Zibby Owens: I'm excited to be here today with Falguni Kothari, who’s the author of five novels and many stories, some unconventional love stories, some fantasy tales, all influenced by her South Asian heritage and her expat experiences. Her latest book, The Object of Your Affections, comes out February 19th, 2019, very soon. An award-winning classical and ballroom dancer, originally from Mumbai, she currently lives in New York.
Falguni Kothari: Thank you, Zibby, for having me here. It’s my pleasure to be here and talk about The Object of Your Affections.
Zibby: How did you come up with the idea for this novel? Can you tell listeners what it’s about?
Falguni: What it’s about is two best friends. When you have a certain relationship with a best friend, you sometimes take it to a different level. We have these two friends. One is married, lives in New York City. The other one is kind of lost because she's a widow. She has a lot of issues back at home in Mumbai. She's just immigrated to New York and try and see whether she can have a life here. The friend who’s married, Paris, she and her husband are trying to have a baby through surrogacy. She has this bright idea that why not have Naira, my best friend, be the mother of my child or be the gestational surrogate? That's someone who she trusts implicitly. She likes that relationship. As you will read in the novel as the chapters go on, you realize why she wants such a close relationship with the gestational surrogate. That's basically the context of the book.
How did I get the idea for it? Couple of things happened. This is the second book with Graydon House. I already had My Last Love Story, which came out in 2018 in January. That had two guys and a girl as a protagonist. I wanted to mirror that and have two women and a man in this book. I didn't want the typical love trope, two women fighting over a man. That's so done. That's a trope that I don't really like. One of the things that happened was that I know a couple of women who have chosen to have a child through surrogacy. I was speaking to them. I was fascinated by how they came to that point where they needed to have a child through a surrogate. Plus, I have a lot of family in India. It’s actually very common over there for sisters-in-law to have a child for someone who cannot. You can have one sister-in-law doing it for the other or two sisters doing it for the other.
That whole complication of relationship, not just having a child for someone else, but watching that child grow up in another household that is so close to yours. You have family vacations together. You'll have things together. That whole dynamic of this child has two mothers. Who gets precedence over what part of their lives? That whole thing fascinated me. That came into this book, became one of the ideas. Then one of the other things that I’d come across was an article where movie stars, apparently, are choosing to have children through surrogacy more and more for various reasons. In India, it’s become huge. Surrogacy industry is huge there. I read an article about these two bachelors, these men, who had children through surrogacy without finding a life partner. Wow. They don't even want to wait to find a life partner, a woman, whoever? They were ready to be fathers. They took that decision in their hands. I thought it was fascinating. I've played with all of those themes in this book. That's what happened. That's how I came up with the theme of surrogacy.
Zibby: This will sound like a stupid question. In India, are there different rules about surrogacy, different laws? Here, I know it’s state by state have different rules. Is it allowed?
Falguni: I don't know how much you know about India. Over there, I don't think rules matter much. If you want to do something and you're desperate to do something, you find a way to do it whether legally or illegally. Until last year, there weren’t such stringent or strict laws. It hadn’t yet reached the point where there was strict laws or implementable laws. It was all over the place. Literally, you have surrogacy farms happening in certain rural villages in India. You have a hospital. You have hundreds of women there who because they are maybe below the poverty line and this is one way to make money for their family, they're just there as mothers to be used as and how people with money can use them. However, this year, they’ve made the laws very strict. The intentional parents have to have certain criteria, have to have certain things -- how do you put it? They need to pass certain…
Falguni: Yes. Prerequisites, yes. That's the word -- for them to be able to go through the process of finding a surrogate or even going to one of these agencies that will connect them to surrogates.
Zibby: It’s such a neat theme to put in a book. I feel like we’re at the forefront of this whole, not movement, but explosion of surrogacy. What does it mean? It’s so neat. What does it mean to be a mom, really? So good idea. [laughs]
Falguni: Thank you. Exactly. This whole ownness that women have of being mothers, of being the carriers of the next generation or the carriers of humanity, why is the burden just on them? I understand that the female species is the one that can actually get pregnant and have a child. Yes, that's absolutely not negotiable. However, what is this whole thing that only women can be nurturers, or only women have a biological clock, or only they have this instinct of nurturing or raising children? Men have it equally.
