PODCAST

September 2020: Sejal Badani’s “The Storyteller’s Secret”

Want a sneak peek into the book club of your dreams? Then allow us to present: the Jen Hatmaker Book Club! From time to time, we’ll drop in with what we’re reading in hopes you’ll join us at jenhatmakerbookclub.com—because we *know* you’ll love it. This month, we read the gorgeous bestselling novel The Storyteller’s Secret by lawyer-turned-writer Sejal Badani. Sejal gives us a behind the scenes look at what it was like to write a fiction story that’s deeply rooted in her own family history, and how examining the lives of her ancestors helped unravel her emotions about her own upbringing. What began as a way to break free from family secret-keeping became a way for Sejal to explain her heritage and history to her children. Writing Storyteller also became a method of healing, and Sejal shares how exposing the most vulnerable parts of who we are can help create a better world for someone else.

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transcript:

Jen: Hey, guys, welcome back to the Jen Hatmaker Book Club Podcast. If you’re listening to this on our regular For the Love Podcast feed, welcome. This is a sneak peek into the fantastic fun we have behind the scenes at the Jen Hatmaker Book Club—which please, please join us over at jenhatmakerbookclub.com. We would love to have you in this community. My goodness, this interview is exactly why. We have had the greatest book in the month of September, and now this interview with its incredible author who I loved. The author of our September book, The Storyteller’s Secret—phenomenal—is Sejal Badani.

Sejal is a former attorney, but now she is the award-winning—big time—bestselling author of her two novels, The Storyteller’s Secret and The Trail of Broken Wings. Her novels have been published in over twenty languages, have been worldwide bestsellers, and I know why now. Storyteller’s is the first of her books that I’ve read, and I can see why the entire world loves her and loves her stories and her characters. Sejal was an ABC and Disney writing fellowship finalist, and her novel Trail of Broken Wings was a finalist for their very prestigious Good Reads Best Fiction Award. 

I know you can see why after reading The Storyteller’s Secret, because she is just phenomenal. I told her at the end of this interview, “This is what you were made to do and I’m so happy you’re not a lawyer. This is your work in the world.” You guys, Sejal is delightful. She is sparkly. She is precious. This is obviously just audio, but she and I were looking at each other the whole time on our screens, and she is just warmth and smiles and kindness. You’re going to love her as much as you loved her book. I’m so happy to share this conversation with our new beloved author, Sejal Badani. 

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Jen: Absolutely delighted to meet you.

Sejal: I have to say, same here. Thank you so much for inviting me to join your podcast. I am a huge fan of yours, like millions of other people. I’ve read your books. I listen to your podcast. When my publicist contacted me, I was just beyond, beyond thrilled and honored. Thank you so very much for having me. This really, really means a lot to me. And I actually have to apologize for the delay. I know we were scheduled for last week. It’s been a little insane on the West Coast.

Jen: I know. I’m so sorry.

Sejal: Well, thank you.

Jen: They’ve evacuated, right?

Sejal: Yeah. A couple of times actually, because it’s been ongoing since August 16th. It’s been a little surreal. It definitely drives home climate change.

Jen: I’m sorry.

Sejal: Yeah. But thank you. I felt so bad. I was so excited and thrilled to be talking to you, and then suddenly I’m like, “Really? This is the week I’m going to say, ‘I can’t do this.’” I apologize for that. Thank you.

Jen: I had no control over the California wildfires.

Sejal: Yeah. No, but thank you…

Jen: Is your house okay?

Sejal: Yeah. Everything is good. Thank God, and I think it’s up to 18,000 firefighters now who are battling these blazes, and their families haven’t seen them, and it’s just…

Jen: That’s terrible. 

Sejal: 2020 just feels like a year of unsung heroes, doesn’t it? All these people who are just putting themselves out there to keep everybody else safe and there’s no words of gratitude. It’s really amazing, but we’re good. I know a lot of people aren’t in California and on the West Coast, and your heart just goes out to them.

Jen: It sure does. Well said. Well said.  And we’re so happy that you’re safe, that your home is safe.

Sejal: Thank you.

Jen: We are equally as happy to have read The Storyteller’s Secret in book club this month.

Sejal: Thank you so much.

Jen: I mean, what a delight.

Sejal: You’re very kind. Honestly, that really means so much because I’m a huge fan of your work. That really means a lot. Thank you so much. I just have to say, I love your Fierce book. I was reading through it again last night, just reading chapters and I’m like, “My God, this is just amazing.” It was phenomenal.

Jen: Thank you, what a kind thing for you to say.

Sejal: Thank you for your kind words. I really appreciate it.

Jen: So I read your book, I picked it up, and I’m trying to remember if it was—I was looking for something online and I found your book online. That’s what it was. I had something in mind, and your book comes up. I’m reading the synopsis, I’m looking at the cover and I’m like, “I’m going to just give this a try.” So I get it two days later. Thank you, Amazon. And I think I read it without moving for two days. Without moving, without feeding anybody, without bathing. Hook, line, and sinker from the get-go. It was incredible. Well done. 

