When readers first meet Naya, the heroine of Suleikha Snyder’s new novel “Seared”, she is getting ready to meet her stepbrother Lachlan for the first time in ten years. While the pair always had a deep connection, factors such as time, complicated family dynamics, and their ages had kept them apart.
Naya is prepared to see her longtime crush for the first time as an adult. Lachlan is now one of the most buzzed-about chefs in New York City but, like Naya, is also wrestling with demons from his past. Fans familiar with Snyder’s other novels know that she has often incorporated South Asian pop culture, particularly Bollywood, into her work. As the pair navigate their relationship in the star-studded world of foodie celebrity, readers also meet Naya’s mother Jyoti and a host of other characters who would be right at home on the Food Network.
We reached out to Snyder to talk about the world of romance, celebrity chefs and why everyone deserves a happily ever after.
The Teal Mango: How did you first start reading romance? It seems like every romance fan has a story about their entry into the genre.
Suleikha Snyder: I was always a reader growing up — I read everything that I could get my hands on. Like lot of Indians, in my case Bengali specifically, our family was more academically-minded so we were always encouraged to read. I started out with things like Sweet Valley Twins and Sweet Valley High and aged out pretty quickly. By the time I was 10 or 11, I just naturally cycled through to romance.
I think my first romance was a historical by Johanna Lindsey, and I remember that a girl whose locker was next to mine in middle school gave me Amanda Quick’s Surrender. My first contemporary was Separate Beds by Lavyrle Spencer — I think a college girl who was my mentor loaned me that one!
I was always writing, too — mostly fan fiction. Eventually, as I aged, I transitioned to writing original romances — and publishing them! Much to my mother’s chagrin. Don’t worry: She’s mostly fine with it now!
TTM: We were a little worried when we saw that your new novel “Seared” was a stepbrother-stepsister romance because those can be really creepy! But Naya and Lachlan didn’t grow up together and their relationship seemed natural. I appreciated that.
Snyder: With Seared, it’s kind of a deliberate homage to soap operas, which I’ve always loved. Because the thing with soap operas is, if people didn’t date their relatives or former relatives no one would have a social life. I have a friend and former co-worker, Regina Small, who likes to say, ‘Leave your house to date!’ But then we wouldn’t have movies like Clueless, would we? And I wouldn’t have this book!
At the time I originally started Seared it was 2015, which was the tail-end of the post-Fifty Shades erotica boom. BDSM club romances and step brother romances were kind of already on their way out. So I missed that trend, which is not surprising because I never seem to write to trend. But I was creeped out by a lot of the stepbrother romances, too, because these people are growing up together, like you said.
2015 was a rough year for me emotionally. I had just lost my father the year before. I hated everything I was writing. So I just kind of said, ‘Screw it! If BSDM and stepbrothers are in, why not give it a shot? I am just going to write something that’s off the rails.’ And that’s kind of how it came about. But it eventually turned into something sincere and funny and authentic. I found a story in that recklessness.
TTM: Your main character Naya is of Indian descent, but we really don’t learn that explicitly until we meet her mother Jyoti, who is a renowned chef. You mention that Naya has brown skin and other little things about what she looks like, but we don’t quite know her identity right away.
Snyder: Naya’s mom, in my head, is basically Padma Lakshmi — that’s where I was coming from with that! And Lachlan is inspired by Gordon Ramsay.
Originally, I didn’t explicitly reveal Naya was Indian until halfway through the draft — when you see her mom and learn their last name. I went back and forth about whether I should state she was Indian from the very beginning. But I don’t wake up and look at my Indian self in the mirror and think about my Indian eyes. I just live my life! So, I tried to make the story be about where she is from, but have that identity be more natural. Basically, I’m trying to be better about depicting us as who we are.
TTM: You’re pretty outspoken on Twitter about the importance of publishing diverse authors and how characters of color need to be depicted accurately. Why is this important to you?
Snyder: It’s important to me, because we deserve to be seen and we deserve to have our stories told. People love to say that there isn’t a market for diverse media, but look at the success of Black Panther. And Girls’ Trip. And Hidden Figures. And Bollywood movies, which are popular all over the world. Moviegoers are hungry for diverse projects and readers are too. They just need publishing companies to put the same push behind these books that they do for white authors.
Why are we seeing these wonderful books — like Roshani Chokshi’s A Crown of Wishes and Nisha Sharma’s My So-Called Bollywood Life — in young adult fiction? It’s because the publishing houses are talking about these books and putting money behind marketing them. That needs to happen for adult books, too. Publishing has got to change or it’s going to die.
TTM: Writing about Indian and other South Asian characters in romance novels who seek romance and sex is subversive in a way. Just having them exist is a political statement.
Snyder: I don’t really think about it that way, but yes. It gets frustrating when white writers write about Indian characters and cite the Kama Sutra and go on about how exotic Indian women are. Those of us who grew up in Indian culture, we know how conservative it is. We know how patriarchal it is. I wasn’t even allowed to date! To be able to grow up and embrace your sexuality and to say ‘Indian girls can be filthy too,’ it’s been an incredible journey. It’s been so empowering to tell people, ‘We deserve to have this. We deserve to have love. We deserve to have orgasms.’
TTM: You made a joke earlier about what your mom thought about your books, but what does your family really say about your career?
Snyder: They know that writing doesn’t always pay the bills, so they worry about it. I majored in journalism and I worked in entertainment media for a while — which isn’t really that stable either, but I digress. When I finally told them I was writing romance, they handled it better than I expected. They were kind of proud! My dad immediately wanted to read something I wrote and I was like, ‘No. First you would need a Kindle, and I’m not getting you one.’ My mom still asks me about my books — no details! She’ll ask, ‘Is it steamy?’ Yes, Mom. It’s always steamy.
But, and some readers might be too young to remember this, when we were growing up in immigrant families — coming in during the 1970s and 1980s — it was about security. You wanted your kids to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers because creative fields are scary. They aren’t as secure. But that’s changing. Now, more and more, we’re seeing people in the arts, desis taking chances as musicians, actors — and, yes, romance novelists!
I’m not Jhumpa Lahiri or Arundhati Roy. I’m not out here writing intellectual literary fiction. And I’m just fine with that, because I really do believe that South Asians deserve to have romances about us and our experiences. We deserve to have the wild soap opera stories just like anybody else!