Q. How did this e-book project come about? Tell us more about it and why you’ve decided to give some of the proceeds to charity?
I’ve been obsessed with food for a while. Not all this overly technical, high fallutin’ Mastercheffery, not this uptrend in food truck burger porn, I’m talking about home-cooked meals. Home-cooked meals that smell like how things used to be. And I want to write about that feeling. My friend Salena Godden once was telling me about how she got into the mindset for writing her memoir, Springfield Road and she said she put on the records her dad would listen to and make the food her mum would cook, and her flat sounded and smelt like the house she grew up on. And she was able to channel that into her work. I’ve recently moved to another city. And that city doesn’t feel like home to me yet. So I’ve been cooking, trying to make food that smells like my mum’s. Except I don’t have my mum around to cook it. I found myself walking into Tiffins, a takeaway Gujarati restaurant in Bristol, where I live now, and the woman there, who was from Harrow, bizarrely, and had the same name as my mum bizarrely, talking me through how she made khichdi. And I bought it, and I tasted it and it nearly tasted like home, like my mum was alive, like I belonged somewhere – that transformative element of food – and I burst into tears. Shout out Jayshree from Tiffins who has, without knowing my name or what she means to me, become my new mum.
So, writing about food, not being a chef or a ker-azee television personality, or really having a journey other than, I miss my mum, smelling and eating the food she made makes me feel like she’s alive and living through her cooking, the thing she was best at, I thought I want to write a short story about this. I did, sent it to Galley Beggar who had asked me to submit a story for their Friday Singles club. Then I retracted it, made it fiction and it grew into a short novella. I’m well proud of it. I think food is my driving force. I live to eat and read. They’re my favourite things to do and I don’t want anyone telling me I can’t write about food because it’s not some poncy article about reconstructed meringues or whatever. That shit isn’t real food. It’s a spectacle. It doesn’t bring you home.
The charity thing is simple. I’m writing about my mum and my family and my feelings of grief. I know I’m not going to be making mega-bucks from selling a novella for a quid. Especially seeing as it’s increasingly hard to make people pay for stuff, let alone 10,000 words for 100 pennies. But the point is, I’m writing about something personal. I don’t want to profit off that. I want Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, who offered us advice and support when my mum was diagnosed to profit off it. So I’m hoping that people will buy the book to support the charity. And the work being a bonus. And also, bloody hell, buy it directly from Galley Beggar Press, and support independent publishing too.
Q. I followed your tumblr blog, The Subaltern in Feb and March and loved it, is this an extension of that? What can readers who know your work, expect?
The tumblr blog is just a mood board for writing about food, learning about the components of Gujarati cooking and my favourite dishes. Obviously, there are so many ways to do everything. Collating these videos and recipes and photos and learning what each one consists of, it makes me ahem hungry to learn how to do it myself. My mum was a ‘chuck it all in’ kinda cook, so the recipes she left me are fairly loose. I don’t have the confidence to use instinct to create something to my taste. So I collate these things and hope I can imbibe some confidence from people like Sanjay Kapoor, Madhur Jaffrey, Shelina Permalloo (who I used to work with, and is possibly one of the sweetest people in the world) and so on.
I don’t feel like I’ve done enough stuff to have a readership to know what to expect from me. I have loads of different interests and obsessions and so this isn’t a stretch for me to write. It’s just food, which I love. There’s food references in everything I do. People are always telling jokes over meals. That’s how I grew up – eating home-cooked Gujarati food while my sister and I rinsed each other mercilessly over the kitchen table.
Q. You’ve written about losing your mum to cancer before – I remember being sat in the doctors and reading about it in an NHS Health Supplement and listening to your Radio Four play Confirm/Ignore. It must be difficult not to take death personally. Was writing this, for you, an act of catharsis and how did you draw on your own experiences without them being too painful or clouding your artistic judgement?
A friend of mine, Will White, once told me that writing for him was like solving a puzzle. He had these things he couldn’t get a handle on, and writing about them, fictionalising them, imagining different outcomes and scenarios helped him to get through what was on his mind. When you’re drawing on your own life, there’s a degree of mawkishness and earnestness and wanting to stay embedded in truth that ruins a narrative. In the first incarnation of this, it was going to be a memoir. But a memoir I hadn’t lived yet. Which immediately made it redundant. I wrote a couple of memoir blogs that were cathartic, that lay out how I was feeling, what I was going through and what I wanted to get from the process of writing them – recording a memory so I never forgot it, clarity in my own decisions, an outpouring. The best thing I did for The Time Machine was write it from fiction. And because I did that, it wasn’t a piece of catharsis, a misery memoir or a condemnation of cancer and the people it leaves behind. Instead, it was a story. A recognisable story, to me and to those who know me or are related to me. Or to people who have been through similar things. That’s the best thing that happened to the work. Making it wider. Taking out how things went down and instead telling it like a story. It’s the storyfication of our lives. Where something happens and you fictionalise the bits that don’t click into the story. Life never happens like it should in a book. And if it does, it’s kinda boring because we’re at work 8 hours a day and we have long poos and sleep and commute. Cut all that out, and you can make your characters do stuff. So, yeah, it wasn’t catharsis. The blogs I wrote for my Tumblr were catharsis. This was a need to tell a story. Steeped in truth. But a story all the same.
