HarperCollins editor and author Rakesh Satyal’s debut novel Blue Boy is the story of Kiran Sharma, a first-generation born Indian American who must navigate the many cultural, religious and sexual challenges he faces as an outcast among outcasts in Cincinnati during the early 1990s. Satyal recently emailed with us to discuss the book, its origins, and its standout protagonist, Kiran.
The L: I’d like to start by asking you about the process of beginning and finishing this book. If I’m not mistaken, you began writing it in college and wrapped it up later, once you were living and working in New York. Is that right? All in all, how long did the book take for you to finish writing?
RS: I had written a different book for my college thesis at Princeton; it was a historical fiction set in Naples in the eighteenth century, during the time of the castrati. (Lighthearted, no?) When I came to New York, I set that aside and was moved to write Kiran’s story, mainly because I was, for the first time, a gay man living my life freely and felt a sense of responsibility to explore the makings of that experience. It took me about two and a half years to write Blue Boy. I wrote the bulk of the first draft while I was working my first publishing job at Random House and then finished the revision about a year after I started my current job at HarperCollins. I wrote mostly on the weekends; I would take my then-enormous Dell laptop to the now sadly defunct DT/UT on the UES, set up shop, and write for a few hours. On Sundays, I would edit and revise. Then, one summer, a very generous friend offered me her studio in San Francisco for a two-week period, and I went and finished the first draft during that stay. It was a much-needed trip and gave me some amazing space and time to finish Kiran’s story.
The L: There have been countless books about alienation, loneliness and self-discovery, but yours is particularly interesting because Kiran’s story isn’t just about being an Indian-American in Cincinnati, nor is it merely a story of discovering and understanding one’s religion or sexuality. It’s all of those things, of course, but it seems to me that you’ve written a coming-of-age story that’s broadly relatable. What do you hope a reader takes away from the story, and do you think an Indian American reader from the Midwest might read the book differently than, say, a Mexican American reader from Arizona?
RS: One of the most wonderful experiences of publishing this book has been getting these incredible e-mails from a very, very diverse group of people of different ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations. The book really seems to have spoken to a wide demographic because everyone has felt like an outcast at some point, and so people have really underscored that aspect of Kiran’s story in relating their comments to me. That was definitely my biggest goal — to relate the very specific circumstances of Kiran’s milieu but, in so doing, making his experience as authentic as possible. I do think that there is a specificity to an Indian person reading this book just because the cultural particulars are so spelled out, and I do have this great swell of accomplishment when an LGBT Indian reader enjoys the book. But I do think that, since I was so intent on describing things thoroughly — using a lot of proper nouns and 90s-era brand names — a lot of people could situate the story temporally and live in it a little more fully. More than anything, I want readers to take away a sense of respect for what culturally and/or sexually marginalized youths in this country must deal with. But, of course, I want a few laughs to cushion that occurrence!