An Interview with Amulya Malladi
by Anu Mahadev
Author of seven books of fiction, Amulya Malladi is a fabulous storyteller. Her novels bring to us the joys and tragedies of human life, conveyed effortlessly in a way that is very genuine. Here we are in conversation with this prolific author.
Jaggery Lit (JL): A little bit about your background.As I understand it, you switched to writing from engineering, am I right? How does your previous life influence your writing and your ideas?
Amulya Malladi (AM): I have a bachelor’s degree in engineering and I came to the United States to do a masters in biomedical engineering. I decided to follow my heart and study journalism instead. Here I was twenty years old, making a decision on my own for the first time in my life which would impact my life. I made the right decision. I don’t see that time as a previous life or this time as a new life. It’s all my life and all of it has influenced who and what I am today and therefore how and what I write. The past decade, I feel has had a stronger influence and I feel more cognizant than ever about the kind of stories I want to tell, stories about real woman like me who have jobs and careers and depression and divorce and love and affairs and …
JL: Please tell us about your latest book, The Copenhagen Affair. How did it come about, in other words, what inspired you?
AM: The Copenhagen Affair is a comedy about depression set in the capital of the happiest country in the world. I wrote this book when I was depressed. For a couple of years there, I wasn’t writing. My corporate career was stressing me out and everything had gone grey around me. I wanted to laugh and I wanted to write something without ever worrying about its quality and ability to get published. So one day, I just started writing.
I will always think of The Copenhagen Affair as the book that helped me get mentally healthy, helped me laugh. When you’re feeling sad, doing something that makes you happy is like sunlight washing into a dark and cold room, it may not lighten up the whole room or make it warm right away, but slowly as the light becomes stronger, it can change your brain patterns and teach you to smile the sadness away.
I think a lot of people think depression is what we see in the movies — it’s associated with a suicide attempt or something traumatic that has happened. In Denmark, I once went to see my doctor to ask if my healthcare would cover a therapist and he asked me if I’d been raped or if I was suicidal. I was neither and he said then I’d have to pay for it myself.
But depression comes in many forms. I’m a high-functioning depressive and I can’t just get over it. There are many others like me and I hope those who are not well will seek help and those who are well will have more compassion.
JL: How do you so ably wear many different hats – balancing a corporate life, with that of an author, and a family? Do you find often that your worlds collide or mix into each other?
AM: I don’t do it all. I see other parents who do a whole lot more and are present for their kids’ games and have family obligations and are super men and women.
I do what I want to do and I also do some of what I have to do—I prioritize. If I have to write then I will turn down seeing friends and/or family. On my weekends, I want to write or do absolutely nothing, so I may not attend the many basketball games my kids go for. But I will find time to study chemistry with them.
I have a job and that takes over a lot of my time with work and work-related travel. But I find time to write on long flights, weekends and vacations — so it works out.
I have an awesome and supportive spouse and fabulous kids who are now old enough to not need a mommy as they used to; and this means I have more time for both my corporate and writing career.
I’m working on a story I call the fictional Lean In and is titled The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You. As a woman leader in a male-dominated corporate world, I feel my greater purpose is to help other women rise in their careers. So, this book, where my protagonist has to learn to lean in and take her place at the table, is close to my heart, because it blends my corporate persona with the storyteller.
JL: How has the journey been, from The Breath of Fresh Air to now? How do you think you have evolved as a writer, and a person?
AM: When I was younger I wanted to write literary novels. I didn’t want to be a writer who wrote commercial fiction. I was twenty-five when I sold my first book. I didn’t have much self-awareness and I worried about what people would say or think.
I remember when my first book came out, a high-school friend sent me an email, saying that he always checked The New Yorker to see if they’d have a review of my book. I replied that I don’t think that was going to happen. He responded, and I remember this word to word: It’s good that you know what level your book is at.
Another friend said to me: I take literature very seriously and so I’m not sure if I will be reading your book.
