Novelists writing novels about novelists can be a tricky business. Thankfully, Nikesh Shukla‘s Meatspace avoids the pitfalls of the form while telling a sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving story of doubles, doppelgangers, family, and identity. At the center of the novel is Kitab Balasubramanyam, a London-based novelist whose life is upended in multiple ways when he encounters another man who shares his name. Neatly structured, incisive, and compelling, Meatspace taps into a number of anxieties and tells a compelling story along the way. Shortly before the book’s American publication, I discussed the book over Skype with Shukla.
When I was doing research for this, I saw that you had launched a piece of meat into space. Was that your first time doing anything like that?
It was surprisingly easy. When I was coming up through the DIY scene of writing and making music, you surround yourself with friends who can do things. There’s a guy who I always work with called Nick Hearn, who does my covers. He did the cover for Meatspace, which is 11 different types of meat cubed to look like pixels. He and I sat in a pub one day and thought of things we could do to promote the book. We’d done weird stuff on the internet before, so we thought: what could we do? Between us, we came up with the idea of taking the word “Meatspace” literally and sending some meat into space. I left the pub thinking it was just going to be pub chat, and the next day he phoned me up and told me how feasible it was, and how cheap it was. When we convinced my publisher to give us the 250 to 300 quid that it costs to send some meat into space, we went off and did it. They let us get on with it.
It had such a high failure potential. And it did fail! For, like, three months. We didn’t recover the camera. We bizarrely ended up in this weird catfish situation, which bizarrely mirrored the plot of the book. There were people lying about their identities and not meeting us when they were supposed to be meeting us, and accidentally feeding us information by text message which led us on to this online world. We finally got the camera back, and the footage was beyond all of our expectations. It was absolutely incredible. We had a lamb chop, because cartoon lamb chops and pork chops are the funniest shape of meat. With that against the curve of the earth, there was something magnificently, beautifully stupid about it that we both really liked. And that’s why we sent meat into space.
Reading Meatspace, you have themes of doubles and family; you have a long riff on London’s literary scene. Was there one element that came up first?
What the book was about started in a very, very definite place. What it became was–I put the writer’s spin on real-life events. In 2010, my mother passed away the same week that my first novel came out. I had this very strange, awful time, where the thing that I wanted the most in life and the thing I wanted the least in life happened in the same week. I struggled to deal with that.
I was commissioned the following year to write a short story about social media for BBC Radio 4. I decided to write a short story about the day after my mum died, when overnight, my sister and I discovered that her Facebook account had become a shine to her. One of her brothers, one of my uncles, had updated his Facebook status to say, “Miss you, sis. RIP.” My sister and I thought it was the most offensive thing in the world, to make something so personal so public, and also in a really frivolous, flippant way. My sister and I spent the day after my mum’s death working out how to delete her Facebook account, because neither of us knew her password. We succeeded, and I ended up writing the short story about it.
I was already fascinated by the way social media operates and how it integrates into our world. This was bubbling in the back of my brain. Fast forward a year or two; maybe six months after that short story aired. I’m sitting in the pub, and one of my closest, oldest friends, who has a lot of tattoos, he was trying to convince me to get a tattoo. And because he worked in recruitment, he’s not allowed to have tattoos between his elbow and his fingertip, so he can appear smart to clients. (laughs) We were joking that maybe he should get a tie tattooed onto him, so he always appeared tie. I said that, in that case, that he should get a bow tie tattooed on him, because then, you’re always sartorial. Because of the power of smartphones, we both image-searched bow tie tattoos when we were in the pub. The first result in Google image search was my oldest, best friend’s doppelganger. It was frightening how much he looked like Rob. Within five minutes, we’d found his Twitter, his Facebook, his LinkedIn. I think even his MySpace. We suddenly knew all these details about him. Obviously, we didn’t know what he was like, but we knew what he liked. I was fascinated by the ease with which I’d found someone online and learned all these things about him without actually knowing anything about him.
