Creative, brainy heroines have always been Sandhya Menon’s specialty. Her debut novel
“When Dimple Met Rishi,” which was released last spring, was a romantic comedy that revolved around the love story between two teens set up by their families who turn out to be perfect for each other. Heroine Dimple Shah was praised for her confidence, love of coding, and her desire to break away from the path she is expected to follow.
In her new book “From Twinkle, With Love,” Menon gives the reader a look inside the mind of Twinkle Mehra, a film-obsessed high schooler who chronicles her thoughts, observations, and adventures in a series of letters to her favorite female film directors. As the story evolves, readers are privileged to watch Twinkle come into her own, both creatively and as a person.
We chatted with Menon about her love of young adult literature, what makes her character Twinkle Mehra so special, and why she gravitates towards writing heroines who are outsiders.
The Teal Mango: How did you decide to focus on young adult literature? Did you grow up reading YA?
Sandhya Menon: I did not grow up reading YA. Well actually, I grew up in India and I loved Enid Blyton, who was an English writer. She had a lot of books based at schools and her Malory Towers books were my favorite. But that was my only exposure to YA then. I really mostly read adult fiction in my teens and it wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I started reading Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ and other YAs that were coming out then.
TTM: What made you begin writing for teens?
Menon: I was writing under another name and I was self-publishing and my now agent had found the only contemporary book that I had written. She reached out to me and said, ‘have you thought of being traditionally published?’ By then I already had two kids and self-publishing just seemed easier.
But I had a small book deal that was with Hachette and it was a digital only book that wasn’t a YA, but it was a crossover with a character who was a girl who was still in college. My agent told me, “you have a good voice.” Then the editor Jennifer Ung reached out to my agent because she had just joined Simon Pulse and she wanted a contemporary book to launch by a new writer and she wanted to know if my agent knew of anyone who would be interested.
I love romantic comedies. I love watching them, I love reading them. So I thought, why not give it a try.
TTM: You mentioned that you grew up in India. When did you move to the US?
Menon: I moved to the US when I was 15. I was in high school and it was a huge culture shock.
TTM: Do you think that you channel that time in your life as you are writing your characters?
Menon: I think that for the entirety of my high school career, I was an outsider. I definitely try to create teen characters who are trying to find their voice.
TTM: This is a good place to transition to talking about your latest book, ‘From Twinkle, With Love.’ How would you describe your character Twinkle Mehra if you were introducing her to someone?
Menon: I will borrow from a comment I got from a reader here. She said, “When I was reading about Dimple, I was reading about someone I aspire to be one day. With Twinkle, I was reading about myself as I am now.”
Twinkle is a complete wallflower but she sort of hand to come into her own over the course of the book. She suddenly has power and she has to learn how to use that power.
TTM: This book is told through a series of letters Twinkle writes to her favorite filmmakers, who include Mira Nair and Ava DuVernay. What inspired that choice?
Menon: I love film. I am a big fan of documentaries and movies. When I first moved here I was reading a lot because I had no friends. But I rarely saw myself in the characters I read or in the author photos at the back of the book. So I started really questioning whether I could ever be a writer. I also began wondering what it was like to be a girl like Twinkle who wanted to be in the film industry. There was a study that showed that in 2016 only seven percent of films were directed by women. For somebody like Twinkle, who is a working-class teen, you can think, ‘I really want to do this, but is this a pipe dream?’ Ava DuVernay is one of Twinkle’s idols, and her work has meant so much to so many people. For Twinkle, those are the kinds of directors she gravitates towards.
TTM: Both of your books have characters from working-class backgrounds and involve scenes in which the characters have to talk about things like economic status and being around teens who have much more than you. Why do you make it a point to have those conversations in your novels?
Menon: I moved here when I was 15 — my dad was an engineer and my mom was a stay at home mom. My family was actually quite well off in India, we owned candy and chocolate factories, but when we moved to South Carolina, we lost everything. We became a nuclear family and we had a burglary in my house when my parents and I were home. There were people killed on my street. It was really tough.
I know in YA there are a lot of books — and a lot of really good books — about serious issues. But I wanted to show that even in a romantic comedy, you can still have a working-class heroine.
Order your copy of “From Twinkle, With Love” here.