Born and raised in Kolkata, Sonia Bahl has lived and worked in Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Jakarta, Miami, Brussels, Johannesburg, and Singapore. With home being everywhere and nowhere, her belief in the power of the moment became a religion. An affirmation that unexpected and undeniable human connections are everything. Meanwhile, on the work front, she spent a huge chunk of her life, her days, and sleepless nights, in advertising—writing ads for all things from coffee and cars to condoms and candy—while dreaming of morphing 30-second commercials to full-length feature films. Not surprisingly, she threw caution, and her full-time job as creative director, to the winds and embarked on a riveting rejection-filled screenwriting journey in the US. Finally her day job entails writing movies! In a recent, delightful plot twist, her debut novel, The Spectacular Miss, was optioned by a leading Bollywood studio and she was commissioned to write the screenplay. Sonia writes and re-writes in Singapore where she lives with her menagerie: gorgeous itinerant daughter, honorary proofreader husband, and her made-for-the-movies golden retriever, Ari Gold.
In Conversation with the Author
1. What inspired you to start writing?
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Now I wish I could tell you the grand dame of writing, Toni Morrison, and her indelible words did it for me. But that would be fake. Look, I wasn’t what you might call the brightest tool in the school shed— I pretty much excelled at one thing: being a total misfit. I moved through most classes in a paralytic stupor, except for English language and History. I also harboured a pretty crazy imagination. Add that all up and it probably hints at an early predilection towards writing. I’d say I’ve been feeling euphorically in my skin, writing in various disciplines, forms, and professions since I was 18. Does that equal, inspiration, I don’t know. But it comes like breathing and keeps me ticking.
2. Do you read much and if so, who are your favourite authors?
I think I suffer intense reading FOMO. No matter how much I read I feel I’m still playing catch up. My Kindle is always in my bag and I’m the sort of annoying person who pulls it out whilst waiting anywhere—missing out, no doubt, on what could be spontaneous, interesting conversations and interactions! My reading tastes suffer from multiple personality disorder. It can be Jhumpa Lahiri one day and John Green the next. Nick Hornby after Kamila Shamsie. Gillian Flynn and Fitzgerald on the same day. Pico Iyer followed by Helen Fielding. Shel Silverstein, anytime. Also, I’m trying to discipline myself to read one book at a time. Not there yet.
3. How do you think being a writer has helped you as a person?
To be honest, I don’t think it has! Writers are known to be narcissistic, self-absorbed, detached, insecure, prone to addictions, and suicidal. At least the writers of yore were famed to be. I think in this day and age we’re mostly just forced to become marketing machines—not exactly a character-building exercise. If I was travelling through war-torn countries or bent over my typewriter writing heartfelt dispatches about genocide or people suffering under the regime of a cruel despot, it might have taught me some valuable life lessons. I’d have to say who I am, is largely who I grew up being, thanks to exceedingly compassionate and liberal parenting. Being disciplined, observant, imaginative are all the qualities that probably get accentuated when you’re a writer—but hardly worth talking about.
4. What is the most important thing about a book in your opinion?
What it does to my heart.
5. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book “A Year of Wednesdays”?
A lot of us are wishing, hoping, and feeling the same things—we want human connection that will consume us and bring us home.
6. What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
I wish I was so logical. I suspect the left hemisphere of my brain was surgically removed very early in life. I don’t pre-write or pre-plan anything. Everything just starts unfolding from my imagination via my heart onto the page or the screen or wherever it is intended to go. I don’t measure anything via goals. In this case I feel strongly about the idea that the book is based on and I feel beyond grateful that the idea seems to be resonating so intimately with strangers.
7. Have you ever written a character based on the real you in some part?
It’s natural to draw comparisons between the lives of writers and what they write. The lines do blur. Because isn’t all storytelling the sum of all we feel, believe, and experience—little pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope. When you turn the kaleidoscope, the pieces form an entirely new picture, but there remain pieces of you buried in there somewhere. I think it was Ann Patchett who said: None of it happened and all of it is true.
8. Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
It’s hard for me to say. I know I would fall woefully short if I was incapable of feeling intensely. But who knows, maybe dispassionate writers bring something unique to their craft.
9. How liberal are you in terms of expressing ideas in your books?
My oeuvre with books is pretty limited, only two, but in everything I’ve written— print ads, television commercials, film screenplays—I don’t think I’ve ever compromised an idea because I had to hold myself back.
10. What were your greatest failures and what did they teach you?
Fortunately, there are no great failures to report (or maybe, I haven’t chalked up enough worthy experience yet) but everything I’ve learned comes from one simple affirmation. It works when I follow my heart. Perhaps that’s why my all-time favourite quote remains: The greatest distance in the world is 18 inches from your head to your heart.
11. What advice would you like to pass on to young writers of today?
May I channel Michelangelo who at age 87 said: I’m still learning.
But in case you think that’s a cop out, here’s what I’ve got:
If you lack the (mental) stamina of a long-distance runner and the hide of a rhino, do something else.
PS: Instant messaging is not writing. Grammar Nazi the heck out of everything you write—even an instant message! Never stop reading. Write because you fear you’ll shrivel up and die if you can’t tell that story. Develop the skill of getting up, dusting yourself off, and learn to gangsta it—over and over again.
12. Are you working on anything at the present you would like to share with your readers about?
I’m working on a screenplay and a web series — I’m contractually obligated to not discuss the details of either.
13. How can readers discover more about you and your work?
Ask me! I’m on Twitter, Instagram and on an FB author page. Not as high profile (and certainly not as revenue-generating) as a Kardashian, but I’m there, and decently prompt at replying.