The Curtis Brown Creative Three-Month Creative-Writing Course begins on Wednesday 25 September and at its helm will be novelist Nikita Lalwani. Leading weekly evening workshops, teaching sessions and one-to-one tutorials, Nikita will be guiding 15 aspiring authors through the novel-writing process and – fingers crossed – getting them to follow in the footsteps of our ‘famous five’ former students, all of whom have secured book deals with major publishers. Here, Nikita talks to us about the writing process, fictionalising real life and what she’ll be bringing to the course.
You’re going to be the tutor on the CBC autumn-novel writing course. Could you tell us a bit about your writing credentials?
I’m the author of two novels: Gifted, the story of a maths prodigy of Indian origin growing up in Cardiff in the 1980s; and The Village – which is modelled on a real-life ‘prison village’ in northern India, where inmates live with their families, and can come and go as they please, despite having all killed someone. I write for The Guardian now and then, and previously had a career at the BBC as a producer and director of factual programmes. I worked in the arts, science, education and popular features departments. Gifted was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Desmond Elliot Prize for New Fiction. The Village has just been included in a campaign called Fiction Uncovered, which lists eight British fiction titles every year as ones to watch. I’ve also just finished judging the Orwell Prize for political writing, which was an extremely rewarding experience.
And what about your teaching experience?
I am a visiting tutor on the MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths University, and the MSt in Creative Writing at Oxford University. This means I work with students on their manuscripts in a one-to-one capacity or through workshops, over one or two years. I am also a mentor on the Arvon-Jerwood scheme, for which I selected three students (from 200 submissions) to mentor over 12 months through the writing of a novel.
You were born in India and grew up in Wales. How has this dual identity influenced your work?
I think I have an awareness of what philosopher Amartya Sen calls the ‘plurality of our identities, which intertwine with each other and are resistant to drastic divisions’. This is a common theme in both the novels I’ve written and the one I’m working on. How and where do we intersect with each other, as human beings, across boundaries (cultural or otherwise) in the Venn diagram that forms the map of our lives? What do we choose to highlight about ourselves? How is our perception of self different from the way in which other people see us?
You write a lot about real-life issues. Why did you choose fiction to document these?
I used to work as a documentary filmmaker and I think the same level of voyeurism is at play in my desire to write fiction. I am fascinated by motivation. Why do we do the things we do? What leads to certain decisions? How does it all add up? There is an intrusive desire for detail; and I ask a lot of questions. When I began to write fiction, I felt overwhelmed with relief. It afforded me such freedom as a medium. Basically you can do anything you want if you can make it work; you are not constricted by the order and particular facts of events. Of course, there are politics at play if you are writing from life – whether your own or the lives of other people. What do you choose to put in the frame? What do you leave out? How do you create a hierarchy of relevance, where you decide what is interesting or ‘moral’ in the framework of the book? But, generally, I read a lot of novels, so it made sense I would enjoy that particular form in the end,
What is your writing process?
This is always changing – depending on where I am at in the novel and where I’m at in life. At the start of a book, I take a long time to create the world. It requires a lot of patience. I’m like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dam: the tide builds up behind it, becoming more and more forceful until it’s unbearable. Then, once things are working, I write about 500 to 1,000 words a day; and, as the novel moves on, this becomes more fluent. I go back and rewrite as and when I realise the book needs it; this can happen at any point during the process.
Do you find it easy to write – or is it something you have to continually work hard at?
When it’s good it’s really good; when it’s bad it’s horrid. Generally, though, I try to be disciplined and write as regularly as possible. I treat it as an artisan craft. If I waited for inspiration, I would just stare at my screen for months on end. Once I’ve written the first third of a book (which can take an age) the rest flows much more easily and pleasurably.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give aspiring novelists?
Finish, finish, finish. For every student I work with who finishes their novel, I have a whole load who give up and start something new because the old book wasn’t working. Those who get published are those who finish the book, so go back and rewrite! Endings are important. Get to the end before you decide whether or not to give up on a book.
In a literary world increasingly dominated by ‘brand’ authors and social media/marketing, is it still possible for a novelist to be simply someone who creates good stories?
I believe all that matters is the story and how you’ve told it. Social media is just another form of word of mouth, and books have always been recommended that way. Nothing can be sustained without good work and there has to be something of value for people to pass on in that peer-to-peer way. The cult of personality around an author comes later.
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.