Mallika is the author of two adaptations of classics for children—the Ramayana: The Quest to Rescue Sita and Peter Pan in the POP! Lit for Kids series (WS Education, 2021). She Never Looks Quite Back is her first collection of short stories published by Penguin Random House SEA on 14 December 2021, and is a Singapore Literature Prize Finalist. Mallika is the founder of Gaia Discovery media (gaiadiscovery.com) and provides communications-related services (gaiaconsultglobal.com). She is passionate about wildlife and the underwater world. She lives in Tasmania where she loses track of time while walking in forests. Picture credit: Mark Thomson.
When did you start writing this collection?
It has been a long and winding road. I wrote poetry and nonsensical stories when I was a preteen, later earnestly in college for our literary newsletter, which my creative friends and I managed from design to print. Thereafter, when I began to work, climbed the proverbial corporate ladder and raised a family, my writing interest fell by the wayside. Interestingly, the first story in the book “The Swirl” came to me in a dream when I was in my late thirties during a tumultuous relationship break up. My children were only 10 and 12 then and rather fragile, so I was disillusioned. But after that fantastical story came to me in a dream, after writing it so as to preserve it, that re-kindled the love for writing within me again.
I continued to write as a single parent and work professional but only as and when a story idea hit me, and whenever I could make the time, which often was before the children rose for school. By the time my children were in their late twenties, I had only written 20 short stories. I chose 13 of these for the manuscript submission to Penguin Random House SEA in 2017. The collection She Never Looks Quite Back was finally published in December 2021 Yes, the process of book publishing with an established brand can be rather long. “Patience” is a new entry in my life dictionary!
What are the themes in your stories?
I did not set out to write on specific topics but now that they are bunched together, surprisingly, certain commonalities emerge. Upon reflection, my writing tends to steer towards everyday issues such as nature and the environment, war and reconciliation, migration, social displacement, pandemic, even fraught marital relationships.
The characters are set in different countries and cities: Singapore, where I was born and raised; Malaysia, where I spent lots of time exploring nature; Tasmania, my home now; Poland and Africa, where the struggles of people during war and migration have been reimagined. Ryk Goddard of ABC Radio Breakfast Show in Hobart, in his interview with me, picked up on the resilience in women as an overarching theme in my stories, which I was surprised to hear, because I had just wanted to capture people’s entanglement in complex situations. But the protagonists were also strong. Maybe I write intuitively. But one thing is for sure, the protagonists were usually swept away by surprising turn of events, yet not losing their resolve to survive or create change for the better. Female voices dominate; once again, this was not a conscious choice.
Do you have a favourite story in this collection, or one you’re most proud of?
That’s a tough question. In the 13 stories of She Never Looks Quite Back, it would be a close fight between “The Liquid Goalie” and “Katarzyna’s Secret”. Both were written rather in the last five years. “The Liquid Goalie” is about a young African woman’s precarious journey from The Gambia to Europe—a true but reimagined story about a well-loved national footballer. I used metaphorical elements such as migrating birds, vicious orca chasing squeaking dolphins, to accentuate migration’s precarity and the protagonist’s courage. In “Katarzyna’s Secret”, a Polish mother’s separation from family and subsequent sexual abuse at a brothel during World War ll was described through flashbacks and some word patterns, almost poetic, to create a visual effect. These two stories are more technical in structure, and are deliberately crafted to elicit certain reactions. Literary richness does matter in the short story form.
You had a story set in Tasmania too. What’s was the inspiration behind that?
That’s “Elvis on my iPad”. It was written pretty soon after I had met an elderly woman who had contacted me on Gumtree to buy my advertised used iPad. During the hour-long chat on a bench outside K-Mart in Launceston, she told me her life story, peppered with questions about the iPad. I was struck by what she had revealed about her loss of home and loved ones at Arthur River, which to me was even more tragic because she spoke plainly, sometimes cheerfully about her purchase. There were layers of sadness there and so well disguised, I thought. She loved Elvis, the reason for getting the iPad. That very afternoon, I went straight home and sat in front of my computer. “Elvis on my iPad” was written in the first-person voice—that woman’s voice, essentially—describing her past life at wild and windy Arthur River, in contrast with the manicured lawns of Launceston, and of the cray fishing with her late husband, but not anymore. I tried to capture the waves of her loss with switches between present and past narratives, focusing on the sensitivities in voice.
How long does it normally take you to write a short story? Can you describe the editing process?
Sometimes it’s rather quick: an idea pops into my head when I’m out on a walk or reading the news or yakking with someone. Three hours later, bam, it’s on my computer screen with The End written in caps (what a satisfaction to write that!). A few, however, have taken days. These are typically the ones that have sub-plots or requiring research. But what I do always is to first write the story, that is, make it a priority to get the storytelling done. Facts and research come later. So I try not to stop writing to browse the internet for the right year or geographical name in pursuit of factual accuracy, for instance, so as not to disrupt the flow.
When I’m in my writing space, I try as much as possible, not to let distractions creep in. So yeah, I try not to look at the phone. Once I’ve written the draft of my story, often what I call a skin and bones version, thereafter, I’ll do the research, make notes of facts, make a separate note of the characters in the story and how they come across physically (can readers see this person in their minds?), maybe even a timeline sheet for factual accuracy for historical events, and so on. I only go back to my first draft a couple of days later at the earliest with my red pen (purple’s better for the ego, though)! A printout is always better for vetting as it prevents me from making knee-jerk edits such as shifting paras or changing words until I’ve read the whole story. I circle, draw arrows, put question marks, even exclamation marks. Hateful stuff!