Sejal: Thank you, honestly, Jen, that means so much. It was a really difficult story for me to write. It was both difficult and yet so easy because I wrote it in three months and…

Jen: You are kidding me.

Sejal: No. No. Well, because it was based on my grandmother, and so it was inspired by her story and my sister’s story. Those are the two stories I combined. It was a little too easy for me to write, and it was very difficult for me to put out. 

Jen: Can you talk more about that? I would love to hear more about your grandmother and about your sister. One of our big book club questions was, “This feels so tender and specific and specialized, surely this has to come out of your real story.” Can you tell us more?

Sejal: Yeah. Basically, it was inspired by my maternal grandmother. When my mom was two years old, my grandmother was bitten by a mosquito and they didn’t know what it was. They had no idea that it was encephalitis. All the hallucinations, etc. they thought she was going crazy. They thought she was insane or demons or anything [like] that. And they tied her to a tree and they beat her to death. That was her story. She was an incredible woman from what I understand, from the oldest child, my uncle, who told me all these stories about her, she was this extraordinarily progressive, kind woman. She had a status within the community. And using that status because of the family’s wealth, etc., she hired untouchables to work. She pushed her girls and her boys to get education, to do everything. 

She really went against the grain, and so it was this extraordinary life cut short and in such a tragic way. And then the family just broke. It just broke. The next woman that my grandfather married was just a terror, not a good person in any way, shape, or form and made my mom’s life just horrific. 

There was this story of this woman that I grew listening to, that all the grandchildren grew up listening to, and then there’s my sister who I’m extraordinarily close to. She’s my best friend, and I actually wrote Storyteller’s thirteen years ago. And as I was writing it, my sister had gone through multiple miscarriages and was still struggling. You love somebody that much, and miscarriage is one of those things where a lot—like life—just happens and there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s no answer. There’s no way you would choose something like that. And watching her break down and watching all of this, and it was multiple yearly miscarriages. 

Being a writer, I said, “Well, I’m going to create these two stories and I want to see if I can put them together.” And I love just that whole thing of our ancestors, how we can learn from those who’ve come before us. That was really what drove Storyteller’s Secret.

Jen: Did you have to—I don’t know if permission is the right word, but I imagine this is a conversation you had to have with your sister, with your mom about writing this in a fiction version?

Sejal: Yeah. My first book was Trail of Broken Wings, which is ironic because actually, Storyteller’s was supposed to be my first book. It had its own short journey. I had a pretty tough childhood. My sisters, mom, and I had a pretty tough childhood. One of the silver linings that’s come out of that childhood is we’re very, very, very close—extraordinarily close, in fact. I used to be a lawyer, and I was absolutely terrible at it. Like, the worst possible lawyer you could imagine. I joke that the best thing that came out of law school was meeting my husband, because it was basically a hundred-thousand-dollar blind date. That’s what law school was for me. 

I was really bad at it, and I always wanted to be a writer, that was really all I ever wanted to do. That was the only thing I think I’m good at. My kids would say that, for sure. Then I think for my sisters and my mom, having seen me struggle for so long, trying to find myself and trying to do something that I could actually make a living out of, I think they were just thrilled that things actually worked out. 

And I think for them, for my sister, especially, you know, in my family, we kept secrets for so long, out of shame, out of etc. And  when it was time to tell the story, or when I chose to tell the story, all of us were like, “We can do this. We’re in this together.” I wouldn’t be here today if not for my sister and my mom, every step along the journey we take together.

Jen: That gave me goosebumps. Almost just like a family reckoning, like a coming out, whether it’s in strength and in truth. I’m so happy to know that.

Sejal: Thank you.

Jen: The story is already precious to our reading community. That is—that’s going to put everybody over the top when they hear that, because we’ve loved the characters. We loved them, you made us love them. We’ve also invested in who they were and where they were going and where they’d been, and this just deepens it, by twentyfold.

Sejal: I have to say actually, everybody laughs at me, but I honestly didn’t think that either of the two books were going to go anywhere. I literally remember saying to my sister, “Five people are going to buy this: me, you, Mom, my other sister, and my best friend.” I had it down, five copies are going to sell of both the books. I mean, no clue.

Jen: Wow. You really got that wrong.

Sejal: Yeah, I did. My goodness. 

Actually, I have to share something and I don’t even think my editor or my publishing house knows this. But I actually looked to my husband who is an attorney, and he’s a better attorney than I am. I looked at him when Trail of Broken Wings first came out and they told me there was going to be a Kindle First book. I actually looked at him and I said, “Okay, honey, I got to figure out how to buy this book back. This cannot be published. This cannot go out. What was I thinking?” 

And that’s when my sister looked at me and she said, “No, let’s not do that.”

Jen: “We’re not going to do that.”

