Sandhya Menon Goes From The Dimple-verse To Fairy Tales

Heather Scott: Hello, my name is Heather and I’m an editor here at Audible. And my favorite listens just happen to be kids and young adult titles. Today I’m so thrilled to talk with Sandhya Menon. You might already recognize her name from her best-selling Dimple-verse books, When Dimple Met Rishi and There’s Something About Sweetie. But for her latest book, Of Curses and Kisses, she’s leaving that middle-class world behind and taking us to boarding school, introducing us to royal families, letting us know about a family curse, and sharing the beauty of a Colorado mountain town. Don’t worry, there’s still a romance. Listen in as Sandhya and I talk about Of Curses and Kisses, how she even manages to add a history lesson to romance, a little bit about what it means to be the voice of Desi teen fiction. Hello, Sandhya.

Sandhya Menon: Hi, it’s so nice to be here.

HS: Well, we’re thrilled that you took the time to chat with us today. So, the one sentence summary that I’ve been telling everyone about Of Curses and Kisses is that it’s Beauty and the Beast in a boarding school. But there’s so much more going on. How would you describe your latest book?

SM: This is a very interesting question and I think it’s one that is universally reviled by all authors. Because we’ve spent so much time on the plot and it’s so hard to condense it, but my editor happens to be really good at this. And similar to what you said, she says, “It’s Beauty and the Beast meets Gossip Girl, set in a boarding school.”

HS: Perfect. Yes. I think there’s some other layers in there too, though. Is there anything else you want to expand on?

SM: There are. There’s so much I want to expand on. Firstly, it’s more diverse than a lot of the Beauty and the Beast retellings and the Gossip Girl-type stuff that we’ve seen. But also, it’s got a little bit of British-Indian history in there. And it’s got a curse, which is kind of explored along the lines of emotional abuse and girls in STEM. It’s just got so much in their friend groups and what makes healthy girl friendships. There’s so much that you can’t pack into an elevator pitch. At least I can’t. I’m not that talented.

HS: Well, it depends on how many floors you’re going up in the elevator. I think that makes the difference.

SM: So true.

HS: So with all those layers in there, there’s obviously kind of something for everyone who’s reading or listening to this, but I’m really curious, have you always wanted to do a fairytale retelling? And why Beauty and the Beast of all the stories that are out there?

SM: I have always loved fairy tale retellings in every form. And so I remember one time I was in the middle of watching my Gossip Girl marathon that I was doing a couple of years ago. Because I was also watching, Once Upon A Time on Netflix at the time. And I was like, “If only there was something that would combine fairy tale retellings with this Gossip Girl-esque feeling and would be set in a boarding school.” Because I’m also a complete trash for boarding school stories. And then at that point I realized, “Oh wait, I’m an author and I can actually pitch this to my publisher.” So, that’s what I ended up doing.

[Beauty And The Beast] holds such a special place in so many writers’ and readers’ hearts, because Belle is a complete bibliophile.

HS: Sorry. I’m not going to allow you to call yourself trash over adoring boarding schools. Because how many Harry Potter books have been sold? Come on. There are a lot of us in that camp.

SM: I know, I know. It’s definitely a thing, right? Yeah. And as for the, Beauty and the Beast retelling. Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite fairytales for sure. Especially the Disney versions, I love them. And even though there are so many Beauty and the Beast retellings I think it’s probably the most popular one out there. I still knew I just had to try my hand. That was going to be the first book in the series. I just knew it had to be because it holds such a special place in so many writers’ and readers’ hearts, because Belle is a complete bibliophile.

HS: Yes, exactly. Yeah. I don’t know how many times I’ve used that gif in tweets to people and on my Instagram.

SM: Oh, I know. Beast just lends itself to the brooding romantic, alpha hero that so many people love in their romances. So it just all came together really nicely.

HS: Perfect. So you just dropped a little tidbit for us by saying this was the first of [other] retellings. Are there going to be more?

SM: Yes. So it was actually sold as part of a trilogy and each of the books in the trilogy will be kind of set in the same universe at the same boarding school. And each of them will follow a different set of main characters and will be a different loose retelling of a different fairy tale.