Between my husband and me, he is the better parent. He deals with children better than I do. I'm an only child. I was a little like, “Ugh, what is this? What is this baby? Why does it poop so much?” Whereas my husband -- I remember this right from the beginning -- the minute he got home once we had our first child, he’d make me sit down on the side. “Go to sleep. You have your rest. I'm going to take care of the child ‘til I leave the next morning to go back to the office.” Except for him waking me up to breastfeed, I don't remember taking care of my babies from eleven at night to the next morning, seven o’clock. He'd be the one who was awake. If they were crying, he'd pick them up. His instinct, I feel, is stronger than mine. It’s just that he can't have babies and I can.
Zibby: Well, physically. He's still a parent.
Falguni: He's still a parent. Exactly. Why do we put fatherhood on a backseat when it should be equal? We’re talking about equality of the genders. This is one way where they can also be equal. Fatherhood is equally important.
Zibby: I'm not sure every father has that instinct, but I'm also not sure every mother has that instinct. It’s more case dependent. All super interesting topics.
You started your book about friendship and about the ways in which friends disappoint each other and holding grudges. One person couldn’t go to the other person’s wedding. Things just build over time. Do you feel like you've had a friend disappoint you in this way? Were you tapping into something that happened to you?
Falguni: I have disappointed friends. It’s not happened the other way around. I remember this one friend I had before high school, I think it was in middle school or somewhere. We were very close. The thing is that I tended to have a lot of friends, whereas she had fewer friends. She banked on me. She put all of her eggs in my basket. She expected things of me which I couldn't fulfill because I had a busier social life than she did. I remember disappointing her to the point where she wouldn't speak to me for a few months. Then I had to make up stuff. Then after a point, it got too much for both of us. She couldn't keep on expecting things. I couldn't keep on delivering. We naturally or gradually separated and went our ways. I remember those tensions. I see a lot of that in a lot of my friends’ friends. I have a very unique personality in the sense I don't expect things and that I don't want people to expect things from me. I see that happening between friends. Not so much as disappoint, you get touchy about certain things because you're so close. Then it escalates.
Zibby: I feel like the demands have to be sort of equal. I have/had one friend who needed me to listen to her on the phone about everything for hours. I shouldn't even say this. I didn't have the time to do that. I felt terrible about it. After a while, you have to be like, “I'm so sorry. I can't give you what you need.” Hopefully she's not listening. I'm sure she's not.
Getting a glimpse into what it was like for Naira -- she was a wife in the aftermath of a husband’s financial scandal of sorts. That was so interesting how she dealt with the shame, the logistics of it almost, the repaying of the debts, the selling off of the art, the whole thing. How did you come up with that character and that aspect of the character, the sort of Ruth Madoff of Asia?
Falguni: Couple of inspirations for that character. One, I come from a business family. My father, my grandfather, my father-in-law, my husband, everyone is in business. Actually, the whole extended community is in the same business. You see a lot of ups and down in businesses. As a wife and as a daughter and as a daughter-in-law, you see what affects them on a certain level. It comes back home, and it affects us also. Growing up in that environment, it’s very easy to picturize what happens if things go really wrong. Even one loss affects us on a certain level. There's tension in the house. You can feel it. What happens if there's a massive loss? What if we reach rock bottom? It’s easy to picture in the sense.
Secondly, I'm obsessed with The Good Wife, or I was. It fascinated me. Why would she stay with him? I thought she handled it beautifully. You feel so horrible for her. Oh, my god. You don't know whether to get angry at her for turning a blind eye -- because she wasn’t stupid. She knew exactly what was going on. Still, she chose to stand by him. Sometimes when you're in a relationship, and you're in a good relationship, and either spouse does something that's not really kosher, or at least the world doesn't think it is, you have to justify it in your head that it was, otherwise you're not going to survive that.
That is what I've tried to show with Naira’s character. Love is blind. You have to make it blind or -- there are very few people who are like Paris who can see things for what they are and still manage to hold onto that relationship. Usually if you're disappointed in one thing, your whole relationship will fall apart because of that. I had that juxtaposition between the two friends. One is like, “Throw anything at me. I’ll deal with it.” Then you have Naira who was like, “No, no, no. I need to live in a bubble. I need to live in this illusion, or I won't be able to survive.”