Once I’m somewhat happy with the story (writers are never completely happy with self-edits), I let two or three people I trust—usually with editorial background—to read and comment on my draft. That’s always a helpful stage of the editing process, and I’ve learnt to accept feedback no matter how hard it might be to swallow. Following another round or two of revision or self-edits, I am prepared to share the story with the rest of the world, if that’s what it is for.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I knew that writing would be a big part of my life, but I never ever dreamed of being a writer. I had wanted to be many things—a literature teacher, creative director, marine biologist, literary scholar, aquatic explorer, conservationist… this list has not stopped growing. A few of these I have been. I can now add “author” to this list. Maybe even “poet”, after having written a hundred poems just on fall and winter in kunanyi. Just maybe!
In any case, I have just begun to write nearly full time now after three decades of being a corporate slave while raising children on my own. Sometimes we need to wait for the right time before we can devote ourselves completely (or nearly completely) to our art. For me, the time has come. It has been a long wait. And the time and place now in Tasmania are just right. Just hope I make enough money from my books to keep me going!
Describe your writing routine. Do you write every day?
I try to write every day after hearing that’s what prolific authors do. I get writing tips from watching author’s lectures on Masterclass.com. That portal has been extremely helpful as I did not go to a writing school. RL Stine on Masterclass.com shares his routine—he writes 1,000 words each day at 9am after having breakfast and walking his dog. He stops when he reaches 1,000 words even if that’s in the middle of a sentence. He picks up the next day where he had left the sentence hanging. I tried this too, but set a low target of 500 words (I hate disappointing myself). Even then, some days, I only write 300 words. Sad!
I try to discipline myself in writing every morning after my morning cuppa. On days when I don’t feel like it, I just browse through what I have written, fiddle with a sentence, or work on my notes, to see if there are gaps in the timeline sheet or characterisation notes. So I have gone from writing whenever I feel like it to writing because it is my job. That writer’s block we talk about is a luxury I can no longer afford. Verses from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” come to mind now:
“But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near”
I now tell myself; I have no choice. There’s much to write but so little time!
What is the best piece of writing advice you have picked up on your journey?
Keep detailed notes of the characters in your story to the point of them coming through larger than life with vivid descriptions of what they do, how they move or talk, and so on. Stereotypes don’t cut it no more. Salman Rushdie said that on Masterclass.com. His lectures and workshops there are brilliant, by the way, so are his books; I hope he recovers well enough to be able to write again.
Once the characters are dissected on paper, parts of the human come together easily enough during descriptive writing. Dialogues come naturally too because no two persons speak or move alike. People watching helps strengthen the observation power especially in capturing mannerisms and speech patterns, but don’t get caught staring!
What are the best and most challenging aspects of being a writer?
If I have a completed manuscript in my hand that tells the story that needed telling, that would be my pride and joy. I’ll literally be jumping around elated. Next of course, would be getting published. That is often a highlight, if one chooses to share one’s work to others. Publishing is not without its challenges though: these could be anything from finding the right kind of publisher or agent, negotiating the contract, going through rounds of edits, rewrites, and having to make compromises on editorial aspects. Authors like myself and others I’ve spoken to often spend way too much time promoting their own books when marketing support from publishers has been lacking. That can be hard, especially when all the writer wants to do, is write.
You started the Pub to Park Storytelling series. Tell us more about it.
I wanted to find a way of sharing locally written stories to as many people as possible, and the way to do it I figured was to hold storytelling events at different venues in Tasmania. Why wait for writer’s festivals to hear stories? As my short stories have scenes that take place at pubs and nature parks, I had an idea of staging the storytelling at such places to communicate a sense of place especially in significant places along with the message in the stories. I’d really like to reach out to communities in small towns and villages so that they do not miss out on the arts.
I’ve had three Pub to Park sessions thus far – at the Fern Tree Tavern (moderated by Cr Zelinda Sherlock), Pipeline Track on kunanyi (intimate nature-based storytelling to kids mostly) and Devil’s Door in Launceston. I invited Adam Thompson, the author of story collection Born Into This, to join me at the last event. People respond positively to these sessions, so, I’ll keep organising them, hopefully with some sponsorship to cover costs. Writers may contact me if they are keen to join me at reading publicly-more information can be found on my website Mallika the Writer | ‘Pub to Park’ Storytelling. They may also drop me a note here.
Is there another collection on the horizon, or perhaps a novel?
I said earlier I had no choice, but to write. So yes, my next one is a biggee. It is a novel based on historical incidents, mainly environmental disasters that were partly caused by humans, partly by climate change. It is also set in Malaysia, deep in the forest, inhabited by the indigenous peoples. I’ve travelled to the highlands for my self-funded research in the last five years and have written nearly 20,000 words, after many pauses and disruptions. Really pleased to dust off the manuscript again! I am also committed to finishing it as the victims (all true) were socially displaced while others were harmed by flooding in torrential rains and bursting river banks, thanks to unscrupulous hydropower dam management. And many have yet to be compensated for their loss and suffering adequately. So, I feel a moral responsibility to write it.
Another manuscript for middle graders in the fantasy genre has been completed—something I had worked on since my children were little—but only found time recently to revise it to an acceptable standard, in my view. Yes, timing is everything. I’m hoping a good publisher will pick it up.
I hope to sell a billion copies of my books so that I can retire early and grow that permaculture garden I am dreaming of at a Tasmanian countryside! Maybe I should just go back to dreaming!