Rakesh Satyal ’02 took a lighthearted approach to his acceptance speech when he won a Lambda Literary Award for Blue Boy, his novel about a gay Indian American struggling through adolescence. He sang his thanks to his editor and friends to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” a fitting tactic for someone who once was a member of the Nassoons, a Princeton a cappella group.
As a novelist, Satyal writes about the experience of those who are marginalized. At his day job as an executive editor at HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins, he seeks books that bring such marginalized voices to the forefront. For both endeavors, he asks himself, “What do I want to put in the world that I haven’t seen before?”
Satyal felt “affirmed as a bookworm” when he arrived at Princeton, where he majored in comparative literature. After watching frenzied students race to hand in their work on Dean’s Date during his first semester, he brought doughnuts, juice, and a few friends to McCosh Courtyard on the next Dean’s Date to congratulate students for completing their work. By the time he graduated, the event had grown to a crowd of hundreds. He is credited as the founder of the now twice-yearly celebration, at which the Princeton University Band plays as students cheer for those sprinting to turn in papers.
A summer internship at Random House after Satyal’s junior year turned into an entry-level job after graduation. One afternoon, his boss — legendary editor Gerry Howard — asked him about a CD by Tori Amos on his desk. Satyal mentioned that he thought she should write a book. Howard agreed and encouraged him to pursue it. Satyal sent her manager a fax, which eventually led to the memoir Tori Amos: Piece by Piece, the first book Satyal acquired. It became a bestseller.
Today, Satyal focuses on acquiring books in many genres, especially those that explore cultural history and literature in translation. He reads widely in French, Spanish, and Italian, three languages he studied at Princeton. “The pandemic has shown us there are global problems to be solved,” he says. “As an editor, I hope to publish books that produce a window onto the world.” He notes that especially in this period of tumult, books remain — for him and so many others — a source of solace.
His second novel, No One Can Pronounce My Name, published in 2017, is a comedy of manners set in the Midwest that centers on Indian American characters in their 40s who feel like outcasts. “I wanted to explore the idea of loneliness,” Satyal says. “Culturally, we think of loneliness as being a negative thing, but often when you are lonely or alone, you can do some of your most productive thinking.” One character is an undergraduate at Princeton, and pivotal scenes are set at McCosh and Whig Hall.
Once again, Satyal found a role for his love of singing. When the novel was released, he rewrote the lyrics to “You’ll Be Back,” a song from the hit musical Hamilton, and posted a video in which, dressed as King George III, he sings a plea to readers:
Buy my book, pretty please
You’ll remember how you love to read
Buy my book, make it sell
Though this song may be your living hell!