, is it straight historical? Or is it…?
CHARAIPOTRA: I mean, it’s historical / fantasy. There’s fantasy elements to it, and magic and stuff, and I’d never written fantasy before. And I hadn’t read all that much, so Dhonielle’s been tutoring me in it. So, I’m doing a world building document. I’ve written [the] outline and I’m working on chapters, and she’s like, “Think about how the infrastructure works,” and this and that. One of the ones I read recently that I’m obsessed with was THE WINNER’S CURSE trilogy, which she turned me on to, and I love Marie, she’s awesome.
ENNI: Yeah, so good. Everyone I know who’s read that series is obsessed with it.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yes, and Marie’s always like, “You want me to read your fantasy?” And I’m like, “NO! No, no, no, no.” How do you start with somebody like that reading your work when you’re like a newbie to it?
ENNI: It’s like, “I’ll get you in a few rounds.” [Laughing] How are you liking working by yourself?
CHARAIPOTRA: I like it, it’s interesting. But I do need the accountability. That’s really something that I need. The deadline and things like that. And then I’m trying to finish the adult project as well. The one that was the script. So that will eventually get done. I’m hoping it will be done this year because it’s been ten years. And that one is probably the closest to me and my experience personally. And I call it, Bridget Jones meets Bollywood. That’s sort of the pitch for it.
ENNI: I love that! Um…Sold!
ENNI: [Laughing] That’s so cool cause it did strike me that you’ve done so much working with other people and collaborative work.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah because I am not capable of finishing things by myself. I need that motivator.
ENNI: Yeah and it’s so wonderful that you’ve reached a point where you have enough community that you can do your own thing, but still count on people around you.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yes, and I think that’s really important.
ENNI: We wrap up by asking for advice. So, I’d really love to hear your advice from a writing standpoint, and also from someone who is sort of tutoring writers. As you put on your “CAKE” hat as it were…advice you’d give to people starting out.
CHARAIPOTRA: I think we’ve hit on a lot of what I think the biggest lessons, for me, have been. The first is: Finish Stuff! Which, it’s still hard. It’s so easy to give up on something, and I think that having people over your shoulder a little bit - if that’s what you need – do it. Because it will make you get stuff done. Finishing things is a really important thing. And I say that from my own experience, and from my husband’s experience, and just from seeing other writers as well. If you finish stuff, and if you’re diligent, and you have your butt in the chair - talent is important - but I almost think it’s secondary to getting shit done.
ENNI: Yeah, it’s true.
CHARAIPOTRA: I think that’s really a hard lesson. But I think, [with] over ten to fifteen years now of writing in various forms, I think that’s what I’ve learned. And then find people who will be your tribe, really, I think that’s the other thing. People who can be mentors, but also can be your cohorts. Have [the] experiences that you’re having, and commiserate, and also celebrate.
ENNI: Yeah definitely. And that’s your mentor perspective also?
ENNI: Yeah! Those are really, really good points, and ones that can’t be heard enough.
CHARAIPOTRA: Yeah, seriously.
ENNI: Well thank you so much Sona, this was so much fun!
CHARAIPOTRA: Thank you! It was so exciting!
ENNI: Let’s go have dinner now.
[Closing music plays]
ENNI: Thank you so much to Sona. Follow her @sona_c and follow the show @firstdraftpod and me @sarahenni. You can also find the show on Facebook and see what I am up to as well as get sneak peeks at future guests on Instagram. For my favorite quotes from this and every episode as well as book recommendations and a link to sign up for the First Draft newsletter, check out FirstDraftPod.com.
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Thanks to Hashbrown for the theme song and to Collin Keith and Maureen Goo for the logos. Thanks also to super intern Sara DeMont and, as ever, thanks to all you shiny, broken, bad-asses for listening.