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Real selves: Nikesh Shukla and ‘Meatspace’

Real selves: Nikesh Shukla and ‘Meatspace’

July 31 2014

A new novel charts the rise of social media and the impact it can have on individuals struggling to find their ‘real’ place in the world…

FUNNY, insightful and already glowingly reviewed, novelist Nikesh Shukla’s second book “Meatspace” is a prescient reflection on modern forms of communication and comes four years after his debut novel, “Coconut Unlimited“, which garnered much praise, a couple of book prize nominations and a place in the hearts of rapping wordsmiths…he’s back at it…both the rapping and the writing…

ACV: Tell us a little about “Meatspace”…What inspired you to write it?

Nikesh Shukla (NS):I had three experiences where the internet felt too close for comfort.

1) My mother died the week my first novel came out and I had this weird situation where I was privately grieving and publicly tweeting incessantly about my book, being all happy and charming and it was a weird dichotomy. A friend asked how I was and I told them, sad because mum had passed away and they were annoyed because they had no idea. I hadn’t tweeted about it. Which scared me.

2) I was debating tattoos with my best mate Rob and we got into the idea of a bow tie tattoo so you always looked smart. We did a Google image search to see what came up and the first picture in the image search was an exact doppelganger for my friend Rob. We were weirded out. Then we went into a Google hole and within five minutes had found all his social networks. We knew all these facts about this stranger.

3) For years I was the only Nikesh Shukla on Facebook. Then in 2010 another one appeared. And I started to wonder how similar we were.

ACV: How different was it from writing your first novel, “Coconut Unlimited”? Did you feel more confident this time around? In a previous interview* (about the £1 short story for charity, “The Time Machine“), you raised the idea of the ‘second novel’ syndrome, where the first is always fuelled by a very strong passion, but the second not as much…

NS: Nope. I felt more nervous. Because I had something to measure everything against. A book that people read and liked or disliked and paid for with their own money. Before, with “Coconut Unlimited“, I didn’t even think it’d get published at one point, so everything felt like a bonus, everything felt like a piece of wonder. Whereas this time, maybe being more cynical or more conscious of what to expect or just even the act of having an expectation felt different. And that put a lot of pressure on me to get it right. And it took three different drafts of three different books to do this.

Nikesh Shukla Five essential ACV questions
1.Who or what most inspired in your line of work, career or just life in general(from near and far)?
NS:Three people have given me three pieces of key advice in my writing life and they've changed the course of who I am: Niven Govinden (author), Josie Long (comedian) and Jamie Coleman (my agent) have all said important things that have dramatically affected my creative process.
2.What would count as an ambition still to be fulfilled?
NS:I'd love to write a book for teenagers, and a film. I'd also like to be a contestant on a game show.
3. What’s the best advice someone has ever given you? And the worst?
NS:The best one I quote a lot is from Josie Long: 'Sometimes if you want something to exist you have to make it for yourself.' The worst: I've read a lot of writing tips in my time and the worst ones are the ones that make you think there's a formula to any of this.
4. What’s your favourite place (other than home) and why?
NS:A restaurant called Tiffins in Bristol. They talk Gujarati to me when I feel homesick for London.
5. What would you tell your 18-year-old self?
NS:Stop watching 'The Wire' after season 4. The last season is really terrible.

ACV: Are you trying to tackle what you see as a particular social phenomena or rage – where existence in the virtual world overrides your real existence and relationships?

NS: I wanted to explore what happens when we lie about ourselves online to present the best version of ourselves and we then have to readjust how people see us in real life based on the lies we tell online. What is that doing to our personalties? Are we becoming schizophrenic? Who are we? Are we the people we say we are or the people we have to act like we are because of what we say we are online? Who am I? The person the tweet’s about or the person who wrote the tweet.

ACV:That idea of a different self-online or in social media is very seductive…is that what your central character is essentially wrestling with?

NS: All the characters are wrestling with the idea of a different self online. Kitab wants respect, kudos, validation from his online interactions. He wants to be viewed as somebody. He mistakes digital interactions for real-life meaningful ones.

The second Kitab, he thinks that everything we write about ourselves (he’s younger, represents the younger freer generation of people who live online entirely. He’s a digital native) is true and who we say we are online is ourselves, and we are friends based on these fringe interactions. And Aziz sees the blog as the ultimate storytelling device because it allows you live in the moment and report on it simultaneously, with all the feedback it comes with.

