With a trip to India coming up soon, I’m delighted to have the chance to visit slightly earlier by interviewing Sonia Bahl whose novel The Spectacular Miss begins in Calcutta.
I also need to apologise to Sonia as this interview has been sitting in my inbox for three months – but actually, I think it was worth waiting for as I loved hearing about The Spectacular Miss.
The Spectacular Miss is available for purchase here.
The Spectacular Miss
I learned that I am, despite my early years spent as a swaggering boy, at heart just a middle-class,hard-working, risk-averse, un-creative, strait-laced, routine-obsessed
conformist. In case I forgot to mention it, I’m also prudish to the point of being puritanical.
But at eight, Nira had only one over-powering wish—to pee standing up like a boy. In fact, to be a boy.
Join Nira as she steps into her brother’s clothes and becomes the self-appointed Al Caponesque gang leader of the neighbourhood boys. Her oddball yet madly loving family shapes her personality, and a poignant relationship with her brother’s best friend shapes her life.
She uses uninhibited candour to detail her coming-of-age journey from Calcutta to London, from tomboy to reluctant woman-in-progress . . . always trying to fit in, but always failing. She’s a laugh a minute, and yet she breaks your heart with her subconscious, percussive yearning for the one person who is always too old, too far, too married to be hers.
An Interview with Sonia Bahl
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag, Sonia. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and The Spectacular Miss in particular. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
I was born and raised in Calcutta, and I’ve lived and worked in Jakarta, Miami, Johannesburg, Brussels and Singapore, making ads for everything from candy to condoms, while dreaming of changing them from 30-second spots to full length feature films. I threw caution and my full time job as Executive Creative Director, McCann-Erickson to the winds and embarked on the riveting, rejection-filled screenwriting journey in the US. Happily, my day job now entails writing movies and getting paid for them!
I live, write and rewrite in Singapore and the three loves of my life remain my daughter’s light-up-the-world smile , my dog’s hunky good looks and my husband’s ceaseless patience and incredible friendship.
(Crikey – that’s quite a leap you took! How exciting.)
Why do you write?
To be honest, it’s pretty much the only skill I have!
(I’m sure that’s not true!)
When did you realise you were going to be a writer?
There was no light bulb moment. I started as an advertising copywriter – loved every minute of it. Moved to screenwriting – thought I had died and gone to heaven. The book – well, that felt like I got lucky, like a first-time winner at a casino! If ever there was an early indication of having some sort of predilection towards writing it came from an entirely biased audience of one, my grandmother. As a child I wrote her letters detailing all sorts of mundane events with dangerous degrees of exaggeration. She’d laugh till she was ready to collapse and couldn’t wait for the next one. So if that is anything to go by, I knew I was going to be a writer before I was even ten years old.
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
Easiest: working in isolation.
Most difficult: working in isolation.
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
Since I write screenplays, they tend to have a life of their own and deadlines imposed by third parties – studios, directors, producers who are sitting in a different country…sometimes you do end up writing at all odd hours or having discussions at even odder hours. When I’m writing for myself it’s a lot more regular – wake up, work out, get ready and write. And write. Break for lunch / errands /meetings. Go back to writing till the evening. Of course, being a Virgo helps. I’m told we are crashing bores. I am a self-confessed disciplined bore. I write from my study at home – it has a cinematic view of a tropical rainforest – in the middle of the city. Only in Singapore!
(I’m very envious. I loved Singapore when I visited.)
You write ads and screenplays. How do these disciplines impact on your novel writing?
All writing helps. But I’m certain it’s the many years spent as a copywriter that deserve a high five. The devotion to brevity, seduction through simplicity, and avoiding boredom at all cost, are all tattooed into my DNA for posterity. I suppose writing screenplays makes one see things in scenes – even before they’re out of your head and on the paper!
The Spectacular Miss is described as a ‘coming of age’ book. What were you hoping to achieve through your narrative?
It’s a shout-out to the square pegs, the misfits, the late bloomers: “You have no idea how lucky you are – don’t try to fit in!”
The Spectacular Miss has humour. How easy or difficult is it to balance humour when you’re writing?
I feel that self-deprecating humour is a handy default setting for me. It comes to my rescue when I’m overwhelmed or underwhelmed. It’s essentially acknowledging the awkward, the elephant in the room, the gauche parts of yourself – and putting it out there.
The Spectacular Miss Nira is very much shaped by her family. To what extent do you feel we are all a product of our upbringing?
Family is my resting pulse. It was for me when I was growing up. Still is. Alan de Bottom said this wonderful thing: most of our childhood is stored not in photos but in certain biscuits, lights of day, smells, textures of carpet. Childhoods, and therefore, families are inescapable. Speaking for myself, the family I grew up in and the one that I acquired along the way, have a knack of seeping into everything I do.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I have extremely schizophrenic reading tastes – Mohsin Hamid, Nick Hornby, Shel Silverstein, John Green, Fitzgerald (always Fitzgerald), Jumpa Lahiri, Elizabeth Gilbert, Bill Bryson, Ann Tyler, Salman Rushdie, the latest bestseller, Rolling Stones magazine, The New Yorker movie reviews, The New York Times every day.
(I love the idea of having schizophrenic reading tastes Sonia.)
The Spectacular Miss has a cover that suggests a conflict between masculinity and femininity to me. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?
The key protagonist is a diehard Tomboy – entirely influenced by her two brothers, one who she hates (he’s closer to her age) and the other who she worships (he’s ten years older and supremely indulgent of her ridiculous ways). The cover tries to capture the spectacularly uninhibited Tomboy who, like most Tomboys, must transition through the awkwardness of feeling feminine feelings before she can find the comfortable balance of being who she is. And then becoming brave enough to go after what she wants.
As you also write screenplays, if The Spectacular Miss became a film, who would you like to play Nira and why would you choose them?
Actually, the book has been optioned by a leading Bollywood studio and I’m lucky enough to be writing the screenplay for the big screen. If it were Hollywood, a young Anne Hathaway would do great as Nira! In Bollywood it would be Alia Bhatt, a brilliant young Indian actress. She’s the right age, is fearless about shedding the usual trappings of vanity, has the perfect mix of vulnerability, bravado and chutzpah, and of course, she has the acting chops.
(Wow – how exciting.)
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that The Spectacular Miss should be their next read, what would you say?
Awkward square peg, vulnerable, brave. Ultimately, an enduring love story – madcap energy, hilarious and poignant.
Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions, Sonia.
About Sonia Bahl
Born and raised in Calcutta, Sonia has lived and worked in Jakarta, Miami, Johannesburg, Brussels and Singapore, making ads for everything from candy to condoms, while dreaming of changing them from 30-second spots to full length feature films. She threw caution and her full time job as Executive Creative Director, McCann-Erickson (Indonesia) to the winds and embarked on her riveting, rejection-filled screenwriting journey in the US. Finally her day job entails writing movies!
Sonia lives, writes and rewrites in Singapore and the three loves of her life remain her daughter’s scorching tennis backhand, her dog’s hunky good looks and her husband’s incredible friendship.