Sonali Misra (SM): Thanks so much for joining us, Nikita. Could you tell our readers a bit about your debut novel, It Must’ve Been Something He Wrote?
Nikita Deshpande (ND): Thanks to you and the readers of The Selkie for this lovely chance to chat. It Must’ve Been Something He Wrote is the story of a young Indian girl, a nerdy book-snob called Ruta Adarkar, and her misadventures in the world of publishing. She works in the marketing department of a ‘big 5’ publishing house. She reports to a boss who has assigned her two newbie authors whose books she must publicise at barely-there budgets. And to add to that she must work with Jish Guha – bestselling author, publisher’s darling, and a git, who writes cheesy romance novels with clickbait titles like Please Find Attached: My Heart.
SM: You wrote a funny, contemporary, urban Indian romance without explicit sexual scenes and starring an empowered female protagonist – were you confident about the sales figures?
ND: Let me be honest – I’m horrible at numbers. And I knew nothing about sales figures; in fact, I still don’t. I’m fortunate to be able to put on blinders and do my end of the job, which is to write and edit and put out the best version of my story that I can. I understand that the book market in India is very different from what it’s like abroad – which is something I’ve also tried to weave into the story. It’s quite driven by the author’s celebrity status and following. So realistically, my only hope as a debut author was that this one novel would do okay enough to let me keep writing more.
SM: Your book is genuinely witty – I remember being glued to it and finishing it off in a day or two – but it is a romance. You’ve also poked fun at some mainstream Indian authors (who shall remain unnamed!) whose cheesy romance novels are usually bestsellers. But, *spoiler alert* one of them ends up being the male romantic lead. So, was it all in jest?
ND: That’s a really great question, because I think in the process of researching these mainstream Indian authors, I truly came to respect some of them. It’s really hard to be prolific in the way that these authors are – churning out two or three novels a year! They really understand their readers (fans) and give them what they want. More importantly, they write in a way that is not intimidating to young people across India. So, I think what you see in the story is a reflection of that respect I felt – I may choose to write differently from these authors, but I think it’s elitist, snobby, and classist to look down upon their work or the people who read it.
[Mainstream romance authors] really understand their readers and give them what they want.
SM: Continuing from the previous question – many of us are literary snobs (especially the ones who consider themselves serious writers) and have our own definitions of what constitutes as ‘literature’. So, what is your take on books like Fifty Shades of Grey and Mills and Boons, and those by Nicholas Sparks and the like?
ND: I’ve never read Mills and Boons, EL James or Nicholas Sparks. Although, I will admit I spent the summer after my first big heartbreak obsessively reading Twilight. But I do think the ‘fun’ books are important. I have anxiety, and sometimes when it keeps me from falling asleep, I automatically reach out to romance. It’s soothing and escapist and perfect. It’s probably why I like writing the fluffy books myself. But I think as the world progresses, it is time to leave behind our snobbishness about books. Especially because I see American YA and fantasy doing what ‘literature’ has barely managed to do. If you look at books like Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, David Levithan’s Every Day, even a freaking ‘comic’ like Saga, they’re serving up takes on sensitive issues, stories of minorities, representation to LGBTQIA+ – all with a side of romance, comedy, drama, and all the toe-curly, feel-good moments we love.
I think as the world progresses, it is time to leave behind our snobbishness about books. Especially because I see American YA and fantasy doing what ‘literature’ has barely managed … they’re serving up takes on sensitive issues, stories of minorities, representation to LGBTQIA+ – all with a side of romance, comedy, drama, and all the toe-curly, feel-good moments we love.
SM: You based your book in the publishing world. Did you have personal experience regarding it or is it something you had to learn along the way?
ND: I didn’t have first-hand publishing experience, so I met and chatted with some of the lovely women in marketing at Hachette India, my publisher. I attended book launches and those fan-meets that some authors do. So, some of the funnier stuff that happens in the novel is quite real. But a lot of Ruta’s struggle on the job came from my own struggle as I assisted filmmakers on movies in India.
SM: Is there a fact about publishing that took you by surprise?
ND: Not so much by surprise, but I do love how many women work in and lead publishing. I had seen quite the opposite with filmmaking.
SM: How did you get your book deal? Can you share the details of the publishing process with our readers?
ND: I was hugely fortunate. Hachette India held a contest with the DNA newspaper called ‘Next Bestseller’ that invited over 300 entries from all over India – you needed your first three chapters and a detailed synopsis. On my friend Sukanya Venkatraghavan’s insistence, I entered. And the fun ending to this story is that we both won. The process after that is quite lengthy and I love that because I really got to take my time, get several rounds of editorial feedback, and rework the manuscript until I was happy with it.
SM: Do you have a literary agent? From your experience, do you think one is important?
ND: No, I don’t have an agent yet because Indian publishers don’t make having one a mandatory part of the process.
SM: How do you think Indian and international publishing is faring with representation (regarding gender, sexual orientation, caste, class, mental health, physical disabilities, race, etc.)? Are there any particular books that stick out to you as great reads that address such issues?
ND: I think Indian pop fiction has a really long way to go with respect to representation. And this is a note I struggle with myself – how do you write about serious stuff in a ‘fun’ book? Indian literary fiction does a marginally better job of representation, I think, but on the whole, there are still more upper-caste male writers writing about minorities than people writing in their own voices. When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy stood out for me and was probably the best book I read last year.
Indian literary fiction does a marginally better job of representation [than pop fiction], but on the whole, there are still more upper-caste male writers writing about minorities than people writing in their own voices.
SM: Did you ever feel prejudiced against as a female author? Could you share the details with us if you did?
ND: I think my career as an author is just beginning, so it may be too soon to say. But in comparison to the prejudice and sexism I’ve experienced in filmmaking, I find publishing positive, warm, and open.
SM: Is there another book you’re working on? If yes, could you tell us about it?
ND: Yes. Sigh. The second one has been a tough one – two abandoned drafts already … so it might be too soon to say. But it’s a comedy about a girl who is battling anxiety and finds herself in an unusual situation with an ex.
SM: And finally, are there any writing tips you’d like to share with the aspiring writers reading this interview?
ND: I’m still learning to write myself, so my best tips would be – read widely and take a notebook with you everywhere.
SM: Thank you so much for answering these questions! We hopefully now have a better idea about the romance genre.
You can follow Nikita on Twitter and Instagram at @deepblueruin, and find her humorous romance novel, It Must’ve Been Something He Wrote at Amazon. Get yourself a copy – and while you wait for your order to be delivered, you can read an extract from her novel here.