Zibby: Interesting. You also gave us a glimpse into Naira’s relationship with her own parents when they showed up and she was eight months pregnant. I hope I'm not giving anything away. She’d been afraid to tell them about her pregnancy. When she finally did, her dad goes, “What have you done, you stupid girl?” Then her mom asked, “Who would ever marry you after that?” Naira boldly responded, “A good man,” but she's like, “It doesn't even matter because I have no plans to remarry.” She's basically emotionally expelled. Tell me about the loneliness she must feel about that and the sense of parental disapproval. I was reading this and I was thinking, “Gosh. I'm forty-two and I still am like, ‘Mom, read my article.’” Do you know what I mean? I'm still so desperate for parental approval that to feel that they’ve completely turned their backs on her, that's intense.
Falguni: That's intense. That’s a very common trait in Indian families because your parents are your elders, hold such a strong position in your life. We’re raised to listen. Listen to your elders. They have the wisdom. They have lived more years than you have. Don't make the same mistakes. If they're telling you don't touch the fire, why do you need to touch the fire? Indians are raised in that kind of an environment where you are conditioned to listen and to want that parental approval. It goes further than that. We as humans -- you see it on social media now -- we’re constantly looking at our social media and checking how many likes we have, how many hearts we have on our posts. That approval, as human beings we’re desperate for that, not just from our parents, from anyone. We want approval from our friends, from all our relations, from our bosses, from everything. We’re conditioned to have that, “What you're doing is right.” When you don't, it’s horrible.
Zibby: It doesn't feel good.
Falguni: Did I answer your question?
Zibby: Yeah, that was great. Perfect.
We had started to talk about this and I was like, “No, save it for later.” Tell me about writing in India versus writing here. You got your start writing there and published a couple books there. Now, you've had two books come out in the US. What has it been like, this transition?
Falguni: I started publishing there first. However, I started writing in the US. I never grew up thinking I'd be a writer. I had no aspirations to be a writer. I didn't think I had the patience to be a writer. Who’s going to sit down and write four hundred thousand words? Who has the time or the patience to do that? In India, I spent the first nine years of my marriage there, after growing up and getting married. I was around twenty-six or twenty-seven when we moved to the US. Until then in India, the life that you lead there is very different from the life that I lead here. There was so many family obligations. My days were packed. They were packed with either the children or someone's getting married. The families are huge there. Your time essentially is just to socialize, whereas in the US after a point when your children are reasonably old, once they reach middle school, you have a lot of time on your hands, especially if you're a homemaker. If you don't have a job outside the home, you're doing nothing from the time that you drop them to school and pick them up in the afternoon, or even later because they have after-school activities.
My mother is the complete opposite of me. Even though she worked from home, she is a busybody to another extent. She can't sit still even for half a second. She saw that I was not doing anything and getting crotchety because of it. She's like, “No. This can't go on for long. You need to do something.” I started looking at online classes to take thinking that maybe I’ll go and get my degree. Because I love reading and because I love learning so much, I thought that would be a good fit for what I needed to do. Then I stumbled on this class classed Romance Writing Secrets, which was a short, cute course. That clicked something in me. Oh, my god. I not only love reading stories, making up stories in my head for my children or even for myself when I was growing up -- because I'm a dancer, Indian classical dancing is storytelling in one way in a different medium.
Because I was always immersed in stories, the stories started just coming out of me, the creative aspect of it. I was like, “This is something I can do from home, which I apparently love.” That's how I started writing. I started writing accidentally, so I didn't understand the industry. I didn't understand once you write a book, what happens after. That’s why I went with India. That was an easier way for me to get into the industry as opposed to New York publishing. I got an answer from India faster than here. When you have your first book and your first manuscript and your first yes, you jump on it. You don't wait. You don't sit and weigh things or anything. That's how it worked out that I had my first two books out there. Through that and through the years and when you're building more and more contacts, you come into touch with more and more people in the industry. That's how I got my contracts for the next two books in the US.
Zibby: Now, do you feel like you have a grasp on the industry?
Falguni: I kind of do. The thing is, it changes every month. Yes, you have a grasp on the industry. You have to stay on your toes because it changes every month. Ten years ago, after my first manuscript when I was approaching agents and I was approaching editors in the US, I don't think divorce books or own voices was a big deal then. They really didn't know where to place me. Now, they absolutely know and absolutely understand where my books would fit into the whole scheme of things.
Zibby: You said in an interview that I read with USA Today that you work best in the dark of night by the light of your laptop. You said that not being fully awake brings out your most creative side, which I found so interesting because I cannot function at night at all. Is that still true? Is that how you do it?
