First Draft, Ep. 107: Sandhya Menon- Transcript
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Sarah ENNI: Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Sandhya Menon, author of WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI, out May 30th. Sandhya and I had a plan on the book for weeks to chat while she was in Los Angeles for YALLWEST. Then, the morning of our interview, some real airport nonsense went down. Thankfully, Sandhya got to her hotel in LA just in time for our chat, and was remarkably calm and relaxed considering all that flight drama. Sandhya was so thoughtful and sweet, and she has a really great laugh too. So, have some hotel Fiji water, make like John McClain in DIE HARD and curl your toes in the carpet, and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: Okay, so thank you so much! I know you just basically got here from the airport.
Sandhya MENON: Yes, I did.
ENNI: You’re alive!
MENON: I know, I made it!
ENNI: Actually, right off the bat – sorry to have to ask this – but do you mind pronouncing your name? So, I make sure I get it right.
MENON: Sure, I’m Sandhya Menon.
ENNI: I was saying Sandhya [slightly different pronunciation], so I am happy to know.
MENON: Yeah, that’s not as bad as some of the stuff I’ve heard.
ENNI: Good. I really don’t want to mess that up the whole time. So, for this interview, I like to start at the very beginning, which is where were you born and raised?
MENON: Oh! Okay. So, I was born in Mumbai, or Bombay, India. Kind of raised there and in the Middle East, so back and forth a lot. And then when I was fifteen, is when I moved to the US with my parents.
ENNI: Where in the Middle East?
MENON: Dubai, and Abu Dhabi.
ENNI: Wow, okay! And also, going back and forth from the U.S.? Or, was it one place, one place, one place?
MENON: No, it would be a couple years in Dubai and then back to India. And then maybe to Abu Dhabi and then back to India. So, every two or three years.
ENNI: That’s a lot.
MENON: I know, it was. But, I don’t even remember being afraid, or scared, or intimidated, because it was just such a part of my life. It was like, “Yup! Time to move again.” Kind of like military families, I guess.
ENNI: Right, time to start over.
ENNI: That’s kind of extreme. Two or three years and then, like a total self-renovation.
MENON: The nice thing was that, in India, our base was the same. We had an apartment there the whole time. So, I kind of knew the neighborhood already, but the schools and the people would change. So, I kind of had a home base, but then there was also a little bit of new stuff around it. But then, I also had a lot of family in India, so it felt more comfortable to go back there every couple of years.
ENNI: That’s nice to have that feeling of one place stays steady. Was your immediate family really big?
MENON: No, it was just my parents, me, and my sister. But, I have a huge extended family. So, they were the ones we would go back to in Bombay. I say they were extended, but they really were like second parents to me. So, it didn’t really feel like extended family, it just felt like family.
ENNI: I’m really interested in, and want to get more into, the transition to U.S. life. But also, the difference between moving from India and Abu Dhabi. Were any of them significantly harder than the others? What were the different transitions like?
MENON: I would say the U.S. where I moved to, South Carolina, Charleston, was by far the hardest. And I think that was because I was fifteen. But also, in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there are these very big Indian populations already. In fact, I even went to Indian schools when I was there. I had to learn Arabic and everything, but it wasn’t like a completely different culture and customs, like nobody there shared what I knew. There was always that feeling I could find a community where people knew who I was. But when I came to the U.S., and South Carolina especially, it was not like that at all.
ENNI: It’s different.
MENON: Yeah, totally different. I thought I knew everything about America from watching movies, so I was super confident. Like, “Oh, I got this, whatever.” And then I was like: “Oh my god. What is going on? I don’t know what people are saying. And their southern accents!”
ENNI: That’s true, that is not covered in movies, a true southern accent.
MENON: I know! So yeah, it was very difficult. And that was the least of my worries. But being a teenager, I mean fifteen, that’s the worst time to be plunged into a new culture.
ENNI: It’s already so full of angst anyway.
MENON: I know, so angst-y!
ENNI: In your childhood of moving around, and different environments, how did reading and writing factor into growing up for you?
MENON: It’s kind of interesting, because where I lived in India, we didn’t have a library system. And I don’t think that that’s very common in India… that’s not like a college library, you know? Just a library where you can go, and check out fun books, that’s not….
ENNI: You mean libraries aren’t common in India in general?
MENON: Right, yeah. So, there’s no formal library system. In India, we would have this lady who basically ran a library in our neighborhood, out of her home.
MENON: I know.
ENNI: I was gonna say, something must be in place of it.
MENON: It was really neat. People would donate their old, used copies of books, and you would go in and check out the book. There were no fees or anything for being late. But, she knew your mom, so you definitely didn’t want to be late! [laughing]
ENNI: Yes, the consequences were real!
MENON: Exactly! I mean, come on, that’s way scarier than fines!
ENNI: It truly is.
MENON: So, I grew up reading whatever was available. There was no requesting, or putting on hold, or whatever. I think that helped me broaden my horizons, a lot. I was also reading very non-age appropriate things, like Stephen King, when I was eight. Which was a really bad idea, but… [laughing]
ENNI: I think a lot of us… that seems like a common theme of me talking to all of these people. And I’m like, “I don’t know if it’s chicken or the egg, or what?” But, did Stephen King make us who we are? Or, are who we are, made us seek out Stephen King? I’m not sure. Either way, we are all in the same boat now!
MENON: I know, I know. He’s always in there in the formative years… Stephen King.
ENNI: It’ true. But, were you reading in English?
MENON: I was. So, in India, all of the books are released in English. Even the Indian editions will be in English because the middle class is huge, and everybody speaks English. English was actually my first language, even though I was born in India. Kind of Interesting.
ENNI: That is really interesting.
MENON: Yeah, most people think it’s probably Hindi, or something else, but no, it was actually English. I always spoke it better than I did Hindi.
