Tamraparni Dasu has a PhD in Mathe- matics. Numbers have always been her thing. She lives in a quiet suburb in New Jersey with her husband, partaking in the usual social and cultural events in the
community. When her son went off to college
though, it wasn’t enough anymore. So, she decided
to explore a new life of espionage and dirty politics.
Thankfully for her husband, she did it through the
art of storytelling. Dasu, who grew up in a family of
writers and artists but veered in another direction —
becoming a lead inventive scientist — decided a few
years ago to write a series of novels called Spy
Interrupted about a young married couple whose
pasts are fraught with secrets, treachery and bullet
wounds (both literal and metaphoric).
Her main characters are Stephen James, a white
ex-spy with a good heart and a rough past, and Nina
Sharma James, a gentle soul and advocate who grapples with the repercussions of her husband’s decision to run for office.
Dasu’s characters in her recently released second
novel in the series, The Perfect Candidate, all have
secrets that are beginning to unravel. And while her
main focus is Stephen’s campaign, readers witness
the complex relationships around him as well.
Like any spy novel, there’s action. But Dasu’s
recipe for engagement also involves the exploration
of romantic commitment, stigmas in the South
Asian community, and — apropos considering our
current political climate — the intricacies of a politician’s rhetoric and techniques. For this and other
elements, she did her research, even sitting down
with former House Representative Scott Murphy to
find out what happens behind closed doors when a
candidate is preparing for his campaign.
As her subtle yet enlightened commentary on
social issues within the fiction may imply, Dasu is an
advocate for the arts. In 2006, she launched a not-for-profit publishing house, IndiaWrites
Publishers Inc., to support and
promote literary efforts in the
South Asian community. All proceeds from the sales of her novels to
humanitarian causes like Kiva (a
crowdsourcing organization that
facilitates lending to low-income
entrepreneurs and students) and
International Rescue Committee.
In a frank interview, Dasu reveals
her process, her connection to the characters and how the novel allowed her to
voice a progressive perspective.
What prompted you to want to write
and publish a fiction series of novels?
I actually grew up in a family with writers and journalists on my father’s and my
mother’s side. My grandfather was a journalist for the National Herald Tribune and
they owned a printing press. There were
musical composers and lawyers too, so I was kind of the
black sheep of the family doing mathematics. So, [the inclination] has always been there… But I started writing in a
more focused way in the last six or seven years.
The novel had been brewing inside me for quite a while,
but once my son went off to college — that frees up your
schedule and you’re not so regimented anymore. And fiction
has always been my favorite.
Does having an aptitude for math and science help you stay
more disciplined and regimented about your writing sched-
ule? Most creative writers are notoriously haphazard.
I don’t know about a schedule or discipline but I do know
this: that kind of training helps you to think logically about
the motivations for characters and helps you remove all the
extra ‘clutter.’ Of course, it takes years of practice to write
with such simplicity and clarity and I’m only just beginning.
I’m trying to bring that clarity without being very clinical.
In math, statistics and computer science, which
are my three areas of interest, facts govern everything. You have to be able to prove everything.
You can’t just say something and not give
empirical evidence for it. In that way fiction is
very liberating because you have the freedom
to explore so many options and paths and take
your story any direction you wish.
The two protagonists in The Perfect Candidate,
Stephen and Nina, seem to have a pretty devoted relationship.
It’s something we don’t see a lot anymore in popular culture
and even contemporary novels.
I find that really attractive. But in order to get to that point
of devotion you have to get through a lot of other stuff. And
that’s that the first book (in the series) is about. How Stephen
and Nina weather all kinds of things that are thrown at them
and that they throw at each other.
What parts of Stephen’s character are inspired by your hus-
Well the first thing is that my husband, growing up, had a
very strong relationship with his grandfather. Also his fearlessness, scrappiness and the moodiness. Those three.
Stephen is brooding and sexy, but not your traditional
James Bond-like ‘spy candy.’ Tell me about the development of
If you look back at really successful espionage characters —
Graham Green’s or John Le Carré — the thing is that they are
very smart, principled but ruthless. If you look at George
Smiley, he’s this scholarly guy. He doesn’t look like
James Bond either. Same with some of these
Graham Greene characters. They also happen to
look like normal, everyday guys that stumbled into
the profession by necessity or they’re recruited.
None of these spies look like James Bond because
then they would stick out like a sore thumb. I think
his power comes from his intellect rather than just
physicality and that’s a trait that I admire in my hus-
band — you need to have that strong intellect.
Nina seems like a neo-feminist to me: smart and
enlightened but also surprisingly traditional. Who
did you model her after?
There’s a lot of me in Nina. Some of those attitudes
are mine and some of those attitudes are of the girls
I saw growing up in my son’s generation.
[Nina] was brought up in this extended family
with her grandparents and she’s very close to her
mother. So she imbibes those values because she has
this need to please her parents, which her brother
did not have. Being younger or more indulged, he
didn’t feel the obligation to please his parents and
she held that burden of having to succeed and live up
to the expectations of her parents. She also looks for
traits that are a mixture of traditional and not. She
values integrity, character, smarts, but at the same
time, she is not bound by her traditions.
A large premise The Perfect Candidate revolves
around a man running for election with his supporting wife by his side. But Stephen is a Republican but
his Indian-American wife is a Democrat. What led
you to create this dichotomy?
Stephen is Republican because he comes from this
very wealthy family from the ruling class with connections and they always want to keep the power in
their hands. When all is said and done there is an
amount of exclusion there. There is a covert racism
in that ruling class. Also he’s got this view on national
security and he thinks we need to do to control this
monster that’s coming at us. He’s not inherently very
political though. He’s just more influenced by his mentor, George.
Now, Nina is a Democrat because obviously she
[champions] women’s rights. No thinking woman
could go for a party that is so backward when it comes
to women. Furthermore she is kindhearted… She
wants to help poor families. She believes in a great
education for all kids. These are values that are
espoused more by Democrats than Republicans.
Republicans want to cut funding for anything that has
to do with education.
That does make perfect sense. Speaking about social issues,
the relationship between two supporting characters, Wasim
and Doug, was also refreshing because you didn’t resort to gay
stereotypes or Will & Grace style caricatures.
One of my very good friends at work — he’s is not South
Asian — he was very open about these things. He’s not a Will
& Grace type of caricature. I asked him about his experience
[coming out to his parents]. He grew up in Texas. I talked to
him and his partner about how they met. They shared a lot
of their experiences with me and the way Doug describes
coming out to his parents — that’s exactly what happened to
It’s unfortunate that coming out is not usually a positive
experience in the South Asian community.
Yes. And I’ll tell you another thing, being a parent and being in a South Asian community that includes Hindus, Sikhs,
Muslims — there is anxiety that parents have about their
sons when reach about 14 or 15 is that they could be gay so
there’s this perverse weirdness in the community where you
want your boy to go out and start dating so you can reassure
yourself that they’re not gay. I am amazed at this because on
one hand they don’t want the girls to go out and date. I’m
amazed at this reaction that parents have to their sons.
Well I’m glad you’re using your voice as a writer to bring
some awareness to a controversial issue like this.
You’re right. And I’m happy that you brought that up
because I hadn’t thought about it that way. n
‘The novel had been brewing inside me for quite a while’