The twenty-five year old me was devastated. I had been writing since I was 11 years old and these people were saying my book wasn’t good enough.
Now, 17 years later, I don’t care what people say or think. I know some writers get offended when someone says they write chick lit. I’ve been mentioned in that category, and upmarket women’s fiction and literary fiction and … I don’t care how and which box my books are slotted into.
This is the truth: someone wants to publish my books. People read them, review them, have an opinion about them and I touch the lives of enough readers who write to me — and I love to write, which I continue to do, which my publisher pays me to do.
At this point in my life, I don’t worry about telling a literary story or the right story; I tell the story I want to tell, the story that makes me feel alive, the questions I want to answer.
JL: Much has been catalogued about the immigrant experience in North America. What is your take on the same in Denmark? How has that influenced your storytelling?
AM: We moved to Denmark in 2002 when our oldest son was just a year old. We’d been living in Silicon Valley, I had just signed a two-book contract and we had a baby. My husband is Danish and we started to discuss the idea of moving to Denmark living in another part of the world, have an easier pace of life than Silicon Valley—and most importantly, grandparents for our children. When we moved to Denmark, I never thought we’d live there for fourteen years. I have lived all over Denmark—more than most Danes who tend to live around the area where they grew up. I lived on Fynn (the middle island), on Jylland (the big island) and on Sjaelland, the island where Copenhagen is. I saw the rural, the suburban and the city personalities of the country—I saw what a truly homogenous society looks like; and how racism is an inbuilt system within society that doesn’t stand out as odd and when pointed out becomes a reflection on the immigrant, the one who’s different, the one who’s unable to blend into the homogeneity and become a white Dane who speaks Danish fluently.
I wrote The Sound of Language while we lived in rural Denmark — the story of a friendship between an Afghan refugee and a Danish beekeeper. I wanted to shed light on the racism in Denmark but also that Danes are essentially good and hardworking people who can get past their xenophobia.
The truth is that I didn’t like living in Denmark until we moved to Copenhagen. I fell in love. Like many capital cities it’s different from Denmark, the country. It is cosmopolitan, diverse and engaging. I love the food, the streets, the lakes, everything about it. The outdoor cafes, the museums, the walking street, and the small town feel but with the benefits of a capital. And hence I wrote The Copenhagen Affair—my love letter to the city I love.
JL: How do your surroundings and experiences shape the way you think and get inspired, especially when you want to flesh out your characters? Any book that was particularly difficult to write?
AM: I think it’s an organic process. I don’t plot. I don’t plan. I start writing and characters and geography emerges. I find that in telling stories, the best laid plans go poof when your characters do what they want to do because you don’t control them—they become real and live their own lives.
I certainly am influenced by the people I meet and the places I go to when I create my characters but it’s an intuitive thing, I just know who this person is or that person is and I know their name and I just know. And what I don’t know, he or she tells me.
JL: Your protagonists are all strong women, in one way or another, and very relatable to us as readers. Would you say you have had some very real women influence you in your impressionable years?
AM: I am more cognizant than ever right now that I tell stories about strong women and I want to tell these stories as a way to fight patriarchy. I want to write about real women. I want to tell the story of a career woman who doesn’t have to give up her career because she realizes that her family is more important — no, I want to tell the story of a woman who has her career, the family and whatever else she wants. I want to tell the story of a woman who has a nervous breakdown and takes the time to get better; not someone who drags herself through life becoming smaller and smaller until she disappears into her darkness of depression and no one even notices that she’s not there anymore.
I have been influenced by strong women — especially in the public arena. I grew up with Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister of India. I didn’t know that she was the Prime Minister because she was a Nehru; I just knew a woman had the highest ranking position in India. My aunt was a colonel in the Indian Army in those days. My professors in the US were strong women who helped me grow. The women I worked with in Denmark and now in the US — colleagues and fellow women leaders and feminists: Valerie Soulier, Vibeke Wollebekk, Monika Ritter, Monica Rassai, Diana Dodensig, Gabriella Gagliani … the list could on and on.