Sejal: “Let’s have the story go out. It’s okay.”

Jen: “We’re going to go ahead and let it remain published and read.”

Sejal: Exactly.

Jen: “We’re going to let it run its course.” That is very precious to hear in the wild success you have had with both of these books—not just one, but two. What has that been like for you, especially since it was so—there are a handful of writers that strike out and think, I’m going to go to the top of the pile. I’m going to succeed. But most writers will think, It’s going to be bought by five people. What has this been like for you, this enormous amount of attention and accolades and a new fan base and just everything?

Sejal: I have teenagers, and I know you do too, and I have to say they definitely keep it real. Right? They’re never going to let you get too full of yourself.

Jen: You’re right about that. It’s built-in humility.

Sejal: Exactly. No matter what you do in your life, they’re like, “Yeah, Mom, let me tell you what’s more important.” I think for me, it’s really been this sense of I’m grateful, I’m stunned, but more than that—I think also just to backtrack a little—I wrote these stories when they were young and both the stories I wrote when my kids were very, very young.

Storyteller’s I wrote thirteen years ago, and I think both of them are very personal. I always say Storyteller’s is the prequel to Trail of Broken Wings, and I think there was a big part of me that actually wrote it for them. It was me trying to tell them their history and my history and hoping that they would understand it. It was also me unveiling the secrets that we had held for so long that nobody knew, that nobody had any idea of. I really do, looking back, I really think it was really in a weird way, a letter to my children. 

I think now they see it as that. And I think that they’re taken aback, because I’ve worked so hard to make sure that they don’t even have a semblance or an idea or anything of the life that I lived and my mom lived. And that it was that I realized that in trying to hide it from them, I was doing them a disservice. So for them, I think it’s really been, “This is mom, and this is grandma and [these are] my aunts and this is their story.” And in a weird way, it’s their story.

Jen: Well done. Well, that’s a gift.

Sejal: Thank you.

Jen: I’m really glad you got it down when they were little before their older, complicated lives, maybe muddied the waters.

Sejal: Yes.

Jen: When they’re little, you can just write your story. It’s pretty pure, and they can assimilate it and assess it when they’re older and that’s what they’re doing. That’s fabulous.

By the way, as we go through and talk about some of your characters at any point, when I say their names wrong, you fix it. You know how sometimes when you’re a reader and your brain just does a pronunciation for you and you don’t know if you’re doing it right or wrong? It reminds me of the first time I ever had the first Harry Potter book. Just my brain told me that her name was “hermy-own.” I did not use Hermione until I heard it years later, in an interview. Hermione! I’ve been reading that wrong all this time.

It was so thrilling for us as readers to get to travel to India. Of course, with Jaya. Jai-uh?

Sejal: Jaya. I say jay-uh, but I’ve had book club readers tell me it’s Jaya Sage. I’m like, “Okay. Let’s go with Jaya.”

Jen: Jaya is yours. If it’s Jaya to you, it’s Jaya to us.

Sejal: [laughs]

Jen: It was fascinating to be in India, all of it—the culture, the colors, the spices, the saris, the art, the stories, the people. You’re a true storyteller. To speak pretty broadly for American readers, most of us aren’t as intimately familiar with India, with the history of British occupation rule, and just the story of the country. So for me, as a student of culture and history of the world, [it was] fascinating to get to walk along. 

We are all super curious because it was so vivid. How much research did you put into writing about the India of today and of the 1930s? Did you go? Have you been there? Is that a place you’ve traveled to often? Did you learn about your own family and the process? We just have a lot of questions about that.

Sejal: I did not go recently. I think my kids wish I would travel more, but I don’t. They’re like, “Mom, go, go. Stop watching us like a hawk.” I did not go, but I did go when I was a kid. My parents actually took us out of school and took us for a six-month time period over the summer and literally just hired a driver, and [took us] north, south, west, east, everywhere.

Jen: Wow. How old were you?

Sejal: I was nine, ten years old.

Jen: Okay. Old enough to remember?

Sejal: Yeah, and at the time you don’t appreciate it, and then it imprints in your head. We went on this extraordinary tour, and then my mom definitely goes back—or went back quite a bit. 

But a lot of it was research and a lot of it was trying, especially in the 1930s and ’40s time period. That really proved difficult because there was not-one-shoe-fits all type of situation during the Raj.

Jen: Wow. 

Sejal: Yeah, and so to find where I could set this story and have this happen where it’s happening and also have the relationship between Stephen and Amisha and all of that—honestly, I think there’s a part of me that said, “If I could tell my younger self whether to do this again, I’d be like, ‘Run. Run, run, run, run, do not write this story!’” It was so complicated. And also to have this organic relationship between Amisha and Jaya without them actually having a relationship. And to create that, whatever Amisha is dealing with that somehow it’s going to influence Jaya, that really became—it was tough. Like I said earlier, I joke that I wrote the book in three months and then I spent ten years editing it because I was constantly trying to find out more about the untouchables, trying to find out about the Raj and the internet. Honestly, I bow down to the authors who wrote before the internet existed because…

Jen: Oh my gosh.

