When you hit it out of the park with your first book, the big question is whether you can do it again. Will The Golden Son, Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s follow-up to her 2010 debut novel, Secret Daughter, also become an international bestseller, earn a coveted Heather’s Pick designation from Indigo Books & Music, or sell more than 600,000 copies in Canada alone?
Obviously only time will tell, though chances are looking good.
Both books are warm-hearted tales of family and sacrifice. Whereas Secret Daughter focused on a poor mother in Mumbai forced to give up her child, and the American family that adopts the girl, The Golden Son focuses on protagonist Anil’s decision to mleave his small village and close-knit family in India to start a gruelling medical residency in Dallas. His father was the village’s arbiter of disputes, and as the eldest son, Anil is expected to take over that role.
Fans will find the structures of both books similar: each uses braided narratives to tell stories happening on opposite sides of the world, about characters whose lives intertwine. As a woman recently married off to a stranger in a nearby village, Leena, Anil’s childhood best friend, has set out on a new life, too. Things go badly for both Anil and Leena almost immediately, and the book maintains a high level of conflict throughout.
“I did try to add a little more humour and romance, which the first book had none of,” says Gowda, laughing over the phone from her home in San Diego. “I don’t think either of those are my forte. I’m never going to write a side-splitting comedy but I tried to have some comedic side characters this time around.”
For Toronto-raised Gowda, the experience of writing each book was very different. Secret Daughter, which entailed eight or nine drafts over two years, was the product of the first writing classes she’d ever taken. Released in October by HarperCollins Canada, The Golden Son involved more than five years of taking runs at the story using different perspectives, tenses, styles, and voices, with simple early outlines morphing into charts and Post-its that covered the walls and floor of her workspace.
“I knew I wanted to write about a young man thrust into a family role that has a lot of honour and tradition associated with it, but which is not what he desires,” says Gowda. “I was interested in the conflict between the reality of what he wants to do with his life compared to his dream of it.”
Gowda started writing the manuscript before Secret Daughter was published and therefore didn’t have that book’s success as an early influence. She chose a male protagonist and relatively compressed timeframe – the duration of Anil’s residency – in contrast with her debut’s female-centric characters and quarter-century time span.
After Secret Daughter went stratospheric – thanks in part to a Costco book buyer taking a chance on the title (usually the retail giant only stocks high-profile books), which propelled it to bestseller status – Gowda used the feedback she received from readers during hundreds of signings and book-club gatherings to guide book two.
“I heard a lot about the universal nature of Secret Daughter’s themes,” Gowda says. “The self-sacrifice and challenges of motherhood, the experience of a marriage through ups and downs. That echoed with me because that’s what I like when I read. I was trying to do a lot of things in the second book and I didn’t want to lose the forest for the trees, or lose the emotional power. So in subsequent drafts I tried to make sure those things were in place.”
Add in references to chai tea, Diwali and, in The Golden Son, the village arbitration process – a practice rarely described in literature – and Gowda’s books also give non-Indian readers an intimate glimpse into a different culture. HarperCollins Canada marketing director Cory Beatty says that in-house reactions to the new novel have been “good, if not better than for Secret Daughter.” Meanwhile, rights have been sold in a dozen countries, and Toronto-based production company Conquering Lion has optioned it for the big screen.
Gowda’s business experience may also have something to do with her success as an author. After leaving Toronto in 1988 for Stanford University, where she earned an MBA, Gowda worked as a strategist for consumer and retail companies for a decade before taking time off while pregnant.
“Having a business background has been great for me,” says Gowda, who now writes full-time. “It’s not the normal path, and certainly not necessary. But publishing is a business and it helps being able to understand my books and other people’s books not just as works of art, which we hope they are, but also as products that sink or swim in the marketplace. Succeeding doesn’t always have to do with merit, and failing doesn’t always have to do with merit. That helps me keep a balanced perspective.”
So can she do it again?
“I’m just going to try to let it go out into the world. I hope people like it mainly because I feel like a lot of people really supported and invested in me last time,” says Gowda. “Booksellers, readers, librarians. I’m sure there will be varying reactions to the book. I expect that and am prepared for that.”