ENNI: I’m so fascinated by people who are raised simultaneously speaking two languages, because it seems there must be sort of, maybe, you’re more comfortable talking about certain topics in certain languages. Or, like, English is associated with maybe movies, or… Do you feel like there’s one thing that speaking Hindi makes you feel, versus English?
MENON: I’m more comfortable doing professional things in English. If I had to write a research paper in Hindi, I wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s all conversational, my Hindi. But at the same time, if I am around people who speak Hindi, or if I’m watching something in Hindi, if you speak to me in English, I will automatically want to answer in Hindi. Because my brain takes a minute to switch gears. Which is really weird.
ENNI: That makes sense to me.
MENON Yeah, and that happens sometimes. And then also, I have a very strong Indian accent when I’m talking to my family in English, but when I’m talking to anybody here in the states, I have an American accent. So, it’s very strange.
ENNI: That’s so funny. I think I am not alone in that, when I travel, like I’ll be in London and I’ll have a pint, and then all of a sudden, I’m doing an accent. And I’m like: “This is so offensive! I need to calm down.” But you just want to mimic what’s around you, you know?
MENON: That’s awesome! Yeah, kind of like that, but I think it’s deeply rooted in there, because I had an Indian accent for so long, that it just comes back.
ENNI: Part of the reason why it’s fresh in my mind, is that last week I was with Lilliam Rivera (listen to her First Draft Interview here, and get her transcript here), at the LA Times Festival of Books and this really amazing book seller (Rueben Martinez) was receiving an award and he was being recognized for bringing Spanish language books to Santa Ana, California. And really building up Spanish language books representation in Southern California. And he was like, “English is for getting you where you want to go, and Spanish is for the feeling, and the passion.” And he described himself as ‘double-hearted’, which was like, “That’s so beautiful.” Thinking about what the language has meant to him, or which one he’d default to for certain feelings. That’s so interesting to me.
Do you get the chance to speak Hindi on a regular basis, still?
MENON: I don’t, sadly. It’s interesting because my family is actually from South India, so they don’t speak Hindi. They speak something called Malayalam, which I was never good at. I could speak it, I was conversational, but I was never very good at it. And growing up in Bombay, I spoke a lot of Hindi to my friends. And so, that’s where I used Hindi. Now I never use it. Sometimes I’ll practice it, just to make sure I can still fluently speak it. When I go to Indian restaurants, I’ll order in Hindi. But it’s sad, but I don’t get to use it very much.
ENNI: These latent skills that we have. I’d love to hear more about the transition to America. I love that you’d been watching the movies, so you’re like, “I got this!” Is your sister older, or younger?
MENON: She’s six years older.
ENNI: Older, okay, so you’re kind of on your own then.
MENON: I am, yeah.
ENNI: You’re in high school, in the U.S., figuring it out.
MENON: She didn’t move here, so it was just me and my parents who moved here. She was already in college at that time… finishing up college. I know, it was crazy. I have no words to describe the culture shock.
ENNI: But, the original question ties in though, were you doing any writing at that time? Or, reading? Was that a place for you to escape?
MENON: Yeah, definitely, I was still writing. I started out writing short stories. So, I was writing a lot of short stories, and some very bad poetry. So, I was doing that in my spare time, and I was also reading. I lived walking distance from a library, and so I was like: “Oh my god! What is this place?” I basically started spending so much time at the library that the librarians asked if I wanted to start volunteering there.
MENON: And so, I did! I loved it so much, it was an amazing experience. It definitely tied me to the culture and helped me to root myself better.
ENNI: So that was a safe haven for you, and books, what kind of short stories were you writing?
MENON: That’s a good question. I think, just whatever I wanted to. I don’t think there were ever any genre or any specific topic, it was just whatever I wanted to.
ENNI: Were you ever thinking about, “This is something I really love, and I want to explore it in a professional way?”
MENON: I’ve always thought about that. And my parents, being Indian, were definitely sorely opposed. Just like Rishi’s parents, arts are not a career so, don’t do that. I do have an uncle who likes to write and he actually went into advertising and writes on the side. So, I always knew there were people who did write, but constantly being told: “Don’t do it. It’s a bad idea. You can’t support yourself like that.” On the other side, there were people who were like, “You should totally do that, because your husband can support you.” [Laughing] And it was like, “Um, neither of those options sounds good to me.” So, I never really considered that it would be my sole profession.
ENNI: But it was something that you were definitely engaged in, pretty frequently, it sounds like.
MENON: Definitely, I was always writing. And I always thought it would be a part of my life forever. But, I just never thought I could be a professional writer.
ENNI: Were you actively fighting against that? When your parents [were] saying [that]. Or, was it just a part of [your life]? How did you think about it? Is it a Dimple, kind of actively…?
MENON: [Laughs] I think she’s who I’d wished I was. But I was never quite that brave, no. No, I was more like Rishi in that. So, I was like: “Okay, you’re right. Maybe I’ll teach, and then I can write on the side.” But then I took a psychology course in high school, it was like an AP course. And I fell in love with that, so I decided, “Okay. I’ll do psychology in college instead.”
ENNI: That’s amazing that they had that in high school.
MENON: Oh yeah! My high school was a small magnet school. It had a 99% acceptance rate into college. So, they were constantly pushing us. We didn’t have any classes under the honors level, so you had to take a certain number of college classes. It totally opened my eyes to this whole other world.
ENNI: Psychology 101 is this rite of passage for college freshmen, but I also think a high school level class of that would be great for engendering empathy, or for being thoughtful about that kind of thing. It’s one of those ones where I’m like, “I’m pretty sure everyone should have this class.”
MENON: Yes! It totally changed my perspective about everything. And then I thought, “If you want to be a really good writer, you have to understand human behavior, anyway.” So, it couldn’t hurt to do that.
ENNI: So, the fact that you were making this transition to high school, and America, and South Carolina specifically - all of these really specific places - but you were in a driven academic environment. Did that make the transition a little easier? [Since] everyone was really focused on one thing. Or, was it just not easy at all?