Sejal: Right? How did they do it? It’s unreal. You know, it’s like, What? The internet is truly my best friend because you can just sit at your desk and at your fingertips have all this extraordinary information. And I would be on the phone with travel agents in India like, “Hey, can you tell me this? Can you tell me that?” It was really just a combination of a lot of things. The research really did take a lot. And you’re so afraid when you’re doing historical, because you’re like, I know if I get one thing wrong, there’s going to be a story that’s going to call me out. And you’re going to feel terrible. There can be a thousand positive things said, but that one thing you’re going to be like, I can’t believe I got that wrong. That was definitely stressful. 

But Amisha’s story was definitely a lot easier because it was very much my grandmother’s setting, it was my grandmother’s neighborhood, it was my grandmother. She did not have the garden. It was actually in a book club when I broke into tears. It’s so funny. We don’t actually, subconsciously as a writer, we don’t realize what we’re doing sometimes when we’re writing or what we’re revealing. I remember a book club reader asked me one time, she said, “Well, why a garden? Why a tree?” And I thought about it and I realized, I was like, “Well, my grandmother was tied to just a random tree, and that’s where she died. And I wanted her death to mean something, I wanted it and that’s why I created this tree. That’s why I created this garden,” not even realizing that that was the reasoning behind it as I was writing it. 

But yeah, in terms of learning about my grandmother and my family, I learned so much and it was both humbling and extraordinary, and you just stop and you say, “This has created the pieces of who I am. This is a part of me, and I need to know this.”

On my website, I wrote a blog. It’s called “How I Found My Mother Through My Writing.” I can’t really put into words how writing these two novels made me realize that my mom is mine and my sister’s hero, she’s our hero. I definitely discovered so much about what she had endured, the choices she had to make, the vulnerabilities and the strength that she has and had raising us, even when she had no choices. I learned about my mom, I learned about my grandmother, I learned about my history and I learned about myself, and the mother that I am. These books were definitely a journey of revelations.

Jen: So powerful. 

I’m so curious, I’m endlessly fascinated with fiction writers. It is such a special gift, so niche, so rare. I’m a writer, but I write nonfiction and it’s a completely different lane. I’m always curious about your writing process. The fact that you wrote a book at this level, that quantity, that volume in three months, you must have written all day every day virtually to get it done. 

Obviously, you based storytellers on your family’s experience. Outside of the high-level details of their real life, did you know in advance some of the other through lines you were going to include, some of the other characters? Did you know Stephen was going to be in there? Did you have a pretty clear sense of the plot development, or did some of that come as a bit of a surprise to you?

Sejal: It definitely came as a surprise to me. I meditate a lot. It started out as a source of healing, and then it became a connection to the muse. And I am so grateful for meditating, and I’ll do it ten times a day and for me, it’s like, Shut your eyes, breathe in, breathe out, and then beg the universe for information. That’s my meditation. I’m not sure it’s exactly the way you’re supposed to do it, but that’s how I do it.

Jen: Yeah. That’s how it’s going to be.

Sejal: Yeah. It’s worked so far, fingers crossed. I meditate quite a bit, and I think for me, Ravi definitely—like just taking Ravi as an example—he was not a character that I fully developed when I wrote down, I’m going to do it. But as I was meditating, as I was writing, he took over. And that’s why I put that line at the end where Amisha says, “Made yourself the hero of the story.” Because he really wasn’t meant to be that in my mind, and yet he became the hero. I know this sounds crazy, but I’m so grateful to him because I feel like he told his own story in a weird way. I feel like he just said, “Okay, Sejal, move aside. Let me do this.”

I loved that. I loved it about him. And Stephen, absolutely, my sister teases me that I have a crush on Stephen, which I think I absolutely do.

Jen: We all do! We tried to cast him in our book club, in the movie version of Storyteller’s. We have some real clear ideas.

Sejal: I really appreciate that, because actually in the process, I’ve just written the screenplay for it because I’ve had a couple of offers or interest in making it into a movie. I started out as a screenplay writer before I became a novelist. I just finished the screenplay and I get that question a lot. I’m like, “I don’t know who I would cast or who would be cast as Stephen!” I would love to know what your book club thinks.

Jen: Well, our favorite vote out that we gave in the community was the actor who played Matthew in Downton Abbey. Blonde, British, obviously, chiseled, crush-worthy. We’ve got a lot of ideas. 

Sejal: Yeah. Please. I would love it. 

I do know my dream cast would be a member, one person, Ben Kingsley, because my God, to have him as Ravi, I would just bow down and just be like, “My God, you are just . . . yeah.” Nothing more would be needed after Ben Kingsley. So Stephen, for sure, I knew, and in real life, Stephen did not exist. That was a very unfortunate thing for me. That I think Stephen, I did not know how the story would end. I knew obviously she was going to die, and I knew they couldn’t be together, but I wasn’t sure of their journey and how to end it, how to bring it full circle.

