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Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Shobhan Bantwal: An interview with the author of The Dowry Bride (Kensington Publishing Corporation, USA)

by Suzan Abrams in Dublin.

Novelist *Shobhan Bantwal's website

Here is the book trailer for The Dowry Bride.

She shares the same literary agency in New York with fellow writer, Khaled Hosseni, author of the worldwide bestseller, The Kite Runner.

But the joy of writing profusely on a subject which grated on her nerves and tore at her heartstrings and this with an obsession, came late to the exuberant mother of one.

Shobhan Bantwal was more at home with the American way of life, dinner party evenings and indulging in the passionate hobby of Indian vegetarian cuisine. If evidence is needed, a generous number of carefully-invented recipes with its delicious temptation of spice, can be found on her website.

But turning 50 would instead tempt the spiritual palate with a refreshing portion of colour and flavour to a life already lived to a hilt. The lively and restless Bantwal in pursuit for the challenge of new accomplishments would fiddle with the keyboard and click away at a novel - in addition to a full folder of short stories, articles and monologues already going on- and this on an agonizing subject called The Dowry Bride. Gone forever were the old passions of cross-stitch and embroidery lovingly sewn up for family and friends. Gone too, the easel and palette for this former painter. There simply "wasn't enough time."

Yet, Bantwal stays one of the luckier writers in having secured a reputable agent in the quickest time and having her manuscript sold to an American publisher after just two months. Shobhan Bantwal's life would never be viewed in the same way again as is evident from the interview below:

Shobhan Bantwal on Reading:

"I have always loved reading. Absolutely! My mother was an avid reader and instilled this love in my sisters and me at a very early age. I grew up in a small rural town called Belgaum in Karnataka State, India and reading was our only entertainment. Even childrens' radio shows had its limitations. My mother is gone now but she'd be blown away at realising one of her daughters became published!

"Some of my favourite novelists are Harper Lee, Jane Austen, and more recently Judith McNaught and Khaled Hosseini. In fact, I loved Hosseini’s The Kite Runner so much that I ran a query by his literary agent and was thrilled when I got signed on by the agency. I’m now represented by a member of staff who works for Hosseini's agent.

"However, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird and its gentle handling of racism in the U.S. was an eye-opener for me. I haven't yet come across a similiar book. The plot made me aware of a delicate issue that hounds every culture on earth, whether it has to do with colour, nationality, language, race or religion.

"At the moment, I'm reading a romantic mystery called Superstition by Karen Robards. She's a delightful writer and I read her frequently."

"One thing that hasn't changed is that before I wrote my first book and even while I did, I have always made time for reading. I read in bed every night and during writing breaks. I find other authors highly inspiring for my own craft.

"I also have a favourite place; a worn-out couch next to the window in the family-room. In the winter, I read there all the time with a blanket wrapped around me and in the summer, there is the air-conditioner. Often, I feel so soothed, I fall into a cat-nap."

Shobhan Bantwal on becoming a Writer/Novelist late in life:

"My life took a completely different direction once I started to write. At first, it proved a hobby when my husband was away during a five-year consulting project. I only saw him at the weekends. Slowly but surely, this hobby surged on to become an unexpected and exciting second career. Suddenly, I had publishing ambitions.

"Writing has added a new dimension to my life, complete with its pros and cons. For example, I fret over deadlines, bad reviews and the dreadful thought that my creativity may be drying up and that I'll run out of story ideas. On the other hand, I get positive reader feedback that's heartwarming and that's earned me fans, friends and well-wishers. Writing keeps my mind alert always. It has made me more aware of people, places and events.

"Only rarely have I questioned the wisdom of becoming a writer. That happens especially when I read a particularly nasty comment about the book on someone's blog or an acerbic review, but a day later, everything is back on an even keel and I feel taking up writing has been one of the best decisions of my life."

Shobhan Bantwal on writing The Dowry Bride:

"The Dowry Bride first started out as a short story and class-project for the only creative writing course I signed up for at a community college in 2002. I abandoned it soon after. But in 2003 and 2004, I re-visited my manuscript several times and kept adding on new storylines. Still, I was dissatisfied. But when I joined a critique group in 2004 and found 2 critique partners to comment on it, The Dowry Bride finally turned into a manuscript that appeared worthy of an agent's perusal. Once the writing bug hit me, I was obsessed. Every rejection letter was one more reason for depression. But now after the release of the first book, I've learnt to balance m writing with everything else. It occupies a major part of my life but it doesn't rule it.

"Still, I've made many new friends since I took up writing. I've joined writers' groups, attended conferences, appeared on panels and participated in workshops.

"I'm a member of the New Jersey Romance Writers and I also belong to two local informal writers' groups. Then there are my two critique partners which I mentioned earlier and with whom I meet once a month to exchange chapters and receive feedback. They stay a valuable asset together with my married daughter who happens to enjoy the kinds of books I like to read and write. All three offer constructive criticism without damaging my ego."

Shobhan Bantwal on publishing The Dowry Bride:

"At first, I sent on another fiction manuscript to literary agents. It held a chick-lit plot and I was offered representation by three agents. I chose the current one. Unfortunately, there was no success with that manuscript even after months of trying. When I submitted The Dowry Bride, my agent liked it very much and started marketing it right away. Within 8 weeks, it was sold to Kensington for a 2-book deal.

