An interview with global superstar author Nalini Singh
AUT journalism school graduate Khalia Strong interviews Mt Roskill-raised Nalini Singh, author of international best-selling paranormal romance novels.
Along the end of a row of shops in the cold shadow of Mt Eden, a woman stands with her phone. She wears celebrity-sized sunglasses and a wide smile. After introducing myself, I enter Circus Circus Cafe for an interview with a global superstar: ladies and gentlemen, introducing the conjurer of werewolves and shapeshifters, New York Times best-selling author 30 times over, frequently spotted on the USA Today and Der Spiegel bestseller lists as well, the international mistress of paranormal romance in human form - Nalini Singh, of… Mt Roskill.
Singh was born in Suva and arrived with her family in New Zealand when she was 10, later attending Mt Roskill Grammar. Humble beginnings for a writer who is the author of 45 books since her first novel Desert Warrior was published in 2003. Our interview was her second act for the day, having spent the morning being interviewed for a podcast in the US.
Beneath the sleek black bob is a masterful mind that weaves intricate stories of vampire hunters, archangels and bare-chested men. As a genre author, her books have been translated into 20 languages. Her books are most popular in the US and Germany. She's also received the Australian Romance Readers Award several times, and won the Sir Julius Vogel award.
Singh was 25 when Desert Warrior was published and she decided to become a full-time writer. She swirls her spoon into her chai latte crystal ball as she delves into her past.
After graduating from Auckland University, Singh worked as a junior lawyer in a major commercial law firm.
"I’d studied for a long time so to give that up was a big deal," she says. "It was my day job. But I sold my first book, and I thought, right, if I’m going to do it, it has to be now."
Singh started writing as a teenager and submitted her first novel when she was 18. The rejection letters in the years that followed formed a stack which she keeps to this day in a folder. Singh had written nine books before an editor in the US picked her book out of the slush pile.
"I had two full time jobs - I was writing two books a year and working," she says.
"Because I was juggling so much at the time, I was really learning to utilise the time that I had. So, if I had half an hour to write, it was 'Just write'. Everything else was turned off, no TV, no whatever. That was actually quite a good skill to learn.
"So, now that I’m a full-time writer, I think of it in the same way. If I have blocks of time where I sit down and the Internet is off and the phone is off, I just write and that’s how I produce. It’s getting into that deep headspace to really write."
Singh sets daily goals for word counts or pages edited, and carves out writing blocks of two hours.
"It’s a fallacy to think that discipline is the enemy of creativity. If you’re disciplined about giving your creative-self space, the creativity thrives.
"We get used to shallow interactions," she muses. "We’re constantly thinking of something else, like Twitter or an email or whatever.
"I read somewhere that each time you are interrupted it takes 15 minutes to get back into the book, so I just literally stopped the potential for interruptions.
"Probably the most important thing I would tell anyone who is wanting to get into the writing zone is that you have to create this bubble of silence around yourself. And it can be as simple as leaving your phone in another room.
"I’m still working on that, in this world with all the internet distractions.
"I read a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport and he talks about how deep work is becoming more and more rare in our world. And that’s what I aim for. Because, in the end, that’s what I’m really passionate about - my writing. I don’t get the satisfaction from being on Twitter for two hours. It’s fun for five minutes, and its fun when I’ve done my work and I’m just playing. But it’s not fun if I look back at my day and see like, 'Oh my God, three hours on online stuff, what was I doing?!?'"
Singh speaks three languages – English, Hindi and Japanese – and credits her days at Mt Roskill Grammar for immersing her in a diverse population.
"It was such an awesome melting pot," she says. "I made so many good friends and I got so many opportunities.
"Living and growing up in Auckland, it’s such a diverse city and I think its definitely affected my books. I’ve always had very diverse characters in my books; that just came out naturally, it wasn’t a thing I consciously did. I didn’t even realise that it was something a little bit different until I started getting letters from all over the world saying, “Wow, it’s so cool to see someone like me.”’
Her own name is a signal to other Indian writers.
"When I was growing up, I never saw an Indian name on a genre book," she says. "Now those names are appearing, and it’s good to have that awareness. If you see people like yourself doing stuff, you think 'Oh, I could do that.' Hopefully, I’m doing a little bit to spread that message as well."
After graduating from Mt Roskill, she studied for her LLB, and worked at a candy factory in Onehunga to pay her way through university.
"It was a little family-run factory, and they were such nice people," she remembers. "They would just give me candy all the time. But this was actually very cunning, because after a while, you can’t stand the sight of candy. I love lava chocolate caramels, and I swear I didn’t eat one for a year after I stopped working there."
She studied at university for five years, and picked up skills that weren’t in the curriculum.
"I’m a creative person, but I’m grateful for my law degree because it taught me to think in quite a rational way. And that’s really important, because basically, every writer is a one-woman business. You are your own employee that you have to manage.
"When I was in law school I would be reading all these legal briefs all day and I’d go home and be working on this romance novel at night. It was completely different, like completely different parts of my brain, but it worked."
Her first editor took a leap of faith to purchase her book at a time when paranormal fantasy was widely believed to be on the way out.
"Paranormal and urban fantasy never died," says Singh. "I always joke that it’s the undead - it always rises."
She wrote a draft of her latest book Wolf Rain on a train travelling between Perth and Sydney. The novel is currently at #8 on the New York Times YT combined print and ebook list, and has frequently appeared in the top 10 Nielsen BookScan chart in New Zealand.
The soundtrack she listened to while writing Wolf Rain was...water.
"I just put my noise-cancelling headphones on, and I play the sound of rain," she laughs. "And sometimes I switch it up by the sound of rivers. It's always some kind of water sound.
"A favourite at the moment is Afternoon in the Ruins which is the sound of stalactite water dripping in the caves.
"It’s all kind of white noise, but it’s really calming and gets me into the headspace and because I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s become a trigger. I put on my headphones, the sound comes on and boom, my brain is like, 'Okay, now we’re writing.'"
Singh usually writes on a laptop, but sometimes uses dictation or handwrites chapters to mix things up, and prefers to edit on paper so she can get deeper into a text.
Her next novel, Madness of Sunshine is a mystery set on the West Coast, and is a step away from her usual genre. The idea for setting a book in New Zealand came from talking with fellow writers: "We were chatting about how New Zealand has the prerequisites of Nordic noir. You’ve got the really low population, lots of empty land where you can bury bodies, really stark, beautiful landscapes and remote locations."
She's just returned from a Nordic location - she took a girls' trip to Norway, with her mother and sister. Singh deliberately schedules breaks in her year when she knows she'll need it.
She says, "When I started, I wrote all the time. I still love writing and I still write on my holidays. But I didn’t understand the idea of balance, of refueling the creative self, and refueling yourself as a person. I’ve just become much better at it as I’ve grown older and more mature. I still have that passionate love for writing but now I know that I’m even better if I give myself those breaks, just to recharge."
As we finish our coffees, I comment that she seems to have the energy to be writing forever.
Her entire body leans forward in agreement.
"I hope so, I love it," she says. "I think that’s the important thing, to be honest - it’s the joy in it. As long as I can keep my joy alive in my work, why wouldn’t I do it forever?"
Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh (Hachette, $29.99)