By Seija Rankin
March 30, 2018 at 10:00 AM EDT

The blurb on the cover of Shobha Rao’s Girls Burn Brighter uses a very particular and descriptive phrase by fellow author Charlie Jane Anders to describe what happens after reading the book: “Heart shards everywhere.” If truer words have ever been spoken about the way a novel made us feel, we’d be hard-pressed to find them.

Girls Burn Brighter follows two childhood friends as they leave their poor, rural village in India and venture out into the world, each for their own tragic reasons. While one runs away after a terrible assault, the other must battle through her own adversity, including an arranged marriage that turns abusive, to find her long-lost friend. This may sound utterly depressing, but the vivaciousness of the girls and the beauty of their friendship is both inspiring and admirable.

To create this story — and to bring readers characters who display all the heartache and hope that come with being a girl in a difficult neighborhood — takes a particularly skilled author. Enter Rao, the debut novelist who has everyone talking this spring. We recruited her to take our What’s In a Page questionnaire, and she told us about her writing career and the snacks she needs to put pen to page.

What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
A story about a group of cats having a birthday party. I was 5, maybe 6, and all I remember was that the birthday cat, when he was blowing out the candles on his cake, caught his whiskers on fire. That was the main drama of the story.

What is the last book that made you cry?
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez; Flatiron Books

What is your favorite part of Girls Burn Brighter?
The ending.

Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
Tales of Ordinary Madness, by Charles Bukowski.

Where do you write?
Usually in my apartment in San Francisco, but sometimes, when my soul needs me to, in the Badlands of South Dakota.

Which book made you a forever reader?
Little House on the Prairie. It was the first book I read after I arrived in America, and it will always be my first lens into American life.

Pick a GIF that you think, in this moment, best describes you and your book:

What is a snack you couldn’t write without?
Pumpkin seeds!

What was the hardest plot point or character to write in Girls Burn Brighter?
The hardest character to write in Girls Burn Brighter was Mohan. He was a trafficker of women, and part of a family that profited from their exploitation, but I had to make him sympathetic. I had to make him capable of love.

If you could change one thing about any of your books, what would it be?
I would take out the reference to the Pakistani city of Islamabad in An Unrestored Woman. In the year in which the story was set, Islamabad hadn’t yet been founded! It was a factual error. To want to change anything but factual errors in a creative work … that way lies madness.

Write a movie poster tagline for Girls Burn Brighter:
“They have three strikes against them: They are poor, they are ambitious, and they are girls.”

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