ACV: To be honest, when we come to a novel these days, we want to get away from 140 characters and short facebook posts and emails. We want to luxuriate in a piece of writing that goes on a bit and isn’t full of these sorts of artificial restraints and then we find novels like this. It can be a little off-putting at first and on first glance, but how would you counter that?

NS: I’m telling a story about how we live now steeped in our primary methods of communication. I feel like the stuff that bogs Jane Austen down is all that letter-writing. Who reads letters these days? To be honest, when I first started writing this book, it was because of an absence of writing about who we are at digital dot right now. It appears a lot of other writers, like Dave Eggers, Tao Lin, and others, all had similar feelings.

ACV: Who are your favourite writers, who inspires you? And why?

NS: I’m really bad at reading classics. I tend to read a lot of contemporary stuff. Maybe because I was scared off reading classic books at school and the one author we studied who resonated with me was Irvine Welsh. So, I love writers like Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith and Junot Diaz. They’re all big stylists but they’re also interested in storytelling. They write beautifully. I also love the work of Colson Whitehead. He makes me laugh more than any other author.

ACV: What would you say to an aspiring writer who wants to have his or her novel published (physically as a book and by a traditional publisher)? Is that idea dead? Is developing an audience on social media important or vital to this? Or can you do things the old way, write, get an agent and a book deal, without a presence or audience in social media?

NS: Write the best book you can that is true to you, your worldview, your key assets of storytelling and your voice. Everything else – agents, self-publishing, social media – it’s all bullshit till you’ve written the best book you can.

There’s no formula for any of this. So write the best book you can.

ACV: The reviews for “Meatspace” have been very good…you seem surprised…

NS: I’m always surprised if anyone wants to read anything I’ve done. It’s a nice surprise. It’s wonderful. I try not to take anything for granted, least of all, moving a reader to have a reaction, good or bad.

ACV: Who would you invite to your own very special dinner party and what would you cook for them? You have a maximum of six guests and they can be from the past or present.

NS: Probably my mum, dad, sister, wife and my cousins Leena and Krupa. I’d cook for them the dishes we all grew up on and chat about the good ol’ days. Does that sound cheesy? Haha, yeah it sounds well cheesy. I dunno – there’s like four friends I have from four different friendship groups and I know, if I got them all in a room together for dinner (still the food I grew up on, shaak roti, dhal bhatt), it would be the funniest evening of all of our lives. They would all make me laugh my ass off. They’re the funniest people I know. I just need to engineer this. (ACV: Tell us about it and film it!)

ACV: What country would you most like to visit and why?

NS: Japan. For the food, dude. Mostly for the food.

ACV: Who would you most like to feature in your forthcoming subaltern podcasts*?

NS: I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve had everyone I’ve always wanted on the show. It’s sad that due to time, I can’t continue it. I really wanted to get the comedian Stewart Lee, who’s a big influence of mine on the show but that would have been too sycophantic. But yes, due to timing, it’s all likely to stop this year.

ACV: What of the future….more novels, TV or film screenplays? Does any or all of this interest you…?

NS: I love writing – no matter what the execution. There’s a third novel in the works, a short film we made based off one of my short stories, I’m working on a film idea and many more short stories. I would love to write a book for teenagers if I can. I love writing. The very act of it is a pleasure and a nuisance and exactly what I need in my life so I’ll write all the dang day if I’m allowed.

The rap at his launch (quality is not great, but you get the idea…)

The official ‘Meatspace’ rap

*Nikesh Shukla’s work has been published in a wide range of publications, including The Guardian and Esquire and he has been a writer in residence at the BBC Asian Network and the Royal Festival Hall.
In 2011 out came “Generation Vexed: What the Riots Don’t Tell US About Our Nation’s Youth“, along with Kieran Yates and in the same year, he wrote “Kabadasses” a Channel 4 comedy, starring Shazad Latif, Jack Doolan and Josie Long.
There was then the novella, “The Time Machine“, which is a very touching and keenly felt exploration of bereavement, loss and classic Guju dishes and Shukla’s share of the £1 e-book went to the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation. More here.
In his spare time when not working, he hosts The Subaltern Podcast, which he describes as being an ‘anti-panel’ discussion featuring conversations with writers about writing. Authors Zadie Smith, Jennifer Egan and Sam Bain, among others, have featured.
He is married and lives in Bristol.
He is now resting (after the flurry of promotional activity around “Meatspace“) but probably not for very long…

tnMeatspaceCoverHighRes‘Meatspace’ by Nikesh Shukla, The Friday Project, purchase

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture


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