Fans of Sandhya Menon know her YA series of linked books that take place in what has come to be called “the Dimpleverse,” which began with When Dimple Met Rishi, her breakout debut. With Of Curses and Kisses, the first in her new St. Rosetta’s Academy series, Menon is still writing romance, but now the interfering parents are royalty and nobility, not mere commoners, and characters have centuries-old curses to contend with. Menon spoke with PW about being a prolific writer, fairy tale retellings, and what she learned from self-publishing.
You’ve got two books coming out in 2020; how did that happen?
I ask myself that question every day! I’m a prolific writer: I tend to write pretty fast, and I realized that I was kind of superseding my contractual obligations, so I looked into whether it would be possible to do two books a year. My publisher was completely on board, and I feel like I’m really hitting my stride. I hope to do two books every year for the foreseeable future. I think I’ll always try to work on two very different things; it makes it more manageable for me, at least writing wise, to have a completely different headspace for each book I’m working on. The other book coming out this year is part of the Dimple series [10 Things I Hate About Pinky], and in 2021, I have the second book in the St. Rosetta’s Academy series and an adult rom-com.
Although the St. Rosetta’s Academy books and the Dimple books are quite different, the romances in both have an eternal quality. The characters may only be 18, but they seem to have met “the one.” Do you think of it that way?
Yes, definitely. I don’t know how much of that comes from the fact that I found my husband in high school, which does mean it’s within the realm of possibility. But also, that’s kind of the magic of romances for me, that quality of feeling like these two will be together forever after I close the book. But that said, probably the number one question I get asked via email is, “Where can I find boys like this?” I say, “Focus on your studies; focus on what’s important to you and your passions, and they’ll find you.” Especially with the high school students who write me, I feel a sense of duty to say no, focus on yourself first.
In many YA books the parents aren’t really present, but in yours they are. Was that deliberate?
I never made a conscious decision to put families in my book, but with When Dimple Met Rishi, with that cultural piece and the idea of immigrant parents who are completely not on the same page as their children, I had to have them in there. I’ve even had readers ask me if Rishi’s parents, the Patels, could set them up, because they have such good radar. And as I kept writing, it felt more realistic to have teenagers whose parents are a big part of their lives. This is the reality for a lot of teenagers, whether they’re Indian-American or not. The first St. Rosetta’s book, Of Curses and Kisses, does have a lot of parents in it, even though they’re not on location. But I just finished drafting the second book, and there’s maybe one scene where the parents are there.
What was the genesis of the St. Rosetta books?
It was interesting: it came to me from all these different angles. The first thing that happened is that I was on vacation with my family in Colorado—I wasn’t living here at the time—and I woke up in the middle of the night with this dictation in my mind of the main character. It came out fully formed, and I typed it up on my phone. I had no idea who was talking or who this person was, or what the deal was with her, so I let it simmer on the back burner. A couple months after that, I was watching Gossip Girl, and I remember thinking, I would love a book series that was kind of Gossip Girl-y, but set at a boarding school. And I was also watching Once Upon a Time, and I thought, maybe these books should also be fairy tale retellings. And then I thought, “Wait, I can write that! I’m an author!” That’s when I realized that the dictation I’d taken a couple months before was the main character of this new book. It’s now the very short first chapter in Of Curses and Kisses.
I’ve always loved boarding school books, and there was a part of me that felt like I wasn’t seeing a lot of diversity in that kind of book, and I definitely wanted to infuse that in there. And I love that Gossip Girl stuff: it’s really fun and entertaining to be in the headspace of a billionaire that I will never be.
All your books so far have been romances. Do you think you’ll keep writing them?
I started by self-publishing under a different name, and at that time I was writing everything under the sun—dystopian, fantasy, paranormal, and all this stuff—and I made a very conscious choice as Sandhya Menon to write contemporary romance. Now that I’m a few books in, I’ve been thinking about branching out a little bit. I don’t know what’s next, but I think there are more stories in me than romances, though I love writing them. I’d also like to try my hand at something else.
What made you decide to go the self-publishing route?
When I was writing, a lot of people said don’t self-publish first, because publishers really look down on that. But I had two very young babies at home, and I just thought, I can’t go through the query process. I made up a pen name, and I started self-publishing. I had so much fun, and I learned a lot about craft, being a professional, maintaining social media, all of that. My agent just happened to download one of my books and read it and offered representation. I certainly wasn’t expecting that, but it all worked out: exactly what people said would never happen is what happened. I wouldn’t say that’s the path to pursue to get an agent, but I learned so much, and I have no regrets.
What’s something you learned about craft that really changed things for you?
I was a notorious underwriter; I was always writing very, very sparsely. I used to hire freelance editors, and one of them had been an editor at HarperCollins. She helped me so much in learning how to flesh out scenes that were really more ideas than full scenes. I remember soaking up every single thing she told me. And I think she was the one who recommended The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson, which is still one of my favorite books ever on plotting.
Readers love romances and fairy tale retellings, but you mentioned on Twitter that you’ve gotten some pushback about Of Curses and Kisses?
I tweeted about getting a lot of questions about why Of Curses and Kisses isn’t about colonialism or this or that or the other. I feel like there’s this expectation placed on marginalized writers that a lot of “mainstream” writers don’t necessarily get. I want to be able to write a story about kids falling in love that’s a fun fairy tale retelling that yes, touches a little on colonialism because it’s an Indian princess and a British aristocrat, but doesn’t need to live in that space in order to be accepted. I think #OwnVoices is great, because it helps people like me get an audience and lets us do what we love, which is writing and telling stories, but I also feel like it’s a bit of a double-edged sword, because it places expectations on you.
Which hasn’t stopped you from continuing the St. Rosetta’s series. Which characters will the next books focus on?
The main characters in the second book are Rahul and Caterina. They kind of have a moment at the very end of the first book. And the fairy tale this one is based on is “The Frog Prince.” And Isha’s the heroine in the third book.
Are there other people retelling fairy tales who you think are great?
I did so much research when I was getting ready to sell the series. One of my favorites is The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. They’re so good. They’re sci-fi, but they’re also retellings of “Cinderella” and other fairy tales. And of course, Ella Enchanted, everybody’s favorite. I also read a lot of romances based on fairy tales, and there are so many retellings of “Beauty and the Beast” that I was a little nervous about writing another. But in the end, I couldn’t find one that was contemporary or that had done what I was trying to do in terms being set at a boarding school. I also wanted it to be more inclusive and diverse, with more different kinds of people in the story. I had certainly never seen an Indian princess as Belle.
Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya Menon. Simon Pulse, $18.99 Feb. 18 ISBN 978-1-5344-1754-0