Q. For me, cooking is a wonderfully soul – nourishing and nurturing activity even though its fairly technical and structured. How was writing The Time-Machine different to the other creative work that has come before and what did you learn about yourself by undertaking this process?
Like everything I’ve just finished, I think this is the best thing I’ve written. But that’s only because of my internal competitiveness with myself to always strive to be better than the last thing I did. It’s different in that it’s shorter, it’s come about a lot quicker (that’s the beauty of e-publishing, and the danger, because the enthusiasm to get something out there can sometimes outweigh the need to let something breathe). It’s not different in that I don’t feel different as a writer to who I was when my first short story was published. I just feel more confident in knowing what my voice was. One of my biggest lacks of confidence is fearing I’m a frivolous comedic writer with nothing important to say. The trick here, has been channelling the confidence to write something important (to me) without jokes and without resorting to silliness. Now I know I can do it, I’d like to do it more.
Q. Sometimes just in the act of doing, and seeing things through to completion we can get much needed headspace to figure things out (in the personal and artistic realms). Do you think you needed to make this project happen in order to move on to the next novel or creative project?
The new novel is done. It’s in a refinery at the moment getting polished and buffed and all the rest of it. Like, I mean, the bulk of the work on the new one is done. I needed to get this project out of the way so I didn’t constantly feel like I wanted to write about food all the time. Now I’ve got that out of my system, I know I can move on to other things. Maybe start that YA superhero book I always wanted to do.
Q. Are you working on your next project and can you tell us about it?
I’ve got a novel that’s nearly done. It’s called Meatspace. It’s about the internet. It’s about social media ruining our lives. It’s funny and silly and filled with jokes about overfamiliarity online. It’s like a Single White Female about Facebook friends. I dunno when it’ll be done-done, but it’s definitely my next thing.
Q. You’re known for writing funny stuff, but this made me weep. Do you intend to make a shift to material that tugs at the heart strings?
Nah, this is the most personal thing I’ll ever write and I’m freaking the fuck out about it being out in the world because it’s everything. EVERYTHING. I miss hiding behind jokes. It’s a powerful thing, and thank you, to make someone laugh and to make someone cry. Ideally, I’d like to be able to do both at the same time. I like pathos. I like warm comedy. Comedy that isn’t nasty. Comedy that comes with a degree of affection. The best thing on television for me last year was Grandma’s House, a sitcom by Simon Amstell, that was so funny, so riotously funny and yet, had this level of pathos that made your chest want to explode with sadness. There’s a moment where a character goes into the garden to sing a song in amongst all the chaos and it’s the single most moving thing I’ve ever seen on television.
Q. Moving on to talk about the food – have your cooking skills developed since taking on this mission, what will readers be able to rustle up? Are the ingredients easy to find in a supermarket?
Yes. I can make a hell of a khichdi now. I’m learning my mum’s Christmas roast chicken, Indian style, and I’m working on chilli paneer. I’m slowly getting there. Every now and then I get an email from my aunt Kiran, and it’s a link to a new blog on Indian cooking. My family are amazing cooks, and they’re always like, oh I’ll just make it for you. And I have to be firm and say, no, teach me. I need to learn. Confidence. Bloody hell, I hardly have any as a person, let alone as a lone chef.
Q. I’m really looking forward to rustling up all of the recipes – (probably on the same day!) What’s your top tip for making sure your readers have a easy ride in the kitchen?
Have a good sharp knife. And listen to the song Aaj Mausam Bada Bahman Hai. And just chuck it all in.
Q. Finally, what advice would you give to any writers attempting to write about loss and grief by drawing on their own experiences.
Be honest with your first draft. Be sensitive with your second draft.
The Time Machine is £1 with proceeds to the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation and can be downloaded in a number of formats from Galley Beggar Press here.
Nikesh Shukla is a writer of fiction and television. His debut novel, Coconut Unlimited was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2010 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2011. 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 2008, he and film-maker Videowallah won the Satyajit Ray Foundation Best Short Film Award for ‘The Great Identity Swindle’.
His short stories have been featured in the following places: Best British Short Stories 2013, Five Dials, The Moth Magazine, Pen Pusher, The Sunday Times, Book Slam, BBC Radio 4, First City Magazine and Teller Magazine. He has written for the Guardian, Esquire and BBC 2. He has, in the past, been writer in residence for BBC Asian Network and Royal Festival Hall. His Channel 4 Comedy Lab Kabadasses aired on E4 and Channel 4 in 2011 and starred Shazad Latif, Jack Doolan and Josie Long. He hosts The Subaltern podcast, the anti-panel discussion featuring conversations with writers about writing. Guests have included Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Teju Cole, James Salter, George Saunders.