Novel Nights is a monthly literary meetup with branches in Bristol and Bath. The aim is to showcase and support excellent writing and writers at all stages of their careers. Last Wednesday evening I travelled to The Square Club in Bristol to listen to four authors read from their work and discuss Writing and Persistence. The event was part of the Bristol Festival of Literature and featured Nikesh Shukla, as headline speaker.
Grace Palmer, who set up Novel Nights five years ago and continues to run it along with a supportive team, opened proceedings by welcoming the audience and introducing Jari Moate, from the festival, as host. Jari told us that the Bristol Festival of Literature is now in its eighth year and receives no outside funding, relying on donations and ticket sales. It is run by volunteers, and it was following one of its events that Grace felt inspired to set up Novel Nights.
Jari then introduced the first reader, Anesu Pswarazayi, who read an extract from his debut story collection The Nomadic Slave. This is a memoir of growing up straddling three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe – and how perspectives are influenced by race, citizenship, and ascribed identity.
The second reader was Mike Manson (a last minute replacement for Karla Neblett) who read an excerpt from his latest work, Down in Demerera, which completes a trilogy of humorous novels. Mike also writes history books but likes to think he will return to fiction in the future.
The third reader was Sabrin Hasbun who describes herself as an Italian-Palestinian transnational writer. In the last few years she has lived in France, Japan, and the UK. She is currently doing her PhD in Creative Writing – focusing on memory and memoirs – at Bath Spa University. She talked about feeling Arabic in the West and Western when in Arabia. She read from her current work in progress which is based around a family from mixed backgrounds. The excerpt was a fictionalised account of her father’s childhood, exploring the subtle differences in treatment of Christians and Muslims. The religion marked on ID cards creates an invisible border between people who live side by side.
Pete from Foyles then drew the first half of the evening to a close by talking about the local branch’s plans for the festive season, their last before being taken over by Waterstones. He spoke of the effect of negative reviews on book sales, such as he has observed with the new Murakami. He also mentioned the recent Booker winner, Milkman, and how it was good to see a paperback scoop the prize as this will be affordable for more readers. He urged the audience to buy the books he had brought along and support our bookshops.
After a short break Grace sat down with Nikesh Shukla and asked him to introduce his work. As well as publishing four novels, Nikesh is: editor of The Good Immigrant, has written regularly for national newspapers, and co-founded The Good Literary Agency. The following is taken from notes I scribbled down during his discussion with Grace.
Nikesh spoke of his journey as a writer, how he started what eventually became The One Who Wrote Destiny when he was nineteen years old as he wanted to tell the story of a court case involving his uncle. Uncle came to the UK in the 1960s to join a friend who had been offered a job juggling in London clubs. Not knowing the UK, Uncle ended up taking digs in Keighley where he met the young girl he would marry. As other family members joined him he tried to buy a house in Huddersfield but was informed by the estate agent that company policy was not to sell to people of colour as they ‘would devalue the area’. This was in 1968 and the Race Relations Act had just been passed. Uncle took the company to court, the first person to do so under the Act. It was clearly discrimination yet he lost the case on a technicality.
Nikesh wished to write this family history into a sort of legal thriller but couldn’t make it work so set it aside, going on to write his first and second novels. Periodically he would retrieve the manuscript and rewrite it. When he showed it to his agent it was still a mess. The structure of the story was unlocked when he realised it could be a humorous family tale – matriarch and patriarch. Sometimes an author’s work is best left to cook for years.
The One Who Wrote Destiny was eventually written from four perspectives, set in different time-frames. It explores: race relations, immigration, illness and grief, destiny, fate, science.
Nikesh wants to understand people – his characters and their interior lives. He wrote Destiny in the first person as he felt comfortable with this – earlier versions had been written in the third person but felt messy. He also aimed to provide a positive representation of South Asian women.
Grace asked about rejection and Nikesh explained why he believes this can be healthy if based on writing – not if based on race. He has had work rejected because the submissions reader did not believe it was authentically Asian (from a British perspective) and because the publisher is ‘already publishing an Asian writer this year’.
Nikesh regards ‘literary merit’ as bullshit. He believes rejection is about the tastes of the person reading submissions. Authors may not want to rewrite to suit an editor but can still pick up hints as to what may not be quite working. An editor needs to recognise potential and be passionate about a book. It took him years to realise that rejection wasn’t about him but about whoever was reading. He advised the audience to do their research and seek out that person who will love your work, to submit it to the correct person in an agency who will be hungry to build their lists. This requires persistence – and rejection still stings.
Asked how to know when a book is ready for submission the advice was to take as much time as was needed, to make the manuscript bullet proof, the best it can be (time is available before first book is published that will no longer exist once under contract). Nikesh suggested sharing work with trusted readers who would be honest in their feedback, then to set it aside before rereading.
Seek out agents who publish the sort of work written. Submit to multiple agents and inform all if full manuscript called in (although don’t say by who). This introduces an element of competition. When your published work appears in a bookshop rejections will be forgotten. Nikesh’s aim was to publish a book, anything after being a bonus. He sometimes needs to remind himself of this.
There must be an element of trust between author, agent and editor – an ability to talk through any issues or concerns. Nikesh was not impressed with the recent comments made by Booker judges about the standard of editing. His experiences have mostly been positive.
Asked about The Good Literary Agency, Nikesh told us they are now signing up writers and have a huge submissions pile. They have just completed their first six figure deal with Transworld, for an author who had spent twenty years on her book.
Not all writers have the time or ability to enroll on creative writing courses, MAs or retreats. The Good Literary Agency aims to offer mentoring and to to nurture its authors.
A member of the audience asked Nikesh about the emotional impact on him as a writer when writing his characters’ emotions. He told us that he has never made himself cry but he has laughed. Destiny did not affect him in this way, perhaps because it was reworked significantly. Nikesh regards writing as therapy so his emotional response is more often one of relief. He spends so long with his characters he comes to know what to expect from them.
Nikesh was asked how he engages with those who may not see writing as for them, perhaps due to their socio-economic upbringing. He suggested school visits and engaging with whatever makes an author appear accessible to the children. He mentioned one boy who asked him about the hair gel he wore. The teacher was not impressed but Nikesh understood that this was a potential connection that could be built on.
He considers the discussion around Booker winner Anna Burns interesting. She was on benefits because she needed the benefits. The fact that she used some of her time to write was her choice. Making money from writing is a challenge. Nikesh can spend longer each week doing events.
Another question was asked about emotions. Nikesh talked about the importance of keeping the author’s voice off the page – of reactions remaining the characters’. Authorial distance matters.
Asked about what compromises should be made for the reader who may not understand the reality of a culture Nikesh expressed a need to push back against certain attitudes, to use authentic names even if these are not familiar or some may find them hard to remember.
Asked if he had any interest in collaborating, perhaps writing a graphic novel, Nikesh was enthusiastic. He would love to write a Spiderman novel. He reads graphic novels and has recently enjoyed Booker longlisted Sabrina.
As Grace said in her summing up:
“we learned such a lot from Nikesh tonight – about persistence as a writer, the importance of a good editor, ideas on when to push back with an editor, advice on choosing agents”
I enjoy the discussions at Novel Nights for their candid content. The evening was well worth attending.
As an aside, I appreciated the value of having a professional photographer to hand. Compare the somewhat dark and blurry photos above, snapped on my phone throughout the evening, with these taken by Tom Shot Photography, who gave me permission to include a few of his – taken along with several other images that you may wish to check out shared by Grace on the Novel Nights Facebook page.
The One Who Wrote Destiny is published by Atlantic Books.
You may read my review here.