HS: Any hints as to what the other two might be? Or are you keeping that kind of close and secret?

SM: I am still working on, book three for sure, I haven’t even started thinking about that. But I will say that I just finished drafting book two and it is going to be a retelling of The Frog Prince. This is kind of the first time I’m talking about that, so I’m excited.

HS: Oh, there’s so much in The Frog Prince. Well, there’s a lot that lends itself to boarding schools and retelling. And I think it’s one of those fairy tales that people kind of know but don’t sort of have it in their gut the same way as some others.

SM: Yeah, it’s definitely not one of the more popular ones. And so it was super fun to dive into it. And also there’s the added challenge of this series not being completely fantasy. There’s definitely a vibe of, “Is it magic or is it not? What’s going on?” And some people believe that it’s magic and some people don’t. But I definitely had to tread that line of not making it too fantastical, which was also really cool way to kind of stretch my writer muscles a little bit.

HS: That’s one thing that I think you did in a really interesting way in Of Curses and Kisses, is the fact that Jaya, who is our Beauty — if we haven’t mentioned that yet — that Jaya is really practical and doesn’t really believe in everything that’s going on. And Grey, who’s our Beast, really truly believes that his family is cursed and that he is days away from death.

SM: Right, exactly. And that was hard. I to really play around with that a lot in both the writing process and the editorial process with feedback from early readers. And it’s such a tricky thing to kind of walk that line because even now some of my early readers, I’ll get emails from people who are like, “It was definitely a curse. It was definitely magical and they broke the curse.” And at the end… Oops and that’s a spoiler. I wasn’t supposed to say that.

HS: You’re retelling a fairy tale. We all hope and pray there’s going to be a happily ever after. So I think it’s safe to say the curse is broken.

SM: Right, exactly. Yeah. I would hope so. It is a romance too. Yeah, and then there are other readers who just email me and say, “It’s so funny that they thought that was a curse and that it was real. And obviously it wasn’t.” And all of this stuff. And it’s just funny because I never say either way what I think. I’m just happy to let people tell me what they think.

And there are some teen readers who do demand a response, but so far, I’ve been happy to kind of just say, “This is your book. It’s out of my hands now. So it is whatever you want it to be.”

HS: I love that answer. That allows for conversation on Twitter and in your book group and people deciding what feels right to them.

SM: Exactly. I think the story really speaks to people in different ways, which is the beauty of storytelling I think.

HS: Absolutely. Well we mentioned briefly the curse and I have to say that for me that was one of the most unexpected moments in the entire story. Obviously, it’s Beauty and the Beast. We know there’s going to be a curse, but I’m not going to spoil anything. I’m just going to say that it’s based on British colonialism and looting that happened in India. And I just wondered if you had specific thoughts about placing the curse in an actual historical context? Like giving us something that’s based in history?

SM: Yeah, I think for writers we imbibe certain things and they stay in our brains for years or decades before they ever make it onto the page. And it was kind of like that for me. So I remembered that there are a lot of stories out there of different diamonds and the Hope Diamond, the Koh-I-Noor diamond, that are supposedly cursed and have to do with colonialism. And I just thought it was interesting and I wondered, “Does the story of kind of the curse behind these diamonds have anything to do with the fact that they were stolen often have violent providences and things like that? And it was just something that I was always fascinated with.

And then many, many, many years later when I was sitting down to write this book, at first, I didn’t know who Jaya’s kind of counterpart was going to be. I didn’t have the Beast really set in there. Jaya came to me pretty fully formed as Beauty, but the Beast was kind of a question mark. And for a long time I played around with different characters and nothing felt right. And then one day I had this vision of this boy who’s like this hulking brooding kind of misanthrope. And I immediately thought, “Oh, maybe he’s British. Maybe he comes from this lineage of people who had something to do with the British Raj in India so many decades ago.”

And, of course, Jaya being a Royal, she would be very close to the heart of the British Raj and colonialism in India. And I just thought that would be such a cool way to bring them together and have an enemies-to-lovers kind of piece already in there of these two almost feuding families. And then as I thought of that, I immediately [thought of] the old stories of the cursed diamonds and things floated into my mind and I was like, “Oh, so that’s what the curse is going to be. And this story is going to do with the ruby and the rose. And it’s going to be to something to do with Grey’s family and the British Raj in India.” And then it all kind of came together. But it was definitely a process of thinking and playing and figuring out what was enough to put in the book and what was too much. And how far to go, even in that line of thinking.

