Back in July of this year, I went to an event at my favorite local independent bookstore, Bookmarks NC. The event was all about romance novels and three romance authors had come to talk a bit about their newest books. One of these women, Annika Sharma, talked about her book- Love, Chai, and Other Four Letter Words, a romance novel set in New York City about a young Indian woman named Kiran who has just moved to the city. Kiran meets a white man named Nash and the two fall in love- much to the dismay of Kiran's parents.
I met Annika Sharma at the end of the event and got my book signed- I also told her about my blog, which would go live two weeks after that July romance event. She said that she would love to be interviewed for my blog, and back in October, we finally made it happen!
I read Love, Chai at the beginning of October and was blown away- it was a 10/10 read, like a hug in book form. Annika Sharma is as lovely on the page as she is in person, and I absolutely loved talking to her about her writing process, path to publication, and a deep dive into Love, Chai, and Other Four Letter Words. As usual, I asked a few questions about craft before touching on special moments and aspects of her fantastic novel.
Were you into writing when you were young or did that come later?
It was always there. I don’t know if other states do this or if it was a national thing but there was a thing called “Young Author’s Day” when I was in school, and we would write stories, all grade levels, and then, at least in my school district, they were showcased at the mall, so you would go on a Saturday with your family and then you would find your classroom in these cardboard boxes, and pull out your story. Every year, my parents would take me to see my little book, and whether that was a story on the rainforest or a very cheap knock-off of The Prince and the Pauper, it was a story that I had put a lot of imagination into. In the ninth grade, I remember having a free-write writing assignment in English class and I remember doing a fifteen page paper, loosely based on the Power Rangers. I think since then, it’s just been this steady stream of writing, whether that’s in journal form (angsty notebooks about people I can’t remember now that are in a closet somewhere) or now, with a published deal. I think writing has always been the most important thing to me and the only way that I’ve known how to use my voice in any positive way for most of my life.
How old were you when you published your first book? What was that process like for you?
I was 28, I think, 28 or 29. And I had been signed for a book that is sort of similar in premise to Love, Chai. That book is no longer on shelves because the company started to go downhill, so I pulled my rights and now it’s not in bookstores anymore. But I got my first book deal in 2014, published in 2015, on May 15, so it was 51515, which was on purpose. I sent it to thirteen agents and got two full requests. I celebrated both, and now I look at other people’s numbers and I’m like “Oh, that wasn’t actually that many.” But all you need is one, and I ended up landing with the agent that I have now, and I’ve stayed with her for the last seven years. I signed with her in 2014 and got the book deal four months later. And it was turned down by big houses, I’m not going to lie. It got picked up by a very small press, but at the time, that was the right move to make.
Was there ever a point where you felt like your first book would never get published?
There have always been moments like that- there are still moments where I wonder if my writing will make it into the world. I think it does take a certain naiveté to forget what the odds are against you, but it also takes a healthy disregard for what the odds are. So you look around, and sometimes deals seem to go very quickly for some people, some people are very successful with their pitches and their agents send out the proposal and they get picked up, and you don’t know why you’re not. I think all of those things are different kinds of hurdles for different points in your journey. So when you’re just writing and you don’t have an agent yet or you don’t have a deal, or you don’t know if you want to self-publish or not, you may be like “Oh my gosh, I am my biggest hurdle.” And then down the line, it becomes this agent, this deal, or whatever it is. So it changes in form, but they’re always there. So like I said, it takes a lot of tenacity, a lot of resilience, and a lot of becoming friends with rejection.
At what point do you think someone should call themselves an author?
I think if you write, you’re an author. I think if you write, you’re a writer. Authorship is what you make of it, if it’s putting stuff on social media, that counts, people see it. I realize that’s a very existential answer, but it really is up to the individual what their benchmark is, and I can speak from experience and the experience of my friends, once you publish one, you still might not necessarily want to call yourself an author. Sometimes it takes, “okay, when I have five out, or I have ten”- the goalposts are going to constantly move, so I think it is what you define it to be.
What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book?
