Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Debut author interview-Shona Patel-Teatime for the Firefly

I'm so pleased to bring you an interview that tells us a little about debut author, Sweet Adeline's member and Tea Drinking aficionado Shona Patel. Her debut novel is getting rave reviews. Sit back and learn a bit about the author then go out and get the book.

  • ISBN-13: 9780778315476
  • Publisher: Harlequin
  • Publication date: 9/24/2013
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 432

Layla Roy has defied the fates. Despite being born under an inauspicious horoscope, she is raised to be educated and independent by her eccentric grandfather, Dadamoshai. And, by cleverly manipulating the hand fortune has dealt her, she has even found love with Manik Deb—a man betrothed to another. 
Editorial Review:
"With lyrical prose and exquisite detail, Shona Patel's novel brings to life the rich and rugged landscape of India's tea plantation, harboring a sweet love story at its core." - Shilpi Somaya Gowda, New York Times bestselling author of Secret Daughter
Kirkus Reviews:
 A lyrical novel that touches on themes both huge and intimate and, like Layla, is so quietly bold that we might miss its strength if we fail to pay attention.
Library Journal:
The historical detail makes this debut novel a rich reading experience. Those who enjoy historical fiction and portraits of foreign cultures will surely love this book.—Kristen Stewart

Read an excerpt:

