Sohaila Abdulali has written two novels, three children’s books, a newspaper column, grants, annual reports, web copy, op-eds, blogs, articles—you name it; her eclectic list of credits will be familiar to any freelance writer. But she didn’t intend to write a book like What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, which the New Press will publish in November. As she recounts in the book’s opening pages, Abdulali was raped by four armed men in the summer of 1980, shortly before she left India to start college at Brandeis University. Three years later, back in India to do research on her undergraduate thesis about rape, she published an article about her own rape in the women’s magazine Manushi. It created a stir in India—where it was not culturally acceptable to discuss such things in public—but, Abdulali writes, “the next issue came out, life went on, and 30 years passed.”

Then in December 2012, a female student was raped on a bus in New Delhi and later died from her injuries. “I thought all the protests were great, but it had nothing to do with me,” says Abdulali, who is now 55 and lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “But then somebody found a copy of that article and posted it on Facebook. The whole thing went crazy; the media kept calling and asking, ‘Do you have something to say?’ I really didn’t, but I looked at the piece again and thought, ‘Boy, I was really young then,’ and it seemed like maybe I did have something to say. So when the New York Times asked if I wanted to be interviewed, I said, ‘No, but I might write one piece’—you know, keep it classy.”

Abdulali’s op-ed ran in January 2013 and garnered a huge response. She received emails from some 1,000 rape survivors and made a point of acknowledging each one. She was less responsive to agents who called suggesting that she write a memoir. “The rape isn’t the main thing in my life, and it would be fake to write as if it was,” she says. “So I said no to everybody and moved on. But every time I pitched a book to someone, they would say, ‘Why don’t you write a memoir?’ I got annoyed.”

Abdulali was mad enough to write “a real stinker” to Penguin Random House India editor Manasi Subramaniam. “She wrote me this really intelligent email saying, ‘It doesn’t have to be a memoir, but you have a lot to say on this subject; think about another kind of book.’ It never occurred to me that I could write about rape but not as a ‘rape victim.’ I got excited and wrote this completely crazy proposal, which I ultimately sold to Candida Lacey at Myriad Editions in the U.K.”

The resulting book incorporates the individual stories of rape survivors into a wide-ranging consideration of the multiple issues relating to rape around the world: what constitutes consent, rape as a political weapon, the “rape culture” of male entitlement, the healthiness of anger, and also the possibility of forgiveness. Abdulali writes about these thorny subjects in a blunt, conversational style spiked with the same humor evident in her conversation. “I’m not a terribly serious person, but this message is serious,” she says. “So I just wrote as I talk and trusted Candida to cut parts that were too flippant, which she did. I wanted this balance: rape is serious but, like everything else in life, you can be light. In fact, part of the whole problem, certainly in India, is that if you’re raped, you’re supposed to be overcome with heaviness and die.”

“I found there’s a lot of positivity in how people cope with rape,” Abdulali continues. “My friend Sarah McNally, who owns the McNally Jackson bookstore, put me in touch with her friend Yasmin El-Rifae. She was amazing, talking about how she and her friends would go into a mob situation in Cairo during the Arab Spring, when men were assaulting female demonstrators, and try to rescue women. That made me think, ‘I want to write about heroes,’ so I did. Themes emerged from people’s stories. For example, among the first four people I interviewed, every single one of them told me that when they told someone—mother, lover, whomever—the response was, ‘What did you expect?’ So I wrote a chapter called, ‘What Did You Expect?’ Some of the stories were from friends, some were from the people who wrote me about the op-ed piece; I avoided the ones who seemed immediately traumatized, because it seemed unfair five years later to say, ‘Remember this?’ But I contacted the ones who seemed when they wrote to have come to some kind of terms with it, so I had this pool of survivors from all over the world.”

The abundance of material was initially intimidating, Abdulali says. “I said to Candida, ‘How am I ever going to stop?’ She said, ‘Just write and see what happens.’ I thought, ‘I’m just going to keep going until I’m done.’ I would write and write and write, talk to people and write; I thought it would just go on forever. Then, one day in March, it was done. I actually turned it in ahead of the deadline.”

By that time, Lacey had sold subsidiary rights to Meredith Curnow at Penguin Random House in Australia, Ellen Adler at New Press, and—coming full circle to the initial inspirer of Abdulali’s proposal—Manasi Subramaniam at Penguin Random House India. Each of them made her mark on the text, Abdulali notes: “Candida said, ‘Look, I’m your editor, but why don’t we open it up? Why don’t we send everyone the first draft when we’re done with it and see what they have to say?’ I was nervous at first, but they have been amazing. They all read it three or four times, and they all had extensive comments. They were great, and they were putting in so much time that I felt I had to respond to all the comments: I’m using this, I’m not using this and here’s why not. I got this input from four continents, and they didn’t feel like rivals—I call them my four wives!”

In addition to not intending to write a book about rape, Abdulali says she didn’t intend to write any more nonfiction books after publishing the novels The Madwoman of Jogare and Year of the Tiger in India. “Madwoman was set in the village where my parents lived for many years and sold orchids; that’s the book of my heart, but it’s out of print. Then I thought it would be fun to do a New York novel, so I wrote Year of the Tiger—McNally Jackson actually carries it. I thought of myself as a fiction writer after that; I loved writing fiction. But then I got the column for the Indian newspaper Mint, and I loved that too. And this book was so exciting to write—I cannot tell you what fun I had. So I don’t know what I want to do next. I might write another novel. Maybe this time I can get it published here.”