You take that to its logical conclusion, and that’s how so many of our relationships online are. Especially when you’re a writer in the public eye, or a person in the public eye, and people relate to you because of the things that you tweet or put on Facebook or Instagram. They think that they know you, and you think that you know other people based on the interactions that you have. But you actually don’t know anything about them, because it’s all about the meatspace interactions, the subtle textured interactions that we as humans need. Any digital interaction needs to be followed up by a real-life one. My writer’s brain started working through what would happen if they met, and that became part of the story. At the same time, I had in my head, this character who was, like me, dealing with a very private grief and a very public accolade, and how he managed himself digitally. Because sometimes who we are online isn’t who we are, and we have to re-curate our offline personas to reflect who we are online. That then became the novel.
You mentioned that you’d written for Radio 4, and I know you’ve also written for television. How does that relate to your prose? Are the two fairly separate, or they end up influencing one another?
That short story was the only work I’ve done for radio, and it was interesting, because I elected to read that story. This was unusual for Radio 4; usually they get actors to do it. Because I do a lot of live literature, I wanted to go from the experience of reading from 5s or 10s or 100s of people to reading to just one person, on the radio. I wanted that experience.
I write a lot, and I write across a lot of formats. Novels and prose are one my big love–the thing I keep coming back to, the thing I think I’m best at as a writer. Working on scripts or sitcoms is almost fun writing for me. I watch a lot of television, and I’m influenced by a lot of television and sitcom structures, and the way things like comedia dell’arte play out in sitcom structures. I’m almost obsessive about television comedy and standup comedy. Writing it, for me, is almost fun. I do that to reset my love of writing. Whereas the novels, that is the thing that I feel like I’m best at. It’s the thing where everything starts.
Your bio also mentioned your love of Spider-Man comics. Does that also affect your work?
Yes. Half of Meatspace is a blog written by a character called Aziz exploring New York, a heightened, almost comic-book New York, almost as a vigilante. The contract I’m making with the audience is–is he just bullshitting this blog, or is it actually happening? So much of that blog is affected by my cursory comic-book knowledge of New York. I didn’t want to write about a real New York; I wanted to write about the Stan Lee New York. I just thought it would be really, really funny if, the whole time you were reading this blog, you thought, “This just reads like Batman, or Daredevil, or Spider-Man. It doesn’t feel real.” That’s on purpose. The story is supposed to follow so many comic tropes. And it’s written in a very episodic way that comics are. They build to a cliffhanger, and the cliffhanger is set aside at the start of the next installment or episode, and it heightens again so that people keep coming back.
The novel deals heaving with social media. Was there a concern, when writing it, that you needed to write it in a way that the use of technology wouldn’t feel dated six months or a year from now?
I thought about that a lot. The thing that I kept coming back to was, as long as the story felt timeless and universal, and a story about loneliness and grief and identity is a timeless story– I keep going back to the example of Jane Austen’s novels. They are filled with one of the most outdated forms of communication ever, letter-writing. Epistolary novels, or novels where key plot points or key interactions are told through letters–Dracula’s quite a good example–as long as it feels like you could transplant this story and it would apply to any type of communication. So much of the novel is a line in the sand: this is how we live now, in terms of overfamiliarity online. There is that element of drawing a line in the sand and writing about now, but there’s also this feeling that… Literature is filled with train travel and letter writing and phone calls. If people can still study Jane Austen, then hopefully they’ll study Meatspace in years to come.
Do you have a favorite epistolary novel?
Not so much an epistolary novel, but an email-based novel that I read… Lee Rourke gave me a copy when I told him what Meatspace was about. It’s called Eleven, and it’s by David Llewellyn. That’s the one that immediately springs to mind. I guess Dracula?
In Meatspace, Kitab talks about authors he likes; he mentions Will Self and Martin Amis, and there’s what I think is a reference to Chuck Palahniuk as well. Does that reflect your own tastes as well, or was that more of a way of characterization?