MENON: It was definitely easy because everybody was there because they were passionate about academia, and wanting to go to a college. And also, it was a really small school. My class had only eighty kids.
MENON: Yeah, so it was great. There were no cliques. There were definitely rich kids and poor kids, and I fell into the latter category. So, I never had a lot of the friends who lived in super fancy places. And, they were all white, obviously.
ENNI: Were you the only non-white person in your class?
MENON: Oh no, no, no! The rich people were all white. So, I, actually being of the poor person variety, had a lot of diverse friends, which really helped me feel not so alone. That was actually a really good thing that happened. Of course, it was the nineties, so there were still people who were very rigid in their thinking, and not very immigrant-friendly. So, there was that, but for the most part, I have good memories of high school.
ENNI: Was there any Indian community, or neighbors, or anything to soften the blow of a brand-new place?
MENON: Right, so my parents immediately hooked me up with the one other Indian girl in my class. Which was funny, because she was born here in the States, and her parents had been here for thirty years, or something, so they were very different from us. She was very welcoming, and immediately took me under her wing and everything, but I still felt very different. To me, she seemed way more American than Indian. And, at the time, I didn’t get the concept of Indian-Americanness, so I was like: “She’s not Indian. And I’m not American. So, I don’t know what we’re gonna talk about.” We actually ended up being really good friends. Sadly, she was only there for a semester and then she moved off to another school.
ENNI: Oh, no!
MENON: I know! Then I became the only Indian kid in my class, which was awesome. But there was an Indian community, it was an Indian association, of that area. But my parents were the newest, freshest, off-the-boat people, and everybody was way better off. They’d been here for so long that they had better jobs than my dad did. So, we never quite fit in. And then it kind of fizzled out, and we just never ended up going to a lot of events or anything.
ENNI: So, you were kind of carving your own path.
MENON: Yeah, for sure, for sure. And, it was pretty isolating, but it forced you to grow up quickly, and it forced you to find a way to fit in and make friends.
ENNI: I talk about this a lot. There’s actually – and people who listen to a lot of these episodes will be tired of hearing this – but, it so consistently happened that I talk to people who write young adult fiction, who have – at that age – something that life changing, a disruption that is so complete. I moved from Texas to California when I was twelve. So, any time that you burn it all down, and start over, you have to shape your life, and think about who you are, and what do I want to be perceived as. It’s like this moment to really [pauses] it does make you grow up fast. I’m really responding to that. And, in a way, I feel like maybe that’s why a lot of us are pulled to think more about that age, and the feelings at that time. Because we had to grow up so fast, and think about it so dynamically at that time. I don’t think any of us are underestimating teens. We had to really know ourselves, and be quick on our feet at that age, so we respect that.
MENON: Yes, definitely! I totally agree. You’re not sheltered, you’re not that spoiled kid that a lot of people think teens are. I think teens can be some of the most resilient people.
ENNI: And something that I think is consistent – I was talking to Jenny Han a little bit about this (listen to her First Draft interview here, and get her transcript here), who is also the daughter of immigrants. And she was an older sister, even. So, really, the onus was on Jenny to figure out the norms, figure out her place, figure out how to move forward. She was talking about her parents not really being able to help her with college applications, because they were like: “Oh no. We trust you, Jenny.” And it’s making her the adult, way before she may have been ready. Is that anything like your experience?
MENON: Oh yeah, definitely. My parents tried hard because they wanted me to go to college and do these things, but ultimately, it was up to me. The SAT’s and the prep, they didn’t know any of the…
ENNI: Oh, my gosh, which is all really complicated.
MENON: It is, especially when you have not concept of what an SAT is. For the longest time, they called it ‘The Sat’ because we thought it was ‘The Sat’ [laughs], just totally so different. So, I did all of the applications myself as well, and hoped for the best. I wasn’t eligible for a lot of scholarships and the federal loans, because we had only been in the US for a year-and-a-half, or two years, at that point.
ENNI: You weren’t eligible for it because it was so recent?
ENNI: Whoa, that’s crazy.
MENON: I was on this visa under my dad’s work visa, it was a different ballgame for us.
ENNI: By the way, figuring out college is hard enough as a born citizen, so layering that on top of the bureaucracy? Oh, my gosh.
MENON: I know, it was horrible. And the other fun thing about being on my dad’s visa was that I didn’t have a social security number, myself. So, people, as soon as you said that, their faces would close up, because they thought you were here illegally. And I was like, “It’s not like I could walk over from India.” So, that was a fun twist.
ENNI: And these are the stories that a lot of the people in this country don’t understand, that not having ID… like when it comes to voting rights, and people are like, “How do you not have that?” It’s like, you need to understand how many different experiences there are. It’s not that easy.
MENON: Definitely, and it was expensive to get here, so it wasn’t like we were taking a shortcut or anything. I actually paid a lot of money to be here, but I don’t have a social security number.
ENNI: What did you decide to study in school? Where did you go?
MENON: My freshman year I did at USC, which is not Southern California, but South Carolina [laughing]. I went there in Columbia, and I did my first year. I was a psychology major, and then I was doing really badly in the math classes, because it was like another culture shock going to college in America. It was totally different. And so, I was failing math…
ENNI: Well, how do you mean different?
MENON: All of my life, I had been trained, I guess, to consider that I would go to a college in India. So, in India it’s different, your high school career ends in 10th grade, and then 11th and 12th grade, you’re sort of in college already, and then you progress to further college.
ENNI: That’s kind of like the British system, right?
MENON: It is, yeah. And then, throughout it, you live at home. If you have to live in the dorms, you do it way into your college period, several years into it. And then the college atmosphere itself is totally different. There are party schools, but generally, they’re not like that. The kids are very serious. There are different tiers of colleges. So, there are the party schools, for the art students [laughing], which my parents didn’t want me to go to. And then there are people who do commerce, which is basically economics and finance, and then there are people who do science. So, I was being trained to do medical school, essentially, which I had no aptitude for by the way. But, they were like: “That’s a good career for you. Do that.”
