SW Writer Profile
Nikesh Shukla is a writer of fiction and television.
His new novel, Meatspace , will be released by The Friday Project in July 2014.
His debut novel, Coconut Unlimited was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2010 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2011. Metro described it as '…a riot of cringeworthy moments made real by Shukla’s beautifully observed characters and talent for teen banter.' In 2011, Nikesh co-wrote a non-fiction essay about the riots with Kieran Yates called Generation Vexed: What the Riots Don't Tell Us About Our Nation's Youth. In 2013, he released a novella about food, called The Time Machine , donating all his proceeds to Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation.
His short stories have been featured in the following places: Best British Short Stories 2013, Five Dials, The Moth Magazine, Pen Pusher, The Sunday Times, Book Slam, BBC Radio 4, First City Magazine and Teller Magazine. He has written for the Guardian, Esquire and BBC 2. He has, in the past, been writer in residence for BBC Asian Network and Royal Festival Hall.
His Channel 4 Comedy Lab Kabadasses aired on E4 and Channel 4 in 2011 and starred Shazad Latif, Jack Doolan and Josie Long.
He hosts The Subaltern podcast, the anti-panel discussion featuring conversations with writers about writing. Guests have included Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Teju Cole, James Salter, George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, Evie Wyld, Sam Bain, Alex Preston, Colson Whitehead and more. He also co-hosts a nerdier podcast with sci-fi writer James Smythe, called Meat Up, Hulk Out.
He likes Spider-man comics. A lot.
Author image credit: Aria Alagha
We caught up with Nikesh to talk about his writing.
You’ve just completed your second novel, which is due for publication next year. Is the second novel as difficult as everyone says it is?
Hell boody yes. Oh man, it’s been very difficult. There’s a time-honoured epithet that you have your whole life before your first novel to write your first novel, your second one, a fraction of that. In theory you’ve learnt a lot more about writing since writing your first novel. Maybe technique. Maybe confidence. But, you’ve got a thing that you didn’t have before, expectation. Not from readers. But from yourself, to better yourself and ensure that what you put out surpasses the first novel despite the fraction of time you’ve been given to write it. I had two false starts, an agency who practically held my hand through the drafting of this one and I even wrote a short performance piece about it called ‘Second Novel Syndrome as a Piece of Stand-up Comedy’. But then, people were always really down on the second Strokes album for sounding just like the first, which I adored. And I loved the second one too. So maybe you can repeat yourself but better. I dunno.
Can you tell us about it?
Yes. It’s called Meatspace. It’s about internet stalkers, grief and self-delusion. It’s a comedic novel about a guy whose Facebook doppelganger shows up on his doorstep. He’s a bit of a recluse. He lives his entire life through digital interactions. And slowly, as the doppelganger turns his life upside down, he’s forced to engage with real life (what online gamers charmingly call ‘meatspace’) again. It’s funny. I really wanted to write something about over-familiarity online. The whole started with a friend and me researching tattoos and finding the tattoo my friend wanted on his doppelganger in Google image search. And because it’s so scary how easily you can find everyone, it wasn’t long before we had his Facebook, Twitter, Linked.In. And I thought, wow, that was too easy. Imagine if we turned up at his job to say hello. And thus the book was born.
You recently published a short memoir, The Time Machine, which is a highly personal and moving book. Is your writing always rooted in your personal experience, or was this a difficult book to write?
The Time Machine is very much a piece of fiction. It’s born out of a true event – my mother’s passing and my wanting to learn to cook after eating Tupperware containers of her dishes in the freezer and feeling this was a way of resurrecting her. This was true but the rest of it is definitely fiction. I take a lot from what’s around me and try to fictionalise it, to try and understand it, in a way, see it from all angles. I get that a lot with my writing – because there are recognisable elements in it, I do get friends saying, is this me? Cousins going, am I this person? And I always have to say, don’t be so arrogant. It’s characters in a book. Use your imagination. But yeah, this book was incredibly hard to write because so much of it was based on such a raw emotion, one of the worst you can experience, the helplessness of grief. The inability to do anything with it reminding you of what you’ve lost. Wrapping yourself in guilt, in feelings of how you should have done things. And to sum that up, without it being overwrought, maintaining its universality so it appealed to readers and wasn’t just therapy for me, well, it was tough, but I’m glad I did it. I think it turned out pretty well.
Do you have a writing routine? Do you aim for a certain number of words per day?
I have a day job so I write every morning between 6am and 7.30am. My friend Josie Long recently told me that this is effectively her Golden Game lifestyle model for balancing a busy workday with having creative time. You assign yourself a 90-minute window for purely writing and then you get out there, champ and you play the golden game of your life. You play until you’re carried back into the changing room. You play like you’re player of the match every time. I’ve been doing this for years, just less with a sporting slant. I write before I go to work and I write when I get home for an hour and a half and I think that 3 hours a day is all that I can manage with my day job. That’s what I do. And let me tell you writers who take 10 hours a day to write 1000 words. If you play The Golden Game, you can hit 1,500 words, easily. Especially if you want to be player of the match.
What are you reading at the moment? Do you have a favourite book you’d like to recommend to our readers?
Currently, I’m reading ‘Tape’ by my excellent friend Steven Camden. It’s a YA book about grief, time travel and the cassette tape, a very magnetic object in my life, one I referred to a lot in Coconut Unlimited. It’s really good. He’s a poet called Polarbear and one of the safest guys in the world. And the book is just like him, warm, funny, poignant and full of heart.
Rather than favourite books ever, here’s my favourite few books of the year: ‘All the Birds, Singing’ by Evie Wyld is taut and haunting. ‘The Machine’ by James Smythe is creepy as hell. ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers is a great now-novel about social media companies. And ‘Tenth of December’ by George Saunders is so funny. And creepy. And weird. And playing with your brain. But so brilliant.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
You’re not an aspiring writer. You’re a writer. So go and write. Don’t aspire to be something you already are.
(Meatspace is out on The Friday Project, July 2014. Coconut Unlimited is available now.)