I'm not sure how I first discovered UK publisher, Hera Books, but I've been enjoying their books and authors ever since. I discovered today's author as Jeevani Charika, when I read A Convenient Marriage, published by Hera Books. I enjoyed the book so much that I looked up the author and discovered she also writes as Rhoda Baxter. (We'll dive into her dual author names in this interview.)
I took the opportunity to read an advance copy of her brand new novella, That Holiday in France. This is the second book by this author that I've enjoyed, so I decided to see if she'd allow me to ask her a few questions for the blog to celebrate her new release. I hope you'll check out her work as well. If you could use an escape from the real world and do a little armchair travel at the same time, Rhoda Baxter/Jeevani Charika is the author for you!
SJ: You write as Rhoda Baxter and as Jeevani Charika. How did you make the decision to publish under two names?
RB: Jeevani is my real name. I wrote A Convenient Marriage a long time ago (I started it in 2003, finished it in 2006!) and submitted it. I got a few requests for the full manuscript, but they all ended up in rejections. Then I got some feedback to say I should write something for fun. So I wrote a light hearted rom com, with a white protagonist. It was solidly a genre romcom. That found a publisher within a year. When my publisher asked if I would be using a pen name, I thought it was probably a good idea - something easier to spell than my own name. I chose the name Rhoda Baxter because I did my PhD on a bacterium called Rhodobacter sphaeroides and I had a fit of nostalgia for the lab.
Now I write rom coms as Rhoda Baxter and multicultural women’s fiction as Jeevani Charika. There’s some crossover, but I’m making an effort to keep the two brands separate.
SJ: I loved everything about A Convenient Marriage- the setting, characters, culture, and emotion. What was the first spark of an idea for this book?
RB: The settings are largely based on real places that I’ve lived in. When I was living in Oxford, a friend of mine told me a story about how she’d walked past a man who was sitting in the University Parks, crying. She stopped to ask if he was okay and he told her his story - he was a married man, fond of his wife, but in love with another man. This was the 90s. He couldn’t leave his wife because he was worried he’d never see his children, so he was trapped in this weird half life, unknowingly torn apart by the people he loved. At that time, a lot of my friends were getting married and some of my Sri Lankan friends had arranged marriages. These two things meshed together in my mind and then one day, when I was doing a creative writing exercise, Gimhana showed up. The first scene I wrote was the one where they meet at a party, when both of them are hiding from people who are trying to fix them up. Gimhana was so charming and Chaya was so prickly, I loved them both immediately. Everything else grew from there.
SJ: I was lucky enough to study abroad in Oxford for a summer and fell in love with it. What are some of your favorite things about Oxford?
RB: Oxford is such a great city to get nostalgic about! It’s very beautiful in the sunshine. I used to live in Norham Gardens and walk across the University Parks to the lab. I can’t believe I was lucky enough to have that as my commute! I think Oxford is really best when you’re a student and you have access to all the college facilities. At the time, I took for granted the fact that I could go and study in such beautiful buildings!
My absolute favourite thing about Oxford though, was the people I met there - especially as a postgraduate student. Most of the loud annoying people (the ones who are the traditional stereotype of Oxbridge graduates) go off to work in London once they finish their undergraduate studies. Post grad Oxford is a different place. It’s very multicultural. I met people from all over the world, who were working in all kinds of different fields. I learned a lot about the world from chatting to people. I miss that.
SJ: I have not read books with Sri Lankan characters before I came across your books. For me, that was a draw to your work. It’s a main plot point in A Convenient Marriage and part of a diverse cast in That Holiday in France. The publishing industry takes a lot of heat for not embracing diversity. How has your experience been with the industry?
RB: I’m British-Sri Lankan, and I spent a lot of childhood in Sri Lanka. I realised that a lot of brown people I saw in English books were nearly all from one stereotype. I wanted to write stories which were just like other genre fiction novels, only with characters who happen to be brown.
As I said in answer to your earlier question - it took a long time for this book (and This Stolen Life, which also has Sri Lankan characters) to find a publisher. There is a perception in the publishing industry that people don’t want to read about brown people (or any other non-white people). It comes (partly) from a vicious circle where there’s no data to support the fact that people might read books about non-white people … so publishers don’t publish books with non-white protagonists … which means there’s no data to support that fact that people might read books about non-white protagonists…
I had three editors offer for This Stolen Life. Not one of them was white.