ENNI: You were getting swept along in this.
MENON: Yeah. And my sister was doing engineering.
ENNI: And she went to college in India?
MENON: Yeah, her entire career was in India. So, I was on that path, and I was ready to do all of that. I was looking at schools like, “Where might I go?” I was considering that peripherally, when we moved to the U.S. So, it was like, “Oh, my gosh. What is going on?” The kids were [having] parties. I didn’t know what a sorority was. My roommate happened to be in a sorority, and let’s just say she had some habits that were definitely scary to me at that age, because I was only seventeen when I went to college. So, I was like, “What is happening? Oh, my god, there’s underwear on my bed!”
ENNI: Oh, my gosh. That was a lot!
MENON: Yes, it was way too much. I was living an hour-and-a-half away from my parents for the first time in my life, and it was just really different. So, I was not doing well as a psych major, essentially, and I wanted to consider changing to English, because I kept going back to that. I was writing for the literary magazine, and I was like, “I’m just more comfortable, I think, being a lit major.” But then, I happened to stay and do psychology anyway, for four years.
ENNI: Okay, at USC?
MENON: So, after USC I moved to Idaho, where I went to Boise State University for a couple of years. And then I finished up at a small college called Park University.
ENNI: How did you find Idaho?
MENON: That’s an interesting story. Basically, I got married very young, could have been a tragedy, but actually turned out well.
ENNI: There’s a lot of YA writers who found true love in high school. Which is another thing that I think brings people back to writing for that age, and taking that age seriously.
MENON: Interesting! My husband was actually my first high school friend in the U.S.
ENNI: That’s the cutest story ever.
MENON: [laughing] I know, right? I know, I know, I know. Even when I had the accent and everything, but we were friends for a long time and then we started dating. But we got married really young. He was in the Air Force, and so we decided to pick where we wanted to be stationed, and we wanted to be far away from our parents, who were both in South Carolina. So, we went to Idaho, and I finished college there.
ENNI: In my mind, South Carolina and Idaho [are] both rural, but really different. Culturally, are stark differences.
MENON: Yes, totally different. In Idaho, we were stationed, and we did not realize what was a very rural community. There were like ten-thousand people in that entire town. And, we thought Idaho would be a good mix, because we saw [that] Boise was really close to the base. It actually ended up being about an hour away. So, we wanted to be near a biggish city, and we ended up in this super rural, cow-town, which smelled like manure all the time [chuckles]. We had to spend six years there.
ENNI: Six years there? Did it end up feeling homey? Were you always one foot out the door?
MENON: The problem with Idaho, and that area in particular, was that it was full of racism. It was so rural, and people had lived there all their lives, for generations. And, it was also shortly after 9/11 happened. So, when I was working to put myself through college, I actually had people who would refuse to work with me, because they thought I was a terrorist. Just because I was brown, essentially.
And I had other people who would ask me if I spoke Spanish, all kinds of very ignorant things. There were men who would grab my butt when I was working, because the culture was so backwards, that they would feel like that was okay.
ENNI: What?! That’s horrifying. Working where?
MENON: I was at a hospital as a physical therapy aide.
ENNI: [Silent, but surprised reaction]
MENON: I know! It wasn’t even anything…
ENNI: Not that there is any place that that would make that okay, but it’s not like you were on a wait staff, or at a bar.
MENON: Yeah, no, they were not drunk, they were there for rehab. And it was like: “My knee’s broken. Here, let me grab your butt.” It was horrible.
ENNI: Well, Idaho is also - not to cast aspersions on Idaho, there’s plenty of great places in Idaho – but it has also had that compound. And, is one of the biggest areas where there are white supremacists in this country.
MENON: KKK. Yeah, they were slightly north of us. There was a lot of horrible, horrible things that I had to do. The great thing was that my immediate supervisor was a black woman, who took me under her wing, and we just stuck together like glue. We were each other’s life support, basically.
ENNI: And she was also in the town of ten-thousand people?
MENON: Yes, she just happened to be there. And she had also moved there because her ex-husband was in the military. So, we just bonded right away. And so, for the entire time I was there, she was kind of my best friend.
ENNI: Being far away from family, and embarking on your own – creating your own life – and being in that environment, that’s really hard.
MENON: It was, it was crazy. And being a young married person, and we were very poor, because when you are first married – if you’re young – you’re very poor. And in the Air Force, he was enlisted at the time, you don’t get paid anything. I was trying to put myself through college, so it was just a really hard time. But also, another time for growth. It was another time to see like, “Wow, I can do it, and I can support myself.” And, “Life is hard right now, but we’re upwardly mobile and things are getting better.”
ENNI: I love that you said that, because that’s what I was imagining. That it must have been this period where you really proved yourself, to yourself.
ENNI: Those are really difficult things, but in my head, I think about those times as… I’ve often had experiences in my life where one day I wake up, and I’m like: “Wow! Everything feels a little easier, right now, than it did six months ago.” And you look back and go: “Oh! That really hard time where I was barely making it through every day… I did learn something from that.” And actually now, I’ve hit my stride a little bit. You’re like shedding skin, kind of.
MENON: Exactly, that’s such a great way to put it. You become a newer, better, stronger version of yourself, which is so great. I think I was very lucky. My husband and I have had a great marriage, from the start. We’ve been best friends, more than anything, and so I always had a home to come back to. Even when I was in this horribly, racist, sexist cesspool, I could come back home, and I knew he’d understand. I think that, whatever your support system is, you have to find it. Him, and my best friend, who was the black woman I talked about. You have to have those people in your life who will understand and unconditionally love you, no matter what.
