Transcript: Sandhya Menon and Alexander Chee

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JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we’re joined by Sandhya Menon who picked The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella and Alexander Chee who picked Plainwater by Anne Carson.

JENN:

Sandhya Menon is the New York Times bestselling author of the smash-hit When Dimple Met Rishi. She was born and raised in India on a steady diet of Bollywood movies and street food, and blames this upbringing for her obsession with happily-ever-afters and bad dance moves. Her newest YA novel, From Twinkle With Love, follows aspiring filmmaker and wallflower Twinkle Mehra as she finds her voice and falls in love. Told through the letters Twinkle writes to her favorite female filmmakers, it navigates big truths about friendship, family, and the unexpected places love can find you.

SANDHYA MENON:

My name is Sandhya Menon and The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella is my recommended.

I was a Sophie Kinsella fan since I read Confessions of a Shopaholic. Pretty much since I read that, I was like, you know I’m gonna read anything that this author puts out.

So, as soon as The Undomestic Goddess released, it came out in 2005, so it’s been out a while, I ran out and got it. And nobody had to recommend it to me because I was already deeply entrenched in the Sophie Kinsella fan club by then.

When I was in high school, I was a huge fan of you know, rom com movies, like from the 90s. So I loved Meg Ryan, and Julia Roberts, and so I actually didn’t know that I could read rom coms in book form. Probably because I didn’t immigrate to the US until I was 15.

At that point when Confessions of a Shopaholic was my first intro into quote un quote chick lit, and I was completely hooked. I was like, oh my gosh I can, like read a Meg Ryan movie, you know? How great is that. So. that’s how I kind of stumbled into the whole women’s fic slash chick lit genre.

I think Undomestic Goddess just has this special spark. I love the mistaken identity trope in romance. I think it’s amazing, and she does it in her trademark, hilarious way, while also just deeply speaking to this … to, you know, this feeling that’s in society of being overworked and not knowing how to get off the escalator kind of thing. So, it follows this very high powered, and very young lawyer whose about to make partner, and then she discovers that she’s made a huge mistake that costs her for millions of dollars. And so, she walks off in this fog and goes to this little, you know rural village where she’s mistaken for somebody’s housekeeper, and ends up taking on the position as a housekeeper just because she can’t face going back to her high powered job where she was fulfilled in some ways, but in a lot of ways that left her completely empty and desolate.

And I love how she just took this concept and ran with it, and it’s funny, and heartwarming, and sweet, and romantic all at once, and it just completely captured me as a reader.

My favorite scene from The Undomestic Goddess is when the main character is, she’s a lawyer. So she came from this very high powered firm in London, and she was used to kind of compartmentalizing her day into six minute segments. So everything had to be billed for, and accounted for, and entered into her computer in six minute segments.

And so, when she moves to the village and becomes and a housekeeper, she realizes she has a lot more time at her disposal. She has weekends off, which she’s never had since she was about eight years old.

And so, she doesn’t know what to do with that. So she decides she’s going … she decides to still segment her day because that’s what she’s comfortable with, but she decides she’s going to segment it, kind of, into a larger chunk. So, she’s going take a bath for an hour, and she’s in the bath, you know and she’s thinking, oh this is so relaxing. I love it. And surely, you know, I’m done now with my hour and she gets out and she realizes it’s been you know, 10 minutes or something like that.

And so, she has this complete inability to relax, and she’s very twitchy. And I love that because it’s so true. We can get so caught up with work, and what we think is important, and deadlines, and rushing to meet deadlines, that we forget what it’s like to just sit and be still with ourselves. And again, Kinsella tackles that kind of deep and serious concept with complete hilarity and warmth and I love that scene.

Like I said it came out in 2005, that’s when I originally got my copy, and since then I think I’ve bought it three or four times. I have a pretty brand new copy now because my last one finally fell apart, again. And so, yes I re-read it several times every year.

I think the saddest moments of my life as in 2016 when we moved to Colorado from South Carolina, and all of my Sophie Kinsella books got ruined in the move. Because they got watered, they got rained on. And I was so upset. I think I was more upset about that than any of the furniture, other valuables I lost.