HS: Well, I think having history be so connected to your family identity as it is for both families, it just worked really, really well. And like I said, it was so unexpected for me. And I just thought it was a really gifted storytelling.

SM: Thank you so much. That makes me very happy because I spent so long in edits with this book.

HS: Well good. So you talked a little bit about how Of Curses and Kisses is really the most multicultural and most diverse cast of characters that you’ve had before. But you’re still telling the story from alternating points of view. Was it really hard to write from the point of view of a white British privileged young man?

SM: It wasn’t as hard as I was fearing it might be. I’ve written male points of view, of course, in my other books before. And I always get the feedback that, “Oh, you’re really good at writing boys and why is that?”

And I always think, “I don’t know, maybe I have the mind of a 16-year-old boy.” I’m not sure. With Grey it was interesting. So I am married to a white guy and over the years of being married — we’ve been married almost 18 years now — we have had so many conversations about how his path through life and the way he carries himself every day and things that he thinks about or are concerned with every day, are so different in so many ways from the things that I carry with me and I’m concerned about.

And so I think those conversations really helped me kind of get into Grey’s head because he’s not one of those horribly privileged, blind to the fact of his privilege kind of people. He’s actually very cognizant of the things that his family has done. And maybe not in the same way as Jaya would be as being someone whose families suffered the brunt of that. But definitely he was more knowledgeable then you might expect an aristocrat and someone from a British peerage line to be. And so I think for me, I wanted to show him not as a bad guy or someone who was clueless, but someone who was aware of his privilege. And yet he also in some ways carried a very heavy burden when it came to his privilege too, in terms of the curse and how he’d been treated by his family all these years.

HS: That’s fantastic. I think that’ll give anyone who picks this up or listens to it, just opportunities to think about how they carry themselves to the world. Even though this is a privileged boarding school, we know that there are some kids who are there on scholarship. And we can see how all of these different students are reacting to their privilege and their backgrounds. And I think it might force some of your listeners to really think about their own relationships with the world and with their peers.

SM: I hope so. I think that everybody should, I certainly do. I’m a woman of color, but I have privilege in so many other areas of my life. And I hope as a responsible citizen of the world that I take the time to listen to people from different walks of life and also consider my own privilege routinely because I think it’s easy to take that for granted. But so important that we don’t as much as possible.

HS: Wow. So that must be really challenging for you. You had such out of the box success or out of the printer success with When Dimple Met Rishi. And you’ve really, I think, become a role model and a representative for South Asian writers across the board and especially for the teen community. Is that a big challenge for you?

SM: It is if I stopped to really think about it. It makes me very nervous. But I think the great thing is that in today’s publishing kind of industry, there are so many authors of various marginalizations, including other South Asian authors, who are really great and are tremendous role models. When Dimple Met Rishi first came out or even before it was published, but I knew it had been sold, there was definitely kind of a fear of having to be all things to all people and nobody can do that. That’s just not possible.

But now going into 2020, I really feel like things have changed and there are so many wonderful, wonderful authors who are South Asian or Indian. And I think it strengthens the community and it gives kids in the communities so many more role models to look up to, which is all just all good things. And as for me, I try to take my responsibility very seriously and I’m very careful about what I’m portraying whether I’m on social media or in person event or on interviews like this one or even the content that I’m putting into books. So I’m very grateful or people who reach out and tell me that my books mean a lot to them because I take my job so very seriously.

HS: And I have to say as a white reader and listener that I appreciate that everything you’ve produced is so culturally rich because it forces me to do some research to think about how experiences are different and it’s opened some conversations with friends of mine. So I really appreciate it and I’m sure that that’s happening for other people as well.