Falguni: For the first draft, I need to be half asleep. I have a very technical brain. I'm a very linear thinker. When I'm fully awake, I won't be able to just write. I’ll keep going back and editing all of my words. That breaks your creativity or flow. I need to be half asleep to do that, to just get it out. Then the next morning you go over it. You polish it up.
Zibby: That's amazing. What did you want to be when you were little, when you grew up? You said you didn't ever want to be writer. I'm just curious.
Zibby: No way!
Falguni: Yes. I'm completely a STEM girl. I love math. I love the sciences. I love knowing how this world works on a physical level and a metaphysical level. I always thought I'd do something in philosophy with physics. The thing is, the way my household structure was or the way I was raised -- I'm from not a very conservative household, but there was certain expectations of getting married at a certain time. When I expressed a desire to come to the US to study, to get my undergrad or my master’s in astrophysics, my father was like, “No. You're not leaving India. How much ever you want to study, there's no restriction on that, but whatever you want to do, you have to do it in Bombay. You cannot leave. You have to stay at home and do it. That's it.”
Zibby: This author named Nell Freudenberger has a book coming out soon called Lost and Wanted. The main character is a physicist. It’s all about astrophysics and all of that. I’ll show you in a minute. That's really interesting. It’s not too late to take that up.
Falguni: Uh, no. I don't think I can go back to college anymore. No way am I giving tests. No way.
Zibby: [laughs] Tell me more about this dancing passion you have. I don't know anything about that whole world. Tell me about it.
Falguni: I've always been a dancer. As I said, my mother’s been a busybody and she had --
Zibby: -- Little girl dancer type of thing, like five years old?
Falguni: Little girl dancer. You know that whole thing about when you throw your two-year-old into the pool and just expect them to float or paddle?
Zibby: I did not do that, but yes. I have heard of it.
Falguni: That analogy, taken in dancing, my mother just threw me on the stage. She was like, “Just stay there and wiggle your butt.” She was a big dancer. She's an artist, a creative person in her own right. She organized a lot of shows for our community. They were called dance ballets. It’s sort of like a musical, but on stage. It’s like Broadway in India. You have a story happening. In between, you have dances and all of that. She threw me on the stage at two years of age. I was supposed to be -- the main character is a little kid. That started my whole career on stage and in dancing. Then I did Indian classical dancing, I did kathak, which is one of the classical dances of India. It’s kathak. It’s come from the moguls. I did that for about twelve, thirteen years. I'm good at dancing. I love dancing because it’s a form of expression. Because it’s so physical, I like that. The last seven or eight years, I've been ballroom dancing in New York.
Zibby: Wow. That's so cool. You should go on one of those shows.
Falguni: Oh, no. I'm not that good. I used to dance professionally. On my kathak and in India, we used to have a lot of shows that we did not just in different venues, but also for competitions. My dance troupe won third place in the World Folk Dance Festival when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. This was in Spain. That was an unbelievable experience.
Zibby: I bet. What do you think are some of the best and worst parts about writing fiction here in New York City?
Falguni: I don't think there are any worst parts. I can't imagine myself ever being a writer in India because of what I said. I had a lot of family obligations. I didn't really have time for myself. New York gave me that. It gave me the quiet that I need to write. It gives me the space. Also, being so close to the industry and New York publishing, there are so many events that happen. All of that encourages and keeps you on your toes and also inspires you to keep on doing it. It’s available at your fingertips. I don't think there's a downside to being in New York and writing.
Zibby: Good. Excellent. Are you working on another novel now?
Falguni: I'm working on a novella. I belong to this Facebook group, Fiction from the Heart, where twelve of us, mostly romance and women’s fiction, we build a safe space for writers and readers to be in and exchange information about our books and keep ourselves entertained, kind of like a book club online. We've decided eleven of us are going to take out an anthology, the Fiction from the Heart: Second Chances Anthology. I think it comes out in June. My novella, it’s called Starstruck: Take Two. It’s about a Bollywood star and a publicity powerhouse for movie stars and their second chance at romance.
Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Falguni: Absolutely. Eavesdrop. Yes, participate in the world, but participate to the extent where you're not just witnessing or observing, but you're actually immersing yourself in it. Don't just see the snow fall. Taste it on your tongue. All of that will help you write and build your scene and enhance your voice. Pay attention. Pay attention to the world. Immerse yourself in it.
Zibby: I love that. Don't just watch the snow. Stick your tongue out. That's awesome. Love it. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Falguni: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. This was so much fun.
Zibby: For me too. Thanks.