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Crafting Worlds, Sharing Stories

Dec/31/2023 / by melanie-fourie

Author and journalist Priya Malhotra seeks inspiration from real-life stories

South Asian woman in red blouse and necklace
Photo courtesy: Priya Malhotra

Meet Priya Malhotra, an author and mom who has lived in New York City for over two decades. Her novel “Woman of an Uncertain Age,” released in 2022, transcends traditional norms. The book delves into the journey of a middle-aged immigrant widow in New York, and is relevant to current times, as conventional midlife notions are undergoing profound shifts.

Armed with a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Kenyon College, Malhotra’s writing is a fusion of diverse experiences and insights. Her journalistic portfolio includes contributions to “Time Out New York”, “The Times of India”, and “Newsday”. Malhotra has also had a stint as staff writer for several publications.

Originally from New Delhi, India, Malhotra’s upbringing in a secular Hindu environment along with her education in a Catholic school, helped shape her culturally diverse perspective. Fluent in English, Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi, she maintains a deep connection with South Asia through frequent visits to India. She offers us a peek into her inspiration and experiences with SEEMA in this interview.

Can you give us a glimpse into the storyline of “Woman of an Uncertain Age” and share what inspired you to write this novel?

In “Woman of an Uncertain Age”, Naina Mehta, a middle-aged South Asian woman, moves to New York City from New Jersey after her husband dies. She distances herself from the Jersey Indian community she has known for decades. Soon after moving to New York, she lands a job in the lower rungs of the art world and falls for her grown daughter’s boyfriend. Much later in the novel, Naina enters into a relationship with a Pakistani man, much to her Islamophobic son’s chagrin.

The seed that led to the novel occurred several years ago when I met an Indian American girl at a wedding in a large U.S. city. She grew up comfortably in the United States with a professional father and a stay-at-home mother. I got the sense that her family was one of those that combines tradition and modernity, like many Indian families in the U.S. She was in her late twenties and studying to become a psychotherapist, and as we drank some wine, she started to disclose some interesting things. Her father had died not too long ago, and her mother, whom I pictured as a motherly, straitlaced fifty-something Indian woman with neatly tied long hair, had a boyfriend. 

This took me by surprise. I had rarely heard of an Indian woman of that age, particularly someone with two or three daughters in their twenties, the classic marriageable age, having a boyfriend. “Was your mother always a progressive sort?” I asked the girl, trying to disguise my amazement. “No,” she replied. “And you would never know it by looking at her. After my father died, something in her broke loose.” 

I was really intrigued. The girl and I drank some more wine, and she continued talking. One time, her mother had asked her if she could talk to her about something, not as a daughter but as a therapist. “I told her I didn’t think that was appropriate, but she insisted, saying she had no one else to talk to about this,” the girl said, her expressive face looking like it was still befuddled by that conversation. 

“Then my mom told me that there’s something that he [the mother’s boyfriend] likes her to do to him but doesn’t like to reciprocate—she was referring to something sexual, if you know what I mean,” the woman revealed to me. “She wanted me to give her advice on how to handle the situation.” 

I was completely stunned. I didn’t know too many women of any culture who would talk to their daughters like this, let alone a middle-aged Indian woman. After the wedding, the girl and I parted ways, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her mother. Who was she? Why did she ask her daughter something so intimate instead of going to a therapist? Was she, like many Indians, wary of going to a therapist? What had her marriage been like? What had given her the courage to have a boyfriend? Was she open about it among other Indians?

The image of this woman, whom I had never met and had no more information about, started forming in my mind as my imagination took flight. This was the seed that eventually blossomed into the character of my protagonist Naina, even though her story ended up being quite different from that of the girl’s mother.

As Naina’s picture started to emerge, I became curious about middle-aged women’s lives, both South Asian and non-South Asian. What happens when a middle-aged mother wants to undertake the journey of finding herself, the classic rite of passage of a young person? What happens when she, at an age when she is expected to be mature and sensible, is open, vulnerable, impulsive, and prone to making mistakes? What happens when that woman loses the authority that comes with age and of being the mother figure, and the daughter takes on the role of the responsible adult? What are the consequences of such a role reversal? And what is the relationship between age and wisdom? These were some of the questions that propelled me to write Naina’s story.

You’ve had a varied career in journalism, contributing to publications such as “Newsday”, “Time Out New York”, and “The Times of India”. How has your background in journalism influenced your approach to fiction writing, especially in exploring the inner lives of characters?