I’ll never forget my sister who reads everything I’ve ever written, she read the first version of Storyteller’s and she came and she slammed it down on my desk and she said, “Yeah, I’m going to need Stephen and Amisha together. Even if it’s in heaven, I’m going to need that. I’m not going on this journey to not have them together.”

Jen: Oh my God, you broke her heart!

Sejal: Okay, I credit her fully with that ending of them being together. 

But yeah, I did not know. Stephen for me was just, he became the voice of the Raj. Because I wanted to try and get a balanced view. But Ravi to me really was the one, he served two purposes for me. As an author, he created the bridge between Amisha and Jaya, and he also was this hero and he had his own growth. 

But as a mom, because I think my daughter was two at the time or is that something? And my son was a little bit older, and as a mom, I just remember thinking, I want them to understand what’s out there. I want them to know because they’re living a much better life than I’m living and I worked hard to make sure they’re living a more privileged life. But oh boy, don’t you ever forget that there are people out there that are hurting and that there are people that are treated differently or treated as less. 

And I think it was just me as a mom saying, “Don’t ever treat someone as less so that you can feel like more because you’re just going to be empty.” That really, I think for me, Ravi was symbolic of so many opportunities that they could miss as my children and that of not getting to know somebody because of whatever ideas we have of somebody not having the same worth or value.

Because again, remember I thought I was just writing this for my kids and me.

Jen: The book where you had five readers.

Sejal: Exactly. For me, I think it was really just personal, because kids aren’t always going to listen to what you say, that I hoped they would learn to hear or listen to what I’ve read and have that somehow imprint on them.

Jen: Ravi was our collective favorite. So special, that character, so special. And I love hearing that he took on his own life and his own story inside your creativity and your process and thank goodness for it. 

What I loved about—well, I loved so many things about that character and his relational dynamics—but you used him in a really special way and not just his character, but several to just constantly press on power dynamics and on caste and all these differentials that create such suffering for people. And they’re obviously arbitrary.

Sejal: Completely.

Jen: Then they’re invented, whether they be gender—you gave us a real front row seat to gender limitations—or whether it be socioeconomic, like Ravi showed us. And I love how you explored those power gaps and what you taught us through them. 

Was there any one relationship that was upside down, that was unequal, that was sort of birthed in oppression that was harder for you to explore or write about or remember, or discuss, or imagine?

Sejal: Within the story or within my own life?

Jen: Yeah, within the story.

Sejal: I think for me, Jaya and Lena’s story was the most difficult for me to write, because again, I was still, even though I have always been extraordinarily close to my mom, there was all these feelings and emotions from my childhood [around] not being protected. Couldn’t you have had a lot of voice? Couldn’t you have done more? I think for me, without realizing it, it’s funny because Amisha’s story, I wrote the whole book in three months and then over the ten years that it was edited, I didn’t touch her story. Not once. Jaya’s story, I probably rewrote at least ten times.

Jen: Really?

Sejal: Yeah.

Jen: Wow.

Sejal: Because it was really hard for me to find that balance of, Okay, Lena has been this distant mother and has kept her secrets, but can they find a way back to each other without really having that much interaction? And that was really difficult as a writer. 

And then I think there was that part of me that was saying, “Does Lena deserve for Jaya to come back to her?” It was a tough story for me to write. And at the end of it, I felt whole, and I felt like Jaya was whole, that she had been fragmented into these pieces because her mother was fragmented into these pieces. And in her coming whole, she helped her mother become whole.

It just speaks to how we are so interconnected and our energy, whether it be upward or downward towards our children or sideways to our friends and family, we’re just all connected in that way. 

And so that was a relationship that definitely I struggled with. Then bringing the kids, bringing that next generation, that really was so important to me too, because it just felt like finally it was full circle, that Amisha, Jaya, Lena and Ravi were all interconnected, whether it be through the children, whether it be through just the story and the truth and the secrets no longer being secrets.

Jen: I’m sure you’ve heard this so many times at this point from your readers, but I know in our reading community, that relationship provided a lot of pavement for a lot of us with complicated relationships with our moms. That was a real recurring conversation we had inside our book club this month. Just because you wrote that relationship with a very deft hand because it was nuanced, it was historical, there are all these things that you think you know, but you don’t see or know that you had—we had to watch Jaya discover—it matters in relationship, into its future.

And so even in that difficult writing, I definitely want you to hear that the way in which you did not demonize anybody, you let us sit in the relational tension in the nuance, it kind of served a lot of us in our own personal relationships and actually spurred on a lot of conversations that some of our members had with their moms.

Sejal: Thank you.

Jen: We’re so grateful for your vulnerability.

Sejal: Thank you, I got chills. Thank you so much. That actually means so much to me. It really is amazing how much our stories can help one another. 