Make sure that you finish it. And I know that sounds like a silly piece of advice, but - you have to study, you have to read, you have to learn about your craft, but your first draft in particular is a huge accomplishment, and it’s not going to become anything better or anything else until you finish it. You have to have an idea of what it could become. So when I talk to people, and they say things like “well, I have this really great idea”- well, it’s an idea until it becomes a book. So you have to put your words on paper until you get to the point where it’s that finished first draft, and it’s completed, and then you can do whatever the heck you want with it.
Is there any particular environment that you feel is conducive to your writing? Like music, a certain place, total silence vs the buzz of a coffee shop
I am someone who writes really well while I’m traveling and when I’m not at home, but I also think that it can change from day to day. Sometimes it’s silence, sometimes, it’s music. I remember for book two of Chai Masala Club, there were a couple of heartbreaking scenes that I had to be, like, really in the mood to write, but also we were driving somewhere, and so I had to tell my brother “play this playlist on Spotify” and I think he thought it was going to be this playlist of really cool road trip music because it was me, my husband, my brother, his wife, and then the music came up and it was all the most depressing songs ever. And he was like “...this is not my vibe.” And I told him “I need to get this chapter out, so you’re gonna have to suck it up for a bit.”
It really depends on the situation and what the scene calls for.
Who is your own favorite author and why?
I have so many. Sonali Dev is one of my favorite authors of all time, Emily Giffin is another that I really love who writes women’s fiction, K.A. Tucker, we have the same agent and her writing is phenomenal. I also love a lot of Indian authors who write stories based in mythology. There’s one named Chitra Divakaruni, her writing is magical too!
How do you deal with criticism of your work?
You wallow for a bit and then you have to think about the people that responded the opposite way, you have to have some level of conviction in your talent. And you also sometimes get criticism that is like “I didn’t like this book and here is why” and you read it, it hurts your soul but it also helps you get better. So you have to have that filter on of, this is someone who is designing their criticism to hurt on purpose, and have no concept of who you are, what you do, or what this book meant to you. And then there are people who may not have liked your book but you get the review and it’s full of substance. If you can get through them, you can learn a lot. I think that book reviewers are extraordinary powerful teachers in many ways to writers, and their delivery of the message is critical in how an author receives it and sometimes it can make them better. It does always suck when you hear someone say “I really hated that book”, but at the same time, it happens to everyone. I think it was Kat Von D that said “you can be the juiciest, yummiest peach out there, there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like peaches.”
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
It was bad enough that I actually had to ask for an extension on book three. I think knowing whether it’s a true writer’s block or just a very stressful time in life is impeding your success. So if it’s a block, sometimes it’s as easy as going for a run, or listening to music, watching a show, talking to a friend, those are all really good strategies for getting out of your head. Reading, too- sometimes it’s good to get out of your own story and fall into someone else’s. But if it’s an actual life event that’s taking up space in your brain that you usually fill with creativity, that could use some more attention.
Do you write your books in chronological order?
I jump around. I did have an outline for book two of the CMC, because I was on a tighter deadline and I wasn’t moving as fast as I wanted. I’ve turned into more of a plotter than a pantser, but I don’t necessarily write linearly. Sometimes you just have a crappy day and you need to write a heartbreak scene, even if that’s not where you are in the draft.
Shifting gears over to Love, Chai, and Other Four Letter Words, how did you come to Kiran and Nash? Their relationship is so sweet it makes my teeth hurt, and I know there’s a lot of cultural nuance surrounding interracial couples, so…let’s talk about that.
So, the funny thing is, I landed this deal in 2017 on a proposal, so I hadn’t written anyone in the CMC yet. But I had just moved to New York. I got the book deal the day I was looking for apartments in New York City, and I was terrified. So the beauty of this book and all the places in it, the way it’s described, it’s not only Kiran and Nash falling in love with New York, but also me falling in love with the city while I’ve been living here and discovering what things I loved and what things hadn’t yet explored. So Kiran and Nash’s relationship is kind of based on that. But also, at the time when I signed it, the world was a little less open to stories that were out there for writers of color. It’s a very conservative story, I think, in many ways, it’s very simple in a sense that it’s an Indian girl and a white boy who can’t really be together because the Indian girl’s parents don’t like that- that’s a really traditional Indian story, and I think for future books I feel more comfortable and less stifled by the environment to really go there and not pull my punches. A lot of the conserved nature of the story was just based on what I felt like I could do at that time. But their love of New York is mine and all the sweet little things that as adults, we tend to forget can be the foundation of a relationship.
