Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A Conversation with Nikesh Shukla

Nikesh Shukla is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Meatspace, which according to The Guardian, captures a cultural moment, 'Like Douglas Coupland's Generation X'. 'Buzzing with streetwise smarts and satirical barbs, it's a thoughtful, often hilarious, meditation on a young writer's loneliness in the digital age.' Independent on Sunday. 

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. This won Best Novella at the Sabotage Awards. He also wrote the short film Two Dosas and the Channel 4 sitcom Kabadasses.

We're so pleased that Nikesh agreed to be interviewed and especially at such short notice, and all so that we could include him in #diverseauthorday. We think you'll agree that his answers are not just interesting but funny too. And we're lucky to have caught him before he dashes off to be a stand-up comic!

1. Tell us of your journey as a writer

Well, I spent much of my twenties avoiding spending the amount of time you should spend writing to get good at it because I was trying to be a rapper. I was in a bunch of bands, I rapped above pubs, outside record shops, made bland political statements and I was okay. I was just okay. So when the realisation that I was only ever going to be okay set in, I turned my attention to writing. I started with a bunch of short stories with a loose narrative, thought I was a genius because it was the first thing I’d ever properly written. I then wrote something else, was gutted that its genius wasn’t recognised, and then I sat down to write Coconut Unlimited, which I knew I loved, instantly, and I knew it would get published, and I knew it was an important book for me, because it was easy to write. Not that there weren’t difficult times, but because I had the resilience to bash through those difficult times. And then, after a lot of rejection and persistence, and weird comments (see this blog here: http://www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk/nationalconversationfourexamplesofdiversityinpublishingbynikeshshukla.aspx) it eventually got published, and now I can’t stop, won’t stop.

2. How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

It’s frivolous. What I’m doing isn’t important in any way other than I’m providing, I hope, entertainment to readers. I’m not writing stone cold classics. I’m not answering the important questions of our time (although I do ask questions important to me in all of my work). I’m doing it because I enjoy writing and I enjoy reading. I enjoy making people laugh and laugh and I enjoy the ability to tell them an emotional story that they laugh all the way through until the end when I give them something poignant to hold on to. And that’s not clever or big or intellectual or important, it’s frivolous. The most important thing I do is, as a brown author who doesn’t write frangipani literature with all the tropes and stereotypes people have come to expect of South Asian authors, I exist. I am here. And I defy the stereotypes of what is expected of authors from the South Asian Diaspora. And because I do that simply by being alive, that’s good enough for me.

3. Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

Yes. Aziz in Meatspace is a horrendous person. He’s the embodiment of the douche bro culture online, like the utterly morally bereft idiot men pulling pranks on YouTube or railing against women in comments or being all high five-y about sports on Saturdays on Twitter. That’s him, really. He’s the embodiment of all that. But he’s also fearless and funny and fun and I like his voice. I’d probably be friends with him but wonder why a lot.

4. If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

The window box in the Pervasive Media Studio in the Watershed where I work for my dayjob. I edit a magazine there. The window box is a little table encased in light, and it hides away from the rest of the studio. I do a lot of thinking there.

5. What is the one book you wish you had written?

The book I’m writing now. I wrote two novels avoiding writing this one, because it’s so personal, which is a joke because people tend to assume my work’s really autobiographical. I’m writing it now because I’m ready to feel good enough to write it.

6. What advice do you have for would be novelists?

The abundance of writing tips out there should tell you one thing. No one knows anything. If they did, there would only be one book of writing tips. Find the writing tips that work for you. Find the schedule that works for you. But remember, regularity is key, and if regularity, for you, means writing in the same slot every day/week, bloody do it, mate.

7. What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

A book for teens, two television projects, a film project, another film project, my next book for adults, and an instructional guide for my daughter about life.

8. A diverse book I’d recommend 

Family Life by Akhil Sharma. It’s wonderful. It deals with the immigrant experience, alcoholism, depression and being a carer in a family with someone with a disability so well. It’s weird, funny, strange, concise and utterly emotionally destroying. It’s brilliant.

You can follow Nikesh on Twitter: @nikeshshukla 

Friday, 18 September 2015

Rawblood by Catriona Ward



Catriona Ward was born in Washington, DC and now lives in London working for a human rights foundation. Rawblood is her first novel and is released on 24th September 2015.

Rawblood is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Iris Villarca is eleven years old and, against her father’s instructions, has one friend – Tom Gilmore. It is 1910 and Iris lives alone with her father at Rawblood, a magnificent mansion on Dartmoor. They are the only two remaining in the Villarca line. Iris is told that a congenital disease, Horror autotoxicus, runs in the family and she is forbidden to have friends of any sort in order to avoid courting the disease. This is just one of the rules laid down by her father.  It is only when Iris grows older and realises her father has lied that she dares to fall in love and the full force of the Villarca curse becomes apparent.

Through the halls of Rawblood she walks. A malevolent and sinister spirit with a disturbing agenda. She will not rest until she has achieved her purpose but what does she want from the Villarcas? Why does she torment all those who get close?

