An exclusive Authorlink interview
America for Beginners, Leah Franqui, William Morrow –Pival has barely even traveled within her native Kolkata but after her husband dies, she decides to tour America to find her son who may or may not have died, disowned by his family. Satya, a Bangladeshi immigrant who knows almost nothing about America, is assigned as her tour guide. Rebecca, a struggling actress trying to make her way in New York City, is hired to be Pival’s travel companion. As they travel, they learn more about themselves than the places they visit.
AUTHORLINK: Where did you get the initial idea for this story?
FRANQUI: The first time I met my now in-laws, they were visiting the United States for the first time. My husband and I met in graduate school, studying dramatic writing, which was a big left turn from his previous career in finance, and not that much of a switch for me from the soul-sucking work in non-profit theater administration I’d been doing. My in-laws didn’t travel outside of India, from which they come before my husband moved to Singapore for college, and even then I think they had each been out of India just once. So when he told them that he planned on marrying an American girl he had met in the program they couldn’t understand, I think they wanted to meet me and used this as a chance to see the United States as well. They came to our graduation.
…it is easy to be xenophobic when it comes to your children’s spouses…
I was lucky in that they were open, happy to meet me, and accepting. For people from any background, anywhere, it is easy to be xenophobic when it comes to your children’s spouses, and certainly while many people have asked me if my in-laws are okay with me not being Indian, there are a decent amount of people who have also asked if my parents are okay with my husband being non-Jewish and non-white. But we had total openness on both sides, which was very positive. However, my prospective in-laws were not like any people I had ever met before. They had not really traveled outside of India, they had not consumed American culture, and it was through them that I realized that while the West over the last century was experiencing social and cultural changes that we sometimes talk about as global, universal, the truth is, in many places, they had their own thing going on, and India was one of them, and that leads to very different social movements and personal understandings of the world. My in-laws felt more like my grandparents, more fragile, more fearful, and more willing to talk about the things, people, and communities that they disliked or found immoral.
My in-laws wanted to make the most of their trip so they took a tour, which my husband did with them. He tried to talk them out of it but everyone they knew had done it, so they were insistent. It covered seven cities and guaranteed 11 Indian dinners, and it was organized by an Indian tour company, which I found bizarre. Meeting them, and hearing about this tour experience before, during, and afterward from my husband, became the root of this novel.
“Well, I always knew I wanted three of the four central characters…”
AUTHORLINK: How did each of your point of view characters arrive on the scene? How did you develop each of their personalities and backstories, especially considering their different ethnicities?
FRANQUI: Well, I always knew I wanted three of the four central characters, Pival, Rebecca and Satya. Pival’s story came first because it was inspired by my mother-in-law, although Pival is in no way like her, except they both come from Kolkata. I was really interested in the idea of someone seeing the United States, seeing anything outside of their own home, for the first time, and what would motivate that, what would drive that trip. I was also really interested in the way that some Indians I met outside of India really carried their divisions with them, the pieces of their in-grouping and out-grouping from their backgrounds, while other people let them fall away, figuring “all South Asians are closer to me than not”. So Satya followed close on Pival’s heels, a Bangladeshi and a Bengali, which for non-Indians can seem so similar, but internally are divided by so many things. And then Rebecca emerged, because she is the most like me while being nothing like me, but she’s an outsider, a native in the country but a non-native of the space Pival and Satya come from and that gave her the duality I constantly experience. Being with my husband challenges a lot of what I think about my own country and the world, in wonderful ways, and so it made sense to have a character who was also going through that on this trip.
And then Jake came last because I wasn’t sure what that fourth voice should be, but I did know that there was a part of this story always waiting at the end of the trip, like a beacon, which is the thing Pival is searching for. The order in which they appear now wasn’t the original order, in fact, I’ve rearranged this book a few times, with the help and advice of my amazing agent, Julia Kardon, who really helped me jigsaw puzzle this around.
In terms of building these characters, by the time I started writing this novel, I had married my husband, who is from Kolkata, although not Bengali, and I already knew I would be moving to India within a year, which we did. So I was already researching India from a very personal perspective, trying to figure out what my life would be like, how I would adapt, and that was useful, sort of served a dual purpose! I was already reading tons of books and scouring the internet for clues on customs and attitudes and how to dress and asking every Indian I met a million questions and suffering from mid-90’s Bollywood hits. I added a lot of research about Bangladeshi into this, for this novel, and I’m glad because I really knew nothing about 1971, much to my shame. I was also navigating fitting into my new Indian family, which I acquired through my husband, so that confluence of things really helped me build characters, as I worked to understand the real people I was now connected to.
AUTHORLINK: How did you choose and learn about each of the locations (including Kolkata) your characters live in and visit?
FRANQUI: Well, for the US, it was easy, because I had been to every place on the list except Niagra and Las Vegas, and they are both easy to research! I did go to the Corning Glass Museum, actually, it’s lovely, worth taking a trip. I’m from Philadelphia, I’ve spent time in DC, New Orleans, the Grand Canyon, LA, and San Francisco, so that was pretty easy for me. In terms of Kolkata, I asked my husband a lot about it, I read a lot about it, both historical novels like Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, and more contemporary fare, I looked at a lot of photos and tried to piece together a sense of the place. And by the 4th draft of this novel, I was living in India and visited Kolkata, which helped me layer on a more nuanced understanding of Indian cities, and Kolkata specifically, which is just so dense and crumbling and has this faded glory I love.