My background in journalism encouraged me to seek a variety of environments, topics, realms, and people that I might not have otherwise pursued in my life. This exposure has been crucial to my fiction. Maybe standing at the edges of a hall and observing people in saffron robes chanting nonstop for hours in an obscure yoga retreat, or maybe something unusual I experienced or saw someone else go through while researching a piece. Or it may be an ordinary but poignant story someone shared with me or listening to the motivation of an artist who made disturbing and macabre paintings. Any such experience might have created a spark in me that my imagination then metamorphosed into a potential story or an interesting character around whom a fictional story could be built.

Journalism gave me the skills to spot a good (often somewhat unconventional) story, chase after it, and then figure out ways to unravel it and discover the clandestine and convoluted forces behind it. Those skills are useful in fiction as well, except that you’re pursuing and deciphering a narrative that’s unfolding in your head.

Thanks to journalism, I was fortunate to have a solid foundation in interviewing and storytelling, which was very useful when I began to venture into fiction.

My focus at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism was narrative or literary journalism, the kind that’s published by magazines such as “The Atlantic”, “The New Yorker”, “Longreads”, and Slate.com. This is the kind of journalism that combines factual information with literary devices such as description, dialogue, imagery, and characterization to create an engaging and compelling piece of writing.

One of my favorite forms of narrative journalism is a profile. I like doing background research for this kind of piece, but the best part is doing an in-depth interview or a series of interviews with the person I’m profiling. It gives me the opportunity to observe them at length, listen to their motivations, passions, and conflicts. I also get to pay attention to the issues or questions they brush aside or answer ambiguously, as well as a chance to sit under the weight of their silence when certain subjects come up.

So, all the opportunities I had to delve deeper into the multi-faceted internal worlds of real-life individuals while writing profiles and other stories were invaluable when it came to crafting complicated, conflicted characters with rich inner lives in fiction.

How do you approach the task of delving into the inner lives of your novel characters?  What challenges, if any, do you face in portraying these experiences authentically?

I absolutely love delving into the inner lives of my characters; it’s my favorite part of writing fiction. While I find other aspects of writing a novel, particularly plots, challenging, burrowing into the minds of my characters comes to me most naturally. Generally, I do some research through books, television, etc. about the type of character I intend to write about, and then I interview people who fit that profile. When I speak to these people, I imagine what might be going on in their heads if their eyes look far away when they summarize a major life event, or when they describe a broken childhood relationship in a matter-of-fact tone. I can sense a whiff of bitterness.

I pay as much attention to what people don’t say as I do to what people say. The rest, I guess, is imagination. I immerse myself in the heads of my characters and let the thoughts flow, often in a stream of consciousness. I often think that someday I might become a psychotherapist because I’m genuinely interested in what happens in people’s minds, seem to have a decent ability to sense what people are thinking and feeling, and would like to help people in the area of mental health.

Balancing motherhood with a successful writing career can be challenging. Can you share some insights into how you juggle parenthood, your personal life, and your professional career, and any advice you might have for other writers navigating similar challenges?

I don’t know if I’ve ever balanced different aspects of my life particularly well, and I’m a tad bit envious of those who can achieve that elusive balance. I had written the first draft or second draft of my novel before I had my first child. But then I went through countless drafts after that, followed by the extremely challenging hunt for a literary agent. And then the grueling hunt for a publisher was followed by a multitude of rejections before my novel finally got accepted for publication.

The only way I was able to revise my drafts, chase literary agents, and weep copiously after a complimentary rejection letter from a desired publisher was because my husband was very supportive and I had a nanny to help take care of the children in the early years.

Unless you’re one of those people who can function normally with little sleep (which is certainly not me), I don’t believe many can balance, or, let’s say, easily balance motherhood, a writing career, a social life, and a workout routine all at the same time.

When my nanny was around, I’d write or catch up on some much-needed rest. Now I do that when my kids are in school and I don’t have other pressing life-related tasks to take care of.

But I will be honest. I have much less time and mental space for writing after having children. Because, for me, writing often starts with me seeking out a variety of experiences and people to spark a story, and unfortunately, I do not have enough time to pursue that. But I don’t lament over (well, maybe sometimes I do) my limited time for my creative endeavors because I enjoy being with my children and realize that my children might need a lot from me now, but that will change in some years. So why not focus on my kids now and research and write when I can? In a decade, I will probably miss my children and have more than enough time to write.

My advice to other writers in similar situations is not to try too hard to juggle everything perfectly and not worry about accomplishing everything at the same time. Let some balls drop. It’s okay. You don’t need to sacrifice your well-being and rest so you can be a perfect parent who attends every birthday party and a prolific writer who publishes a much-acclaimed novel every five years or so. Just do what you can, when you can. And when one is more relaxed in general, creative juices tend to flow more easily.

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