This chilling novel, full of terror and menace, is also infused with all the human emotions of love and devotion, betrayal and hate. It is grim and at the same time poignant. Harrowing yet engaging. The language is poetically descriptive.

“The Villarca blood is dark and strong. The Villarca temper is furious, sublime; full of poetry and madness. We seek the light, ever…but we never find it.”

This Gothic novel, with its supernatural theme, is told from the viewpoint of multiple characters and the past is thread into the nine years through which Iris’ story spans. It moves through various time periods in irregular order, which does require a degree of concentration to follow the timeline.  The voice of each character is unique and Catriona has captured the period and the disposition of each personality through well written narrative.

Although occasionally paragraphs can be difficult to comprehend, the details are beautifully scripted and never over described. The dark themes which are weaved into the story, although sometimes disturbing, serve only to enhance empathy with the characters rather than to shock.

At the beginning of the story, Rawblood is interpreted from the old language to mean “The house by the bridge over flowing water.”- a nice gentle name. It is apparent over time however that the name has a more sinister connotation.

Rawblood is a well plotted ghost story with a twist. Sometimes a challenging read but one worth embracing. It requires full attention to appreciate the intricacies of the plot and anyone who likes a story of the supernatural kind will love this book. Unlike many ghost stories the ending to Rawblood is convincing and does not disappoint.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

A Conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink

Cathy Rentzenbrink, like most authors, has a profound love of reading. She says it is her ‘comfort, pleasure, hobby and addiction’. Cathy was born in Cornwall and grew up in Yorkshire. After the traumatic death of her much loved brother Matty she moved to London and worked in Waterstones’ bookshops for ten years.

Cathy is currently Project Director for the charity Quick Reads which helps people all over the world who struggle with basic literacy skills. She is also Associate Editor of The Bookseller and We Love This Book. These roles require Cathy to speak on television and radio and write for newspapers and magazines on a whole range of issues relating to literacy and literature.

Cathy joins host Nikki Bedi on BBC Radio London for a book club programme aired each month.



Cathy’s memoir The Last Act of Love is an honest and moving account of the devastating tragedy that shattered her family one summer’s night in 1990.  Cathy was just seventeen when her brother Matty, aged sixteen, was knocked down by a car as he walked home after an evening out with friends. Cathy prayed for Matty to live and her prayers were answered. It was some time before she realised that she had prayed for the wrong thing.

It is a book that will resonate with many who have been through their own personal grief - and for those who have not it enhances gratitude for being spared such pain. Cathy’s story conveys the strength of love that she and her parents had for Matty by their devotion to his care but it also shows the destructive nature of guilt that can accompany such a powerful love.

The Last Act of Love is beautifully written, tremendously sad in parts but exudes affection and dedication throughout.  A brilliant book with an extract available.

We thank you Cathy for answering our questions and wish you good luck for the future.

Tell us of your journey as a writer
I wanted to make up stories from the moment I knew they existed. I didn’t plan to write The Last Act of Love at all but the story line kept arriving uninvited in all the novels I was trying to write. An author friend said I should just get the story out of me and not worry if it ended up in a drawer. So, I started and then gradually realised that the pages I was making could become a book.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?
I’m much more used to being a reader than a writer and still feel very cautious even about describing myself as a writer. It took me until I was 41 to finish a book so I feel superstitious about assuming that I can do it again. What I like most about it is the sense of achievement in having wrestled so complex a story on to the page and I love hearing from readers and talking to them at events. I especially like it when people ask questions that make me think in a way that I haven’t quite before and I often learn something new about myself and my book by honestly answering questions about it.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?
All the time. And generally in life I empathise with people who might not be very pleasant. I tend to think that no one wants to behave badly, so, if they are, those actions are coming from a place of pain. A character without flaws would be rather dull, in life as well as in literature.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?
I’d like to be next to the sea, but not anywhere too hot. So, I’d take Cornwall if the magic machine could guarantee no rain. I love writing in Cornwall – I was born there and my parents live there – but it does rain a lot. I like to be able to go out for walks and look at down the sea from the cliffs when I feel a bit stuck. I love watching the waves crash against the cliffs and dreaming up stories of smugglers and wreckers.

What is the one book you wish you had written?
I don’t really think like that because it feels like any book could only be the product of the person who has made it. I suppose, following on from the last question, I admire the way Daphne du Maurier writes about Cornwall. I’d love to be able to pour suspense into a story the way she does in Jamaica Inn or Rebecca. In general, I envy writers who are prolific. I have so many ideas and it takes me so long to turn one of them into anything that I fret about the others. I wish I was faster.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?
Just go for it. Buy a notebook and write down some words. Try not to waste your time and energy on self-doubt, as that is an inescapable part of the creative process. Don’t argue with that nasty voice telling you you’re rubbish, just ignore it and accumulate more words. Read a lot and widely and consider a course if you can afford it. I did an Open University module that was very useful in making me write, rather than mope around thinking that I wasn’t good enough. If you can’t afford it or fit it into your life, then think about other ways to introduce structure and discipline. There are lots of good books about writing. A Novel in a Year by Louise Doughty would be a good place to start.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?
I’m in the beginning stages of a novel and trying to follow all my very good advice about self-doubt, above.