Sophie Kinsella is one of those writers who I admired well before I wrote my first novel. And so, I always knew that if I ever tackled rom coms myself, I would want to model myself after her. Not in a way that’s, you know, copycatting her writing style, but just the way that she can speak to pretty serious issues, while also completely keeping you laughing, and making you fall in love with all of her characters, the good ones and the antagonist. And so, I knew I wanted to model my writing style after her in those ways.
I think I began, it was probably when I was in college, and I decided that I wanted to give it try. It was, I have to be honest, it was a complete fanfic kind of attempt. And I think it was after I read, maybe Confessions of a Shopaholic. So her, kind of her first book. And I was like, this is so hilarious and I feel like I just, I want more of it and I don’t know how to get more of it, so I’m going to write something of my own that’s very similar.
And I’m pretty sure I ripped off jokes, like exactly from , from her first book. But once I wrote that book, and I finished it, which I was very proud of. And it was a complete mess. It had so many different plots, and it was crazy. But I loved it. I loved the process of writing. I loved that I was laughing while I was writing.

And so, at that point I knew I wanted to write rom coms, but I kind of veered off and started writing other things in the meantime. So it took me a while to come back to that. It took me, I want to say about 12 or 13 years after that first attempt, to actually come back and write When Dimple Met Rishi.

I never felt that pinch of, and you know, like it was a guilty pleasure or I couldn’t tell people that. I know when I was growing up, I was definitely discouraged from reading lighter, fluffier works. We never had any romance books in my house. But at the same time we had plenty of action thriller type books by men. Which, looking back that’s the exact, you know, other flip side of romance. So, I don’t know why that wasn’t … I mean do know why that was okay.

So when I grew up, I immediately, when I used to go to the library, when I moved to the US, I would check-out romance books, and I never felt like it was something that I needed to hide. And eventually when I found Sophie Kinsella, I was completely blown away by how much I loved it and to see how popular it was with other people, mostly women, it made me feel more like I was in this, kind of club or secret society. That I had found.

I feel like now there’s this kind of movement where people are more willing to say, this is the kind of thing I like and this is why it’s okay. And especially with diverse rom coms, you know, whether it’s ethnically diverse or with gay characters becoming very popular and gaining a lot of traction, I feel like there’s this larger conversation going on which I love about how even marginalized characters deserve to have light, fluffy, happy stories that are not necessarily about anything deeper, or darker, or about the struggle of being a minority. Which, I think is great, and I do think that was lacking from the rom com genre in general. So I am really excited about those conversation.

There’s nothing wrong with hope, you know? And I think that we’re finally starting to realize that.

JENN:

Thanks again to Sandhya Menon for joining us and recommending The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella. Her novel From Twinkle With Love, published by Simon Pulse, is now available wherever books are sold. You can visit her online at SandhyaMenon.com.

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JENN:

Alexander Chee is the best-selling author of the novels The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh. He is a contributing editor at the New Republic, an editor at large at Virginia Quarterly Review, a critic at large at the Los Angeles Times, and an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College. His work has appeared in The Best American Essays 2016, the New York Times Magazine, Slate, Guernica, and Tin House, among others. His newest book, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, is an essay collection exploring his education as a man, writer, and activist—and how we form our identities in life and in art.

ALEXANDER CHEE:

My name is Alexander Chee and Plainwater is my recommended.

I found it first through an essay “Kinds of Water,” which I became obsessed with and which I read many times over a pretty much at least once a year for a decade. Um, maybe longer. It’s something that like, like something that I suppose forms the hardcore of the, of the decade after my graduation from college in terms of like, they’re all these things I was reading and all these things that I loved but. I just always kept going back to that essay. And you know, before, before the Internet made it so easy to look things up. Um, uh, I would say I probably didn’t find the book itself that it’s from, which is Plainwater until, uh, until the late nineties. And then I got to re-experience my obsession all over again by reading the essay in context. So that essay Kinds of Water was, uh, in first appeared, if I remembering this correctly in Grand Street, and it was a, or it is rather a stunningly beautiful meditation on the nature of pilgrimages undertaken while taking the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage through Spain.

And it has all of these beautiful passages that uh, that began with a short epigram and done a meditation on whichever part of the pilgrimage that they’re on, the things that are happening inside of their relationship. And so it’s thoughts about like faith and a love and travel all intermixed and done in this style that’s very lyrical. And, and just for me, you know, completely enchanting. So was, I think it was the single greatest obvious literary influence on me that I can think of.

