Over her first three novels, author Nikita Lalwani has already established the kind of literary reputation it sometimes takes a lifetime to build: her novels (including her Booker Prize-longlisted debut) are characterised by a tender, nuanced take on the global world we now live in, one that illuminates its bright spots without glossing over its more hostile aspects.
Her latest, You People, tells the story of a London pizzeria where the proprietor, Tuli, a local bastion of community and humanity, finds himself at the centre of a grave moral dilemma. Painted in vivid colour, and with her usual wit and compassion, it’s a must-read.
This week, with the book seeing its first paperback release, we got in touch with Nikita to ask her our 21 Questions; below, she discusses her first literary love, the genius of James Baldwin, and getting caught with her hands in the wrong fridge.
Which writer do you most admire and why?
For non-fiction it would be James Baldwin. His essays contain such a perfect, true distillation of feeling that you can often open them at random, on any page and get something nutritious. For fiction, someone like Doris Lessing – she marries an innate understanding of human motivation with the complicated desire to do better, be better, in the world.
What was the first book you remember loving as a child?
Probably the whole The Borrowers series by Mary Norton. I’ve also got a memory of going to bed dreaming of all the cider in Fantastic Mr Fox, imagining myself drinking that alluring fizzy apple juice and roaming those fields at night.
What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?
Midnight’s Children, aged 14-15. It was a game-changer: partly outside my understanding, but somehow tantalising, almost within reach. I returned to it over and over again, semi-believing in the supernatural elements, laughing at the wordplay, the obscenities, the melodrama. It was just a sheer joy.
Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path
I’ll Go to Bed at Noon by Gerard Woodward. It’s a big influence on my first novel, Gifted. I was being tutored by Woodward on my MA in Creative Writing, and in that book I saw how you might portray family life – warts and all – and how mischief could be an animating force in prose, how dysfunction can be simultaneously comic and brutal.
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
I once had to measure the size of rooms in a university building as a student, when I was 19 years old, then enter them in a database on the laptop I carried from room to room. It was incredibly boring, and most of the rooms were empty so I gradually got into looking at all the family photos on the desks and trying to imagine the lives of the academics or other staff who inhabited the rooms.
I scanned the shelves as I measured them, trying to understand their book choices. Once I went too far and got caught briefly looking in someone’s mini fridge. I wasn’t doing anything other than looking at a lone pint of skimmed milk, but I learned my lesson: just do your job already. Maybe listen to something on headphones if you are bored? Don’t look in people’s fridges.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Get to the end, even if you are struggling with a draft. The ending reveals authorial intention. If you don’t reach the end of your book, story, or script, you may never know what it is that you are trying to do. My editor at Viking, Mary Mount, actually gave me this advice.
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)
Possibly In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin. I was trying to work out how to portray the community in my second novel The Village across the many different class, gender and cultural viewpoints that exist on the same piece of land. Mueenuddin does it effortlessly.
What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?
Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman.
If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______
A director of factual TV and documentaries. It’s what I was doing before I published my first book.
What makes you happiest?
There’s no one answer, but being in creative flow – when everything makes sense and coheres on the page, and it feels like you are running in slow-motion through sunny wild grass, as though you are in an advert for fabric conditioner or something. That’s pretty good.
What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?
I am a bad but enthusiastic DJ. The kind of person who offers to get behind the decks at a wedding or birthday party and who labours over the playlist with great personal enjoyment, in spite of having very little skill when it comes to actually mixing.
What is your ideal writing scenario?
Solitude without self-doubt. Rare, I know, but it happens now and then, more likely once the book is half-written.
What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?
I think it was the time I ended up at a six-person dinner including Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth at the Hay Festival just two days after being signed by my agent. They were both having a good-natured tiff about Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter – arguing for the pros and cons of each book. I was pregnant and sober, very alert to the chat, obviously more than a bit pleased to be there and trying to hide it. Once they found out I was a hopeful writer, they asked me to pitch my novel to them in a single sentence, with this kind of genial glee that could not be dismissed. I did ok – they thought it was a decent enough, solid effort as I recall, but yeah, terrifying and hilarious.
If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?
I’m just going to go with living-writer friend and inspiration, Tessa Hadley, who does come over for dinner sometimes and I think I have served her tarka daal, garlic-chilli salmon with mango chutney, tomato-coriander salad and cucumber raita.
What’s your biggest fear?
When it comes to writing, it’s the basic fear of cliché, and this fear is what keeps me on the straight and narrow.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
Telepathy would be really useful for writing at any rate, even if it might make living hard.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?
The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes. It’s a very special, original, somersault of a book, and has just won The RSL Encore Prize; I was one of the judges.
Reading in the bath: yes or no?
Yes, for sure.
Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?
Coffee – three cups a day, while writing.
What is the best book you’ve ever read?
Ok – if I was to pluck one from many, then maybe White Noise by Don Delillo. A book that is guaranteed to put you in a good mood, with its very particular confection of absurdity and tenderness.
What inspired you to write your book?
I used to know a restaurant similar to the one in You People where you could go if you needed help – a kind of portal. You’d disappear through the door and enter a universe where you might get legal aid, a loan, help with finding missing family members, a bed for the night, a free pizza, a job. There was a person at the helm – the restaurant manager – who had to make a lot of moral choices, and I used to wonder how he did it, and found it to be quite an inspiring place. Should we intervene, if someone is in need, rather than walk on by? What are the dangers of intervening? Does it require a measure of hubris? And does that matter? These questions set me off on the path of the novel.
You People by Nikita Lalwani is out now.