Shobhan Bantwal is the author of six novels and co-author of two anthologies. Her books combine contemporary women’s issues with romantic elements. Her articles have appeared in The Writer, Romantic Times, India Abroad, Little India, New Woman and India Currents. Her short fiction has won her honours & awards in contests sponsored by Writer’s Digest and New York Stories. She won the First Place Award in New Woman magazine’s 2005 Short Fiction Competition for her story, Lingering Doubts. Her debut book, The Dowry Bride, won the 2008 Golden Leaf Award. The Unexpected Son won the 2012 National Indie Excellence Award. Shobhan lives in Arizona, USA.
And today, we have her here for a short tete-a-tete –
Aseem: What does writing mean to you?
Shobhan: Writing is almost a spiritual experience for me because I put my heart and soul into each story. The characters I create for each book temporarily come into my life like family, friends, or neighbours. Many of my characters also possess the traits of people I know, some of them intimately. The wonderful thing about fiction is that one can express just about anything via one’s characters that would not go over as well in non-fiction or speech.
Aseem: Considering that you are a late bloomer in the literary industry, how different was your struggle to establish yourself compared to those who begin early?
Shobhan: I stumbled into creative writing when I started considering a suitable hobby to keep my evenings occupied while my husband was assigned to a work project outside our town. With a demanding day job and a late-in-life start, getting published was far more challenging for me than for writers who begin young and also do it full-time.
I had to work diligently at building up a decent resume by writing dozens of articles for various newspapers, magazines, and e-publications. I also entered some of my short stories in nationwide fiction competitions in the U.S. A few of them won honours and awards.
It was this earlier creation of a firm foundation and reputation that led to my signing on with one of the most respected literary agents in New York, Elaine Koster. Sadly Elaine passed away in 2010 and her agency was shut down in 2012. But she will always remain my role model.
Aseem: Your novels have tackled various issues like gender based abortions, dowry, female foeticide etc. How did you begin exploring these topics in your stories.
Shobhan: I have a master’s degree in sociology, and I always had a keen interest in women’s issues and abusive social practices in contemporary India. As a natural extension of that passion, I decided to incorporate those controversial subjects into my stories. It was a very effective way of bringing awareness to serious social topics by weaving them into romantic, Bollywood type tales that could be read and enjoyed by anyone.
My American readers tell me they have discovered and learned a lot about these problems from my books. Many of them are captivated by the topics. As a result I am frequently invited to speak at book clubs, women’s groups, and fundraisers for women’s causes.
Aseem: Considering that the topics you cover are quite dark, did you ever feel nervous that some readers may not pick up your books?
Shobhan: As a writer one has to be prepared to deal with potential supporters as well as critics. Nonetheless, I was apprehensive about introducing the darker side of Indian culture in my stories. Additionally, my writing was a mixed bag of romance, women’s, popular, and mainstream fiction, entirely outside the proverbial box. I was afraid that it might turn off agents and publishers alike, since they mostly expect serious literary fiction from South Asian authors. However, I took the risk anyway.
And fortunately it paid off. Earlier in my career it helped in capturing the interest of a great agent and publisher, who liked my unusual brand of ethnic fiction. Then a large number of readers started to buy my books and spread the word. In fact, because of my novels’ success in the complex American fiction market, several other Indian-American authors, who write in a similar vein, have begun to emerge recently.
Aseem: You have stayed both in India and US. How much of what you see around you has influenced your writing?
Shobhan: Since I was a young bride when I emigrated from India, my entire adult life has been spent in the U.S. Like most authors, what has shaped my writing is a combination of my personal experiences in both countries, reading books by a variety of talented authors, and hearing and reading about other women’s lives.
Aseem: What differences did you find in the literary industry in US when compared to India?
Shobhan: While writers living in India will most likely disagree with me on this issue, I believe that it is much more difficult for an Indian author to get published in the U.S., the ultimate melting pot of the world. We are competing with not just thousands of other ethnic-American authors (including some prolific and world-renowned South Asian ones), but also American authors who literally are in the millions.
Aseem: What’s the best and the worst thing you have heard or read about your books?
Shobhan: The plethora of reviews posted on various websites and blogs are great examples of the best and the worst comments on my books: Everything from “a sublime and awesome reading experience”, “fantastic, lovable characters” and “un-put-downable page-turner to “complete trash” and “worst ever book I’ve read.” Like I said earlier, as an author I have come to accept the good as well bad remarks in the spirit they are offered.
Aseem: If you are stuck alone on an island, which books would you be found with?
Shobhan: On an isolated island I would be found with some of my all-time favourite books: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Kite Runner, all of Jane Austen’s classics, and of course a variety of romance novels.
Aseem: Reading or writing? Which one do you prefer the most?
Shobhan: I prefer reading to writing most of the time because it is passive entertainment to some extent and does not require a lot of intense analytical thought. Nevertheless fiction writing is a deeply personal and satisfying creative experience that cannot compare with anything else.
Aseem: Considering that you have a full time job, how do you give time to writing regularly?
Shobhan: All through my writing years I had a demanding full-time career, so to accommodate my writing, which abruptly turned into a full-time occupation, meant waking up at 4:00 A.M. in the morning and working late into the night, seven days a week.
Like any other business, publishing has serious deadlines, endless self-promotion, and obligations to one’s readers. However, I have now retired from my day job and to some extent my writing as well.
Aseem: What would be your advice for to-be-writers out there?
Shobhan: It is certainly a complicated and harsh literary jungle out there, but perseverance and belief in one’s writing can pay off. Aspiring writers need to stick to their own unique voice and not become copycats.
The “fresh new voice” in my stories is what caught my agent and publisher’s eye. The important thing to remember is that the writing process is not simply creating a story, but also unremittingly marketing and promoting it, which I found were the hardest parts of being a published author.
Aseem: Your message for your readers?
Shobhan: I write what I know and what I am passionate about. I am also a hopeless romantic. The subjects I choose are at times controversial, but that is what makes my books stand out in the vast world of literature.
They may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but my stories definitely entertain, educate, and keep you turning the pages. So, if you have never read one of my novels, try and pick up one today. Happy Reading!
Aseem: How do you spend your free time?
Shobhan: I am a grandmother of two young and active children. They are the centre of my life right now and they keep me grounded and productively occupied. Also, as recent retirees, my husband and I travel quite a bit around the world in addition to leading a very active social life.
Aseem: What next can we look forward from your stable?
Shobhan: At this time I am not working on any new projects. Fingerprint Publishing is the Indian publisher who bought the rights to all six of my existing books, therefore I am actively involved in the editing process with them as they release them one by one into the Indian market.
Thanks Shobhan for giving us your valuable time. We wish you all the best for all your future endeavours!
Read the review of Full Moon Bride here.