Jen: Agree.

Sejal: Yeah, and I’ll have book clubs who—because the book’s been published all over the world—from all over, and it’ll be mothers and daughters who’ve come together. And I just have to turn off the video for a second, because I’ll be crying. And I just am so grateful as a writer that these stories that I thought I was just holding inside of me, that only touched me—because we live in our little bubbles—that that story meant something to somebody else, because I know how many stories have meant something to me and how grateful I am to other writers who are writing their truth and stuff.

Jen: Absolutely.

Sejal: Yeah, but the fear. Like I mentioned to you in The Trail of Broken Wings where I didn’t sleep for six months before it came out.  I’m like, “This is my secret. This is my story. And I’ve held this secret for thirty-five years, or say forty years. Nobody can know this.” And then thousands of emails, people saying, “You gave me a voice, you gave me a story.” At that point, it really just…

And for me as a mom, it was the sense of, My kids have to know who I am and who everybody that I’ve surrounded them with, who they are. Like my daughter, I’m really protective, very, just to the point where I actually think need help. Really, I’m so protective. And as you can imagine, that really annoys my kids. They’re just like, “Back off, Mom.” 

And then they read the stories, and I’ll never forget, my daughter came into the room with tears in her eyes and she said, “I get it, Mom. I get it. You didn’t feel safe when you were a kid. You didn’t feel protected, so now you’re going to do whatever you can to protect me.” 

And I just thought, I didn’t even realize that. Wow. And that you realize that we have to tell our stories, we have to tell our secrets, we have to share the most vulnerable parts of ourselves and be okay with the results because it may just make it better for somebody else. You know what I mean?

Jen: Yeah.

Sejal: Thank you for your kind words about your book club’s reaction. That really means a lot. Thank you so much, because it is scary to put your stories…

Jen: Oh, is it ever.

Sejal: Yeah.

Jen: Right, because your book is fiction, yet it’s so born out of your own story, it’s practically nonfiction in some ways.

Sejal: Yeah.

Jen: So yes, you put a big piece of yourself right out on the platter. That is so vulnerable. That piece of writing, I understand. Before a book is published and you just think, What have I done?

Sejal: Right?

Jen: This is a disaster. What if someone reads it?

Sejal: Yeah.

Jen: That’s scary.

Sejal: Were you afraid? Your book is so honest. I love your book. I love the part I was reading it last night about [when] you’re in the shower after you get the first book published and you’re sobbing. You know what I mean? That’s honest, that’s vulnerable, that’s real, right? That’s brilliant.

Jen: It sure is.

Sejal: It’s brilliant because for every author who’s trying to make it out there, you’re saying, “Look, I was there. I was afraid.”

Jen: Yeah. That’s right.

Sejal: You were afraid, right? Were you scared…

Jen: Of course I was. And I think what we end up discovering as people who put our stories out there, whether they’re couched in nonfiction memoir or fiction, like yours, is high risk, high reward. But that high reward part is just a gamble. You don’t know. You just don’t know. It’s only risk.

Sejal: It is!

Jen: It’s only risk.

Sejal: And fingers crossed.

Jen: Yeah. Fingers crossed. But that thing that you just mentioned, which is that our vulnerability invites other people in, it doesn’t push them away, it’s such a connective tissue between us and our readers, ultimately for people to be able to say, “That’s also my story.” Or, “You put language around my story.” Or, “Thank you for saying this out loud. That’s been an incredible experience among women.” 

I’ve got a couple of questions for you from the book club. Everybody had a question, so I couldn’t get them all. Here’s a couple. 

Obviously a lot of us and you’ve already answered it, had questions about your personal connections, but there was another one of our book club members Denise [Grazinski], she said, and this was also a huge conversation inside of our community, which is around infertility, which is where you opened the book, of course. Right out of the gate. If that’s part of your story, it’s a gut punch. It is right away, you have to sit in your own personal pain, but there was a second part that I’d love to hear you answer.

She said, “The infertility and adoption pieces were so real for me, having experienced both myself. Her descriptions were spot on.” So question, obviously you talked about your sister’s pain and suffering around infertility. Is adoption a part of your family story at all or did you just sort of add that part on? Wondering if there’s any connection there.

Sejal: Yeah. My sister ended up doing surrogacy, and then she was able to have a natural birth. Adoption was definitely on the table.  I’ve always wanted to adopt, life just hasn’t worked out that way yet for us, because of careers and movement and stuff. But I think adoption, I just remember my sister looking through it and looking through orphanages in India, and you’re just going, “There’s a child out there that is waiting for a mom or dad or parents or, whatever, a family. They’re just waiting for a family, and just what those children are going through every day, just waiting for that, for their family.” I’m going to get tears. 

So it was definitely something that she started, and she was going through it. I started going through it, saying, “Hey, this is something we need to do. This is something we can do.” 

