Authors · Interviews

Meet Priyanka Menon, the writer of ‘Served with Love’, a new romance about two chefs

Priyanka Menon

Tell us a bit about the genesis of Served with Love.

P: In my opinion, all stories begin around food. Actually, good stories begin around good food. I remember reading a post on Facebook that said ‘No great story begins with that one time I was eating a salad’. I laughed so hard at that. The story for Served with Love came to me while I was gorging on some heavenly prawns at Chinese Room, one of my favourite restaurants in Pune. By the time I’d finished my dessert I had the bare outline to my story, all ready and served.

Falling in love with the food we eat is just as important as falling in love with someone, in my opinion. For me, Abhimanyu and Pakhi became real people the moment I started noting down their likes and dislikes when it came to food.

How many months did it take you to write Served with Love, and what was your writing routine like?

P: I did a lot of research (which basically translates to ‘I ate a lot’) for Served with Love. I wanted to make sure I had the cities (Mumbai, Kolkata, and Jaipur), their local cuisines, restaurants and their specialties down to perfection. So while my characters began to take shape early on, simultaneously I also worked on the settings to further their growth. The initial draft took me about eight months to complete (all that eating, I tell you). But it was the reworking and editing that really took up a lot of time. Between college (I teach), writing poetry, and coping with a personal tragedy, I was unable to devote sufficient time during the day to Served with Love. So, as the submission deadline loomed nearer I started working late into the night. Gradually, I fell into a routine. This was a lot easier, because I knew I had allotted enough time to Served with Love to make sure I could do justice to Pakhi, Abhimanyu and Abhithi’s story.

This is your third book: any learnings from the first two books, The One Who Got Away and Bowled Over, that you brought into this one? Anything that’s changed about your writing process?

P: Oh, yes! Every bit of writing that resides in my laptop is a lesson in progress. When I first started with The One That Got Away, I wasn’t very confident about experimentation. I had a fixed idea in my head, and that is how I wrote it. Don’t get me wrong, The One That Got Away will always be my most cherished book. But over the course of nearly two years, as I wrote Bowled Over and Served with Love, I think I have matured as a writer. And you’ll see that change (hopefully) in Served with Love. I’ve taken risks and gone a little out of my comfort zone. Served with Love is a different sort of romance, but it comes with all the trimmings of one!

Did the writing of Served with Love require you to visit kitchens at five-star hotels and learn about their inner workings?

P: Yes. This was important to me. I wanted to make sure the readers could picture Abhimanyu and Pakhi in the kitchen of a five-star hotel, just like I could. So, I visited a couple of hotels and restaurants to kind of get a feel of their kitchens. It was a fun process, actually. The staff and chefs were kind enough to answer all my questions, and let me tell you, there were quite a few.

I also sat down with a friend of mine, who is a brilliant chef and baker, to pick his brain. He helped me fine-tune a lot of the dishes that you’ll read about.

I’ve been to the cities mentioned in Served with Love, so it was quite a gastronomic throwback that I went on, as I reminisced some of the best flavours and dishes these cities are known for. For Kolkata and Jaipur, it was important for me to establish the cities as much as their flavours.

Your idea of comfort food?

P: Oh, wow. This could be a long list, but I’ll stick to two: my mother’s mango curry with rice, and chicken kathi roll.

On a scale of one to ten, what would you rate Pune as a city for foodies? Tell us about your top three cafes/restaurants in the city, and one must-try dish at each of them.

P: Pune deserves an undoubted ten! I have too many favourite places and dishes, but I will try to list down a few. Misal paav from Bedekar, chicken kathi roll from Kapila, chaat from Jaishankar, chicken biryani from George, and falooda from Badshah – I realize I’ve overshot the list. But this is important, not to mention sacred.

With the soaring popularity of Masterchef, and channels like TLC, Fox Traveller, Food Food, chefs have become public figures. Who are your favourite chefs on TV?

P: Anthony Bourdain will always, always be my favourite. And Vikas Khanna too. There is something incredibly sexy about those two men – FOOD!

Did you always want to write romance? Any other genres you’d consider writing in, in the future?

P: I started reading romance when I was just out of school. And I haven’t stopped since. As part of my thesis during my master’s, I read nearly eight hundred romance novels to understand how romance writing has changed in the last fifty-odd years. Writing romance seemed like a logical step for me. Just the idea of creating characters and giving them a space and narrative to fall in love was enough for me to say that this is what I want to do. With the release of Served with Love I think I can cement myself (at least in my eyes) as a romance writer.

As of now, I enjoy writing romance. It is very fulfilling, to be honest. A lot of people believe that writing romance is easy when compared to other genres. But it’s not. Writing characters that are relatable to the extent that the reader does not question their choice in love is not an easy task. Someday, perhaps, I would attempt to write historical fiction and crime fiction. But that is very far into the future. At present, my heart lies in writing romance.

What’s the best and the worst part about being a writer?