The reference to Martin Amis and Will Self are definitely piss-taking. I’m not a fan of Martin Amis at all, for various reasons having to do with his personal politics. I don’t necessarily feel like he got away with being Islamaphobic and then saying that people misunderstood him. Will Self, to me, represents a certain type of novelist who is very, very clever, and knows he’s clever. Will Self is a kind of novelist who makes me feel inferior, not because I feel like I’m an inferior writer, but because he has this air of superiority. I’m much more influenced by writers like Junot Díaz. Teju Cole is a hero of mine. I love his writing; it’s not like I feel like my writing is in a similar vein to his. He’s really influenced both of my novels, and I think he’s a really wonderful writer. Gary Shteyngart as well. I seem to really like American writers who are able to tell the tragedy of life in the funniest way possible.
Meatspace has a very particular description of a literary scene in London. Is that intended as a realistic depiction, or is it more satirical?
I think it’s a realistic depiction. Bookslam is a really big, legendary London night that’s been going for about ten years now. In the last five or six years, we’ve had things like Literary Death Match and the rise of literary salons and very uptempo reading-style events. I noticed the crowds for these things suddenly got younger and hipper. It definitely felt like there was an appetite for intellectually stimulating but energetic novels by people in their 20s.
I spent a lot of time at a lot of those gigs. They breed a certain type of writer and a certain type of audience member as well. So many of those personalities intersect on Twitter. You tend to find that that’s how you build your audience, in a bizarre way: you go and do a live gig and you chat with some people, you follow each other on Twitter, you chat the next day, and you find that they’ve bought into what you’re going to do. I got my first book deal through a relationship that started on Twitter that progressed to a live event where the editor came and saw me. I’d already built up a name for myself doing live stuff. We built up a friendship, and he ended up buying the book.
I don’t live in London any more, and I’ve got a kid, so I don’t go out, ever. So I don’t know if that sort of thing exists any more. What seems to have happened in London is publishers have seen that those sorts of nights really work. So 4th Estate have a salon, and Faber have a salon, and Picador do these cool invite-only events. It seems to have, maybe, peaked? I don’t know.
When did you move out of London?
I moved in 2011. For two years, I lived in London for three nights and I lived in Bristol for the rest of the week. I was commuting back and forth. I was doing a lot of live stuff until about 2013, I think.
Has the move changed your writing habits at all, or your writing as a whole?
I think age has definitely improved my writing abilities. The more I do it, the better I become at it. Having grown up in London, and London being so prominent, almost a character itself, in so much of my work, I almost needed to move out of London in order to look at it objectively and look at it from afar, and demystify it. Almost kill that darling that London was in my head. Living in Bristol, which is a small city which has a really nice vibe to it, I feel a lot quieter in my own head. There’s less noise, less of the city cacophony around me. Having that space in my brain does help me to write.
I know you did a podcast that included a lot of interviews with other writers. Did that have an effect on your writing as well?
That was amazing. I was struggling with my second novel. I listen to a lot of podcasts anyway, with interviews with comedians and comedy writers, like WTF With Marc Maron and a Nerdist podcast that has a panel of comedy writers. I really love the form; I love listening to longform interviews. I didn’t really feel like there was one for the London literary scene that was free of the parameters of it being a podcast that was recorded by your publisher. Why not have an excuse to go talk to James Salter and Junot Díaz about their writing habits and how they write and how they feel they’ve progressed in their careers? It was great. I stopped doing it last year for time, because each episode required the time to go and interview these people on top of having a day job and writing novels. I just didn’t have the time. But I’m hoping to bring it back.
What are you working on right now?
Every time I talk about what I’m working on at the moment, it seems to mess it up in some way. I spent a bunch of time telling loads of friends that I’d just completed the manuscript of my third novel, and it’s about this…and then I got cold feet about that novel and I stuck it in a drawer. All I’ll say is that my day job involves…I edit a magazine for young people, and we get young people to write this magazine. It’s called Rife Magazine. We offer them six-month paid internships and they come work for me and I mentor them. It’s great. Having worked with young people for the last few years and being really inspired by their energy, the next thing I do will be for teenagers. And then I’ll start my third novel for adults this year. But I’ve got this book for teenagers to get out of the way, and a couple of TV things that are in development.
Nikesh Shukla will appear at WORD on Tuesday, 9/15 in conversation with Porochista Khakpour.