So it’s definitely something that I still have on my “wanting to explore.” She just ended up at the same time having the other ones, and so it just worked out where she had suddenly two and we’re like, “Okay.” But yeah, I think that’s why it was so important to me to put that in the book. That this is real. And where the caretaker does say to Jaya that, “Miracles come in so many ways.” And for these children, that family waiting is a miracle. That’s their miracle.

Jen: You wrote that portion beautifully.

Sejal: Thanks.

Jen: It was tender and it was heartbreaking and somehow also hopeful. You’ve got it all in here. We collectively really loved that inclusion. I’m glad you put that in there. 

Here’s another question. This is Jackie Myers. “Sejal, we read between the lines a lot concerning Lena and how Amisha’s story affected her childhood, her marriage, and especially motherhood. In the book, it’s never revealed, not even to Ravi, why? Deepak made Lena promise never to return. I have theories, but I’m curious as to why there was no reveal.” 

We can read in there. Was there any left to the imagination that you thought, Maybe I’ll just let the reader fill this in?

Sejal: I think there was a part of it. Yeah, for sure. It was definitely like, I don’t know if I have the exact answer to that so I’ll just leave that burden on the reader’s shoulder. But it’s funny how once you write a book and then you talk enough about it, you’re like, Oh wait, I think that’s what I was thinking. My initial take was definitely, I’m going to be lazy and let the reader handle this one. 

But since then, I think he was hurt. I think he was hurt. I think he was really broken by the betrayal. He really loved Amisha. Now, he loved her as he knew to love her in that time, and I think she was really a spirit out of time. She was a soul out of time. She was in the wrong time period. But I truly think he loved her and I think a little bit of that was based on my own grandfather who really just bowed down to the stepmother. And she did beat my mom a lot and made my mom’s life just horrific, her childhood horrific, and he didn’t do anything. And my mom was not, in the sense that she was not Stephen’s child or anybody. 

And so I think there was that part of me that struggled with making Deepak’s character a completely, fully dimensional character, a whole character. The instinct was to make him very black and white, to make him…

Jen: Totally. I agree with that.

Sejal: Right. Just to say, “Well, you’re the bad guy.”

Jen: “Here’s your villain.”

Sejal: Right, exactly, because in my mind, my grandfather, in a lot of ways, was the villain. He didn’t step up, he didn’t protect my mom, he didn’t let her marry the man she wanted to marry. And I really had to step back, and that’s where the author mentality came in and said, “That’s not really fair to the readers, and that’s not fair to the story.” But I think that one part was that he still wasn’t strong enough to deal with the burden of the betrayal and to deal with his new wife’s hatred of Amisha’s ghost or memory. It was just easier to say, “Out of sight, out of mind,” but then obviously on his deathbed anyways, I need to do right. I need to make this right.

Jen: I actually really appreciate your wisdom in giving us a dimensional character in him.

Sejal: Thank you.

Jen: Because it’s true. It’s true inside that timeframe, inside that culture, inside that framework, it’s more fair to have some nuance in there, even though as readers, we would have been thrilled just to have a very black-and-white villain that we could direct all our fury at, but you did force us into some compassionate spaces even for him.

Sejal: Thank you.

Jen: I thought about him a lot as a little boy growing up in that system, virtually given almost no choice to see things differently.

Sejal: Right. Well, that’s what’s amazing, right? Whether it be in fiction or more so in real life, there’s so many dimensions to all of us. And like I was saying earlier, we’re pieces of our ancestors, we’re pieces of our childhood, we’re pieces of the people we’re around, we’re all of these little pieces that we put together and that makes us who we are. It may not always be right, but it’s definitely complicated. And I think so often we have to look past the surface and say, “What’s your story? What makes you who you are? Maybe in understanding you, I can grow.”

Jen: Well, listen, you delighted us to know him.

Sejal: Thank you.

Jen: We loved The Storyteller’s Secret and we loved the story that you wrote, we loved your characters, we loved the story arc, just such a phenomenal piece of work that you just must be so incredibly proud of and you should.

Sejal: Thank you.

Jen: And I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to hear that you just finished that screenplay. Are you making us a promise right now? Is this happening? Or you’re preparing for it to happen?

Sejal: From your mouth to the universe’s ears, I’m promising you that it is going to happen. My agent got some initial, “Hey, can we auction this?” type of interest. Then as soon as I got that, I was like, “No, no, no, no.” Because I started my career off as a screenwriter. That’s what I first did, and then the kids were too young and I was like, “Wait, I can’t actually do that as a career when they’re this young.” I went back to that and said, “Let me write this screenplay because I want to make sure that this comes out as it comes out.” 

So I’m in the process of sending it out now. I hope that there comes that time where I can say, “I promise this is happening.” Hopefully in the next few weeks, I’ll have a better idea of that.

Jen: It’s meant for the big screen.

Sejal: Thank you.

Jen: It’s meant for it, I can see it. I can see it from start to finish and I a hundred percent know that it’s going to get snatched up so fast. That is so exciting, I’ll be on the front row.