When Kiran told her parents about her relationship with Nash, my heart dropped because I kind of saw their response coming. We’ve chatted a little bit about it already, but can you talk a little bit about the cultural difference and why dating a white man was such a deal breaker for Kiran’s parents?
I think that the family I’m in, some families I know, and the privilege that I have, living in the United States and the fact that even a lot of the families I know that are still in India are quite modern, these conversations wouldn’t happen in most families I know. But I do know some friends who have had those situations happen. So obviously, there is a spectrum of reactions. Some parents wouldn’t even bat an eyelash, would just be like “cool, when’s the wedding- can we have it in five days?” And there’s also parents who are like “absolutely not,” and react just like Kiran’s did. I think with her parents, I was trying to come from some level of empathy, even though they were saying these really horrible things, I hated writing the things that her mom said. Some of it was quite difficult because I can’t imagine my parents saying these things to me, but I know that some friends’ parents have, I know that other people have. I’ve gotten far more letters saying “this is my life” than letters that say “India isn’t like this”. So I know it’s definitely still out there. It’s just really hard because so much of the immigration process is trying to keep a foot in where you came from so you don’t forget those beautiful values, the beautiful culture and tradition but also trying to make the most out of your opportunities. Sadly, in the US, I think that means a lot of people just say “well, why aren’t you American?” And that’s great, America is a great country, but there’s this whole other world out there, 200 countries out there that are equally as rich, maybe not financially but in other ways. So who are we as Americans to say “let go of that”? And I think that’s what Kiran would have faced, what a lot of immigrants would have faced, immigrant children feeling so much of that pressure to hang onto where they came from while also looking forward to where they are.
There is something so sweet about the Chai Masala Club- how important was it for Kiran to have that friend group outlet full of people who looked like her and shared some of her experiences? Was that group inspired by anything in your life?
Oh, gosh, when I write them, it feels like I’m coming home. I think everyone has community in different ways- if you have a mental health issue and you meet someone who has the same one, they recognize what it feels like to be low or high or in between. Let’s say, I always give the example of my best friend, she always has very big feelings. And when you meet someone who also has big feelings, you’re like “oh my gosh! You get it! It’s like the Spider-Man pointing meme.
I think it’s the same thing with Kiran and her friends. I can’t imagine any of them having trouble meeting other people, outside of being brown people, but I think they’ll always come home to each other, not because they look alike, but because they have such a respect for one another and they’re all so different from each other, but they’re so similar in the ways that count. I love writing them, they were my favorite part, and their friendship was designed to be an additional character in the book in addition to all of them being characters themselves. I also just think it’s fun because it’s constant banter, they’re constantly like “what’s wrong with you? Why are you like this?” but it’s all in good fun. I sometimes look at my brother, my sister in law, my husband and I are a little bit like the Chai Masala Club, you get that same feeling. They’re magical.
Can you tell me anything about upcoming books in the series?
So, the next one’s Payal, and this is leaping forward a year, and she has gotten her fashion business off the ground, she has a very heated, lovely one night stand with someone you actually met in book one in a very fleeting moment. And they don’t end well- that one night stand blows up in their faces but then they’re told by their parents, both sets living in London, that their businesses are in trouble and they need Payal, as part of a plan to save Payal’s parent’s business, to get engaged to the very man she just had a one night stand with! So the book is about how they’re leveraging this for their own gain and what happens when you put them together in a room. It’s a lot more traditional and rom-com than it is angsty, there are a lot of laughs as well as big feelings, and it’s about two people who have been very fun to write.
Annika Sharma and I had such an amazing time! I've been so blessed this year to interact with so many fantastic authors over a variety of different genres about their craft and I've truly learned so much as I've been working on my own debut novel.
I encourage you all to read Love, Chai, and Other Four Letter Words, as well as preorder her new book, Sugar, Spice, and Can't Play Nice- you won't regret it!