A lot of the cities in the novel are on real tours Indian tour companies provide of the United States. I switched out Harrisburg for Philadelphia, because I’m from Philadelphia and I love it and it’s the birthplace of our nation, come on, why is Harrisburg even ON there?! And I added New Orleans because again, amazing historic city, I think people should see it! So I probably made this tour more interesting to me personally than the original versions. But all the other stuff is very much what people do on these tours.
AUTHORLINK: You’ve received awards for your plays and screenplays. Is this your first venture into writing a novel (or did you have earlier unpublished ones)? Why did you decide to write this story as a novel?
“I thought a lot about this story before I wrote it…”
FRANQUI: This is my first novel, although I have some pieces of fiction sitting around which no one will ever read because they are not great! Or even good…
I thought a lot about this story before I wrote it, and I thought at first it was maybe a screenplay. But as I thought about it and talked about it with my husband, he suggested maybe it was longer than that, maybe this was prose. And I considered that, and thought, yes, maybe this story is bigger than 90 minutes, maybe trying to force it into a smaller space wouldn’t be a good idea. One of our teachers, Annie Baker, a playwright, told us that the content should demand the form, they should be essential to each other, so before you write, think, why does this have to be a play? A short story? A poem? What about that relationship is essential?
Ultimately, I have a lot to say, in life, and in this story, and I think it was better served as a novel. That said, I still think it would be a good movie!
“Dramatic writing is the art of restraint. You are always paring down, saying less…”
AUTHORLINK: What was different about writing and selling a novel compared to a screenplay?
FRANQUI: Well, personally, I found it a lot easier, which probably speaks to me and my process more than anything else.
Dramatic writing is the art of restraint. You are always paring down, saying less, finding ways to concentrate information and story and draw it up very quickly, in a few beats. A good screenplay, or play, or tv script, is spare. You look at those scenes in the first act of anything and pull them apart and you will be amazed by how much they are doing. Nothing can just prove one point. Everything, every line, and action, has to be a multi-tasker. It’s amazing, it’s fun, it’s frustrating, and everything can always be tighter, especially in film and tv.
For me, as a very verbose person, I do still love dramatic writing, but I think prose works better for a lot of the stories I want to tell right now, not all, but a lot of them. I always want more from stories, more information, more background, more of a sense of the world and the people in it. I’m not afraid of long things. A lot of words is freeing for me, not frightening. There are people who ask me how I wrote so much, people from my grad program, and I laugh, because I feel like, for the length of this novel, if I added up everything I wrote for this novel including what got dumped and cut and put aside, it’s probably double the length.
I don’t have a problem producing a lot of work, and maybe that means this is the right fit for me, because fiction is a marathon, and drama is an obstacle course, I believe.
The thing about fiction is that frankly, it’s a much more direct and established process than drama. Selling a screenplay is so hard because it’s murky, it can happen in like any one of twelve ways and none of those might work for you. Getting a play produced is impossible. I don’t know how it happens. Fiction is a really clear process. You write, you query, you get an agent or you don’t, you query again, you get an agent, they work with you, they try to sell your book, they sell it or they don’t. It doesn’t have the blind alleys and thousand promises and many potholes of drama. And there is so much great advice out there on how to reach people in fiction. Agents write it out there, I want 10 pages of your novel, it’s amazing! Drama is a real Catch 22, you need to have produced something to get an agent but you need an agent to get something produced, it’s a lot of confusion and limited information sharing.
That all being said, I’ve never sold a screenplay! So this is obviously subjective to my life experience.
“I hope that readers take away the feeling that it’s never too late, or too early, to start over, to change your life…”
AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people will come away with from your novel besides enjoying a good story?
FRANQUI: When it comes to this novel, I hope that readers take away the feeling that it’s never too late, or too early, to start over, to change your life. Movement and change are scary and loss is devastating, but standing still is another way to say paralyzed. Perhaps this is a new world mentality, but I believe it, I believe that internalizing Fredrick Jackson Turner’s thesis about new frontiers as a way to keep exploring the world is something that can help you stay open. Growing is a choice, and you must keep making it if you want it to keep happening. Bravery is contextually defined, but it’s worth trying to achieve because it begets itself. This is going to sound sappy, but I actually really do believe that what connects us is more important and persuasive than what separates us and that exploring the world will remind you of that, time and again, while digging down into the depths of your own assumptions and experience can close you off to that. I hope that people feel some sense of that when they read this book and that they feel connected to these characters, and inspired to begin something new in their own lives, no matter the scale, no matter how painful, because it’s worth it.
I still believe, more fiercely and fully than ever before, that we need to be looking for what connects us so we can be good to each other, be kind, keep giving, keep fighting for a country and a world that celebrates what makes us different. The New World, in theory, is a place where you can come and what you are is supposed to be more important than what you have come from. I believe in that, in making that promise a reality, and I think we have to keep doing that work daily. I hope readers take that away, too, that mission.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
FRANQUI: I’m working on a few things, some new novel ideas, a television show, some screenplay concepts. I’m really excited about a television concept I’ve been developing with my husband about divorce in Mumbai, so if Netflix India is reading this, we are ready to pitch to you! (See, drama is really hard!) I’m also thinking about a new play which I plan to write for a friend of mine about a reality television franchise and its effect on our views of the world.
About the Author: Leah Franqui graduated from Yale University and received her MFA at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts. She has received the Goldberg Playwriting Award and the Alfred Sloan Foundation Screenwriting Award. She lives with her husband in Mumbai.