It’s a huge influence in terms of the, I suppose the formal daring. When you’re, when you’re trying to write your first novel, you can write it in a number of ways I suppose. But one of the presiding moods for me was that I, I kind of just, let’s see, I felt I needed to, to dare to be something that didn’t exist before. All of my writing teachers had told me that in various ways. And I think it’s one thing to have it said to you by a teacher. It’s another thing to try to go and do it out in the world. You know, as I talk about in my essay collection that’s coming out, I sort of, I realized that I had to become the thing that I was hoping existed. Then I would say this essay helped me in some way. Retrospectively. I don’t think I read it thinking, not, but retrospectively make sense to me that that’s Ah, that’s what that was.

It was my first Ann Carson Essay. It appeared in the 19 best American essays of 1988 that Annie Dillard edited and my recollection at this distance is that she also taught it to us, but I may have invented that just through having re-read it so many times and having found it through her, uh, best American. So it’s like, you know, fused in my memory, not since. Shortly after that I found Short Talks, which was a great, I guess we call them lyric essays now, but I suppose it was also a book of poems. And the next book I found from her I think was probably Autobiography of Red, which cemented my obsession with her.

It’s one of those books that when I teach my students writing just, it’s like a, some kind of grow fertilizer. Um, it’s, it, it, it teaches simultaneously lyric compression, uh, hybridity in a, in like in an approach, if that makes any sense, where there’s something that’s possible through the hybrid form of it that isn’t possible. If it was more committed to a single aesthetic form. And that’s, I think the beauty of it in part to me.

I teach a few of my favorites, but mostly I like to keep my favorites to myself. I teach things that I love, you know, for sure. I teach things that I’m interested in. I teach things that I think are interesting. The thing that I tell my students often is it doesn’t matter whether or not you love it, you have to be able to talk about it in terms of their ability to connect with the unfamiliar because so often why we reject something is that it just isn’t what we’re used to seeing.

I have had a few experiences in class where students were talking about a favorite essay, story, book just in terms that, you know that make me realize there’s a reason why their students, that they, you know I have to teach them. And is that like how to read it or the, or they say something that is so utterly insulting about it that Uh, that I have to take a breath and think about how to connect back to the conversation and on how to tell them what I’m asking them to read. So that’s why I mostly protect my favorite things from, from teaching them because I just you know I don’t want to have to overcome whatever, there’s that there’s a way in which, you know, when someone insults a favorite, um, a favorite essay or a favorite piece of literature, you, you have a moment of feeling like they’re your enemy in some way. And I just never wanted to put that on with students. It’s not fair, it’s not really fair. So, uh, so that’s why I don’t often teach favorites.

The whole book itself is really lovely. What’s interesting to me about her work in this book in particular is that gold is quite a character within it. The word gold. And I remembered it having an insight into that when I was in, uh, in Belgium and I was looking down in front of this gay bar in Brussels and I noticed what looked like a gold scallop shell on the ground, just set into the stone of the sidewalk and it’s part of the, it’s part of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage that begins there and goes through the gay in Arab neighborhoods in Brussels and then goes all the way to Spain. And it was this kind of wonderful shock at seeing it. And then I imagined Carson, whether it’s true or not, just following the gold scallop through it and that word and that image and the idea settling in her mind. It’s not actual gold, but it looks like, uh, you know, I guess you could call it pilgrims gold.

This is the first time I’ve actually probably openly recommended it in a long time. I recommended it to a, a, to a young writer on twitter, Monet Thomas who is going through, uh, an Ann Carson phase. And it was wonderful to stumble upon her live tweeting about reading it afterwards because she had such an intense reaction to it. Um, similar to my own. It was kind of like watching my own reaction in some faraway mirror. And, and that was a beautiful thing to see.

I recommended sometimes to friends sometimes too, uh, sometimes very occasionally to students, but mostly I do keep it close, kept it close I suppose until now when I’m telling you when that’s done. But you know, when, uh, when I received the prompt for this podcast and I was thinking about what put that would be, that seemed like the only honest answer.
Speaker 2: 19:02 I’ll probably just sit down and read it again now actually.

JENN:

Thanks again to Alexander Chee for joining us and recommending Plainwater by Anne Carson. His essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter at alexanderchee.

JENN:

Next week on Recommended, one author discusses a book that changed the way she saw the world:

UNNAMED AUTHOR:

I read it in college and I actually resisted it because it was such an unromantic look at the life of an activist, The questions of self-care, the gender dynamics within activist groups, all of this. But when I was in college I kind of wanted a more romantic idea of activists where everyone wore a leather jacket and loved each other. I felt like this novel was pulling back a curtain that I wanted to keep closed.

JENN

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