"Life of Chai" ~ introducing Shona Patel's Teatime for the Firefly


Every blue moon or so I happen upon a novel that resonates perfectly and places me right there ~ Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel is just such a novel; after winning my hotly contested 2014 Captivating Opening competition it carried me along on a beautiful and fascinating journey.

As A. Vinci observes in her Amazon review:
“...This was one of those books that I just could not put down. Teatime for the Firefly is a beautiful and gripping story. Shona's exquisite gift of writing takes the reader on an imaginary trip to the tea plantations of Assam, India. Though I have never traveled there; Shona makes be feel as though I have. I highly recommend Teatime for the Firefly!...”


Regular readers know I never spoil plots but I have to reveal just how fresh the author’s voice is and how immediate and uncompromising the narrator and the main character are. This is a journal to enjoy as a travelogue of times gone by in lands afar. And by virtue of Shona’s alchemy you will absorb the native culture as you journey through the tale.

Shona Patel, the daughter of an Assam tea planter, drew upon her personal observations and experiences to create the vivid characters and setting for Teatime for the Firefly. An honors graduate in English literature from Calcutta University, Ms. Patel has won several awards for creative writing and is a trained graphic and architectural designer. Teatime for the Firefly is her debut novel.

Shona is published by Mira Books, a Harlequin imprint that specializes in literary and mainstream fiction geared towards book clubs. She is represented by literary agent, April Eberhardt.

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“...Miss Rose, as she was called, was a young Anglo-Indian teacher with chestnut brown hair and pink cat’s-eye glasses with diamond accents. The small fry of the school swooned with adoration for her and wanted to lick her like a lollipop...”

[Stef] Thank you so much, Shona, for coming over to answer my random questions. My first one is: what do you think makes readers relate so readily and become absorbed in your story? I realize it can be a combination of things but I’d like to know what you think creates the ultimate spark that animates the story. And does it flow seamlessly onto the page in general or do you spend hours on end rewriting?

[Shona]  The first question is difficult to answer because I am too close to my own writing to be truly objective but I can take a guess: I believe my readers empathize with my main character, Layla, who is an outcast of society and faces several challenges to overcome her predicament and find true love. After all, who doesn’t like to root for the underdog, right?
Even though Teatime for the Firefly is set in a remote part of the world (Assam, in northeast India) and deals with an exotic culture, there are certain universal themes like destiny, love, fear, empowerment, courage and prejudice woven deeply into the narrative. These themes transcend cultural barriers and resonate with readers.
Teatime for the Firefly has also generated a great deal of interest in tea: more specifically Assam Tea. My readers are curious to know where Assam tea is grown and the British colonial history and lifestyle of the tea plantations. As the daughter of a tea planter and having spent the first fifteen years of my life growing up in a tea plantation in Assam, I am privileged to share with my readers several stories and authentic details of the setting through my fictional novel.

As for the writing process: I have a rather odd formula that seems to work for me. Before I even begin to write, I spend at least six months to a year gathering research, making notes and tossing around the premise for a novel. Once I have a clear idea for a story and my fictional characters begin to live and breathe inside my head, I hole myself up for a month (this is the Nanowrimo technique you may be familiar with) and try to throw down the rough draft of an entire novel at one shot. It’s “damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!” at this stage because I write furiously and resist the urge to go back and fix things. When I am done, I let the draft sit for a week before I take a fresh look and work on the fixes, rewrites, plot doctoring and polishing. Just how much additional work goes in depends on how I feel about my draft but if I’ve mulled over the story enough and done my research right, I am usually not too far off course. The biggest mistake for me is to jump into the writing too soon with half-baked ideas because I know I’ll hit roadblocks and doldrums somewhere down the line.

 “...In many ways, Dadamoshai saw me as the poster child for the modern Indian woman. He gave me the finest education and taught me to speak my mind. I was free to forge my own destiny. Sometimes I struggled to stay grounded like a lone river rock in a swirl of social pressures. But in truth, this was the only option I had...”