ENNI: Yes, lifelines. At that stage of your life, how was writing…? Were you still doing it? Were you thinking about it?
MENON: I was still doing it, on-and-off. I remember there was a hard time when I was working two jobs, and going to college full-time, and I don’t remember writing anything during those years, because there was no time, literally.
ENNI: Which makes sense. And having to drive between…
MENON: Yes, but I would always make time, apart from that time, I always made time to write because it was like a release. I had journals, but I also had short stories, and poems, that I was always working on.
ENNI: That kind of thing is interesting to me, because I’m guessing, at that time, you still weren’t [thinking], “I want to be a published author”?
MENON: No, no, not at all. And, what’s funny is, I loved Sophie Kinsella. I devoured all of her books. And, at that time, I started writing what was my first, quote/unquote, chick-lit novel. I worked on it for years, and I never thought, “What’s the end goal?” I just was writing, just for fun. “Let’s see if you can do a book like Sophie Kinsella can.” You know? [Laughing]
ENNI: I love hearing that, because it is very interesting how writing is truly a passion. That’s true for most people that I get the chance to talk to. It’s like: “Well, I was just always doing this. And then one day, it was like, well, maybe I can be published.” We tell ourselves what we love to do, so obviously, in some cases.
I do want to get to WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI. So, bring me up to speed there. When did the publishing light come one? Or, did this idea come first? How did you get to it?
MENON: This idea was actually my editor’s idea. Jen, who’s my editor, came up with this idea. Because she has always had Indian friends, and has loved Indian culture. She had this idea for two teens who were polar opposites, and their parents wanted them to end up together, in the end. And that was the loose idea she had, and she wanted an Indian-American writer to write it. She reached out to a couple of agents, and said, “Do you know anybody who would be interested?” My agent was one of them. At the time, I was writing all dark, adult stuff, and she was like: “Hey, this editor has contacted me with this idea, and she’s looking for somebody to write it. What do you think?” And I was like, “Meh, I don’t know about writing somebody else’s idea.” [Then] I was like: “Oh, come on. And plus, it sounds so not at all like what I’m usually writing.” So, I opened up the proposal, and I read it. It sparked my imagination in a way that hadn’t been sparked at that point. And I’ll get to that later, if you want. But, I hadn’t written in a year, and it kicked something into gear. And I was like: “Wow! At least I have to try.” The idea was to write thirty pages.
ENNI: Let’s back up really quick, because I totally want to hear about how you go from trying to write the chick-lit, to then writing this really dark [stuff]. Fill in the gaps there. What was going on?
MENON: So, that’s a good question. There were about ten years between writing the chick-lit book and writing the dark, adult stuff. Basically, I kept writing stuff, and I wrote some short stories for little anthologies that were published. They were all horror stories, from my Stephen King days, obviously. I love horror, I really love horror. So, I wrote short stories in that. And then I was like, “Maybe I could write a book, and have people read it.” At the time, I had just had my kids. They were a year apart, which was not planned like that. I was like: “Whoa! I have two little kids. I’m going crazy!” So, “Maybe now is a good time to start writing.”
I wrote this book, and it was a dystopian. And at the time, it was 2012, and people were like: “Dystopian is over. Traditional publishers are not going to buy that.” So, I decided to self-publish it. And so, I did. And it did fairly well, for self-publishing. I got a little bit of an audience. And then, I torpedoed it by writing something completely different next. So, people were like: “What is this? This is not at all what you were supposed to be writing.” But I loved that book that I wrote. It just wasn’t dystopian, it was contemporary, and it was dark, and it was adult.
After I wrote that, I was kind of in a slump. I self-published some other things, but I really didn’t know what to do, and that’s when my agent found me.
ENNI: Oh! So, she found you?
MENON: Yeah, she had downloaded that contemporary, dark book, that nobody bought, basically. And she bought it, and read it, and loved it. She was like: “I really like your voice. I think you could do well in traditional publishing. What do you think?” I had never been opposed to traditional publishing, I just didn’t want to spend a lot of time querying and things like that.
ENNI: Yeah, there’s a whole system.
MENON: Exactly, and with two young kids, I was like, “I don’t know if I have the mental space for that right now.”
ENNI: The research…
MENON: Yeah, so when she approached me, I researched her. I talked her and we were on the same page about a lot of things, so we signed on together. I forget what I was working on, exactly, with her. Something dark, and adult. And it just fizzled out, and I stopped writing. I just didn’t know where to go with it, and I was like, “I’m just done.” Actually, I’d started grad school for psychology, and I was like, “Maybe I’ll just go on with that plan, since the writing thing… I just don’t know what’s going on with it.”
ENNI: I love that you were on this path, and then it kind of fizzled out, or you were struggling with it. And then, what sparked you creatively, was something so different. Were you upset when the writing kind of fizzled out? Were you feeling like, “Maybe I don’t have this anymore?” What was that time like?
MENON: It was horrible, it was a very dark time. I was struggling with some depression and anxiety issues anyway, so it just felt like this huge failure. I felt like I was doing well with writing, I did well with that one self-published book, and I got an agent. But, “I just don’t know what I’m doing anymore.” I felt very dry. You know when you have all of those ideas, and you are kind of buzzing? And things feel good, and things are clicking? It was the opposite of that. It was like tumbleweeds across the landscape of my mind.
ENNI: And, at this point, were you in Colorado already?
MENON: No, we had moved back from Idaho, to South Carolina. So, this was all in South Carolina, again.
ENNI: So, you’re back where your American journey started, where the family is. You have the two young kids. And, I’m guessing they’re probably under five when you’re going through this?
MENON: Oh yeah, they were little tiny toddlers. I think two and three, or something like that.
ENNI: I don’t want to project, or make assumptions, but I’ve seen friends of mine go through this. Where it’s like that time, especially with two under five, that is such a unique moment of stress and craziness. And, you’re sort of not able to be yourself, in some ways. I’m glad that you had family there, at that time, because that’s always helpful. Or, I’m assuming that they were still in South Carolina?
