Over the weekend I had a chance to interview the talented Balli Kaur Jaswal, a Singaporean novelist and author of Inheritance, Sugarbread, and Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. The author’s popularity blew up on social media after her novel, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, was endorsed and promoted by Reese Witherspoon and her book club, Hello Sunshine. The fun isn’t over yet, as the film rights have been snapped up by Scott Free Productions (Gladiator, Thelma & Louise) and Film Four in the UK. She will be releasing a new novel this year.
What inspired you to write your latest novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows and how long did it take you to write it?
“I was really interested in the way women’s sexuality is hidden in South Asian communities. I wanted to peek into the lives of some of the most invisible women within the Sikh community – the widows, and give them a voice. I also have a great interest in diaspora stories, having lived in different countries myself. I wanted to explore how traditions and norms from the past are preserved and continue to live on in the migrants’ new homeland, and all of the resulting conflicts with the wider culture, and within the community.”
Explain the process for querying an agent. How many query letters did you send out? How long did the process take?
“My path toward finding an agent was a little less or more straightforward, depending on how you look at it. I didn’t query my agent – she was matched as my mentor after I completed a writing residency at the University of East Anglia. Andrew Cowan, the professor in charge of the MA program there was matching graduating students with mentors, and he extended the same opportunity to me. My agent and I kept in touch when I was writing my first novel Inheritance, but she decided not to take it on. We still kept in touch, because by then I had the idea for Erotic Stories, which was keen on seeing. She ended up reading a draft of it and working on it with me for a year (editing, providing really detailed feedback) before officially signing me up as her client.”
Harper Collins published your latest novel. What was it like working with a large press as opposed to the independent publisher Epigram Books, which published your first two novels?
“Some authors feel that working with a larger press means you won’t get as much one-on-one attention because they are juggling so many titles, but I didn’t feel that way with Harper Collins. My editors and other publishing team members are always an email or phone call away.”
The novel was also picked up by Reese Witherspoon’s book club and The Girly Book Club, two largely well-known, primarily women, book clubs. Can you explain the process of submitting your novel and your reaction when it was accepted?
“I didn’t submit my novel; my publishers did. I was thrilled about both picks – I still haven’t processed it, especially when I see Reese Witherspoon on TV and think, ‘she liked my book and said my name on an Instagram video!'”
About the title: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. How did you and/or your publisher decide on a title for it? I’ll definitely give you a high five for the shock value!
“I’m usually really terrible at coming with titles, but this one came to me right away, pretty much at the same time that the book idea occurred to me. I just wanted to be direct, and I wanted the title to say, “we’re not being coy or shy about this anymore” which is exactly what brings the widows together.”
All of your novels (so far) integrate the Sikh religion in one way or another. For our spiritual writers/readers, explain how religion influences your stories. Are you a practicing Sikh?
“Not ‘practicing’ in the traditional sense, I suppose. I don’t go to the temple and I’m not very immersed in the community – but to me that’s attendance rather than spirituality. I’d say I’m more interested in raising questions about equality in Sikhism, and questioning whether the culture really follows those principles, especially in regard to women. What are the gaps between the religious tenets and the way people actually behave? That’s an element in all of my work so far.”
You have a new novel coming out soon. What is the title and when can we expect it?
“The novel is called The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters. It comes out on April 30th.”
What advice can you give our aspiring authors on achieving success in the literary world?
“Figure out a process that works for you and your life. Whether that’s hitting a certain word count a day, or only writing in the early hours of the morning, figure out your way. Don’t use “there’s not time” as an excuse – nobody is given time to write, you have to carve out the time and make room for it.”