hen Poonam Sharma was growing up, she was taught that success was supposed to come in a box that contained a degree and a good-paying job.
Sharma followed that route for a while, graduating from Harvard College, working in the business world in both LA and New York, publishing two business books (The Harvard Entrepreneurs Club Guide to Starting Your Own Business and Chasing Success) and attending the Wharton School’s MBA program. But she also always secretly wanted to write fiction.
And so Girl Most Likely To was born. Sharma’s debut novel stars Vina Chopra, an equity research associate who lives in New York City and has to answer the age-old question of “When are you getting married?” amidst managing her career, her crazy friends and her nosy neighbor. While navigating her love life, Vina also lands herself into an office scandal that endangers her job—and makes her wonder whether the life she’s made for herself is really the one she wants.
Born and raised in New York, Sharma grew up in a traditional Indian household. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling—and even spent a year traveling the world solo. These days, though, Sharma is busy finishing up that MBA at Wharton and working on her second novel. But she found the time to chat with Nirali about novel-writing and her inspiraton for the book.
After publishing two business books, why suddenly a novel?
Deep down inside, I had always dreamed about writing fiction. I was just lucky enough to be able to make my way to fiction through nonfiction. Since fiction is more of a creative endeavor than nonfiction, I had to get to a point where I was comfortable opening myself up to the world’s scrutiny (since any first novel is necessarily personal), and focusing my own efforts onto something which by its nature is judged subjectively—like fiction.
Your book has been described as a blend of Sex and the City, Bend It Like Beckham and Bridget Jones’ Diary in the chick-lit genre. How do you feel about that kind of praise?
‘Tis quite a compliment to be in the company of trailblazing authors. I can only hope to have written something as funny, enjoyable and poignant as they have.
What was your inspiration for Girl Most Likely To?
Honestly, my life. My twenties were crazy and fantastic but also very extreme. I like to believe that the highs and lows have helped me evolve into a “2.0” version of myself. And now the newer, more distilled version can look back at the original prototype, recollect how she tumbled and stumbled her way through that decade and can hopefully draw some conclusions that will resonate with all of my readers.
The grandmother character was great—was she or any other character a fictional version of someone in your life?
Most of these characters are some combination of my friends, myself and my imagination. I am not Vina, and I was not indicted for insider trading, but I did work in finance in Manhattan, and I had some good times during the NYC blackout of 2003 … The grandmother in the novel is based on my own maternal grandmother and on her big sister. Both have been like an inner compass for me, and I think that’s why the grandmother’s voice rings particularly poignant in the book.
On Poonam’s Bookshelf
A Princess Remembers by Gayatri Devi
The Alchemist and The Zahir, both by Paolo Coelho
Me Vs. Me by Sarah Mlynowski
The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie
Is there a specific message you are trying to send out through your story, not just to Asian Americans, but to women in general?
The best thing you can do for yourself is to learn to be your own parent, in a sense. It’s not that you should dismiss or disrespect your own parents; it’s just that you have a life experience that is unique and should be analyzed and addressed through a unique and personal lens. Rather than cobbling together some awkward combination of your parents’ values and what the outside world tells you, take a moment to yourself sometime amidst the mania of your twenties. I think the key is giving yourself permission to deliberately reconsider how you define success, and what will ultimately make you happy.
Men have been reading the novel as well—what do you think of that? What sorts of things do they have to say to you about the book?
Perhaps the nicest thing about being published is getting reader feedback. I have gotten emails from housewives and professional women, in their twenties and their fifties, and from as far as New York, Illinois and California. I have gotten emails from men as well, saying that they feel the book has given them a view into women’s thoughts. I find it supremely satisfying, and I do my very best to reply personally to each reader who takes the time to email me through my Web site.
Tell us about your next novel.
The novel I’m working on now is not a sequel (although I have not ruled out a possible sequel to GMLT). It’s a new story with a new main character. She is Indian American, lives in Beverly Hills, and works as an attorney specializing in celebrity marital mediation and divorce. The main theme I am exploring is envy among women (in the workplace and beyond)—hopefully toward hilarious results! The book should be in stores by March 2008, and updates will always be available through my Web site.
What are your plans post-graduation?
After delivering the student speech at Wharton’s commencement this year, I am looking forward to turning 30 in June, on a beach somewhere in Europe, hopefully surrounded by some lovely and interesting people. I will be traveling for the better part of the summer, spending some time with family in New York, and then probably moving back to Los Angeles to pursue a career in real estate development. Of course, I will keep writing for the rest of my life…
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
I believe the best writing comes from people who have lived. It may not be that they have lived the exact experience they write about, but they have experienced the core of the emotion from which their characters react to a situation. Write what you know, rather than what you think people might want to hear.