SJ: Your characters spend time in different countries. Do you enjoy international travel? What are some of the places you’ve traveled to and where would you still like to go?
RB: My dad is an engineer who travelled around building roads and things in different countries. So I’ve lived in Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Micronesia and England. When I was younger I wanted to travel the world - I had the time, but no money. Now I’m older and I have kids so I have neither. Maybe in a few years’ time I’ll be able to travel again.
I would love to go to Thailand - for the food. I’d also like to go to New Zealand, because it looks so lovely.
SJ: In That Holiday in France, Ellie laments that she didn’t learn more French in school. How many languages do you speak?
RB: I speak English and Sinhala fluently (although my reading and writing in Sinhala is really rusty now). I know just about enough Spanish to get by on holiday and buy a raffia donkey. My French is even worse.
SJ: I’ve enjoyed quite a few books published by Hera Books. How did you come to find them?
RB: I’d stalked Keshini Naidoo on Twitter for a while, because she was a publishing person whom I admired (and a fellow Lego fan). When Hera opened for submissions, I asked my agent to send my book in to them. They have been an absolute joy to work with.
SJ: You have short stories, novellas, and novels. How do you decide if an idea is worth pursuing and what length of story is best?
RB: Some stories clearly have enough conflict and complexity in them to make a full novel. I tend to write novellas (they vary between 25 000 and 50 000 words long) when I want to focus on just a single story, without too many secondary characters and subplots getting in the way. They are nice to write when I’ve finished a particularly difficult novel and need a bit of a break. The short stories, those are for when something funny occurs to me without a full blown story arc to go into.
If you forced me to choose one length, I’d choose the novel every time. It gives me the space to hang out with the characters from a good long time and really get to know their worlds.
SJ: My husband is a microbiologist and I can’t imagine him writing fiction, let alone rom coms. How did you go from microbiology to successful fiction writing?
RB: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about eight! I’m quite nerdy and I was good at writing, but I was also good at science. When I told my parents I wanted to study English Lit, they said ‘oh no, do science instead and get a real job, then you can write in your spare time’. So that’s what I did. I finished my PhD and did a short post doc, but the PhD had killed my love of science. So I moved sideways and went into technology transfer instead. That allowed me to keep in touch with the cutting edge of science without having to do the actual lab work. It suited my magpie brain perfectly. I still work part time in technology transfer and I still love the buzz when I hear about a new invention for the first time. The writing was my side hustle for a long time. As a job, it pays very badly, so I need to keep the day job. To be perfectly honest, I’d miss the day job if I didn’t do it.
SJ: In both of your books that I’ve read, you successfully weave weighty topics into heartwarming and entertaining reads. How do you strike a balance between light and fun but with substance?
RB: Humour is important to me and I’ve got through some pretty stressful things by making jokes about them. My writing ‘voice’ is fairly light hearted because my real life voice is too. But I’m very interested in what people do when they’re put under pressure. So I write about things that interest me, with humour and maybe a little hint of cynicism. I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett, who was firmly of the opinion that funny is not the opposite of serious. There’s no reason that humour and darkness can’t coexist in the same book. Sometimes a light hearted scene next to a dark one can make the darkness even darker. I love a book that can make me laugh and then make me cry.
SJ: Your plotting is very tight. I’m always fascinated to know if authors are plotters or pansters. Which comes more naturally to you?
RB: I’m sort of half way between the two. I tend to make a one page, very sketchy outline and then write the first draft. The first edit involves moving scenes around and pulling themes out of the story. I try very hard to make each scene do at least two things. I often end up combining scenes. I once had to combine two minor characters who were doing the same job - one was male, the other was female. The resulting character was a ladette who had some cracking lines (taken from the male character I cut out). I loved her so much, I wrote a whole book with her as the heroine!
Um… sorry, I got a bit distracted there. Oh yes. Plotting and pantsing. I float between the two, with a general tendency towards pantsing.
SJ: Are you currently working on something new? If so, is there anything you can share about it?
RB: I’m currently writing a full length rom com about Poppy, who is super sensible and organised and can’t wait to move out of the countryside and work in the big city. The hero, Scott, is a grief stricken, panicky mess after the death of his wife and never wants to go to the city again. It’s about grief and duty … and cakes and steam trains.