MENON: My parents were not, but my in-laws were.
ENNI: Well, that’s actually interesting, you were sort of an island. Your identity gets dissolved a little bit at times like that. Do you feel like that was a part of it? What you were going through?
MENON: Oh, my gosh! Totally. Having young kids is challenging anyway, and then I had post-partum depression, and then I had depression lingering after that. It was awful. Everything was so overwhelming, to lose writing was especially painful.
ENNI: It’s been like a life raft for you, kind of.
MENON: Exactly, and then a year after that was when Jen reached out to Thao, my agent, and once again I was on the…. I don’t know what it’s called… a boat. A lifeboat of writing?
ENNI: Yeah, the lifeboat was back!
ENNI: That’s so delightful that this idea came your way and it reignited something. How did you feel about then diving back in with something so different? Was it scary? What were you thinking?
MENON: Oh, my gosh, it was so scary, yes. I was like, “I know I love Sophie Kinsella, but I don’t think I amSophie Kinsella.” So, like, “What am I gonna do here?” But I also loved Jenny Han and Morgan Matson (listen to her First Draft interview here), so I had been reading in the genre for years. [When] I was writing it, I decided to turn off all those editors, the internal editors, and I was like: “Let’s just see what comes out of this. You don’t have to submit it, if it sucks.” I think they asked for thirty pages and the synopsis of where I wanted to take the story, and key scenes, and things like that.
So, I did all that, and I sent it to my agent, and I was like, “For better or for worse, here it is.” And she loved it, and she was like: “Oh, my god. This is so funny, and it’s great! I love it.” And it hasn’t changed very much from the first iteration of those thirty pages. They’re pretty much the same.
ENNI: Amazing! I’m gonna ask specifics about the book, but broadly, it is about two kids trying to figure out what it means to be Indian-American. Had you already gone through that process yourself? Or, was this book part of your own journey with that? Or, how did you think about that?
MENON: Ooh, great question. I think that journey doesn’t ever start and stop. Or, it doesn’t have defined edges. But, in different phases of your life, you’ll have to redo that journey. So, for me… at the beginning. And the when I got married. And then when I had kids. And even now, I’ll still think about, “What does it mean to be Indian-American, now, after I’ve been in the U.S. for twenty years?” It’s always a question I ask myself. The book wasn’t so much a way of working through that, but it was definitely a way to reach out to people who might be in any part of that journey. You know?
MENON: And I think, especially for teens, it’s a time when you question, like: “Do I want to belong more to the majority culture? Or, my culture? Or, my parent’s culture?” Or, “Do I want to make an amalgam of something unique that’s just me?” Which is what I’ve done. I think different people will arrive at different conclusions to that question. This book was kind of showing that it’s normal, and it’s totally okay to do that. And everybody does it.
ENNI: Right, and I like that having two points of view, let you look at two different approaches.
MENON: It was also funny, because as much as I identified with Dimple and Rishi, I also really identified with Dimple’s parents, and Rishi’s parents. Because I was a child of immigrants, and a teen who was a child of immigrants, but I was also an immigrant myself. So, having to grapple with losing parts of your culture, or your language, or whatever, it’s very hard.
ENNI: One of the things that tugs on my heartstrings is that you can choose to want your cultural identity to be a part of your daily life, but your immediate environment doesn’t also involve people who are engaged in that culture, then it’s always on you to be like, “Can we watch a Bollywood movie today?” And that’s hard too, you know? It’s like a vigilance.
MENON: Exactly, and it gets tiring, because there’s a lot of pushback. I’m trying to teach my kids Hindi, for instance, but 99.9 percent of their day they’re hearing English. So, of course, no matter how much I teach them, they’re still gonna default to English every time. And Hindi is always gonna be like this alien foreign language to them. And I just have to make my peace with that. That’s how it is, you know? And it’s hard sometimes, and you get mad and you’re like: “Well, why is it like that? That’s so messed up and unfair.” But, at the same time, you have to understand that it’s a totally different experience for them than it was for me even.
ENNI: I’d love to hear you talk about that, because I can imagine being a teen… you were so alone having to come to America, and figure out your journey, and find your footing really fast. And, I’m sure you have feelings wrapped up with your parents, and best intentions, but couldn’t help you all of the way. And now you have this totally other experience, where your kids will never really know what that felt like. That’s hard.
MENON: Yeah, it is. It is really hard, and I think some kids are naturally curious about their culture, and that would be my daughter. Whereas my son, he’ interested when I tell him stories, but, “Meh, whatever!” He could take it or leave it, kind of thing. And my daughter is more like, “Well, teach me some Hindi words to go tell my class about; the language that you speak in India.” For a period of time, she used to tell people she was born in India, which I think was a way for her to kind of explore that cultural part of herself. And be more like me, and wanted to share that with me, so she would tell people, “I was born in India.” It was really cute, I was like: “Well, I see what you’re doing there, and that’s okay if you want to tell people that. But, you were born here, just so you know!”
It’s always funny, I try really hard not to beat them over the head with it, because I think that will push them away. So, I have to be very, like, “Oh, well, did you know in India this is called blah-blah-blah.” Or, “I used to do this, when I was in India.” Or, “This kind of food is from this part of India.” Or, “Look at these pictures of me when I was little, in this outfit.” My husband helps a lot too. They see him as quote/unquote fully American, so if he’s showing interest, then they are like, “Oh, well the American parts of us are okay to be interested too.”
ENNI: Interesting and how funny that you and your husband, as a team, are able to see how that dynamic is at work in their little shaping minds. That’s amazing!
MENON: Yeah, exactly! And it all came from we both did a lot of reading when we first were having kids – or talking about having kids – and we decided, everywhere it said, “Always talk about the minority culture, because otherwise it’s very…” And I don’t know if I mentioned that my husband is white.