My name is Layla and I was born under an unlucky star. The time and place of my birth makes me a Manglik. For a young girl growing up in India in the 1940s, this is bad news. The planet Mars is predominant in my Hindu horoscope and this angry red planet makes people rebellious and militant by nature. Everyone knows I am astrologically doomed and fated never to marry. Marriages in our society are arranged by astrology and nobody wants a warlike bride. Women are meant to be the needle that stitches families together, not the scissors that cut.
But everything began to change for me on April 7, 1943.
Three things happened that day: Boris Ivanov, the famous Russian novelist, slipped on a tuberose at the grand opening ceremony of a new school, fell and broke his leg; a baby crow fell out of its nest in the mango tree; and I, Layla Roy, aged seventeen, fell in love with Manik Deb.
The incidents may have remained unconnected, like three tiny droplets on a lily leaf. But the leaf tipped and the drops rolled into one. It was a tiny shift in the cosmos, I believe, that tipped us together—Boris Ivanov, the baby crow, Manik Deb and me.
It was the inauguration day of the new school: a rainy-sunshine day, I remember well, delicate and ephemeral—the kind locals here in Assam call "jackal wedding days." I am not sure where the saying comes from, or whether it means good luck or bad, or perhaps a little bit of both. It would seem as though the sky could not decide whether to bless or bemoan the occasion—quite ironic, if you think about it, because that is exactly how some people felt about the new English girls' school opening in our town.
The demonstrators, on the other hand, were pretty much set in their views. They gathered outside the school gates in their patriotic white clothes, carrying banners with misspelled English slogans like: INDIA FOR INDANS and STOP ENGLIS EDUCATON NOW.
Earlier that morning, my grandfather, Dadamoshai, the founder of the girls' school, had chased the demonstrators down the road with his large, formidable umbrella. They had scattered like cockroaches and sought refuge behind the holy banyan tree.
"Retarded donkeys! Imbeciles!" Dadamoshai yelled, shaking his umbrella at the sky. "Learn to spell before you go around demonstrating your nitwit ideas!"
Dadamoshai was an advocate of English education, and nothing irked him more than the massacre of the English language. The demonstrators knew better than to challenge him. They were just rabble-rousers anyway, stuffed with half-baked ideas by local politicians who knew what to rail against, but not what to fight for. Nobody wanted to butt heads with Dadamoshai. He had once been the most powerful District Judge in the state of Assam. With his mane of flowing hair, his long sure stride and deep oratorical voice, he was an imposing figure in our town, and people respectfully stepped aside when they saw him coming. To most people he was known simply as the Rai Bahadur, an honorary title bestowed on him by the British for his service to the crown. There was even a road named after him: the Rai Bahadur Road. It's a very famous road in our town and anybody can direct you there, yet it appears unnamed on municipal maps because it does not lead to any place and deadends in a river over which there is no bridge. The Rai Bahadur Road is just that: a beginning and an end unto itself.
When I arrived at the school that morning, the demonstrators were a sorry lot. It had rained some more and the cheap ink from their banners had run, staining their white clothes. What was even sadder was that somebody had tried to hand-correct the spellings with a blue fountain pen. Somewhere down the line, they had simply lost heart. They sat listlessly on their haunches and smoked cigarettes while their limp banners flopped against the wall.
One of them nudged the other when he saw me coming. I heard him say, "It's her, look—the Rai Bahadur's granddaughter!"
I must have rekindled their patriotism because they grabbed their banners and blocked my entrance to the school. "No English! India for Indians! No English!" they shouted.
I was wondering how to get past them when I remembered something Dadamoshai once told me: Use your mind, Layla—it is the most powerful weapon you have. I continued to walk toward them and pointed my mind like a sword. It worked: they parted to let me through. The gate shut behind me, and I continued down the graveled driveway to the new school building. It was an L-shaped structure, freshly whitewashed, with a large unpaved playground and three tamarind trees. Piles of construction debris lay pushed to one side.
The voices of young girls chirruped on the veranda. Students aged nine or ten sat cross-legged on the floor, stringing together garlands of marigold and tuberose to decorate the stage for the inauguration ceremony.
"Layla!" Miss Rose called out from a classroom as I walked past. I peeked through the door. Rose Cabral was sitting at the teacher's desk, sorting through a pile of printed programs. There was a large world map tacked to the back wall and the room smelled overwhelmingly of varnish. Miss Rose, as she was called, was a young Anglo-Indian teacher with chestnut brown hair and pink cat's-eye glasses with diamond accents. The small fry of the school swooned with adoration for her and wanted to lick her like a lollipop.
Miss Rose was about to say something when she sneezed daintily. "Oh dear," she said, wiping her nose on a pink handkerchief edged with tatting lace. "I don't know if it's the varnish or this fickle weather. Layla, oh my! How you have grown! What a lovely young woman you are. Are you still being privately tutored by Miss Thompson, dear?"
"No, not any longer, Miss Rose," I said. "I passed my matriculation last year."
"So you must be all ready to get married now, eh? Suitors will be lining up outside your door."
"Oh no—no, I don't plan to get married," I said quickly. "I want to become a teacher, actually." I did not tell Miss Rose that marriage was not in my cards. It would be hard to explain to her why being born under a certain ill-fated star could negate your chances of finding a husband.
A tiny, round-shouldered girl with thick braids appeared in the doorway, pigeon-toed and fidgeting.
"Yes, what is it, Malika?" Miss Rose said. "Miss…miss…"
"Speak up, child."
"We have no more white flowers, Miss Rose."
"The tuberose? I thought we had plenty. All right, I am coming." Miss Rose sighed, bunching up her papers. "I better go and see what's going on. Oh, Layla, there's a packet of rice powder for you lying on the secretary's desk in the principal's office. I suppose you know what it is for?"
"It's for the alpana I am painting in the entryway," I said. Miss Rose looked blank, so I explained. "You know, the white designs—" I made curlicue shapes in the air "—the kind you see painted on the floor at Indian weddings and religious ceremonies?"
"Ah yes. They are so intricate. Boris Ivanov will like that. He loves Indian art. I hope you have brought your brushes or whatever you need, Layla. We don't have anything here, you know."
"I don't need any brushes," I said. "I just use my fingers and a cotton swab. I have that. Miss Rose, is my grandfather still here?"
"The Rai Bahadur left for the courthouse an hour ago. He said to tell you he will be home for lunch. Boris Ivanov's train is running three hours late. Let me know if you need anything, Layla. I am here all afternoon."
