In Conversation With Sheila Yasmin Marikar



Sheila Yasmin Marikar is a journalist and author based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Vogue, and a number of other leading publications. Marikar's novel, The Goddess Effect, a glittering and razor-sharp debut, is out tomorrow. 

Following Anita, a woman who's had enough her overbearing mother and her pal Pooja who seemingly has it all, decides to pack up a life in New York for a fresh start on the West Coast. Her ambitious career goals take a drastic turn when she discovers an elite workout class and gets caught up in the alluring effects of wellness in this all too real, and hilarious, portrayal of the world we live in.

Sheila and I connected ahead of the release to talk about the process of writing her novel and what it was like to give Anita a voice through the audiobook portrayal. 

Marikar, already charting on the Amazon bestseller list, also shared a teaser for her next book.

Courtesy of Sheila Yasmin Marikar

You’re a journalist used to writing for publications like the New Yorker and the New York Times. What surprised you most about writing a book?

How much I didn't know. I've been writing narrative nonfiction for about a decade, and I (generally) know how many interviews I need to craft a story. I can hear the must-include quotes as they're said, and when I scan through my notes and transcripts, I get a sense of how the story will flow. 

With fiction, none of that applied. I had the idea to write a book about a contemporary commune in 2015, wrote about a thousand words, and then… stopped. I had no idea what I wanted Anita and Max to do. I had grand visions of writing the Great American Novel (what novelist doesn't?) but I didn't know how to develop characters or plots, or how to create a compelling narrative. The options were endless, and that was overwhelming. With journalism, you're hemmed in by facts, research, interviews — evidence that what you're chronicling actually exists. With fiction, your imagination determines the parameters, and not knowing what to do with that freedom floored me to the degree that I let those thousand words gather dust in my Google Drive for years.

Los Angeles is a breeding ground for all things wellness. Your protagonist Anita falls prey to the alluring effects of it. While The Goddess Effect is a hilarious take on what’s happening, people who haven’t been to LA might not understand that it’s actually like that. 

What are your thoughts on the wellness industry?

The funny thing about "wellness" is that it has expanded to mean everything and nothing. Supplements, meditation, wine, yoga — basically anything that makes you "feel good," which is another entirely subjective term, can qualify as wellness. (The journalist and author Rina Raphael recently released a book, The Gospel of Wellness, that expertly examines the industry.) 

Many people, myself included, plan their days around wellness rituals, and when you're in a city like L.A. where wellness businesses grow like mold on blue cheese, it can be easy to busy yourself with self-betterment to the point where you "don't have time" for other endeavors that might be more fulfilling. (Like, say, working on a novel — when The Goddess Effect was not progressing the way I had hoped, there were many days where I would choose doing another workout over doing the hard work to make the book better.) I'm not blaming L.A. or the wellness industry. Escapism comes in many forms and, for me, wellness was, and continues to be, one of them. 

Writing this book actually helped me develop a healthier relationship with wellness, mainly because it gave me something to feel proud about beyond the state of my abs. A therapist could probably dig into the layers of narcissism here.

How was it to record the accompanying audiobook and to give Anita a voice, yours specifically? Was that something you intended to do all along? 

I intended to leave it to the professionals. My publisher asked if I had any thoughts on who should narrate the audiobook; I felt strongly that Anita be voiced by a South Asian woman. Several months later, they sent me a clip of the narrator they were close to casting, she was reading a portion of chapter two. It just didn't feel right, by no fault of the narrator — I spent so much time laboring over the words in The Goddess Effect, I felt like no one knew their intonation better than me. 

I asked if I could audition and spent the rest of the morning in a closet, attempting to read the same pages as she had without stumbling or losing my breath. (Not easy. Much respect to professional narrators and voice actors.) A few days later, I found out that I got the job and that I'd be working with a director. I was ecstatic ... until I remembered my sessions with a broadcast news coach. Ten years ago, when I was working in television news and flirting with the idea of being an on-camera personality, the network sent me to a broadcast coach who decried my "east coast nasally-ness" and sent me home with a stack of vocal exercises that I could not decipher. My skin, at that point, was as thick as Saran Wrap, and over several sessions with this coach, I never seemed to show signs of improvement. 

Knowing that I'd be under the tutelage of another vocal expert, I pictured a tyrannical conductor of a director, the type of person who would break his baton when I inevitably messed up. Leon Nixon could not be further from that. He's narrated dozens of books, has a voice like a warm bath, and figured out how to get the best out of me while also making sure I thoroughly enjoyed the process. 

Before we started recording, I was particularly apprehensive about reading some of the more emotional parts of the book and the sex scenes. (Is anyone not apprehensive about sex scenes? I'd love to meet you.) With Leon and Literati Audio, my nerves fell away. Recording the audiobook with them is one of the most fulfilling things I've done in a long time, and I'm so grateful that I got the opportunity to do it. 

Now that you’ve topped the charts with an Amazon bestseller across multiple categories, can we expect another book anytime soon?

You can :) I'm not at liberty to say a lot about it yet, but it's set in Northern California's wine country, and while it's not a sequel, it deals with some of the same themes as The Goddess Effect. If you liked Goddess, you'll love what's next.

It’s not all cults, kale, and Kabbalah. What do you love most about LA?

I moved here for a variety of reasons, most significantly, my husband: he's from here, his family is here, his work is here. He and the life we've built in L.A. are what I love most. Much has been made about L.A.'s sunshine and quality of light, and I'm here to tell you… the hype is real. 

It does not get old. It feels easier to turn inward in L.A. than it does in New York or San Francisco, where I've also lived, and that was crucial to finishing The Goddess Effect. Beyond that: Erewhon, Runyon Canyon, the sushi, The Friend, my local, no-frills place to dance, and the expertise of the boutique fitness instructors, most of whom could start their own cults if they so desired. 

The Goddess Effect by Sheila Yasmin Marikar is available for purchase in paperback at Indigo and in e-book and audiobook format from Amazon tomorrow.

Amazon First Readers can access The Goddess Effect now.