ENNI: Oh, I did not know that.
MENON: Yeah, so, my kids are half White and half Indian. The minority culture is the Indian culture. So, always talk about it because otherwise they kind of imbibe that it’s shameful, and that part is bad and different. So, that’s been our MO [modus operandi] from day one, is be very open about it. I’m lucky in that way, because I have a lot of cultural things that I can bring to the table, rather than saying, “I don’t speak the language, and I don’t really know.” When they were little, I would talk to them in Hindi, so they learned that language. They can’t speak it, but they know the sounds, and it’s not totally alien to them. At least I like to think so [laughs].
ENNI: That’s really cool, and knowing that it’s the kind of thing [where] you’re planting seeds that later they have the option to go back and explore it, and feel more comfortable, as opposed to being a blank slate.
The other thing about WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI, I think it’s almost clever to think about telling the story - love stories are so universal, and a rom-com is in every culture - but falling in love is so tied to cultural things. What makes you attracted to someone is so specific, and based on a hundred different factors, that make you who you are. So, it feels like this really interesting, perfect nexus of the universal, and the specific. How did you think about what would make these kids attracted to each other? What would be at play when they met? I don’t want to spoil anything either, but it’s so cute when they meet!
MENON: Oh, thanks! So, that was very interesting, because I knew that Dimple’s parents would know about it, but wouldn’t tell her, because she’s a spitfire. And then Rishi would be totally on board, because he is so traditional. Firstly, I didn’t want the parents to come across as bad guys for not telling her. Especially in American culture, you’re on equal footing, almost, with your parents. And so, I wanted to handle that delicately. But I also wanted to be realistic that these two, totally opposite people, would have something in common. And, of course, the common thing was their culture. I think that provided a way for them to meet, and recognize something in each other. That kind of gave them the touchstone of their relationship. But then also, I think they had more in common than we see at first, and they think at first. Rishi with his art that he’s trying to suppress, and learning to be more independent about that. And then Dimple with like, “Hey, my culture is not all bad, and actually, I have taken away things from my parents that I like, that I don’t want to lose.” So, that was the balance that I was trying to get, to make it all believable.
ENNI: And still keep the adorableness! This brings up another thing that I’m interested to hear you talk about, because rom-coms feel so cinematic, that then writing them is a little challenging because some of it’s really visual feeling. What were the challenges of making that genre fit for a book?
MENON: Good question! So, I actually didn’t think of it as putting a rom-com movie into book form, which I think helped.
ENNI: [Laughs] Yeah, that is helpful.
MENON: Yeah, and I think part of the process for me was, I always write out really fun scenes. I cannot remember who it is, but there’s a writer who calls them ‘Candy Bar Scenes’. Candy Bar scenes are basically scenes you are super excited to write. And for me, those are always… they could be in a movie, you know? They’re scenes I see very clearly in my head. And so, I think that’s why I was able to do that, is because I did see it, sort of, as a movie in my head.
ENNI: That’s helpful. Okay, I love that Rishi was so eloquent about why he loved tradition, and that he thought of it as being a part of history. It was the most endearing way to hear someone talk about why they care about what are seen as rules, you know? His concept of whether it was rebellion, or his choice. I thought his position was pretty evolved, but at the same time, he was suppressing a part of himself. Did that come from your line of thinking about tradition, and family, and keeping history alive, in your everyday life?
MENON: It was an amalgam of different things. I actually modeled him after a cousin I have, who is very good at respecting his parents’ wishes and doing things the quote/unquote right way. And, I imagined what he would say if I asked him, “Why is that important to you?” He lives in India, but what if he lived here in America, and he had to explain it to someone? And then I mixed it with what I like about people who respect tradition, or why might you respect certain traditions. I came up with Rishi’s character, and I thought that was a very common thing in Indian culture. The reason that we have traditions and rituals is because we’re honoring those who came before us. I wanted to put that explicitly in the book, because I think for me as a teen, I was always like, “But why is it important?” And I think, sometimes, it’s good to have those words on the page. Maybe, to some people, it would be like, “Pfft, I don’t feel like that at all.” But to other people, it might resonate… give a word to what they’re feeling.
ENNI: We’ve just spent a lovely conversation, so far, but it’s a lot of me asking you to explain cultural things to me. This is an onus to put on you too, which is not necessarily fair. Did you know, when you took on this project, you’re like, “Okay, this is going to open me up to questions about my personal life.” Because, one of the things I want to talk to you about is arranged marriages, which is also a deeply personal thing to be like, “Soo, do you know anyone…?” You know? These are questions that we shouldn’t necessarily be asking of authors, but it kind of lends itself with your book. How did you think about that?
MENON: Yeah, I knew that people would ask me. I think the first thing that happened was I used to write under the name S.K. Falls, which my last name, before I got married was Khudi [Ed. Note: unsure of spelling, and for privacy reasons will not verify] and then my married name is Falls, it’s actually Khudi-Falls. But I was writing as S.K. Falls to keep it nice and neutral for my adult stuff when I was self-publishing. I was writing a lot of sci-fi and stuff and I didn’t think people would necessarily buy it from somebody with my name.
So, it was kind of interesting when Jen came with the offer, and she was like, “Well, S.K. Falls is very not-Indian at all, so, can we use Sandhya Khudi-Falls?” At the time, I was in grad school, so I wanted some separation between patients and my author life, so I ended up with Menon which is a family name. My mom’s maiden name. So, it started early, that kind of culture thing.
MENON: Yeah. So, it’s kind of interesting that you ask that. But, at that point, I knew that people would say: “Well, why are you writing this story? How much of it is you?” And, “Are you a Dimple, or a Rishi?” Which I get asked a lot. I knew that that was coming. Arranged marriages, of course, and, “Are you in an arranged marriage?” Which happened right away. So, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’m okay with answering those questions, and I like educating people. Because, 99 percent of the time, it’s coming from a well-intentioned place, and people ask it sensitively, like you have. So, I don’t mind it, but I can definitely see how it would become hard for people to start answering.