It was close to lunchtime when I got the alpana done, so instead of going to the library as I had planned, I went home. Dadamoshai's house was a fifteen-minute walk from the school. I passed the holy banyan tree and saw that the protestors had abandoned their wilted banners behind it. The tree was over two hundred years old, massive and gnarled, with thick roots that hung down from the branches like the dreadlocks of demons. In its hollowed root base was a collection of faded gods surrounded by tired marigold garlands. I walked past the stench of the fish market, the idling rickshaws at the bus stand and the three crooked tea stalls that supported one another like drunken brothers, till I came to a four-way crossing where I turned right on to the Rai Bahadur Road.
It was an impressive road, man-made and purposeful: not like the fickle pathways in town, that changed directions with the rain and got bullied by groundcover. The road to my grandfather's house was wide and tree-lined, with Gulmohor Flame Trees planted at regular intervals: exactly thirty feet apart. Their leafy branches crisscrossed overhead to form a magnificent latticed archway. On summer days the road was flecked with gold, and spring breezes showered down a torrent of vermilion petals that swirled and trembled in the dust like wounded butterflies. Rice fields on either side intersected in quilted patches of green to fade into the shimmering haze of the bamboo grove. Up ahead, the river winked over the tall embankment where fishing nets lay drying on bamboo poles silhouetted against the noonday sun.
I adjusted my eyes. Was that a man standing under the mango tree by our front gate? It was indeed. Even at that distance, I could tell he was a foreigner, just by his stance. His legs planted wide, shoulders thrown back, he had that ease of body some foreigners have. I was curious. What was he doing? His hands were folded together and he was gazing up at the branches with what appeared to be deep piety. Oddly enough, it looked as though the foreigner was praying to the mango tree!
The man heard me coming and glanced briefly in my direction. He must have expected me to walk on by, but when I stopped at our gate, he looked at me curiously. He was a disconcertingly attractive man in a poetic kind of way, with long, finger-raked hair and dark and steady eyes behind black-framed glasses. A slow smile wavered and tugged at the corners of his mouth.
When I saw what he was holding in his cupped hands, I realized I had misjudged his piety. It was a baby crow.
"Do you live in the Rai Bahadur's house?" he asked pleasantly. He spoke impeccable Bengali, with no trace of a foreign accent. I figured he must be an Indian who probably lived abroad.
"Yes," I said.
The man was obviously unschooled in the nuances of our society, because he stared at me candidly with none of the calculated deference and awkwardness of Indian men. I could feel my ears burning.
The crow chick struggled feebly in his hand. It stretched out a scrawny neck and opened its yellow-rimmed beak, exposing a pink, diamond-shaped mouth. It was bald except for a light gray fuzz over the top of its head. Its blue eyelids stretched gossamer thin over yet unopened eyes.
"We have a displaced youngster," the man said, glancing at the chick. "Any idea what kind of bird this is?"
"It's a baby crow," I replied, marveling how gently he held the tiny creature. It had nodded off to sleep, resting its yellow beak against his thumb. He had nicely shaped fingernails, I noticed.
I pointed up at the branches. "There's a nest up that mango tree."
He was not looking at the tree, but at my hand. "What's that?" he asked suddenly.
"Where?" I jerked back my hand and saw I had traces of the white rice paste still ringed around my fingernails. "Oh," I said, curling my fingers into a ball, "that's…that's just from the alpanadecoration I was doing at the school."
"Are you related to the Rai Bahadur?"
"He is my grandfather."
"Is this the famous English girls' school everybody is talking about? What is the special occasion?"
"Today is the grand opening," I said. "A Russian dignitary is coming to cut the ribbon."
"Boris Ivanov?" he asked.
I stared at him. "How did you know?"
"There are not many Russians floating around this tiny town in Assam, are there? I happen to be well acquainted with Ivanov."
I wanted to ask more, but refrained.
He tilted his head, squinting up at the branches, then pushed his sliding glasses back up his nose with his arm. The chick woke up with a sharp cheep that startled us both. "Ah, I see the nest. Maybe I should try and put this little fellow back," he said.
"You are going to climb the mango tree?" I asked a little incredulously. The man looked too civilized to climb trees. His shirt was too white and he wore city shoes.
"It looks easy enough." He looked up and down the branches as though he was calculating his foothold. He grinned suddenly, a deep crease softening the side of his face. "If I fall, you can laugh and tell all your friends."
I had no friends, but I did not tell him that.
"There's not much point, really." I hesitated, wondering how I was going to say this without sounding too heartless. "You see, this is very common. Baby crows get pushed out of that nest every year by…" I moved closer to the tree, shaded my eyes and looked up, then gestured him over. "See that other chick? Stand right where I am standing. Can you see it?"
We were standing so close his shirtsleeve brushed my arm. I could smell the starch mingled with faint sweat and a hint of tobacco. My head reeled slightly.
He tilted his head. "Ah yes, I see the sibling," he said.
"That's not a sibling—it's a baby koel."
His face drew a blank.
"The Indian cuckoo. Don't you know anything about koels?"
"I am afraid not," he said, looking bemused. "But I beg to be educated. Before that, I need to put our friend down someplace. I am getting rather tired of holding him." He looked around, then walked over to the garden wall and set the baby crow down on the ground. It belly-waddled into a shady patch and stretched out its scrawny neck, cheeping plaintively.
I was about to speak when a cloud broke open and a sheet of golden rain shimmered down. We both hurried under the mango tree. There we were all huddled cozily together—the man, the chick and me.
A cycle rickshaw clattered down the road. It was fat Mrs. Ghosh, squeezed in among baskets and bundles, on her way home from the fish market. She looked at us curiously, her eyes bulging slightly, perhaps wondering to herself: Am I seeing things? Is that the Rai Bahadur's granddaughter with a young man under the mango tree? This was going to be big news, I could tell, because everybody in town knew that the Rai Bahadur's granddaughter avoided the opposite sex like a Hindu avoids beef.
The cloud passed and the sun winked back and I hurried out from under the tree. To cover up my embarrassment, I launched into an involved lecture on the nesting habits of koels and crows.
"The koel, or Indian cuckoo, is a brood parasite," I said. "A bird that lays its egg in the nest of another. Like that crow's nest up there." I pointed upward with my right hand and then, remembering my dirty fingernails, switched to my left hand. "See how sturdy the nest is? Crows are really clever engineers. They pick the perfect intersections of branches and build the nest with strong twigs. They live in that same nest for years and years."
"Are their marriages as stable as their nests?" The man winked, teasing me. "Do they last as long?"
"That…that I don't know," I said, twisting the end of my sari. I wished he would not look at me like that.
"I am only teasing you. Oh, please go on."

