Q&A: Rehana Munir, Author of 'Paper Moon'

Rehana Munir is a Bombay-based independent writer, and has a weekly humour column in HT Brunch, and a cinema column in Arts Illustrated magazine. Her debut novel, Paper Moon, was published by HarperCollins India and released at Tata Literature Live! in November 2019. The novel is all about ‘Books’, ‘Bombay’, and ‘Romance’. It follows Fiza Khalid and her journey of opening a bookshop in a charming, old Bandra mansion, all the while navigating relationships, heartbreaks and love.

I chat with Rehana about her novel Paper Moon, her novel’s protagonist Fiza Khalid, Bombay novels, book recommendations, and much more.

Hello, Rehana! Tell us a bit about yourself!

I was born and raised in Bombay. I graduated in English literature from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, and earned my MA at Mumbai University. I ran a bookshop in the mid-2000s and edited cricket websites for BCCI a few years later. I am an independent writer for many years now, and my work has appeared in HT Brunch, Arts Illustrated, India Today, Scroll, Sunday Mid-day, GQ India, Firstpost, Mumbai Mirror, Brown Paper Bag and other publications. My debut novel Paper Moon was published in 2019. I am currently at work on my second novel.

If you could describe your debut novel Paper Moon only in one sentence, what would it be?

A gentle coming-of-age story set in a Bombay bookshop in the early 2000s.

Now tell us a little more about the book! What can readers expect?

The book is an ode to some of my favourite things about my city, and Bandra, the suburb I call home. It gets its flavour from the years around the new millennium – that sense of optimism about a happy new era. Social media hadn’t erupted, diversity was a way of life and we were still hungover from the terribly uncool yet terrifically fun ’80s and ’90s. It follows the career and relationships of its protagonist, Fiza – her journey from self-doubt to discovery – with what I hope is a lightness of touch.

'Paper Moon', published by HarperCollins India

What was the moment when the idea of the book first came to be? What made you pursue it?

I had written a short piece for GQ India about running a bookshop a few years ago. A little while later, the art director of HarperCollins India, Bonita Vaz-Shimray, whom I went to school with, broached the subject of working on a project for the publishing house. The next thing I knew, I was writing Paper Moon, drawing from my experience of running a Bombay bookshop in the mid-2000s.

Please describe your character Fiza Khalid to readers who might not yet be familiar with who she is and what she’s dealing with?

At the start of the novel, the twenty-one year-old Fiza has recently graduated from St Xavier’s College, where she studied English literature. She lives with her temperamental mother, Noor, who used to be a jazz singer, in their little Bandra flat. She’s recently broken up with her college boyfriend, Dhruv. As the novel progresses, the tentative Fiza sets up an independent bookshop, made possible by a surprise inheritance from her estranged father. Quite apart from the joys and stresses of a new business, she has to navigate complex relationships with her absent father, persistent ex-boyfriend and a charming suitor she doesn’t quite know what to make of. Books and Bombay are the backdrop against which her personal journey unfolds.

As a debut novelist, were there any authors or works which influenced your writing style?

I was a bit terrified of mimicking my favourite novels, and so I barred myself from reading any fiction while I was writing Paper Moon. Writers such as Muriel Spark, Dorothy Parker, Barbara Pym, Vikram Seth, Wendy Cope and many others have surely made their way into the book in ways that are inevitable for a debut novel. And despite myself, there’s some Enid Blyton in there, too.

How have you been coping with the current pandemic and what will be the new normal for you post it?

I’ve been luckier than most, in that my loved ones and I have enjoyed relative health and freedom for most part. But it’s been a challenging time, especially the first few months. The strict lockdown was a real trial. Not at all conducive to writing fiction, as far as I’m concerned. Like everyone, I’m learning to cope, grateful for the moments when the ideas and words flow, but not beating myself up during the long periods of drought.

What are you reading currently? Do you have any recommendations for readers who enjoyed Paper Moon?

I’ve just finished Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Mostly entertaining and often useful. On my bedside table right now is the exhibition booklet for Sameer Kulavoor’s You Are All Caught Up. He’s in conversation with the musician Ankur Tiwari – they discuss the artist’s latest work, displayed at Tarq gallery, much of which was born out of the pandemic. It’s a beautiful glimpse into two creative minds that are so sensitive to our current political moment. And I’ve just begun fiercely original Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz’s short story collection, Drown.

I find Amrita Mahale’s Milk Teeth and Jane Borges’s Bombay Balchão to be connected to Paper Moon in some ways. Bombay books they are all, yet so different in their focus and approach. Also, I would recommend 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, composed of the correspondence between a bibliophile and a bookseller.

The book ‘Paper Moon’ is available online and at your nearest bookstore.

From Jammu, J&K; Studied in DPS, Jammu.