JL: Who are your favorite authors and why? Who are you currently reading?
AM: I have no idea who my favorite authors are and why … simply because I have favorite books and not authors. And the favorite books change as I read new books.
The book that made an impact on me as a teenager is Catch-22 and I still read it at least once a year and it still makes me feel everything from deep sorrow to loud laughter. In recent years, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In impacted my career and me in a significant way.
I love pretty much everything Murukami and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go haunts me. E.M. Forster’s Room with a View, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and The Buccaneers and five hundred other books that I have read and loved and forgotten.
JL: Any personal favorites when it comes to poets and quotes?
AM: My all-time favorite quote and future tattoo (I have two and you can never just have two, you need to have three and then four and …): Om tat sat. The absolute truth.
I have always loved The Second Coming by Yeats: The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
And then there is something about Neruda: I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
Recently, I have fallen in love with Rupi Kaur. Everyone should read her poetry. Every girl and woman definitely must.
JL: How long do you typically take between writing one book and the next? And what do you like to do in the interim?
AM: It takes me a good year, year and a half to write a book. In between books I turn into a neurotic person who says things like, that was it, that was my last book, there are no more ideas left.
I don’t like the interim but I need the interim so I paint and explore and read and let my neurosis work its way through and out.
JL: I’ve heard that you dial into book clubs – how delightful! What can our readers expect from you next year? What is next in the works?
AM: One of my favorite business books is Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. The glass ceiling is real. In a recent study Women in the Worklpace done by McKinsey in collaboration with LeanIn.org the findings were stark but not surprising:
“Nearly 50 percent of men think women are well represented in leadership in companies where only one in ten senior leaders is a woman. A much smaller but still significant number of women agree: a third, think women are well represented when they see one in ten in leadership.”
But one of the really sad findings of the study is that women don’t even aspire for top executive roles because they don’t believe they can get them.
The book I’m working on is (for now) titled The Nearest Exit May be Behind You is a fictional lean in story. Since I’m still working on it (and just typed THE END on the first and a half draft), here is a synopsis that I have to warn is subject to change as the draft develops into a book that is readable.
The Nearest Exit May be Behind You is about Asmi, whose name means “I am” in Sanskrit. Asmi knows that CPH (Copenhagen, Denmark) is the best place to shop for clothes, her favorite shoe store is at ATH (Athens International Airport), the best Zara store is in BCN (Barcelona International Airport), in CDG (Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris) you must have long layovers because of those damn funiculars, the international terminal in ORD (Chicago) has no food after ten in the evening and that airplanes, airports and hotel lobby bars make her feel just as much at home as her apartment in Laguna Beach does.
Unattached, childless, and a marketing director in a biotech company, Asmi knows the universal expectation, maybe even the accepted truth, that is, a single woman with no children should at least have a career, and not just some random, run-of-the-mill career, but a stellar one to justify the lack of a man and offspring.
Born and raised in India, Asmi came to the United States at the age of twenty to do her master’s degree in UC Irvine. Through sheer hard work, she rose through the career ranks and never really took the time to think about couple-hood. Sure, she dated here and there; and had the occasional one-night stand, but relationships did not interest her. She had good friends, a terrific sister and a married on-one day-off-one-day lover who lived a few time zones away, reducing the risk of a real commitment. She traveled around the world with work and felt that life was okay.
But as Asmi reaches the big four zero, she decides that she has to end her roller-coaster ride and unhealthy relationship with the married lover because it makes her miserable. And right after that, she finds out that her boss is retiring and she has to participate in a corporate Hunger Games against her nemesis to win her promotion.
Convinced that her inability to commit to a real relationship with a man is a personality flaw and afraid that she’s underqualified for the job she desperately wants, Asmi has to learn to lean in to have the career she wants and deserves; and the life she wants to live without worrying about what society expects of her.
JL: Thank you so much for your time Amulya, and we wish you all the very best for 2018!
AM: Thank you for speaking with me.