Shona welcome to The Reading Frenzy.
Many thanks for inviting me Debbie.

Tell us a little about your new novel Teatime for the Firefly.
Teatime for the Firefly is a love story set in 1940’s India– a very turbulent time in the country’s history. It is the story of Layla, a young Indian girl who defies her fate to marry Manik Deb and follows him to live in a remote tea plantation in the jungles of Assam. Here she encounters earthquakes, man-eating leopards and rogue elephants, and struggles to fit in with the snobbish British expat tea crowd. But these challenges are nothing compared to the large-scale political and racial unrest that erupts and threatens the couple’s life.

Where did the idea for the novel come from?
I’ve always wanted to write about the tea plantations of Assam. It is such an exotic setting, little known even to most Indians. I had heard many stories from my parents about their early married life in the tea gardens - some of them so outrageous, they sounded completely fabricated! After my mother died in 2004, we found an old saree box full of old letters tucked in a corner of her closet. They were written to her by my father during their early courting days. My father wrote wonderful letters full of vivid details of his life in the tea garden as a bachelor assistant. I wanted my readers to experience this exotic and unusual world and so I created the character of Layla. In Teatime for the Firefly we get to see everything through her untutored eyes.  The characters of Layla and Manik are fictitious but the setting of the story is real.

Shona you had a very interesting upbringing.
Can you tell my readers a bit about you, your personal past and your road to becoming an author?
I was born and raised in a remote tea plantation in Assam. We had wild elephants and man-eating leopards in our backyard. The first ten years of my childhood were carefree; perhaps “wild” would be better word as I ran amok without an ounce of discipline. I was finally packed off to boarding school, like the other tea garden kids. There again I got into all kinds of trouble for playing pranks on teachers. I barely scraped through school and went on to study English Literature in college. It was here that I discovered my love of writing. Right out of college I got a job as a copywriter with an advertising agency. I had strong visualizing skills and somewhere between agencies I got trained as a graphic designer. That was my India phase.
Phase two: I married my penpal, came to the US, dabbled in pottery, worked as an exhibit designer at a museum, founded my own design agency and wrote a book on the side. That’s my life in a nutshell.

This is your first novel.
What most surprised you about the entire process?
The fact that I could even write an ENTIRE novel was a surprise! It’s a painful and arduous process and I must have felt like throwing in the towel about a hundred times. The second surprise was finding a terrific agent to represent me and the biggest surprise of all was getting signed up for a three book deal with a major publisher. It all still seems unreal to me and I sometimes have to pinch myself.

