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The Comedy of Errors

Lainy Malkani on Her Book Sugar, Sugar: Bittersweet Tales of Indian Migrant Workers

9 April 18 interview: Dan Wright

Dan Wright talks to Lainy Malkani about her first book Sugar, Sugar, the transition from journalist to novelist and how her cat helped her to overcome the loneliness of being a writer. Malkani offers advice to aspiring writers and reveals which of the stories in the book is her personal favourite…

Sugar, Sugar is your first published creative work as an author. Can you describe how it feels to be able to hold the book in your hand as a finished article?
The first time I held a copy of Sugar, Sugar in my hands was such an important moment for me. Like a child opening presents at Christmas, I sat in a book shop in Central London and ripped open the brown paper parcel they were wrapped in. My publisher, Rosemarie from Hope Road Publishing had sent me six preview copies and I wanted to go around the shop telling everyone that the name on the cover was mine.

I think most of us at some time in our lives want to write a book but the idea of being a writer and actually being a writer are two different things. There’s the romantic notion of sitting at a computer and writing wonderful, gripping storylines; then there’s the day-in-day-out discipline of research, writing, rewriting and meeting deadlines, not to mention liaising with copy editors, publishers and illustrators, plus fact checking, printing, sorting out publicity and the list goes on. In all, I would say that the book took six months to write and another six months was spent on the business side of things. Although you’re not working in isolation, it is stressful nevertheless. Holding my book encapsulated all of those practical, emotional, stressful and wonderful moments.

How was the jump from journalist to novelist?
It required a new sort of discipline for me. I have been a broadcaster for much of my career and so moving from the “spoken word” to literature was a little tricky at times. In broadcasting, you have pictures and sounds to help you tell your story but in literature the page is blank until you start writing. That said, I chose to write short stories because of its similarities to writing for television, and in particular radio. 

Short stories require the writer to get to the heart of a story quickly, to be economical with words and to paint pictures in the minds of listeners in the same way as radio does. Sugar, Sugar was based on historical archive and this is where my training as a journalist really was useful. I spent a lot of time at the British Library trawling through archive material, learning about the history of indenture and then editorialising what elements I felt would be interesting to write about.

You have previously mentioned how writing can be a lonely process. How have you overcome this?
Oh gosh, this was one of the hardest things to overcome. I tried setting up a space to write in the spare room but I just felt totally uninspired in there. I’m naturally a sociable person and have always enjoyed working in busy newsrooms where each day is as unpredictable as the next. I found working alone in quiet spaces difficult especially during the winter months when it felt that my world was getting smaller and smaller. So how did I overcome this? Well, having a cat helped. His name is Marvin and I spent a lot of time talking to him; when that wasn’t helping I would go out to my local library or coffee shop. I also ended up working in every room in the house just to vary the view. Most of the time my family would come home from uni or work to find me sitting on the landing in the hallway with papers sprawled all over the floor one day, the bedroom the next and the kitchen after that. 

In broadcasting, you have pictures and sounds to help you tell your story but in literature the page is blank until you start writing

When it came to the idea of Sugar, Sugar, how difficult was it to secure funding for the project? What advice would you give to a student who is hoping to, one day, develop a creative piece?
Securing funding from Arts Council England to write Sugar, Sugar was a nerve-wracking experience. The application process was pretty straightforward and easy to understand. What was difficult was convincing them that my project was better than all the others hoping to get funding. I think we tend to forget that applying for funding is a competition of sorts and that we are up against other amazing projects.

In an ideal world, all projects would be funded but in these difficult financial times it’s not possible. I had to come up with an idea that was unique and then convince ACE that I could produce it to the highest standards with both financial transparency and value for money. Sounds awful when you consider that writing is a creative process but we also have to think of it as a business if we want funding. I would advise students to create partnerships with other organisations that can help you put forward a strong case as to why ACE should fund you. If there is a glaring skills gap then bring someone on board who can help fill it and put together a comprehensive project plan that is detailed and realistic. 

I understand you wrote the collection over a six-month period? That seems like a very short amount of time for a collection of stories to be written. Did you have a set routine such as a word total each day? Or did you write more spontaneously?  
Sugar, Sugar took me six months to write, including research and writing. I set myself a deadline for each story and then tried as much as possible to stick to it. It was a gruelling schedule but at the same time I am used to working to tight deadlines. There were times when I seemed to have no words in my head at all or when everything I wrote was just not good enough. I do believe, however, that the way to get out of that kind of situation is to keep pushing and eventually everything will fall into place. You just have to remember to eat well, sleep regularly and don’t drink too much coffee!

Which story from Sugar, Sugar is most personal to you, and why?
That’s a tough question! Could I just say that I like them all but for different reasons? If pressed though, I would say that my favourite is The Berbice Chair. It’s the story of a woman who owns a second-hand shop in London and her search to find the meaning behind a very unusual chair from the Caribbean. In order to sell the chair for a higher price, she tries to find the history behind it but no one knows. That is, until an Indian man, the son of a cane cutter in British Guiana comes along and wants to destroy it. I like it because it is a reminder that we are surrounded by everyday objects that have a history. Sometimes those histories are amazing and inspirational but sometimes they are dark, troubling and mysterious.

Lainy Malkani appeared at the Nottingham Trent University Literary Cultures conference last year

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