Dava Shastri’s Last Day
Author: Kirthana Ramisetti
(Grand Central Publishing)
Written by Columnist Diane Slocum
Dava Shastri spent her life making a name for herself creating foundations to help musical artists, struggling women and other organizations devoted to helping people. When she is diagnosed with a terminal illness, she doesn’t want to die a lingering death like her husband did. And she wants to know what the world has to say about her when it thinks she is dead. So, she gathers her family around her on her private island in an attempt to pass on her legacy to them and to iron out whatever difficulties may arise. What does come out about her life is not exactly what she had planned.
AUTHORLINK: What were your first thoughts about this story? Did your time as an entertainment reporter, writing about the rich and famous, contribute to the initial idea?
“The story was directly inspired by my experience as an entertainment reporter.”
RAMISETTI: The story was directly inspired by my experience as an entertainment reporter. One aspect of the job was to cover the deaths of celebrities. As part of the coverage, we had to monitor the real-time social media reaction to the news. And each time I saw the collective outpouring of grief, I was curious if other notable figures saw the reaction and thought about what would be said about them when they passed. And then the idea came to me: what if a person was so obsessed with what would be said about them after they died, they’d actually leak news of their death to find out?
I was so interested in exploring what kind of person would be driven to do something so audacious and strange. And thinking through the person’s motivations—and the logistics of how she would pull it off—inspired the concept for my novel.
AUTHORLINK: How did it develop from there?
“Everything about this book came from thinking through the premise…”
RAMISETTI: Everything about this book came from thinking through the premise, starting with the main character. I quickly determined that I didn’t want the protagonist to be a celebrity like an actor or pop star. But at the same time, for her death to make an impression on the news cycle, she needed to be well-known and have a connection to the world of celebrity.
I soon came to the idea that my main character was a philanthropist, and perhaps even more importantly, she was entirely self-made: she didn’t marry into wealth or come from a wealthy family. By being the sole architect of her wealth and success, my protagonist would be deeply invested in her legacy and how it was perceived by the world. And if her legacy was important to her, then that meant she just wouldn’t be preoccupied by the world acknowledging her accomplishments, but that her name would have meaning and impact through successive generations. So, it came to me that my main character should be a matriarch, with several children and grandchildren.
And finally, my main character was going to be an Indian woman, born and raised in this country. A novel with my premise would probably not be expected to have a 70-year-old Indian-American woman as the main character. And that’s exactly why I wanted to write it.
AUTHORLINK: Can you describe how the characters of the siblings and their interpersonal relationships developed?
“Before I began writing, I created a character spreadsheet in which I conceived of each character…”
RAMISETTI: My characterizations of the Shastri-Persson siblings came out of the unique situation they are born into, one that has a lot of comforts and privilege, but with those high expectations imposed by a larger-than-life parental figure. I thought about the many ways a character could either embrace or push back against the environment they were born into, as each one struggles with balancing familial expectations with forging their own paths.
One of the fun things about writing this book was putting two siblings into a room who aren’t very close, but the circumstances of this particular weekend force them to open up to each other. That aspect was a crucial component of the book, and something I figured out before I even wrote page one of the first draft.
Before I began writing, I created a character spreadsheet in which I conceived of each character, their personalities, insecurities, and quirks, their relationships to Dava, and their arc over the course of the novel. This helped me figure out which siblings should share a scene together, when the scenes would occur from the novel, and what important information would come out of them (both for the characters and the reader).
AUTHORLINK: What made you decide that Dava’s husband would be Swedish? (My grandfather’s name was Persson.)
RAMISETTI: When I was first conceiving of the character of Dava, I decided that she would be married to a white man, but not an American. As someone who grew up in a largely white small town and did not always feel deeply connected to her Indian roots, I thought it would make sense for Dava to gravitate towards dating white men. But at the same time, I wanted her and her husband to have the common ground of the immigrant experience, in terms of not being or feeling completely American. I decided that Dava’s husband would be European, and someone she’d meet while living outside the US.
So often, a character’s name tells me so much about their story. In this case, my research into various European names led me to discover the Swedish name Arvid, and I thought Arvid would be a great name for Dava’s husband, because then their first child could be Arvind. In Dava’s thinking, the name Arvind was perfect for their son because it was a tribute to both parents: the name is Indian, and also very close in spelling to “Arvid.”
And since Arvid was of Swedish origin, I researched Swedish surnames and discovered Persson. (How wonderful about your grandfather!) And through that surname I came up with the idea of the non-profit Helping Perssons, which was created in Arvid’s honor.
AUTHORLINK: Most of the present time in the story takes place in a Christmas visit. You fill in other times in Dava’s life with flashbacks to her memories. Is that the format you always expected to use? Did you know the stories of Chaitanya and Tom Buck when you began writing?
RAMISETTI: Most of the novel takes place over a single weekend. And I did plan on using a compressed timeline for the present-day narrative, because from the moment that Dava leaks news of her death to the world, there’s a big ticking time clock hanging over the events of the story. (She can’t exactly stay alive for very long after doing so!)
Every conversation and revelation takes on a real urgency, especially for Dava. So, by having the events occur over the course of the weekend, it forces interactions and conversations that might not have otherwise taken place, while still giving Dava some time to reflect on her life and choices as she nears her end.
And I did know Chaitanya and Tom Buck’s stories before I began writing. Because I had to know Dava’s secrets, not just for the impact it would make on her throughout her life and once they became known to her family. But also because I had to figure out the nature of those secrets, and how they would be reported on in the news, and therefore potentially affect her legacy. I actually outlined the entire novel, chapter by chapter, before I started writing the book.
AUTHORLINK: Music is a big part of Dava’s life. Do you share that interest?
“Dava was my third attempt at writing a novel in about twenty years.”
RAMISETTI: Yes, one hundred percent! Dava was my third attempt at writing a novel in about twenty years. So, for third attempt, I decided to infuse the novel with everything I loved or had an interest in, and music was on the top of the list. Just as with Dava, music was formative for me in my teenage years and really inspired me to fulfill my ambitions. Through Dava, I enjoyed how a love of music can shape someone throughout her life in many different ways.
AUTHORLINK: Did you have other ideas for a title before Dava Shastri’s Last Day?
RAMISETTI: The book’s original title was The Matriarch, and I thought it was a good representation of Dava’s strength and the powerful role she has in her family. Once the book was bought by my publisher, we had to change it because they already had a biography with the same title. I’m not very good at coming up with titles, so I was thrilled after a group brainstorm, this one emerged as the best.
AUTHORLINK: What do you hope readers gain from reading your novel besides enjoying a good story?
“…I hope this novel imparts an awareness of our own legacies…”
RAMISETTI: Prior to writing this book, I thought the word “legacy” belonged to boldfaced names, the kind of people who do get their obituaries published in the New York Times. And as I wrote this novel, I realized that the concept of legacy belongs to all of us and that every one of us has an impact on families and communities.
So, I hope this novel imparts an awareness of our own legacies and being mindful of the ripple effects of our choices on others. Also, just the simple idea of letting your loved ones know how you feel about them while they’re still here.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
RAMISETTI: I’m at work on a second novel for Grand Central Publishing that is also steeped in pop culture. I like to think of it as sort of a pop-culture detective story–if you’ve ever gone down an internet rabbit hole, then you’ll find this book very relatable. It’s been a lot of fun to write.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kirthana Ramisetti has a master’s degree in creative writing from Emerson College. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly and The Atlantic. She reported for Newsday and New York Daily News where she often wrote about the deaths of the rich and famous. Dava Shastri’s Last Day is her first novel. She lives in New York
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