Tiny Pretty Things breakout Sona Charaipotra previews solo debut Symptoms of a Heartbreak
Sona Charaipotra is striking out on her own.
The acclaimed co-author of Tiny Pretty Things is gearing up for the release of her solo debut, Symptoms of a Heartbreak (previously known as Prognosis: Love & Death), a tender YA romance set in the thick of the medical world. The book centers on 16-year-old Saira Sehga, the youngest MD in America working on the cancer ward, and traces her attempts to navigate adult challenges: getting out from under the thumb of her doting mother (who works at the same hospital), proving herself to co-workers who don’t take her seriously, and crushing on a cute boy who happens to have stage II leukemia.
As Charaipotra tells EW in an exclusive preview of the book, a good deal of Symptoms of a Heartbreak stems from personal experience: She grew up with two parents who worked as pediatricians, and hoped she’d follow in their footsteps and eventually take over their practice. “Alas, I became a writer instead,” she cracks. She was also inspired by such teen medical hits as Doogie Howser, M.D. — and the chance to tell a similar story with Indian characters at the fore.
The author touches on that and much more in our wide-ranging interview, which you can read below, along with the exclusive cover for Symptoms of a Heartbreak. Check out the preview, and order your copy of the book ahead of its May 21, 2019, release here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is your solo debut. Why was this the story for you to make that leap?
SONA CHARAIPOTRA: My parents are both pediatricians. They had their own practice (in our house!), and they really wanted one of us three kids to take over one day. Instead, I became a writer, first doing entertainment journalism, then writing screenplays, and now books. My dad was distraught — like a lot of Indian people, he’d always been taught that art was a hobby and maybe a passion, but not really a career. And then my sister and brother both picked artistic careers too. And my husband’s a writer too! But my dad was really proud of us anyway — especially of those bylines and my name on the cover of books.
Still, he’d say to me, every so often, “You know, it’s not too late for med school.” And I’d laugh. One day I was watching Doogie Howser, M.D. — a ’90s TV dramedy about a teen doctor — and I was like, “This character should have been Indian.” And it just struck like lightning. I’m not a doctor, but I could play… with one on the page. And so Saira Sehgal was born. Sadly, my dad passed away last year, just before this book sold. But I know he’s watching, amused and hopefully proud, from wherever he is. I think he would have been pleased.
There’s plenty of conflict between Saira and her mother, working in the hospital. Is there a bit of alternate-reality exploration in that?
For sure. The parents in the story are a force, and yes, can be a bit overbearing. Out of love! The mom has her own practice and is the head of the pediatrics department, and the head of the Sehgal household. She does it all. I learned a lot from my mom and dad — especially about balance. Like them, I run my own business, CAKE Literary — with my Tiny Pretty Things and Rumor Game co-author, Dhonielle Clayton — and have a family and try to be as involved as possible in things that are important to me. But I imagine if I actually did end up working with my parents, we probably would have ended up fighting a lot. We’re all strong personalities — my dad especially, and people will tell you, I’m definitely my dad’s daughter. He was probably the only person I know who was as stubborn as me. And that all plays out in the book — both the strong sense of love and commitment, but also the conflict.
How else did you envision Saira?
Oh, she’s definitely a control freak and wannabe overachiever, like me. She can’t stop her brain from going a thousand miles a minute. She corrects people who mispronounce her name. And hopefully, she’s a bit funny, and relatable despite her unusual circumstances. And, well, when real love strikes for the very first time, it throws everything she thought she knew about he world off course. I’ve definitely experienced that before. But she’s definitely not me. I can’t stand the sight of blood, and needles make me queasy. And when I took AP [biology] — which I still don’t quite know why I took, except for maybe expectations — I made my lab partner do all the dissecting, while I wrote all the lab reports.
Did you draw from your parents’ experience for the book’s medical content?
I did and I didn’t. My parents are pediatricians, so there’s definitely some aspects of the medical field I saw growing up. But Saira’s an intern in the oncology ward, so I had to do a lot of research and have doctors — and patients — read it, including doctors who are writers, which is so cool! I don’t know how they manage it all. My mom hasn’t read it yet, so it’ll be an adventure when she does. Fingers crossed. She’s a tough critic.
I love the cover. Can you talk me through the idea behind it?
One of the first conversations I had with my editor, Imprint’s Erin Stein, was about [how] we wanted something reflective of Saira’s Indian heritage, but without sacrificing the other critical elements of the story — like that she’s a 16-year-old doctor! We worked with Imprint’s amazing designer, Natalie Sousa, and she really played with the color palette (the bright blue and pink remind me of the stunning outfits at a Punjabi party!) and the medical elements — and crafting a vision of Saira herself, of course. The end result is amazing! Its really simple and clever in the lines, but it pops. I think my favorite parts are the heartline — and her eyebrows. Eyebrows are a critical part of the story, and the cover Saira’s are quite impeccable.
Any recent favorite YA romances? Any influences for this particular book?
Two of my all-time favorites are The Sky Is Everywhere, by Jandy Nelson, and Nicola Yoon’s absolutely stunning The Sun Is Also a Star. I also love Jenny Han’s work, and can’t wait for the Netflix adaptation of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before to hit next week, finally! For this book, though, I think the biggest influence maybe is the thing that anchors my own teen years — My So-Called Life. Just the way the voice works on that show, and how every character is so very grounded in his or her own [point of view], it was formative for me as a writer. I hope the nuance of that show flavors just a bit of my own work, always. And I’ll be honest, in Symptoms, Saira’s love interest here may be channeling Jordan Catalano ever so slightly, as a musician — though Link is definitely more upbeat, even if he does have cancer.