In 96 Words for Love, out today, mother-daughter writing team Rachel Roy and Ava Dash pair up to deliver a modern retelling of the classic Indian legend of Shakuntala and Dushyanta, reimagined as the story of a seventeen-year-old girl named Raya who has been panicking about her over-planned future ever since her acceptance letter arrived from UCLA. Then her grandmother dies, and inspired by her deathbed words Raya travels to the ashram in India where her grandparents met. There, she finds journals from her grandmother’s youth, as well as an unexpected romantic connection with aspiring filmmaker Kiran. The authors sat down with their editor, Aubrey Poole, to discuss their debut, the best part of cowriting, and why they looked to Indian mythology for their inspiration.
Aubrey Poole: We must start with the obligatory “tell me what the book is about” question. But let’s do it mad libs style:
96 Words for Love is a (adjective) novel about a (person) named (name), who is freaking out because of (life event), so she decides to (verb). A wonderful, coming-of-age tale that reads like (title of book/movie) meets (title of book/movie).
Rachel Roy and Ava Dash: 96 Words for Love is a captivating novel about a girl named Raya, who is freaking out because of college, so she decides to explore. A wonderful coming of age tale that reads like Eat, Pray, Love meets The Notebook.
Poole: I think I dated myself with that one. Go ahead and give these patient readers a short summary in your own words.
Roy and Dash: Raya is at a young person’s cross roads: what to do with her life and how to “adult.” She is motivated by her grandmother’s death and jumps off of the deep end into India, where she learns to love, live for herself and give of herself to others, and to grow her wings on the way down.
Poole: I adored learning about the Shakuntala legend when I first read the manuscript. Can you tell us more about how and why you chose that Hindu legend, and why you wanted to modernize and share it with teen readers?
Dash: My mom was helping me with English homework at the time, it was Greek mythology. She asked me if I knew of any Indian mythologies and I told her I did not. That started the discussion.
Roy: I could not believe that I had not taught her some of the most beautiful love stories in the world, and I began to realize what a loss that was, for her, for her generation, for the idea of passing my culture that makes both of us beautiful from the inside out onto the next. So there and then on the couch in our family room I started telling her a few and Shakuntala stuck out in her mind.
Poole: One of my favorite aspects of 96 Words for Love is the setting. I love all travel, including armchair travel. I really felt like I was in the cacophonous Delhi traffic, riding the train up the spectacular Himalayas, and breathing in the peace and wonder of the gorgeous ashram. Did you pull from your own experience? If so, can you give an example from the book? Is the Rishi Kanva ashram based on a real place?
Dash: Ha! Yes, it is all from real travel. In fact, I am sorting out now if I want to be a travel agent at some point just so I can make travel a part of my everyday life. When I first walked off of the plane in New Delhi I was overpowered with sounds and images. The airline lost my luggage and my mom made me figure it out and work with the staff at the airport to locate it myself, so I learned firsthand what it was like to feel confused and impaired at the same time in a new country.
Roy: Travel is what defines myself and my girls and their childhood growing up. It is the best education we can give our kids. Ava has flown to Thailand, Germany, England, many places BY HERSELF, which makes me both scared and proud as her mom. I know that because of her travel experiences without me, she is equipped to take care of herself, to trust herself now. The ashram is based on a few actual ashrams in northern India. In fact, I am going to one in February and will be meeting the Dalai Lama!
Poole: Let’s see…what’s a good behind the scenes question? I went through my early editorial notes, and I remembered that Pihu, the young Indian girl Raya is tutoring in English, gained a much larger role in the revision process. Can you tell us more about the origin of Pihu’s character and why her story was important for you to tell?
Roy: Ava and I went to India several times, and while there we visited girls that had been rescued from trafficking.
Dash: I was so sad to see girls my age, that looked just like me, going through such a horrible experience, to see that some of them had babies from men that raped them.
Roy: It was always our goal to show victims of hate crimes as real people who are exactly like us, because that is what they are. We are no different. I hope we figured out a way to weave Pihu’s character in effortlessly and with an authentic voice!
Poole: While editing 96 Words for Love, I really enjoyed discussing Raya’s character with Rachel, and Ava had great input on the dialogue. What was your favorite part of the editorial process?
Roy: Mine was getting into the mind of my teenage daughter—I was sometimes surprised, like when Ava wanted to include how they expressed their feelings physically, or how Ava very specifically wanted to refer to male hotties as “guys,” not “boys”; those are details I would not easily know about my daughter without this project to work on together.
Dash: LOLs—I just put myself and my friends into every situation to make sure it was both something we would want to read and something that felt real at all times.
Poole: Finally, what feeling do you hope readers come away with after reading 96 Words for Love?
Roy and Dash: We both hope that 96 Words will be an inspiration to follow your dreams and to do it your way despite the no’s heard along the way, despite people not believing in you. The only person that has to believe is YOU.
96 Words for Love is on sale now.