House, Vaswani Write a Novel in Letters

Meena is an Indian immigrant living in New York City’s Chinatown whose parents are studying for their U.S. citizenship exam. River is a basketball star and the son of an Eastern Kentucky coal miner. When the two kids are paired together in a pen pal program, they learn as much about the similarities between their families and cultures as their differences.

“Same Sun Here” is an epistolary novel by Silas House and Neela Vaswani, told in the letters Meena and River write to each other over the course of one school year. House and Vaswani will read together from the book for the first time Sunday at Spalding University’s Festival of Contemporary Writing (full schedule here).

Meena was created by Vaswani, a New Yorker whose father emigrated from India before she was born. House, an Appalachian novelist and journalist who has written extensively about the effects of mountaintop removal mining in Eastern Kentucky, created River, a budding activist.

House and Vaswani have been friends and colleagues for a decade. They met in Spalding University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing program, where they both teach fiction. Vaswani had the idea to write an epistolary novel, and approached House about working together when she realized her letter-writing character needed someone to write back.

“It suddenly occurred to me that for a novel in letters it probably would be much more interesting to have two different writers rather than one,” says Vaswani. “Silas said, you go ahead and write the first letter and I’ll respond.”

Vaswani sent the first letter off, and waited. One day, she went down to her mailbox and there was a letter addressed to Meena Joshi, in care of Neela Vaswani. She says reading a letter addressed to Meena made her feel as if she was reading it in character as well.

“It felt to me a lot like acting, in the sense that I had to listen very carefully to what Silas/River was saying, and respond in kind and react in kind,” says Vaswani.

They agreed on ground rules. First, Silas and Neela might send encouraging emails to each other, but River and Meena would stick to the postal service.

“When you’re writing a letter to each other, there’s this intimacy that occurs that you certainly don’t have on the internet. It’s a different kind of intimacy. There’s an elegance to writing a letter that doesn’t exist when you’re putting it out into cyberspace. And so they’re able to ask each other really personal but respectful questions,” says House.

The writers also decided they wouldn’t plot the book out ahead of time together. Rather, their characters would respond organically to what the other had written.

“Luckily, a really good story just came out of our letters,” says House. “It’s a book of reaction. I’m reacting to her letters and she’s reacting to mine and a story just came up out of that, so the characters were totally in control.”

They also pledged to write the novel in real time, over the course of the 2008-09 school year. The presidential election ended up providing rich dramatic material for the two characters to share, and one letter exchange involved them sharing their thoughts on President Obama’s inauguration.

“One of my favorite lines in the book is when the character River is talking about watching the inauguration of Obama and he realizes what a huge moment it is for the first African American to be elected president, and he says, if he can do it then so can a hillbilly like me or an Indian like you,” says House. “I think that moment really captures how empowering that moment was for so many people who feel different or like the other.”

House is the acclaimed author of four novels, including the bestselling middle grade novel “Eli the Good” and “The Coal Tattoo,” which won the Appalachian Book of the Year award. Vaswani is the author of the story collection “Where the Long Grass Bends” and the memoir “You Have Given Me a Country,” about her Irish-American and Indian family, which won the American Book Award and an honor book designation from the Asian American Studies Book Award.

Vaswani says it was important to them that “Same Sun Here” has something for each of their loyal audiences.

“People who’ve been following Silas for years are getting an Appalachian American character, but they’re also encountering a character perhaps they haven’t been reading about for years,” she says. “Same thing for people who are used to reading my stuff, which is usually more immigrant, bicultural, biracially-based, and my readers are not used to reading about Appalachian America. And so by doing this book together we get the best of both worlds.”

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