ENNI: Then I am going to transition to asking what your experience has been of seeing arranged marriages?
MENON: Arranged marriages have been very common in my family. Growing up, I think pretty much… I’m trying to think if there was an exception. But, I think every elder person in my mom’s generation and dad’s generation, was an arranged marriage. So, it was super common for me. It wasn’t like, “Oh, what?” And also, the other part of that, and the reason I’m mentioning it, is because an interviewer said, very astutely, that in western culture and western movies, arranged marriages are portrayed negatively, a lot of the times. Where it’s a young woman and an older, gross man. And so, it’s more of a power thing for the dads, or the men in the family. And the woman is more of a pawn. That’s not been my experience, at all. It’s generally like in Rishi and Dimple’s case, where the two families thought they are well suited for each other. The families come from similar backgrounds, they have a lot in common. And then, they can further the traditions with their kids.
ENNI: It’s just matchmaking.
MENON: Exactly, yeah. It was never like, “Oh, well, let’s trade our daughter for land, or something.”
ENNI: That’s such an interesting point.
MENON: Of course, I knew there was a negative connotation, but I didn’t quite think about it like that. That people might think arranged marriages only exist for the male benefit.
ENNI: Which is really interesting to think about, in the context that Americans, I do think have this instant reaction to it, that isn’t positive. But then, we also… how much do we promote young women marrying old guys. And it’s perfectly their choice. We have our own shit to examine, as always [both laughing]. That’s so interesting.
MENON: For my own self, my sister did not have an arranged marriage, and it was never something that my parents said, “You will have an arranged marriage.” It was like, “That’s on the table, but you can also choose your own partner.” But, the one thing they did want me to do was to wait, and not get married as young as I did. And to not marry a white boy. So, [laughing] I managed to break both of their rules.
ENNI: So, you rebelled, in your own way.
MENON: I totally did. My sister was the older… she married an Indian man who got his PHD in engineering, and they were perfectly suited. And then, she went on and got her PHD in engineering. So, it was very good, and very happy. And then I came along and I’m like, “I’m gonna break all your rules.”
ENNI: Someone’s got to make the family interesting!
MENON: Exactly! Yeah, the youngest child usually is the one.
ENNI: That is so funny. I will wrap up a little bit, but I don’t want to not, not touch more explicitly on the feminism part of it too. Because that’s so central to Dimple and what she is. It’s interesting to see her as a character, she’s got a lot on her plate. She’s working out a lot of different things, and feminism, and what it means to her is a big part of it. She really seems self-actualized with it, at a young age, which actually is true for teens now. They have so much vocabulary to talk about this stuff. How did you think of that in the context of… she doesn’t want to piss off her parents, but she does want to assert herself?
MENON: So that was actually pretty closely based on my own struggle with feminism. And, I always knew I was a feminist. I had a lot of anti-feminist talk growing up. My grandma would tell me, like, “You need to be pretty, and thin, and when your husband comes home, you need to be dressed up, and waiting for him with tea.” You know? That’s your role in life. That was when I was fourteen, or fifteen, and I was like, “No.” Already, I was like, “No, that doesn’t sound at all like what I’m gonna do.”
I was always the wayward one in the family. My mom thought: “Why are you so feminist? Why can’t you just get along?” kind of thing, and so did my dad. So, I was not as polished as Dimple, but I wanted to show both sides of it. Why her parents were the way they were, coming from a different time and a different culture. And then, how Dimple might feel being American, herself, and being completely feminist and knowing she was already going into a field where she would face so much pushback.
ENNI: Yeah, that’s the other thing that I loved about it too. She’s building that armor for both sides of her life.
MENON: Exactly. So, I just wanted her to be this fireball who would just blow people away with her passion, and her intelligence, and her ambition, and I kind of wanted her to be the spokesperson for any girls who might be facing that kind of thing.
ENNI: So, we like to wrap up with advice. So, I’d love to hear general advice for new writers, or maybe people who… I love to hear people talk about specific experiences they’ve had… simply writing as a mom or any of that kind of stuff.
MENON: Oh, cool. Well, I will probably have advice about what to do if you ever hit the slump, like I did. People hit slumps for lots of different reasons. It can be mental health, it can be just burning out. One big thing that I’ve seen is people are trying for so long to get traction, and then you just kind of give up, because you’re like, “I can’t do it anymore.” And it’s okay. My advice is: It’s okay. Don’t force yourself to write through the slump. Take that time that you need and go do life stuff. Get life experience in a completely different field. And it really does jumpstart your creativity. And if it doesn’t jumpstart your creativity, you haven’t lost anything. You know? You’re making connections and building relationships and gaining experience and going out and doing all this cool stuff, that you wouldn’t have otherwise done. So, don’t fight it. That’s my experience and advice.
I would say, don’t chase trends and definitely write what’s in your heart. And, don’t be afraid to write something different than what you’ve always been writing. Especially if you feel like you’ve hit that wall.
ENNI: I love that your story is very inspiring for that. You can be multiple…. like Stephanie Perkins is going to come out with a slasher book in September.
MENON: Yes! Oh, my god. I’m so excited.
ENNI: Couldn’t be more excited about it, but also, she’s very upfront about it. She’s like: “So guys. We’re taking a turn now.” But, I love this acknowledgement, like you’re talking about Stephen King, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t – we all contain multitudes.
ENNI: I hate the idea that you have to be ‘on brand’, or follow this one thing. When, truly, we all have a ton of different interests, and they all inform each other. And it’s gonna come through in the writing.
MENON: Yeah, exactly. Just do what really ignites your soul.
ENNI: That’s a perfect note to end on. Thank you so much for taking this time.
MENON: Thank you so much, Sarah.
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