Five Questions with Kirthana Ramisetti
We talk about how her time as an entertainment writer influenced her novel
I've been sitting here for an hour trying to figure out a note to add to the draft about the horrifying shooting in Texas. And the honest answer is that I have no words. I'm sending my love to everyone grieving and all of you. If you're not up to reading today, I understand. But if you're looking for a break, Kirthana Ramisetti has written the kind of book you may be looking for right now.
As I wrote in January, “In the year 2044, Dava Shastri, a renowned philanthropist, summons her four adult children and their kids to her luxurious island manor for the holidays. Once there, she makes two bombshell announcements: First, she has terminal brain cancer and will be committing doctor-assisted suicide in the coming days. Second, Dava has arranged for her death to be announced early, so she can understand what her legacy will be. Isolated, with limited access to phones and wifi, the family is forced to reckon with Dava’s death, life and everything in between.”
Kirthana is a former entertainment reporter. Dava Shastri’s Last Day is her first novel. She was kind enough to chat with me about writing Dava Shastri, her next book and more. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did Dava Shasrtri’s Last Day come about?
I received my MFA in creative writing in 2003, so I’ve always had the goal of writing a book. I wrote two books before this one, but they never saw the light of day because I thought they were horrible.
In the meantime, I carved out a career for myself in entertainment journalism. After a couple years, I got burned out and as I was figuring out my next move I thought, ‘Let me try to fulfill this lifelong dream of writing a novel.’ I decided if I was going to do it, I was going to write about all the things that interest me — family, celebrity, legacy and music.
So, I took an idea that was inspired by my days in entertainment journalism. One of the things I had to do in that job was write an obituary when a celebrity died. When covering that kind of news, I had a bug in my head. I wondered if when a person passes away, other notable people see the reaction and wonder what will be said about them.
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Why did you decide to set it in the future?
It was a purely indulgent decision. I knew from writing my two unpublished novels that you might spend several years writing a book that might never see the light of day and you have to be okay with it.
So, I wanted to write something that makes me happy and one of the things I really wanted to do was write about my love of music, explore through my main character and show how music shapes the course of her life. To reference the music that I love, that I grew up with, I had to set the novel 20 years in the future.
Once I committed to that decision, I wanted to make sure it reflected what 20 years in the future might look like. I did research into predictions about climate change and technology. But, at the same time, I decided to set the novel on a private island, so I wouldn’t have to predict the future too much, and could have the entirety of the plot play out in a very enclosed environment.
You talked a bit about how your time as an entertainment journalist influenced the novel. Can you please share more about that?
Like I said, my job at the time helped me come up with the premise of the novel. Beyond that, I figured out Dava, my main character, would have two big secrets revealed to the world after her “death.” I had to figure out what the secrets would have been, and why people would be interested in her life, based on these secrets.
Early on, I figured out that Dava would have a secret daughter. I wanted to contrast her relationship with the four children she pressures to uphold her legacy with the daughter she has more intimate relationship with.
Then, I thought the second secret had to be juicy. Because people are always interested in people’s personal lives — especially women’s sex lives. So, I figured it would make a lot of sense if there was always a rumor of an affair circling her that actually gets proven upon her quote-unquote death. I knew that would be the headline — how the news would report on her death.
I also purposely set it in December because I know from personal experience there’s not a lot happening in the news. So, if you have this one-two punch of secrets, there’s going to be a lot of interest, because there’s nothing competing with it.
Can you preview what you’re working on now?
My second novel, Advika and the Hollywood Lives, also incorporates celebrities and pop culture. It has a bit of a mystery to it. It will come out next spring.
Any books you want to recommend?
I read Devi Laskar’s The Atlas of Red and Blues and Tell Me How to Be by Neel Patel back-to-back one weekend and it was one of the most profoundly moving reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. Both books felt like they were in conversation with each other in terms of reflecting how challenging it can be for South Asians to balance a love of family with one’s individuality and forging your own path.
I also want to recommend Real Easy by Marie Rutkoski. It’s astonishing. I don't think I've read a novel told from the points of view of so many different characters — there had to be at least ten — but it was so cohesive. It was so propulsive, immensely satisfying and so expertly written... I could not stop reading it.
Have a great Memorial Day weekend. I’ll be back in your inboxes on Tuesday!
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