"To be honest, I’ve found the process to be quite stressful, but not always in a negative way. Sometimes there is the good kind of stress filled with hope and euphoria. The day I got “The Call” from my agent with the good news, I didn’t sleep all night. I was running on adrenaline for days. I’ve made many new friends since I took up writing, especially since I’ve joined writers’ groups, attended conferences, appeared on panels and participated in workshops."

Shobhan Bantwal on her thoughts about the book she published so suddenly and successfully:

"I would like people to remember the unique flow of The Dowry Bride. Most South Asian writers write serious literary novels while I decided to take a gamble with a Bollywood-type melodrama. There would be romance, intrigue and a bit of everything else thrown into the plot.
At the time, I wasn't sure if a publisher or readership existed. I'd like people to remember it for its difference in environment and plot."

Shobhan Bantwal on her reviews:

"Although The Dowry Bride was termed primarily as women's fiction with strong romantic and cultural elements, I've also received positive feedback from men; even the kinds who don't read anything but thrillers and non-fiction.

"I get heartwarming feedback through my web mail. My readers are mainly American women. One young lady said she fell so in love with the hero that she started fantasising on meeting someone like him. Another young Indian man added that he was so touched by the story, he couldn't sleep for days. His review is posted on Amazon.com. Many readers also suggested I write a sequel as they found the characters engaging enough to want to know what would happen later on in those fictitious lives.

"On the other hand, I've had a few really nasty reviews. Still, they're a good way to keep my feet on the ground, a forced attempt to get me to improve on my writing.

"My only flaw was that I paid a ridiculous amount of attention to them. Now, I've learnt to be more objective and less stressed about the content. Every review is one person's opinion and that's the best way it's treated. Everything comes with positives and negatives and as an author, one needs to develop a thick skin. In the end, most writers write for the joy of it."

Shobhan Bantwal on The Writing Life:

"The window near my home office looks out to a row of surburban houses across the street. My writing desk is the same one that holds the household papers, bills etc. so it's cluttered and messy. Above my computer hangs a wall calendar for obvious reasons. But thank goodness for computers, those handy technological marvels that files away tons of documents without any show of clutter.

"With a full-time job and a hectic social life, it's hard to describe an average day. I wake up at 5.00am on weekdays. After a shower, a cup of tea and the local television news, accompany my exercise regime on the threadmill. I'm off to the office at 7.00am. Each workday is unpredictable with impromptu meetings, phone calls and paperwork to be dealt with.

"I'm back home at 5pm and tackle my personal email, first thing. Then dinner needs to be whipped up for my husband who's now retired. He's a great help but hates cooking so that's still primarily my job.

"I try to write as much as I can between 8 to 10 at nights. I'm not a disciplined writer so I don't adhere to a scheduled routine. I may write several pages at a go on some days and then nothing at all for days afterwards. My moods call the shots. My favourite writing time is on a weekend afternoon and this accompanied by a hot cup of masala chai. (spicy Indian tea).

"When the mood strikes, I write several pages & chapters all at once and return regularly to re-write drafts and edit them too. Sometimes, I feel I add more texture to what was originally missing in an early draft. But I rely on several edits before I feel the chapter looks acceptable.

"The bottom line is that if I'm in the mood to write, I keep plugging away. If I'm not, I use that time to edit my work. I do crave a good cup of tea to keep me company if it's not yet close to bedtime. Otherwise, my sleep is ruined. By the way, a chocolate bar is always welcome whether I'm writing or not. Chocolate is always very inspiring."

Shobhan Bantwal on her culinary skills:

"When I first came to the US as a young bride in the mid-seventies, I had no experience in cooking and so learnt the hard way. At the time, there were very few Indian grocery stores in this country and nothing came ready-made. I taught myself to prepare elaborate sweets and savouries from scratch. The experience turned me into a pretty decent gourmet cook and not just for Indian cuisine. As a result, I eventually enjoyed putting my culinary skills to good use by entertaining frequently at our home. But now that writing takes up my spare time, I've cut back on a considerable amount of cooking and entertaining."

Shobhan Bantwal on her second novel and future writing plans:

"At the moment, I'm rolling around some ideas for a second novel with my editor. Every one of them will require some research. As soon as she approves of a plot, I'll get down to some heavy-duty writing.

"I haven't written a play or performed in one since I took up novel-writing. Between the years 2000 and 2004, I wrote three sets of monologues/anecdotes and performed in two plays. But there's been nothing since then. I'd love to do more plays but two current 'full-time' careers do leave me exhausted.

"Of course, I hope to touch many more lives with my books then I could possibly have done without my writing. I consider it a blessing to be able to reach out to such a wide audience."


*Shobhan Bantwal is the author of The Dowry Bride, a debut novel set in India and released by Kensington Books in September 2007. It is the first of two books for her publisher. Bantwal's articles and short stories have also appeared in a variety of publications that include India Abroad, Little India, U.S. 1, Desi Journal, India Currents, Overseas Indian, New Woman India, Kanara Saraswat and Sulekha. Her short stories have won awards in fiction contests sponsored by the Writer's Digest, New York Stories and New Woman magazines respectively.

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