On Saturday, March 24th, Midtown Reader hosted a special double author event with two talented Southern writers, Deborah Mantella and Sheryl Parbhoo. Afterwards, we sat down for a conversation about their writing processes, their favorite books, and the novels they recently published. If you missed them in March, don’t worry! Deborah and Sheryl will be visiting again in May for a very special event called TRIO live. You can pick up signed copies of both of their novels at Midtown Reader today.
(Content Warning: Both novels deal with the issue of domestic violence. While this interview is not graphic, we did want to make our readers aware that it includes mention of domestic violence.)
Can you briefly describe your novel for us?
Deborah Mantella: My Sweet Vidalia follows a young mother's coming of age as narrated by her intrepid, yet practical, spirit child. Challenging patterns, blatant domestic abuse, and long-buried family secrets ride shotgun alongside grit, grace, love, friendship, and redemption in mid-twentieth century rural Georgia.
Sheryl Parbhoo: The Unexpected Daughter is an unconventional love story that transcends generations and cultures. Told from the perspectives of a young Georgia woman, an Indian man raised in Atlanta, and his widowed mother, the story explores forbidden passions, cultural restrictions, and redemption found in unexpected family relationships.
Can you share some of what you learned while doing background research for your book?
Deborah Mantella: Mine included lots of fun stuff, from the mystical nature of the parent-child connection, to how to make moonshine and avoid revenuers, to recipes for kudzu tea, and the business of building a convertible bookshelf-to-casket bookshelf! It also included the less pleasant details and stories of domestic abuse and the mindsets and grooming processes employed by those perpetrators.
Fifty years ago, for the most part, DV was not viewed as a crime of consequence, and dating violence was considered merely a dirty little secret. In 1977 Francine Hughes was acquitted of murdering her violently abusive husband, her story turned into a book, and that book a TV movie The Burning Bed, changing national conversation overnight. Art does that.
There're now areas where hair stylists are trained to recognize and report signs of abuse, and websites with magic buttons to automatically switch to a weather channel if the perp arrives unexpectedly onto the scene. We've come a long way as far as education and expectations but as with current movements such as #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, and #enoughisenough we've a long way to go, still.
Sheryl Parbhoo: My life was my book research. I’m from a white, Kentucky family, and married my Indian boyfriend in Memphis when I was nineteen. Our love for each other and the culture clashes in our lives have been fireworks for thirty years – we have five beautiful children and a huge, loud family that knows no boundaries. Writing The Unexpected Daughter was therapy for me – to exorcise truths I couldn’t speak out loud. Now, I’m writing my memoir, and if you think the novel is juicy, you’ll love my real story. I will prove that love and families can survive most anything – including mixing spicy masala into Thanksgiving dinners.
What is it you appreciate the most about fiction (as opposed to non-fiction)?
Deborah Mantella: Writing fiction allows an author to crawl around in another person's skin, live another person's life. I believe it's a writer's biggest perk. A kind of super-power. Where non-fiction gives us facts, happenings, and statistics, fiction allows a whole new set of lenses through which we can view those same facts, happenings, statistics.
All writers have experienced rejections. Can you share your most memorable and/or amusing rejection, review or response?
Deborah Mantella: A pair of editors at one publishing house, though claiming to've loved the characters, the writing, the plot-pace, and storyline, once insisted, and I quote, “but a spirit child wouldn't talk that way." To this day I wish either my agent or I had asked them how they knew…
Sheryl Parbhoo: A review on Goodreads gave the book zero stars, and the review read “it took me a while to run this book. the guy in this book just was himself.” I know that many people sip wine while they read, and I think this reader maybe had a glass too many. I forgive her.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Zora Neale Hurston
What books do you recommend?
On Writing, Stephen King
The Color Purple, Alice Walker
LaRose, Louise Erdrich
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson,
The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabelle Wilkerson
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
The Radium Girls, Kate Moore
The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
A Memoir on Writing, Stephen King
Is there anything else you'd like readers to know?
Deborah Mantella: Just that I love it when a mother tells me she has already read My Sweet Vidalia and is purchasing a copy for her daughter. Or the reverse as well, when a daughter buys the book for her mom. I can't even tell you how much I love when that happens.
Sheryl Parbhoo: I am a southern author and this is southern fiction, with added spice. I love when readers tell me they craved Indian food while reading it and ask me for recipes. This white girl ruins Indian recipes, but I often bring Indian food to events and book clubs (which I love to join), compliments of my amazing mother-in-law. She is the bomb.
Find out more about these talented authors by visiting their social media sites and picking up their novels at Midtown Reader. Don’t forget to join us in May to hear them talk about their work at a very special event - TRIOLive! Where books, song, and art come together as one.