Speaking Up and Unreliable Vocal Chords: A Talk With Maulik Pancholy About NIKHIL OUT LOUD
Here’s how the typical celebrity writes a children’s book for kids:
They don’t. They just don’t. They hire someone to do it for them. Or, if they’re feeling spunky, they’ll whip up a 32-page picture book in 20 minutes and reap the subsequent rewards.
I am not interested in those people. Far more interesting is the celebrity that thinks to themselves, “I’d like to write something for kids that might actually be pretty good and is something that could help them out a lot with some of the issues they’re struggling with.” So what do they write? A friggin’ middle grade NOVEL, my friends! And not just one (even though it goes on to receive three starred reviews and win the occasional Stonewall Honor) but two!
Maulik Pancholy is the kind of actor you’ve probably seen on shows like 30 Rock or Only Murders in the Building. Today he’s talking with me about his new novel NIKHIL OUT LOUD which is probably best described this way:
Thirteen-year-old Nikhil Shah is the beloved voice actor for Raj Reddy on the hit animated series Raj Reddy in Outer Space. But being a star on TV doesn’t mean you have everything figured out behind the scenes. . . .
When his mom temporarily moves them to the small town in Ohio where she grew up to take care of Nikhil’s sick grandfather, Nikhil feels as out of orbit as his character.
Nikhil’s fame lands him the lead in the school musical, but he’s terrified that everyone will realize he’s a fraud once they find out he can’t sing. And when a group of conservative parents start to protest, making it clear they’re not happy with an openly gay TV star being in the starring role, Nikhil feels like his life would be easier if only he could be Raj Reddy full-time.
Then Nikhil wakes up one morning and hears a crack in his voice, which means his job playing Raj will have to come to an end. Life on earth is way more complicated than life on television. And some mysteries—like new friendships or a sick grandparent or finding the courage to speak out about what’s right—don’t wrap up neatly between commercial breaks.
And now, this:
Betsy Bird: Hi, Maulik! Thanks so much for answering my questions today. First off, congrats on the reviews you’ve been getting for NIKHIL OUT LOUD. Kirkus, in their starred review, said, amongst other things, that it contained “squeeworthy joy” (a phrase I am now stealing). Can you tell us a little bit about its origins?
(photo credit: Luke Fontana)
Maulik Pancholy: Hi Betsy! I was excited to see that phrase in the Kirkus review, because even though NIKHIL OUT LOUD takes on some big issues, there’s a lot of joy in the book.
When I was on tour visiting middle schools with my first novel (THE BEST AT IT), a group of conservative parents got angry that an openly gay author had spoken to their kids. These parents wrote a lot of horrible things about my visit online and lobbied to change the school’s policy on assemblies. Later, a number of the kids from this particular school messaged me on social media to say how sorry and hurt they were that this had happened. Which got me thinking – who’s listening to the kids in all this? Where’s their voice?
That was the inspiration for Nikhil. He’s a thirteen-year-old, gay, Indian American boy who actually has a voice – in fact, he’s the star voice on a hit animated series. But when his mom moves them from Los Angeles to a small town in Ohio, he has to find the power in using his own voice to stand up for what he knows is right.
BB: It’s your second middle grade novel thus far. After finishing THE BEST AT IT, did you intend to keep writing for kids or did the urge sneak up on you?
MP: Engaging with middle schoolers who have read THE BEST AT IT continues to be one of my favorite things to do. Watching their eyes light up when they talk about a character they love, or seeing them open up to the emotional journey of the book, is incredibly rewarding. It made me want to write a second novel for kids.
I also think, as far as we’ve come, there’s still a need for more diverse stories for young readers. I wanted to write another book with an Indian American family and a lead gay character, but who had different perspectives and trajectories than the family and characters in my first book.
BB: Whether you’re writing a picture book or a YA slasher, readers are going to read your life into the pages of anything you produce. Kids who were already fans of your previous novel THE BEST AT IT will be particularly keen to parse the truth from the fiction. I don’t think it’s wildly out of the realm of speculation to say that you may well have been a theater kid in your youth, but how much of this book beyond that is autobiographical?
MP: Well, I was definitely a theater kid, so I was able to draw on those experiences for sure. I’m also a voice actor (I play Baljeet on Phineas and Ferb and Sanjay on Sanjay and Craig), so I know what it’s like to get inside a sound booth and disappear into make-believe worlds.
But, I’d say the biggest autobiographical piece is the courage it took me to find my own voice. As an actor, I was given a platform that I wasn’t entirely comfortable using at first – whether it was to speak out on LGBTQ issues or the concerns facing the Asian American community. I’d spent a lot of my life trying to fit in—afraid to be “different”—and I’d thought of acting as a way to disappear. What I’ve learned—and what I think Nikhil learns in this book—is that there is a great power in both being yourself and in using your voice for good.
BB: You’re releasing a book for kids about standing up to hate at a time when book banning and the censorship of LGBTQIA+ titles for children has never been more coordinated or threatening. Was this on your mind at all as you wrote the book? What audience do you hope finds it?
MP: What’s interesting is that I started writing this book before this current, very prominent wave of book bans. Because, as I mentioned, it was already happening to me and to so many other authors on a more personal level. Now, THE BEST AT IT has been outright banned in certain districts, and of course, that could happen with NIKHIL OUT LOUD. The ramifications of this are really horrific, and I think it’s important that we speak out, educate others on how they can help, and vote for candidates who support inclusive curriculums—ones who allow kids to see themselves in the books they read.
I hope NIKHIL OUT LOUD empowers kids to speak out as well–that it lets them know that they have a voice. Whether it’s through a quiet conversation with a grandparent at home, or making art to express themselves, or organizing a rally at their school, they deserve to be heard.
BB: This question is for the busy adult writers out there that have a tricky time balancing writing and their jobs. A full-time actor yourself, when do you find time to write these books? Do you take writing retreats, do a little every evening, etc?
MP: It’s always a bit of a juggling act, to be honest. What I find is that things tend to get busy in spurts – when I’m in full-time rehearsals for a play, or spending long hours on set, it’s more challenging to write. So when there’s downtime from that, I throw myself into my writing and try to get as much accomplished as I can. When multiple things are happening at once, I try to be diligent about carving out time to meet writing deadlines. I often can’t control exactly when that time will be—the projects I’m working on dictate my schedule—but I’ve learned that if I keep showing up to the page it somehow all gets done!
BB: You’re two for two in terms of great reviews. Any desire to try for more? Are there more children’s books on the way or are you good for now?
MP: For sure there are! I’ve really fallen in love with writing. Not only books, but I’m also developing a few scripted series—including a TV adaptation of THE BEST AT IT with HBO Max. I’m excited to write more for the middle grade audience, and I’m also really interested in exploring the YA space.
Thanks to Sammy Brown and the folks at Harper Collins for arranging this interview. NIKHIL OUT LOUD is on shelves everywhere October 11th. And thanks too to Maulik for taking time to talk with me today.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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