SM: That’s really wonderful to hear. Thank you, Heather. I think that I have gotten probably, and this always surprises people, but I probably out of all the mail I get, I would say the white people who write to me are in the majority as compared to other ethnicities. And it always makes me so happy when people write and they connect with something in the book. And I think it opens our eyes to the fact that the character doesn’t have to look exactly like us or come exactly from our background in order for us to connect with them on some level, and to see that we really are the same. And it always makes me happy. And especially when I get emails, even from male readers who are like, “I never read romances or romantic comedies. But I really wanted to read this because I’m dating a girl who is a coder.” Or something like that and it’s just awesome because I love that they’re using it as like a manual about how to be a better boyfriend. Which is great, I love any type of connection that I can foster.

HS: Well, you mentioned coding. This is something else that jumps out to me about your writing is the fact that you include girls who have really nontraditional interests. Girls who are in STEM: science, technology, engineering and math. I have to say honestly that of all the characters in Of Curses and Kisses, I really, really want to hang out with the younger sister, Isha. I just think she’s fascinating and she’s an engineer. Do you make a conscious choice to include that kind of STEM character with coding and filmmaking and engineering?

SM: I definitely do. I feel like this is such an important thing to show as being normal and even being something to aspire to. Or even break down the barriers of, “Oh, I could never do that.” I think it’s important for girls to see people like them doing these things and breaking those barriers.

SM: I know growing up my sister was very into STEM and she was into computer science, like at the very first blush of that career path. And it was very strange for everybody. They were like, “Oh well what are you going to do with that once you get married?” Kind of thing.

HS: Oh.

SM: Yeah. And she persevered and she actually has a PhD in artificial intelligence now. She’s one of those really annoying brainy people. But I am definitely more into the arts and that kind of thing. But I think it’s so important that we normalize that as much as possible.

Just like, I hope to normalize the fact that Indian Americans can be the stars of romances and romantic comedies. And the stories don’t have to be about like the slums in India. And I feel like it’s just as important to normalize the fact that girls can absolutely be engineers or rocket scientists or coders or whatever else they choose to be. And that we as adults need to make it just part of the career path that is open to our girls.

HS: I could not agree more. I have nieces who are very into creating experiments and being scientific. So to know that other adults feel the same way makes me feel really good about the future for them.

SM: Yeah, that’s fantastic. I love that. And I feel like they probably have a very welcoming and conducive home environment for them to be able to explore that.

HS: Yeah. You talked about your PhD sister. My brother has a doctorate in chemical engineering, so I understand.

SM: Well, there you go.

HS: So throughout your books you use a lot of the two different points of view. So we’re hearing from one character’s side of the story and then the other’s. And that leads obviously really easily to having two narrators. And I’ve heard that you might’ve had some input into the cast for this one.

Were you asked to screen some of the narrators or help make decisions about who was going to be narrating the story for Audible and for other audio programs?

SM: Yes, absolutely. That’s what was so exciting for me about the audiobook was that they emailed me a few choices for different narrators and I got to listen to the clips of them doing other books and imagining, “Could I imagine Grey as this person? Could I imagine Jaya as this person?”

And that was such a cool experience because readers do a lot of fan casting for books they love. Pairing up actors to the characters, you know, “This actor looks like what I pictured this character to be.” But it’s so rare that we kind of fan-cast for the voices and that’s exactly what this was. Except that I also got to see it come alive once they were finished recording. So that was a really amazing experience and I was very grateful to be considered to be part of it.

HS: It’s such an incredible extension of the universe that you created and your imagination and your creativity. The fact that you can take it off the page, I think must be really exciting.

SM: Yeah, it just gives it this three-dimensional texture and richness to the story that’s absolutely fantastic. One of the things I like to do is, I haven’t done it obviously for Of Curses and Kisses yet, but for my other books, I love to read while I listen to the narrator, so that I can combine my words with their voice and their way of speaking it and bringing it to life. And it’s just such a great three-dimensional kind of experience.

HS: Oh, that’s fantastic. I admit, I think I’ve done that a time or two myself.

SM: Yeah. I highly recommend everybody do that.

HS: Great advice. Well, Sandhya thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. For our listeners they can find all of your books so far at Audible. And we’re certainly looking forward to sharing Of Curses and Kisses with your listeners everywhere.

SM: Thank you so much for having me today. It was such a pleasure speaking with you.

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