Sejal: Thank you. That means so much. Thank you. That really, really means a lot. Thank you so much. That’s so sweet of you.

Jen: A few last questions.

Sejal: Yeah.

Jen: Here’s the first one. Besides the screenplay, what are you working on? Are you working on another book?

Sejal: Yeah, I am. This one I had to fully use my imagination. That’s been a bit stressful, but it is a book about making sure you live your life to the fullest. Making sure that you are an example, not an excuse, there people look at you and count on you. Making sure that it’s about regrets and how that can truly be one of the worst things that we do to our soul and our spirit. I like to take my readers on an emotional roller coaster, but it does have a…

Jen: Yeah, you do.

Sejal: But it does have a happy ending. I’ve actually written the screenplay for that simultaneously as I’ve written the book. Hopefully that’ll come out next year. 

Also, with my children, my kids—and my oldest one actually—went through a really tough four or five years. He ended up losing a lot of people close to him for different reasons. And for me, art is a very powerful source of healing. And so we sat down and I looked at him and my nephew and my daughter, and I said, “Let’s write a book together.” 

And they looked at me like, “Yeah, you’re crazy, Mom. We knew something was wrong.” 

But anyway, we wrote a YA series together. I wrote and then…

Jen: Oh my gosh!

Sejal: And then we wrote the pilot for it. That’s actually going out there too right now, the pilot. So before the book comes out. That’s going to a bunch of studios, a TV pilot for the YA series because…

Jen: Oh my God!

Sejal: It’s been a lot of stuff and it’s been amazing because my kids, I’ve learned that as teenagers, they’re not quite the delinquents that I was afraid they were. So it’s been a journey. I love the art because it binds us, it connects us more versus dividing us. That’s what I’m working on.

Jen: That’s incredible. That’s so exciting.

Sejal: It is. Thank you.

Jen: Okay. Then here’s the last one, because almost all the time writers are also readers. That’s something we point back to. What are you—or do you even have time—but have you read anything lately that you love that you want to say, “Everybody pick this book up too”?

Sejal: Yeah. It’s The Happiness Advantage. Have you read it? 

Jen: No, I haven’t.

Sejal: Honestly, I can’t recommend it enough. I think he wrote it for businesses and corporations, I think, because I know he talks…

Jen: It’s a nonfiction?

Sejal: It’s nonfiction. Yeah. He was a Harvard student and then I believe he went to Harvard—I’m sorry. He was a Harvard professor, but basically studied. I think it started out where he studied his own students and recognized that so often in our society and our world, we believe that over time that you have this accomplishment and you’re going to be happy or you make this amount of money and you’re going to be happy, or etc. All these random things that are guaranteed to bring you happiness and his entire book is basically that happiness comes from within and you have to find your happiness from within, and that actually is then going to attract happiness and that you’re going to be more successful when you’re not chasing happiness, but when it’s from within you.

Jen: Great. 

Sejal: Yeah, it’s fantastic. I have my kids reading it. I’m reading it. Everybody, I know. I’ve probably handed out fifty copies so far.

Jen: I love that.

Sejal: Yeah, it’s a fantastic book. And it’s one of those things where you say, “I should have known that already, but I had no idea.”

Jen: Sure.

Sejal: Fantastic, fantastic book. It’s The Happiness Advantage

And then I’m revisiting—huge, huge, huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell, so I’m reading David and Goliath right now, again because I think sometimes when we fall, we have to realize that the most amazing thing we can do for ourselves is how we get up and how we take that step and maybe the fall is for a reason. I think that that’s been a book that’s on my nightstand. Then I was reading your book the last couple of days and just very inspired and very moved, and it’s extraordinary. I love your books.

Jen: That is awesome. 

Well, let me just say this, Sejal: on behalf of this huge book club that we have and love, we are so happy you’re not a lawyer. We’re so happy that you quit that hundred-thousand-dollar possibility and you decided to pick up the pen, because this is what you’re meant to do on this earth. Let there be no doubt at all.

Sejal: Thank you.

Jen: And you just transported us in such a magnificent story, and we loved it. And we will just read everything you ever write. Just know we’ll line up in queue. We’ll line up, buy it. You’ve got a bunch of fans in the Jen Hatmaker Book Club, for sure. 

So keep going, keep writing, keep at it. We are huge fans and so grateful for what you’ve put in our hands.

Sejal: I just have to say, Jen, thank you so much for those extraordinarily kind words. It means so, so, so much, especially from a writer like yourself who obviously writes beautifully and writes words that touch so many people’s lives and make a difference in their lives. It really means so much coming from you and thank you so much for your kindness, for having me on your extraordinary show, and for your book club picking the book and you picking the book. Thank you. It really means so much.

Jen: You’re welcome.

Sejal: Your kindness is…

Jen: We give you our big collective love.

Sejal: Thank you.