THE RECIPE FOR GOOD ROMANTIC COMEDYby Soumya Duggal August 11 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 5 mins, 55 secs
The Ex Factor author Harini Srinivasan unpacks her views on the recipe for a good romantic comedy, the evolution of the genre over the years, and the challenges of the writing process as she talks about her latest novel to Soumya Duggal.
At a time when your social media feed is inundated with young TikTok and Instagram influencers documenting strict regimens of various kinds - health, professional, beauty, sartorial, financial and so on - author Harini Srinivasan’s latest novel, The Ex Factor, spotlights an all-too-familiar staple of romcom books and movies: a twenty-something hot mess protagonist who doesn’t have it all together. Remember Carrie Bradshaw or Bridget Jones? Now meet Oindrilla Roy.
The “problems” in the rather comfortable life of Miss Roy are bound to be relatable for many urban Indian millennials: home (grumpy parents, runaway cook, troublesome pets) encroaches on work (fuzzy job profile, demanding boss, gossipy colleagues) and vice-versa. Chaos flares up further for ‘Oinks’ when her best-friend comes out, her cousin elopes and her lifelong crush resurfaces, all the while she’s on a business trip sprinting from Delhi to Kolkata to Shillong.
We caught up with Srinivasan to unpack her views on the recipe for a good romantic comedy, the evolution of the genre over the years, and the challenges of the writing process, all of which went into the making of the recently launched The Ex Factor, published by Om Books International. Here’s what she had to say.
What or who was your inspiration behind writing this book?
I mainly write historical fiction - a genre that is not only niche but also research-intensive. Needless to say, it gets strenuous and sometimes begins to feel like work. To counter the same, I tend to write romcoms/light reads simultaneously. Inspiration for such stories often comes from those around me - this was also the case with The Ex Factor, which borrows from my past professional experiences. Its office setting is inspired by my then-workplace and a dear ex-colleague (now a friend). On one occasion, she came to work rather hassled and launched into a hilarious tirade about something that had happened to her. The way she recounted the episode was so funny that I told her that I would one day incorporate it into a book. That is the genesis of The Ex Factor. To an extent, the main character, Oindrilla Roy, is inspired by this ex-colleague, but on the whole, the novel is a result of my writerly itch to weave my observations of Indian youth and their problems onto an imaginative landscape.
Even though the book is clearly not autobiographical, some personal experiences might have seeped into the narrative. If one might inquire, where are you in the novel?
For most writers, personal references creep in all the time, more so when one is writing contemporary fiction. I feature in this novel in an oblique kind of way - as one of the protagonist’s older colleagues, Aparna. My initial real-life interaction with my ex-colleague wasn’t a friendly one and I have tried to capture the pitfalls of negative first impressions, which drive the friction between Oindrilla and Aparna in the first part of the novel, as well as their eventual unravelling, which gives way to better understanding, compatibility and an unlikely friendship between the two women. Other personal experiences that colour the narrative draw from my upbringing in Vasant Kunj, education in South Delhi and current residence in Gurgaon.
The book is being marketed as a romcom. Do you agree with that classification? Additionally, do you subscribe to the notion of chick-lit, another genre that this kind of contemporary fiction is often slotted under? Why or why not?
To be honest, this book organically defies strict traditional classification of this kind - for the simple reason that it is more comedy than romance. It is essentially the story of Oinks and events in the narrative are seen from her unique perspective alone. Romance is peripheral to the story. It is for this reason that Vivek, Oindrilla’s love interest, is not a full-bodied character, literally and figuratively. He’s handsome (“dishy” as the text declares) but we never get an exact sense of his physical appearance. Similarly, Oinks’ life is all the better for but not incomplete without his reappearance. Indeed, he represents something meaningful, friendship and affection, but the focus remains on Oindrilla. I would describe this genre, where romance/love is just one of the narrative elements, as ‘slice of life/metro read’.
If I were to liken it to some other book, it would be Bridget Jones’ Diary or Confessions of a Shopaholic, though I find the term chick-lit rather limiting, which is applied just because there’s a female protagonist and the narrative is told through her perspective. This shrinks the reader base. Most men consciously do not pick up the book, missing out on its all-appealing humour. When I wrote The Ex Factor, I was mainly trying to peep into the mind of a well-off 26-year-old urban professional and bring to paper a slice of her life.
This kind of contemporary writing is often unfairly dismissed as frothy and insubstantial and ends up becoming a guilty pleasure for those who'd like to be associated with more “intellectual” reading. Thoughts?
It is a pity that these days, anything that does not have the appearance of erudition is considered superficial and unworthy. The dichotomy of intellectual and entertaining works is another problem. As someone who writes books set in ancient India, let me tell you, writing these entertaining light reads is equally challenging. It is easy to be pedantic/didactic and preach/teach people, but it is tough to bring a smile and win a few genuine laughs. I think we take ourselves too seriously and have forgotten how to laugh at ourselves. The Ex Factor is a humorous tale that is peppered with good natured laughs.
Which favourite writers do you turn to repeatedly to enjoy a good romcom on a Sunday afternoon?
While I devour historical fiction and mysteries on a regular basis, romcom is my go-to genre when I am extremely stressed - then I read any and every romcom book I can lay my hands on. Hmm, among the writers I enjoy are of course Julia Quinn, Lauren Layne and Sophie Kinsella. And just in terms of all-time favourite writers, Georgette Heyer and PG Wodehouse are always on my mind!
Can you tell us something about your forthcoming books?
My next historical mystery, The Pataliputra Murders, is set in ancient India and will be out in a couple of months. Besides this, there are a couple of other interesting book projects that are in various stages of conceptualisation and execution—too early to speak about them.
Soumya Duggal is Editor, Om Books International