P: Haha! This is such a loaded question. I guess the best part(s) about being a writer is creating a world which is quite like our own, and yet can be completely different. The characters, place, setting, narrative, pace – everything is in the hands of the writer. Here, it is important for the writer to behave responsibly and create something that will be accepted by readers who have the ability to look past the narrative.

The worst part of being a writer is the constant worry that one has to sail through. Right from your editor liking your manuscript to the reader liking the final book, it is quite an arduous journey. It is the time it takes for the manuscript to become a book that really tests a writer the most.

Your all-time favourite romance reads, and tell us why you love them?

  1. The Malory Series by Johanna Lindsey: I absolutely love this regency romance series. Lindsey has created a family over the last thirty odd years that still continues to enthrall readers across the world. The romance between rakes and damsels (who are capable of getting rid of distress by themselves) is really one of a kind. Tender Rebel and The Magic of You are my favourite novels from this series.
  2. Long, Tall, Texans by Diana Palmer: Three men – Calhoun, Justin and Tyler – and their stories. Diana Palmer is one of my favourite romance writers. I love how she has linked so much of her writing to a little town in Texas, and has written so many beautiful stories around Jacobsville. In this series, I love Calhoun and Abby’s story the most. In the beginning itself Palmer sets the tone for the novel, as we are introduced to Abby who is standing in line to enter a male burlesque show. Calhoun drives past the place on his way home and spots Abby in the line. I love how their love unravels from that moment.
  3. Falling for Grace by Stella Bagwell: Grace and Jack’s story is easily my most favourite Mills and Boon ever. The older man and younger woman dynamic is always something that has fascinated me. I plan to write a story that reverses this dynamic.
  4. Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding: Although not entirely a romance novel, I do believe that this is the novel that changed modern romance. Experiments with writing romance became possible because of the way Fielding chose to retell Pride and Prejudice, in a setting that is entirely modern, and its characters relatable on so many levels.
  5. The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller: Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson showed us a new kind of love, one that is not demanding, is selfless, and can stay with you for life, holding you in its arms when you’re low and bringing you back to life every time, because you know that there is someone out there who loves you for reasons you didn’t know you could ever be loved.
  6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: No list I make will ever be complete without including Lizzie and Darcy’s love. When I was in the seventh grade, I had Emma as part of my English syllabus. During the summer holidays, before eighth grade, I read the complete works of Jane Austen, not knowing that Pride and Prejudice would be part of the syllabus in my new class. It is the only novel I have read a thousand times.

And lastly, although it was a love that remained unrequited and one-sided forever, Lily Evans and Severus Snape’s love story will remain my favourite. Always.

The last book you read that made you go all mushy…

P: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.

One famous work of fiction/romance that just didn’t work for you, and why.

P: I don’t think this is fair for me to answer, especially not at the nascent stage I am at. A book that may not have worked for me could have worked for another reader. I cannot take that away from them.

What kind of books did you read in your growing up years? Whose writing has influenced you/your writing the most?

P: I was not a very great reader as a child. I spent most of my time watching Cartoon Network. One afternoon, a very frustrated (and worried) mother dragged her daughter to Crossword and thrust Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone into her hands. There has been no looking back since.

Now, nearly nineteen years later (HP fans will get this reference), there hasn’t been a day my mother doesn’t say, ‘God! Why did I introduce you to that series? You’re forever reading that!’

I read everything I could get my hands on. From Enid Blyton and Carolyn Keene to Isaac Asimov and Ursula K. Le Guin … My favourite writers are J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Orhan Pamuk and Neil Gaiman. They have all had a significant impact on my life and my writing. But it is Jane Austen who has been my all-time favourite.

If you ever host a fan-girl dinner for writers, whom will you invite?

P: Oh, I love this question. Let’s see:

  1. Margaret Atwood
  2. Amanda Palmer
  3. Neil Gaiman
  4. Arshia Sattar
  5. J.K. Rowling
  6. Arundhati Roy

… I can go on!

Your favourite films about food/chefs?

P: Julie & Julia, No Reservations (starring Catherine Zeta Jones and Aaron Eckhart) is my favourite too, along with Cheeni Kum and Daawat-e-Ishq. I love how Lucknowi food is given such a huge space in the narrative of Daawat-e-Ishq.

Your casting picks for the roles of Abhimanyu and Pakhi in a Hindi feature film?

P: I really cannot think of any one at the moment. All I want is for Abhimanyu and Pakhi to be regular, everyday folk, who happen to fall in love with each other while tripping on food!

Three tips for aspiring writers…

  1. Write every day. It doesn’t have to be something that’s path-breaking. But write. Get into the habit of writing. It helps.
  2. Don’t take your rejections to heart. I know that’s easier said than done. But look at every rejection as a hurdle you need to get past. Don’t let them sit and stew in your inbox.
  3. Be patient. Again, this is easier said than done. But patience is golden. It helps you become a better writer because you start becoming a lot less complacent.

(Served with Love, published by Harlequin India is available on Amazon. Buy it here: http://amzn.to/2ry98y1)

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