You can follow Cathy on Twitter: @CathyReadsBooks
Last Act of Love is published by panmacmillan


Sunday, 6 September 2015

Novel Focus Group

Ever dreamed of writing a novel?

Now you can! Greenacre Writers have a new writing group starting in October. Places are limited and will be allocated on a first come first served basis. Allen Ashley will run a new Novel Focus Group that will concentrate on writers who wish to start a novel.

The plan is to have a one-hour monthly meeting plus some feedback in between meetings. When people are writing novels they are going to want a bit of extra feedback so Allen has decided to build this in to the overall plan. This means that the cost will be £10 per session which includes one remote feedback. 

Members will have to pay for the whole term (three sessions) in advance as this encourages commitment and also, unlike his other groups, the work will be consecutive so writers can’t really drop in and drop out as they choose.

The sessions will take place Friern Barnet Community Library, Friern Barnet Road, N11 3DS., as follows:

6.30pm to 7.30pm Friday 16 October 2015;
6.30pm to 7.30pm Friday 13 November 2015;
6.30pm to 7.30pm Friday 11 December 2015

If you are interested in joining this group; email: greenacrewriters@gmail.com

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Greenacre Writers (July) Book Club Reviews
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014) by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler is the award-winning author of three short story collections and six novels, including her bestselling The Jane Austen Book Club (2004). She is an American author of science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction. Her work often centers on the nineteenth century, the lives of women, and alienation. Her latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a remarkable story of a seemingly ordinary American family, where behavioral science trumps love, where a chimp is a sister, and daughters are research subjects.

Ruth Cohen:

I read "We are all completely beside ourselves" and really enjoyed it.

I thought it was well constructed, very funny in places, loved the early scene with Harlow for example, and very poignant. The scene with Harlow typified the subtlety of the book, as funny as it was, later you realise that Rose was responding to Harlow in a chimp way and manifesting chimp behaviour.

I liked the suspense build ups, not knowing at first that Fern was a chimp, the characters and relationships in the family ( what happened to Rose's mother, what sort of people were her parents, ambiguity about time, when things happened, were Rose's needs sacrificed to Fleurs? etc etc). In fact the use of time was well done, starting in the middle and keeping one guessing so that my views of the characters and what really happened and when kept changing as another fact was revealed.

My only quibble was the element of didactism that crept in. Admittedly, I did not know about all the twin studies, and the animal cruelty is horrific. But too often we were given so much information that for me it took away from the story which I think exemplified the issues dramatically enough without having them pushed in your face.

However overall a fascinating book, a real page- turner, and one I had never heard of but would recommend. Thank you to whoever suggested it.

Mumpuni Murniati:

When I was five, my parents started to live. For someone dear to them had not 'gone', was still living in spite of his prognosis. 
Their first child was then eleven years old and severely disabled. Doctors said most likely he would not have reached ten. I understand how to love 'a sibling' so different yet so similar. I didn't fully realise until I was 10 that he was not 'normal'. He was my brother; never mind he wasn't like a brother most girls had known.

And therefore Rosemary's jumbled of emotions and quirkiness are two things to which I can relate throughout the book. Fowler's depictions are intriguing but not surprising; she's shaped her protagonist very well that only shows her maturity as an author. Also, she has an authority - childhood experience- on the subject of animal experiment. I love Rosemary's use of language and how each word is incorporated in a situation. I used to like 'strange' and 'taboo' words (basically I love words) and grew up faster due to my brother's condition.


And yet Rosemary's loss is surreal to me. There are things on the book that do not make sense. On the one hand, her responses by creating 'Mary' and grieving for Lowell's non-existing physical appearance are natural. On the other, it's strange she isn't able to work out where Fern has gone much sooner and even joined in with her brother to release her, given she's worshipped Lowell. Have I missed something? Or does the author mean that Rose has actually realised where Fern has been kept but decided not to do 'anything stupid' other than just being near to her?


From personal experience I understand the sudden disappearance of a sibling would have been like a typhoon that had swept anything in her way. Unfortunately, I see only little Rosemary's strong reactions other than her loneliness and her being unconfident in forming and acknowledging a friendship. In fact, it is her mother's 'inability to function' for sometime and her later acts to resolve what she should have done long time ago that speak a lot to me.
Does Rosemary seem to accept it just because she is a small child when separated from her sister? I doubt it. Yes, Fern is irreplaceable - not even Harlow can help. But no, Rose is neither ill nor angry nor continually nags about Fern to her parents. Instead she learns to accept it. I'm astonished. Although in my case it's different: I knew my brother wouldn't come back (to Earth) because he was 19 years old when he died. Only 10% of hypsarrhythmia sufferers would live beyond 10 years old. My brother died in 1988. For years afterwards I still missed him very much although I didn't understand I'd been grieving. The first two chapters in the book capture my subconscious sense of loss wonderfully and they actually made me think of him again.

Despite the missing 'puzzle pieces' in the plot, I believe the novel is highly commendable. For its great title, for the strong characterisation in Rosemary, for discussing the issues that make someone a human, for digging deep into what makes a family a family and for making me smile and reflect in some scenes.