Every once and awhile I contact an author for a little e-chat, and after recently finishing the exotically themed Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel, I thought I'd give it a shot. I wanted to know more about her life on those tea plantations in Assam, India, and about her publisher, Harlequin MIRA. Harlequins were the romance of choice during my teen years, and I can thank my tea-drinking Nana (who must have read them in between soap operas) for introducing these light stories to me. They hooked me on reading, but after a few years I moved on from Harlequins to more serious fiction. Forty years later I wanted to revisit the books I knew as a beginning reader. Patel's book didn't resemble those slim, red-covered paperbacks that were piled beside my bed.
Patel was sweet and obliging, although she was busy working on her second novel. Here's what she had to say---
1. I'm confused about your publisher--Harlequin MIRA. Teatime seems so different from the books I read as a teen. They were formulaic and predictable--exotic setting, girl meets boy, girl hates boy, girl and boy kiss (or maybe more), girl and boy doubt their emotions, brood, but unite for a happy ending. Your novel was crafted with far more skill than stories I read from Harlequin in the 70s. Are we talking about the same publisher or just a new phase in its publishing life?
You are not alone in this, I get this question all the time. I have often received the comment, "Teatime is not your mother's Harlequin," so I guess it does come as a surprise to readers, but not in a bad way. My editor Susan Swinwood once said to me not so long ago that Teatime for the Firefly was changing people's perception about Harlequin and more specifically about romance. That's amazing.
Harlequin has several imprints and yes, most of them are focused on romance like you describe. MIRA Books is the literary imprint of Harlequin and offers sophisticated, issue-driven editorial, the kind of novels book clubs like to discuss.
2. But Teatime does have a strong romantic component. Does that make you a romance writer?
No, I don't see myself as a romance writer per se. My books fall more in the literary fiction/women fiction category. As for the Harlequin label: I am not sure how much labels count anymore. In this age of social media, book sales are reader driven. Readers will arrive at their own judgment no matter how you categorize a book or who publishes it.
3. You lived on an Assam tea plantation, and I'm guessing your vivid descriptions of life there were drawn from your own experiences. Did you feel isolated as a child or were you distracted by the beauty and the wildlife? Did you attend school there?
I spent the first 15 years of my life in the tea plantations of Assam. I had a very carefree childhood surrounded by rivers, forests and fields. I don’t think I ever felt isolated or lonely for a single moment. My education was a problem as there were no regular schools around, so when I turned 10 my parents packed me off to a private boarding school like the other tea garden kids. The school was 300 miles away, and we came home twice a year for holidays. I loved boarding school and had tons of friends, many of whom I still keep in touch with. I remember my boarding school days as some of the best years of my life.
4.The term "tea garden," which pops up frequently in the book, is such a delicate term compared to the reality of monsoons, rogue elephants, snakes, insects. How long did your family live there and did you ever feel like you resided in a hostile place?
A. The term “tea garden” is rather misleading, I agree, but that’s what tea plantations in India are called. Most people imagine “tea gardens” to be small, picturesque tea farms when in reality they are sophisticated, industrial scale undertakings, employing thousands of people. Their location in the dense rain forests of north-eastern India often makes life unpredictable and dangerous, but I have come to believe a tea planter’s job attracts a certain thrill-seeking personality with a thirst for adventure. My father was a tea planter in Assam between 1941 and 1974, after which he retired and became a tea consultant in the city of Calcutta, where life was staid and predictable. I think all of us missed the tea gardens when we lived in the city.
5. The book jacket explains that you're a trained graphic designer. How--and when--did you make the leap to writing novels?
A. I started working in advertising and graphic design right out of college (1984: yes I’m old!!) and I wrote Teatime for the Firefly on the side a few years ago while I was still working. I only became a full time writer when I signed a three-book deal with Harlequin MIRA.
6. How long was the story for Teatime steeping inside your head? Have you always wanted to tell the story of tea plantation life?
A. I’ve always wanted to write a novel set in the tea plantations of Assam. The story evolved organically in the writing process. I started out with a premise and had some idea how the story was going to end. Then all I did was set my sails in that direction. It’s quite fascinating really, how stories shape themselves, sometimes in marvelous and unexpected ways.
7. Did I read someplace that you live in Arizona? How did you land there?
I came to Arizona after getting married to my husband. We’ve lived here since 1995.
8. 'Fess up. What kind of tea do you drink? For those of us who love tea, what should we be looking for when we buy?
No surprises there, I am a die-hard Assam Tea drinker. My first choice is CTC Assam which is a strong, black tea. You can buy it as loose tea from specialty tea shops. I get my private stash (which I guard very stingily) shipped to me from India. I brew the tea in a pot and take it with milk and sugar. Once in a while I’ll throw in some fresh ginger and cardamom to give it that Indian chai taste. When I run out of loose tea, I use tea bags. I have a high caffeine tolerance (probably genetic) as I drink Assam tea several times a day. It is what I wake up to every morning and it’s the last thing I drink before I go to bed at night. If you want to try Assam Tea look for any packaged tea in stores labeled as English Breakfast Tea. This is typically a blend of Assam and that should give you an idea of the taste and flavor.