In March 2020, Shilpi Somaya Gowda wanted a moment to exhale. Her third novel, The Shape of Family, had just been published, and she planned to take her customary time off to recharge between books. Ideas weren’t rushing in, and she was fine with that.
Then the outside world began encroaching. The Covid-19 pandemic put the country on edge. In May, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, igniting massive protests. Tempers flared as Donald Trump squared off with Joe Biden during a contentious presidential election cycle. Reports of violence against Asian Americans surged. Gowda took it all in.
“There was so much happening, and it felt like such ripe material to dissect and debate and look at from different sides,” Gowda says via Zoom from her home in San Diego, Calif. “I wanted to step back and use fiction as a way of exploring those issues.”
The resulting novel, A Great Country (Mariner, Mar.), explores those tumultuous days by following the Shahs, an Indian immigrant family thrust into chaos when their lives in Orange County starts to crumble. Ashok and Priya have worked hard chasing their American dream, achieving enough financial success to move the family from working-class Irvine to the tony fictional community of Pacific Hills. One day, their 12-year-old son, Ajay, who is cued as being autistic, brings his drone to John Wayne Airport to observe flight patterns. He is apprehended and roughed up by the police as a terrorism suspect. A media frenzy ensues, and suddenly the Shahs realize they aren’t as insulated from the country’s problems as they thought.
For Gowda, A Great Country was a means of processing the loud and volatile rhetoric that came to dominate America’s discourse—to turn down the volume and turn up the understanding. “The type of conversations I was hearing around me were so extreme and polarized and desperate,” she says. “People were so ungenerous to their fellow citizens and there was so much emotion, and everything was driven so much by fear. I found it very rare to witness a reasoned conversation about any of these things, whether it was online or in the news or amongst my friends or people I heard on the street. And I found myself really longing for that. I just wanted to be able to have a different tone of conversation.”
In 1968, Gowda’s parents emigrated from India to Toronto, where she was born and raised. Her father was a mechanical engineer; her mother worked as an economist for the Canadian Ministry of Finance. Gowda’s initial career path was similarly practical: she earned an MBA from Stanford and worked on Wall Street at Morgan Stanley from 1992 to 1994. She was also a strategy consultant for startup and retail companies as they made the transition into the internet age.
But she always loved books. And she always talked about them with her husband, who works in private equity. Finally, he posed the question: “Why don’t you just try to write one?”
They were living in Dallas at the time, and in 2006 she enrolled in creative writing courses at Southern Methodist University with the goal of finishing a novel. That novel, Secret Daughter, was published by William Morrow in 2010 and became a New York Times bestseller. “Suddenly,” she says, “my publisher, who didn’t really know my name before that, was asking me what else I was working on.” And like that, she had a new career.
In a sense, A Great Country represents the closing of a circle for Gowda. In summer 1989, she interned with the Minneapolis Police Department as part of her college scholarship program. On ride-alongs she witnessed everything from raids on crack houses to prostitution stings. “The program was designed to help us see different slices of life, and it definitely did that,” Gowda says. “It was very eye-opening for me. There was cooperation and there was communication and there was support that went both ways. I’m sure there were some things censored for me because I was an intern, but I saw an awful lot.”
Those memories came flooding back after the murder of Floyd, and as she began conceiving the Shah family’s odyssey, including their interactions with various police representatives. “It gave me a context for societal problems, whether it was poverty and how people survive on food stamps or other types of things that I would have no context for understanding as a 20-year-old,” she recalls. “I think it helped broaden my view of society and its problems.”
It also gave her a valuable lesson in one of fiction’s most important qualities: empathy.
“Fiction for me has always been the best way of exploring things,” Gowda says. “It lets you investigate someone else’s personal trauma. You can try to lean into empathizing with different characters. You can engage in a discussion with a book club or with your friends or with your other fellow readers.”
Gowda’s previous novels—Secret Daughter, The Golden Son, and The Shape of Family—have some sprawl to them: they unfold over the course of years, in some cases decades. A Great Country, by contrast, takes place over a two-week period. It scarcely gives the reader time to breathe.
“I wanted it to feel like drinking from a fire hose,” Gowda says. “I wanted the reader to have this sense that they’re caught in this tornado that the family is in, where every day when you wake up, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you have not yet resolved that thing that you were thinking about last night before the next thing hits you. It was actually very invigorating for me to be able to write that way, because it’s so different than my previous books.”
A Great Country is the third book Gowda has worked on with Mariner v-p and editorial director, fiction, Katherine Nintzel. And her editor approves of the new direction the author took with the novel.
“This one is the most plotty of all of her books,” Nintzel says. “It’s the tightest and the fastest. It’s the shortest time frame. I read it in two sittings, and I couldn’t put it down. That’s a real step forward for her, and it’s pretty exciting to see.”
Thus far, it seems this new approach is paying off. PW gave A Great Country a starred review, calling the novel “scorching” and adding that Gowda’s “light touch is refreshing and graced with nuance, allowing her to find the truth in a wide range of perspectives. Readers won’t want to put this down.”
As for Gowda herself, with her latest novel finished, is she finally taking a moment to exhale?
“I’m currently focused on the launch and publicity around this book, and not writing anything new,” she says. “Though some ideas are spinning in the back of my mind that will hopefully be there when things settle down and it’s time for me to start writing again.”
Chris Vognar is a freelance culture writer and was the 2009 Nieman Arts and Culture Fellow at Harvard University.