[Stef] Your main character Layla is by no means weak and never wallows in pathos. Her mentor Dadamoshai provides her with conviction and motivation, exposing her to the risks associated with gaining experience. Do you have a favorite mentor figure? – either relating to you or other people out there in the world…

[Shona] That would be my parents. My parents were a very free-spirited couple and they never imposed any religious or cultural boundaries on my sister and me as children. They empowered us to define and grow into our own beliefs and taught us never to judge others. Unlike most Indian families, there was no pressure on us to get married and we were allowed to pursue our individual careers. Nobody in my family had arranged marriages either, including my parents, which was pretty unusual for their time.

“...I wondered what Sister Cecilia would say if she found out my real reason for coming to the library? She would be terribly disillusioned, no doubt. Not only was I pretending to be holy, I was secretly coveting a man who was formally betrothed to another. But thankfully, Sister Cecelia would never find out, because I, Layla Roy, was the self-proclaimed mistress of deceit...”

[Stef] If I were lucky enough to attract Layla’s attention and she wanted to ensnare me with tiffin, which particular chai infusion and snacks would she employ?

[Shona] Here is a chai I make when I need a jolt of inspiration. It seems to clear away the cobwebs.

You will need:
2 cups water
1 cup milk

2 whole cardamoms*
I half inch stick of fresh ginger*
(*pound above with a mortar and pestle)

Raw Turbindo sugar (or regular sugar) to taste.

3 teabags of strong English Breakfast Tea (Assam) or 4 teaspoons of loose leaf Assam Tea (I use CTC/Assam – which yields a stronger brew)

Bring the water and milk to a boil in a saucepan.
Add the tea and **spices. Turn off heat. Cover and let stand for 5 mins.
Strain and serve. Add sugar to taste.

A good accompaniment to a cup of steaming chai is some delicious shortbread. I have my own original fruit & nut shortbread biscotti recipe on my Teabuddy blog. Check it out HERE.

“...I don’t know when exactly Manik’s letters became love letters. His emotions were so carefully woven into his writing, they were hard to detect . They were like the subtle creeping of dawn that imperceptibly transforms night into day...”

[Stef] Wow! I love the Teabuddy blog! So the question on the lips of all who imbibed with the Firefly is whether you have a work in progress? Will you be weaving more magic to whisk us away again?

[Shona] Yes indeed! My second book Flame Tree Road is being edited right now and is scheduled for publication in 30th June 2015. This novel is the grandfather’s (Dadamoshai) story – a prequel, if you will, to Teatime for the Firefly. I am really excited about it and I can’t wait to share it with my readers.




Update: click HERE for info on Shona's Flame Tree Road.

[Stef] And I can’t wait to read it, Shona! Thank you so much for sprinkling your magic dust for us!

[Shona] Many thanks to you, Stef. It has been a real pleasure. Cheers!

Shona Patel:   Twitter ~ Facebook ~ Website


Teatime for the Firefly
Shona Patel

“My name is Layla and I was born under an unlucky star. For a young girl growing up in India, this is bad news. But everything began to change for me one spring day in 1943, when three unconnected incidents, like tiny droplets on a lily leaf, tipped and rolled into one. It was that tiny shift in the cosmos, I believe, that tipped us together  me and Manik Deb.”

Layla Roy has defied the fates. Despite being born under an inauspicious horoscope, she is raised to be educated and independent by her eccentric grandfather, Dadamoshai. And, by cleverly manipulating the hand fortune has dealt her, she has even found love with Manik Deb – a man betrothed to another. All were minor miracles in India that spring of 1943, when young women’s lives were predetermined – if not by the stars, then by centuries of family tradition and social order.



1 comment:

  1. A helpful interview. I love the title and cover. Two of the most important factors in book marketing as I am fast discovering.

    ReplyDelete