Shona you’ve been in the states since 1994.
What do you most miss about India?
What would you never be able to give up about the US?
I miss the food in India. I miss drinking tea with my friends and our soul chats. These are friends who I can reconnect with in a heartbeat even if we have not spoken for decades. I really miss them.
As for America, I love the sheer vitality, dynamism and youthful energy that makes this country so great. Here you have every opportunity to be the best that you can be. In that sense America is like no other country on earth.

Tell us about your experience singing with the Sweet Adelines Chorus.
That was a lovely period in my life. I have always loved to sing so when the Sweet Adelines had a call for auditions, I applied. They made me sing “Happy Birthday” and I passed the test but I’d have to attend workshops and training and the weekly practice sessions. There was just one glitch, though.  I had just come from India and I did not know how to drive. The leader called for volunteers and many ladies offered to pick me up and bring me to practice and drop me back home. And so I became a Sweet Adeline. We wore a thick pancake makeup, glittery dresses, false nails and eyelashes.  And we had BIG HAIR!  But, I was such a banana-boat-yokel those days that one time I accidentally stuck on my false eyelashes using the epoxy glue for my nails. The ladies almost had to call 911 but we managed to pull the eyelashes off just before I turned blind! I loved my Sweet Adeline sisters. I was the only black eyed pea among the lima beans. They helped me to understand and love America. Thanks to the Sweet Adelines, I can sing every single patriotic song. I traveled with the sisterhood, we sang in regional competitions and took the first place medal. Sadly, I had to give up the singing when I got a job as it’s is pretty involved, the training and practice takes up a lot of your time.

Your unofficial bio states that you came to the US in 1994 after marrying your pen pal.
You have definitely piqued my curiosity on this. Can you expand and tell us your personal love story?
I was doing well in my advertising career when Vinoo came into my life. He’s Indian by birth but had lived most of his life in England. We got introduced by a common friend and wrote long letters to each other (this was before the days of emails). Writing to him was like writing a journal. We had no romantic agenda. As a result we became good friends and got to know each other pretty well through our letters. So when we both met, we found we were quite compatible. The rest of course is history. We’ve been married nineteen years now.

You are hard-core about your tea, drinking, cups, cozies etc…
And I love your blog titles under the Tea category on your blog.
What is the biggest piece of misinformation that we coffee drinkers believe about tea?
Well it’s not just coffee drinkers but most people these days refer to any vegetative matter steeped in hot water as “tea”. Many caffeine-free herbal teas fall in this category. They are technically “infusions” or “decoctions” and not teas at all.  Real tea is made only from the leaves of the camellia sinesis tea plant. Tea provides a neutral base and can be easily flavored.
The other misconception is about the caffeine content of tea. Drip filter coffee has up to 180 mg caffeine per cup. A cup of tea contains on an average 40 mg per cup. In other words, four and a half cups of tea equals one cup of coffee. As for the health benefits of tea … well, how much time do you have?
Shona, you’re publishing your first novel with my favorite publishers, in fact people who know me well know that I truly believe that Harlequin makes the world go round.
What number one reason would you give for an aspiring author to submit their manuscript to Harlequin?
Harlequin is so much more than romance. Harlequin goes beyond romance to encompass all good writing. This is a publisher with great zest and a nice upbeat energy. Writers get the opportunity to work with an amazing team of professionals. Harlequin has terrific editors, a robust marketing team, a talented art department and excellent publicists. I am finally getting an inkling of the insane amount of work that goes into launching a book. Any writer who signs up with Harlequin is very lucky.
I am not surprised they are your favorite publisher and yes, I agree Harlequin makes the world go round.

Shona can you share with us what you’re currently working on?
I am working on book two –set in Cambridge England and Assam, India, in the 1920’s, it is the story of a man who loses the love of his life and finds redemption from an unlikely source.

Shona thank you so much for your graciousness in answering my questions
Thank you, Debbie. This was indeed a pleasure.

Connect with Shona – Website/blogFacebook - Twitter


  1. Coffee will always be my drug of choice, but I do love tea..real tea and not all those flavored infusions. This book sounds wonderful and I absolutely love the setting and time period. Thank you both for sharing it with us. Loved the interview :)

  2. Aw that is so neat how you met your husband. Letter writing is really such a lost art and so amazing when done right. The book sounds really fascinating. I haven't read anything in that time period/setting yet.

    1. Thanks for the comment Anna :) it was a great story wasn't it