We are, once again, very fortunate to have another fantastic panel of judges for this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize. In the 3rd in a series of interviews with this year’s judges, it’s a real thrill to welcome celebrated writer, Nikesh Shukla, to the website.
Nikesh’s debut novel, Coconut Unlimited was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2010 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2011. He, also, co-wrote a non-fiction essay about the 2011 riots with Kieran Yates called Generation Vexed: What the Riots Don’t Tell Us About Our Nation’s Youth, and a recent novella about food, called The Time Machine, donating all his proceeds to Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation. His short stories have been widely published and broadcast including in Best British Short Stories 2013, Five Dials, The Sunday Times, Book Slam and on BBC Radio 4. He has written for the Guardian, Esquire and BBC 2. His second novel, Meatspace, will be published this July by The Friday Project.
How did you feel the first time something that you’d written was published?
The first thing I ever had published was a poem called Trail of Thought, that started with lots of beautiful pastoral imagery and slowly worked its way through to the inevitable realisation that we were all doomed to die. I was 13 years old and in the back of a newspaper, I saw an advert for an international poetry competition. I entered the poem and 6 weeks later was told I hadn’t won but my work was going to be published in an anthology. It was £50, the anthology. I asked my mum to buy the anthology. Sceptical, quite rightly so, she questioned whether £50 was too much for a book. I pleaded with her. I was going to be published. The book arrived, it was A4, 500 pages long and crammed 4-5 poems per page. It was unspecial seeing my name in print as the realisation crept in. Everyone who entered had been selected to be in the anthology and given it had 2,500 poems in it, and at £50 a pop, these guys were pulling in £125,000. I realised something… sometimes the thing you want most in life won’t be exactly as you want it to be. I don’t know if this is a positive cheery message about the pointlessness of it all or it’s a lesson in being scammed, but it made me work harder. And the very next piece I had published, I was paid £500 for it. And that felt special.
In what ways did the widespread acclaim your debut novel, Coconut Unlimited, received, effect you when you were writing your second, Meatspace ?
I wrote a novel in between Coconut Unlimited and Meatspace. That book shall remain unpublished. I needed to get it out of my system so I could go on to write something amazing. The sad truth of it is, it’s time. You spend ages trying to get published and a fraction of that time trying to follow up any momentum you built the first time around. So I second-guessed what I thought I learned and what I thought other people’s expectations of me were. Second novel syndrome. It’s a thing. Luckily, after a first attempt at a second novel, that I junked, I remembered that the only expectation I have is my own innate desire to get better at what I’m good at and what I want to achieve. Nothing else matters when it’s a fight to the death between you and an empty page.
What makes a short story stand out for you?
The truth is, great dialogue. Short stories that frustrate me are the static ones that take place in someone’s head. I feel like a short story, as an exploration of a moment, a feeling, a psyche, should never be static. It should never involve the narrator alone in a room of books, or some other cliché, thinking their way into an early grave. I want to feel lifted out of their head and into the fragment. Often the way to do this is with dialogue. And with tone of voice. Junot Diaz and ZZ Packer are masters of tone and dialogue.
Who are your favourite short story writers?
Apart from Junot Diaz and ZZ Packer (please write another book, ZZ Packer), I love Nathan Englander’s stuff. He has a great sense of the absurd. Also, Zadie Smith, an acclaimed novelist in her own right, is a great short story writer. The Embassy of Cambodia was magnificent. Check her past efforts out for free on the New Yorker website. Etgar Keret and George Saunders are hilarious writers as well. They are able to completely ride on a brilliant internal logic system that sucks you into their bizarre mirror universes. Lorrie Moore too. She’s funny. She has a knack for the small things, the small furies, the tiny infractions, the minutiae of people.
How different is reading as a judge for a competition to reading for pleasure?
I’m not going to differentiate between the two. Judging is subjective to our tastes and what we think constitutes the best. There is no universal agreed code. So the stories I go for are the stories I enjoy reading the most. Not necessary the most readable, but instead, the ones that carries the best tone of voice, the biggest sense of a world, a moment, a place, a time. Also, I don’t mind being given a short story that concerns itself with the world as it is now.
What can we expect from the new live lit event, Kill Your Darlings, that you’re co-hosting?
You can expect a shambles. You can expect new work. Honesty. Fun. And warmth.
If you were the Supreme Commander of a new publishing house, what kind of books would you be publishing?
Comic books, books about food and anything Chimene Suleyman writes. She’s one of the country’s best up-and-coming writers.
The deadline for entries to the 2014 Bristol Short Story Prize is midnight (BST) on April 30th.