Interview: September 27, 2013
Shona Patel, a successful graphic artist, drew upon her experiences growing up in India as the daughter of an Assam tea planter for her debut novel, TEATIME FOR THE FIREFLY. The story centers on a young woman, Layla, whose upbringing is not unlike that of Patel herself. As Layla comes of age in India during the tumultuous years after World War II, she meets a young man named Manik. Though they feel a connection, the two recognize the obstacles tradition presents to a potential romance. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Roz Shea, Patel opens up about the inspiration she found in her childhood home, her journey to writing creatively, and what’s in the works now that her first novel has been published.
Bookreporter.com: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us today.
We’ve all heard the sad tales about hopeful new writers sending off manuscripts, piling up rejection slips, and the years of frustration before finally becoming published. Yet you presented your first complete manuscript at a writer’s conference and walked away with an agent. Can you tell us a little about that experience, and how you reacted when you learned that more than one agent wanted to represent you
Shona Patel: These are indeed challenging times for debut authors to break into traditional publishing. I was lucky to find my agent, April Eberhardt, at the San Francisco Writers Conference. Several agents had asked me for the first chapters of my novel, but April was eager see the whole manuscript. She offered to represent me almost immediately after reading it. She shopped my manuscript around, and thanks to her grit and enthusiasm, within six months we had simultaneous offers from two big publishers, Penguin and Harlequin. Harlequin outbid Penguin by offering me a three-book deal.
BRC: You were already a successful graphic artist, having recently finished a major contract to convert artist Anne Coe’s design into a terrazzo installation of a floor at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. You also had successfully shown your award-winning ceramic sculptures at art galleries and museums. What made you decide, mid-career as an artist, to become an author?
SP: I had always wanted to write a story based on the tea plantations of my childhood but I had no idea of how to go about writing a full-length novel. Then I joined a novel-writing class at a local community college, which got me started. I worked as a graphic designer during the day, doing corporate and architectural-related graphic design, and wrote the novel on the side. Which is why it took so long to bring this novel to fruition.
BRC: Your book is available in stores this week, so let’s talk a bit about this remarkable story of a country in the throes of cultural change, adventure, new beginnings, and romance in an unlikely setting. One of the things I like most about TEATIME FOR THE FIREFLY is your storytelling. Its vibrant characters and sense of time and place bring the jungles of Assam and many facets of Indian culture into vivid focus. Our readers would love to know more about your background. How did you make this story sound so authentic?
SP: I grew up on a tea plantation in Assam, India, where I lived for the first 15 years of my life.
BRC: Where is Assam, and how did you happen to live there?
SP: Assam is in the far eastern portion of India --- if you look at a map of the Indian continent, it is shaped like a diamond, and Assam is like a little finger sticking out on the right point of the diamond. My father managed a large tea plantation that grew Assam tea, and I was born there.
BRC: It sounds very remote and even dangerous.
SP: It is a rain forest, actually a jungle, known for big game hunting for leopards, elephants and rhinoceros. It is bordered by Bengal and Burma, and many very primitive tribes, among them, the head-hunting Nagas who were once cannibals, lived there, even in the timeframe of the book. There are monkeys, exotic birds and venomous snakes. Assam is very wild but very beautiful. It is also the only place in the world that has the distinct climate and geography for the rare Assam tea plants to grow naturally.
BRC: Is it common for a young, educated Indian girl to grow up on a tea plantation?
SP: Oh, no, at least not at the time the story is set in. And certainly not in the main bungalow of the plantation. India was a colony of Great Britain for two hundred years until after World War II when India sought independence. Tea plantations had been owned and operated by the English since the early 1800s, and Indians were hired only for manual labor. My father was among the first Indians to be accepted by one of the largest tea companies as its first assistant manager.
BRC: Are the main characters, Layla and Manik, based on your parents?
SP: No, they are fictitious characters created to fit my story. The setting of TEATIME is real, and my father was indeed one of the first Indian tea planters, but he was nothing like Manik. Many of the events are based on stories I heard as I was growing up, but Manik and Layla are very different from my real life father and mother. The love story in TEATIME is completely a work of fiction, and the characters as well.
BRC: Our readers are always curious about how an author works and a little about their writing background. Have you always liked to write?
SP: Oh yes, I was always writing little short stories in school. Then I was in the advertising business in Calcutta for many years, which of course is a different kind of writing. I started going to writing classes after I came to America, and I was encouraged to put some of my stories together in a book.
BRC: I understand you are also a ceramicist and graphics designer.
SP: Yes, I had to wait a year before I could legally work so I dabbled in ceramics as a hobby and apprenticed in a private studio.
BRC: I’ve seen your work --- it is exquisite. Do you still work with clay?
SP: No, now I am completely focused on writing.
BRC: Tell us a little about the book.
SP: TEATIME takes place in India from 1943 to 1947 in Assam during turbulent times in the country. Layla, the heroine, is a well-educated, English-speaking Indian girl of 17 who has been raised by her grandfather, a prominent judge. Although she is very modern-thinking compared to other girls her age, she still is influenced by the cultural conditions of the times. She was told that she was unmarriageable because of her astrological chart, so she is prepared to spend her life as a single woman, perhaps as a teacher. She meets Manik, who was betrothed at a young age to a traditional young woman through an arranged marriage. Although she finds him attractive, they both know the boundaries of their culture. They become friends and exchange letters when he decides to take the daring step of leaving his traditional past behind by becoming a tea planter. The story is about their complicated relationship that spans several years.
BRC: How long did it take you to write the story?
SP: From the very beginning to final edit and production, it was almost four years.
BRC: Are we going to hear more about Layla and Manik?
SP: I’m working now on a second book that will feature Layla’s very wise grandfather.
BRC: Oh, good! He is one of my favorite characters. I love where he gently instructs Layla and her cousin, Moon, about not allowing luck and superstition to rule their lives. He is such a wise and kind man.
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us. Especially thank you for the delicious tea and biscotti. I’m afraid the tea I’ve grown up with comes from a bag and is not properly prepared, so I’ve never been a fan. You’ve explained the differences very convincingly in the book, and I was lucky enough to taste the proof. However, I want to emphasize that this is not a book just about tea --- it is a wonderful story of love and adventure, and breaking free of bonds.
SP: Thank you, Roz. It was indeed a pleasure.