On a crisp fall afternoon in Palm Springs, I had the privilege of talking to Maulik Pancholy. I was supposed to attend his book reading in LA but could not make it and settled instead for an online interview.
Maulik has a disarming smile and demeanor. His authenticity and passion lend a rare quality to his sharing, so it felt like we were sitting face to face, as our conversation flowed easily.
Not only is Maulik Pancholy a talented author, whose first book Best At It received the Stonewall Honor, he is also an actor and many of our readers will know him as Jonathan on 30 Rock, Baljeet Tjinder in Phineas and Ferb, Neal in the first season of Whitney, and also as Sanjay Patel in both Weeds and Sanjay and Craig.
Malik is also involved in the community at large. In 2013, President Obama invited Maulik to serve on the President’s Advisory Committee for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Passionate about stopping kids being bullied at school, he co-founded the group Act to Change.
He lives with his husband, Ryan Corvaia, 48, who founded and owns the catering company Dish Food & Events, and their Havanese puppy, Arlo, in Brooklyn Heights and East Hampton.
When I read Nikhil Out Loud, I was very moved. His book has a rare quality of sweetness.
This is a snapshot of our conversation.
KM: Your protagonist is thirteen. How did you keep his voice consistent as a teenager when it Is easy to drift into an adult voice?
MP: I keep in mind that my characters are kids, but they are really smart and have their own voices. The language comes from perspective and how they see the world. They have intelligence and as adults we become jaded, but they are experiencing life for the first time.
KM: Since kids these days rely on technology and social media to communicate, it impacts their language and attitude. How did you capture that in your writing?
MP: From draft to draft my characters become fleshed out. They might start out as clumsy, but they grow into themselves and get a natural grace through rewrites. Soon they are their unique selves. Teenagers are mini adults, and they are moving through the same world we are. I say give them the maturity and sarcasm but tinge their conversations with the fact they are saying some things and feeling some emotions for the first time and their dialog colors that. When Nikhil moves to Ohio he experiences true friendship and what it means to be there for each other.
KM: Tell me about yourself.
MP: I was born in Ohio and moved around, and junior high was in Tampa, FL and then onto school on both coasts, including LA. But Ohio has always had a special place for me. That is where my first book is set.
KM: Why did you pick a thirteen-year-old to be your protagonist?
MP: For most boys, thirteen is the age when one’s voice cracks. I wanted the protagonist, who is a voice actor, to struggle with that. Even though LA is a big city, Nikhil’s world expands when he moves to Ohio to live with his grandparents. In LA he is out to his best friend and mother but in Ohio he is forced to be out to many local residents . He has to question who he will be in the world. I wanted to write a novel for twelve- and thirteen-year-olds who are figuring out who they are and finding their voices. When Nikhil is thrust into the stage spotlight, he is scared, which is a feeling we can relate to as we are all human.
KM: How long did it take you to write Nikhil Out Loud?
MP: I started with a short synopsis in August 2020 and finished in August 2022. I have an amazing editor and one note from her can open up a whole new set of possibilities. I had to dig deeper to discover the character and what he wants.
KM: What is your writing practice? Do you write at a particular time daily or at a particular place?
MP: I have acting commitments so there is no particular schedule. But when I write I have to block off time and then at some point I take a break, walk outside, go to the refrigerator to get a snack… I have to say that the Notes app on my iPhone has been a lifesaver. I find that riding the subway in New York or in airplanes has so much life, but also isolation. Weird and new ideas seem to come from those spaces
KM: Is the mother’s character in Nikhil Out Loud just like yours?
MP: She is different. I dedicated this book to my mom. She taught me about being brave and was courageous on my behalf.
KM: If there is one message you want the reader to take away, what would it be?
MP: In this book, Nikhil realizes that courage and anxiety can coexist. I hope that young readers can see that it is OK to be afraid and speak out loud and that in some ways if you experience that fear, you are on the right track.