Dr Nikita Lalwani (FRSL, Reader in the Department of English) was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2018. We caught up with her to find out more about her involvement with the hit television series The Outlaws and what makes Royal Holloway special.
Dr Nikita Lalwani is a novelist and screenwriter whose work has been translated into sixteen languages. Her first novel, Gifted was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, and won the inaugural Desmond Elliott Prize for Fiction. The Village, her second novel, was modelled on a real-life ‘prison village’ in northern India and won a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. Her third novel, You People, was published during the pandemic. This would be enough to keep most people occupied, but luckily for our students she also teaches on the MA in Creative Writing and supervises PhD students in Creative Writing!
Nikita enjoys the ‘vibrant intellectual community at Royal Holloway – other staff members on the MA are all practising writers and this means that the dialogue with colleagues often feels fresh, intriguing, and relevant. It’s one of the best parts of the job.’ She believes it’s a special place to work and study because, ‘we attract students from varied backgrounds and it’s the same with the teaching staff. I think that creates a special atmosphere, and on the MA in Creative Writing it leads to interesting cross pollination of ideas.’
The first series of The Outlaws was a huge success and could also be perfectly described as an interesting cross pollination of ideas! It was Nikita’s first foray into writing for television and she tells us, ‘It was something new for me, and has launched me into an entirely new arena – that of screenwriter.’ On the differences between screenwriting and writing novels she tells us,
‘There are a lot of questions around character motivation in TV – and tracking motivation and action across a whole series. I think that it might be useful to bring that skill to novel writing, but sometimes I write a novel to understand what I think about something, or to indeed understand why someone might act in a certain way, and so it’s a little different in that sense.’
Her involvement with The Outlaws began with her friendship with the creator and one of the stars of the show, Stephen Merchant. ‘He rang me up after reading my latest novel, ‘You People’. There’s a lead character in the book who is mixed race (Welsh-Indian) – 19-year-old Nia. He’d also read my first novel ‘Gifted’ which featured a teen who is gifted at maths. He was writing the pilot and said he'd like to share it with me. We started to bounce around ideas, and my involvement grew from there.’
With its stellar cast, great writing and superb acting, the show has been popular with audiences and critics alike, garnering a BAFTA nomination in the process. The Guardian described it as ‘warm, witty and surprisingly gritty’, and the Los Angeles Times said ’It works on all the intended levels’. Nikita tells us,’ I loved being in the writers’ room for that show – it was like living a hundred different lives each day, at times a little dizzying (!) - and have just completed my episode for the second series. We didn’t know how the show would be received and it’s been so great to see it recommissioned.’
Whilst the creative industries often have a reputation for being difficult for students and graduates to crack, Nikita believes that passion and perseverance is key. Her advice to anyone trying to get into the industry ‘The most important thing to do is to immerse in the chosen form – if that is fiction, then make sure you are reading a lot of novels. If you’re talking film, then you should be bathing in film and understanding the medium. Loving something, and closely observing why it is so effective – that will carry you further than learning about the rules of engagement.’
When asked about her greatest achievement, she says,’ I think maybe getting published at all, with my first book. I’d wanted it so long and I wanted to write it in a way that was visible.’
As well as a new series of The Outlaws for viewers to look forward to, Nikita is currently working on other projects for the big and small screen. ‘I’m currently writing the feature script of my second novel ‘The Village’ and am working on a pilot script of my first novel, ‘Gifted’, as well as developing a series set in the 80s for the BBC. For the future, I want to write better novels, and see my work on screen. That’s the simplest way to put a simple desire.’