Nino had the immense pleasure of throwing some words at the word man himself. To find out where writing fits in to hip hop, where hip hop fits in to writing and what the two mean for the British street scene.
Nino: So for those who don’t know, where are you from and where are you now?
Niven: I was born in Sussex, raised in Surrey and now based in London.
Nino: Your first novel, ‘We Are The New Romantics’ was much more rock ‘n’ roll and European chic than ‘Graffiti My Soul’, which would you say is the truest to you own lifestyle? (Now or when you were younger.)
Niven: A little of both, I guess! There's elements of the city, the suburbs, and the countryside - and their associated trappings - in much my writing. I hadn't really thought about it until recently, but there's definitely a pattern emerging.
Nino: Are elements of ‘Graffiti My Soul’ autobiographical?
Niven: The Surrey connection is down to my background, but the rest is all fiction. I meant the book to be a twisted love letter to the suburbs, and it developed from there.
Nino: You used to do a bit of film making when you were at Uni didn’t you? How would you compare films, music and novels?
Niven: Yes, I studied film when I was doing my degree at Goldsmiths in the early ‘90s. There's no simplistic way to compare them - as they all have varying influences in my work. For me, they all feed off one another. I'm always reading, watching movies, and listening to music. Although, nothing can ever match the beautiful spontaneity of a three minute record. It's like the perfect art form.
Nino: Which are some of your favourite all time films and why?
Niven: How long is a piece of string?! How long do you have ?! Woody Allen, Hitchcock, Almodovar, Todd Haynes, Jean Pierre Melville are directors I love. There's an amazing French movie called Couscous that's on release now, about a French-Algerian family in the South of France which is amazing, and well worth checking out. Best new movie I've seen for ages.
Nino: You site Hanif Kureshi as one of your greatest influences as a writer, why do you think his writing had such an impact on you?
Niven: I read all the time as a teenager, and there are many writers who have had an influence on me - Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, Hubert Selby Jnr, Graham Greene, etc. But what was special about Hanif Kureishi for me, was the immediacy of his writing, it's energy and brilliance. The Buddah of Suburbia is a genius novel for all those things. Also, he often spoke about writing about whatever interested him and refused to be pigeon-holed as an 'Asian writer'. He cemented the idea really that I could so the same, be a writer without any boundaries.
Nino: How does it feel to know that there are young people out there who may be turning to your novels as a consolation for their own adolescent identity confusion?
Niven: It's flattering. As a writer, you're ultimately writing in the hope that people will read your work, so if they do and it strikes a chord, then I've done my job.
Nino: What made you choose the title for your second novel, ‘Graffiti My Soul’?
Niven: Ok, it's nicked from a Girls Aloud song! I remember reading the title as I was in the middle of the book, and there was something about the connotations of toughness and vulnerability of those three words that tied in with Veerapen's character. As I was finishing it, I thought about a load of different titles, but nothing stuck, and in my head the book was Graffiti My Soul, so it stayed.
Nino: For those who don’t know a great deal about the novel, could you give us a three sentence breakdown?
Niven: It's a coming of age story about a mixed race 15 year old boy called Veerapen, and set in the Surrey suburbs. It takes a series of complicated relationships with friends and family, including an on-off girlfriend called Moon. She's dead at the start of the book, and though a series of flashbacks, we learn about the events leading up to her death and Verapen's attempts to come to terms with it.
Nino: Where can people check out your unpublished short stories? What’s the content like in them?
Niven: The stories are all very different - they give me the chance to experiment. Two of my most recent stories are called 'Raving And Me' in 3:AM's 'London, New York, Paris' anthology, and another called 'Cake Before Country' in the new issue of Stimulus Respond magazine (stimulusrespond.com).They're pretty good indicators. Nothing's online yet, but I plan to put some stories on my Myspace page (myspace.com/graffitimysoul).
Nino: ‘Graffiti My Soul’ can appear extremely apathetic. Was this more an insertion of your own state of mind at the time or a reflection of the society and youth culture you were talking about?
Niven: It's trying to make a point about a certain type of youth culture in the suburbs, where affluence breeds apathy. These kids have everything handed to them on a plate and have lost all sense of being responsible for their actions. In their heads, whatever the scenario, however dangerous, there will always be someone to clear up their mess.
Nino: How would you describe the main character Veerapen’s attitude towards women in ‘Graffiti My Soul’... would you say this is a common attitude in hip hop?
Niven: There's an argument, a strong argument, about the way certain forms of hip hop objectify women, but that's not quite Veerapen's point of view. He's at the age where he's still working them out, so this manifests itself in a mixture of chivalry, tenderness, and laddish bravado.
Nino: What would you say were the most negative influences on you as a teenager?
Niven: Having to do PE!
Nino: What about the more positive influences?
Niven: Books, books and more books. Buying records. My gang of mates. Same as everyone else.
Nino: Graffiti My Soul contains some strong references to the use of violence and weapons by young people, making it very relevant to today’s media frenzy. Does it bother you the way people are receiving such things as a new problem when they have been going on for quite a while? Do you think media coverage just makes the situation worse ? For example, after Channel 4’s ‘Disarming Britain’ series covered the Bradford district, demonizing the youth and exaggerating the issues, many local residents have noticed an increase in gun and knife crime.
Niven: I think we need to worry less about when people jumped on the bandwagon so to speak and concentrate on keeping the debate open. The most important thing is that people are talking about it right now. If the current media focus makes people think dropping knives, ending feuds, checking in with their kids, boosting their self-esteem and potential etc, then that's a good thing.
Nino: What is it about violence that you think today’s youth are drawn towards?
Niven: In all cases, young and old, violence seems to offer an immediate answer for perpetrators. It is rarely the case, no?
Nino: Was the use of guns and knives a common issue in your own youth?
Niven: No. I was a teenager in the late 80s / early 90s. It was a different time.
Nino:What do you think are the root causes in the current violent youth culture?
Niven: There are too many I think - and I 'm probably not the best qualified to answer.
Nino: There are various references to hip hop in ‘Graffiti My Soul’ - the title being an obvious one. Were you trying to contrast hip hop with the violence or show the common mainstream view - that it encourages violence?
Niven: Neither. He's a 15 yr old boy who loves hip hop, that's all. Yes, there's a certain soundtrack running through his head throughout the book - but it's to do with energy and attitude. Every teenage has a similar soundtrack, a strut, that they try and pull off. It's the apathy and sense of powerlessness that lies at the heart of his bad episodes, not the music. He could have listening to the Spice Girls and the book would have still had the same result.
Nino: How optimistic are you about the consciousness and effect of the British hip hop scene?
Niven: Very. There's plenty of artists already having an effect. You can make a track and drop it on a community radio station, or through your myspace page, or blutooth it to infinity etc. Ten years ago, the scene was nowhere near as vibrant... or as multi-channelled.
Nino: Who are some of your various hip hop artists full stop, and why?
Niven: The beats need to be good but I like good MCs first and foremost: Nas, Jay Z, Biggie, No I-d, Common, Dizzee, anything QTip does, frat boy stuff like Beatnuts, Jeru, Gangstarr, there's loads.
Nino: You used to work in the music biz... what made you decide to become a full time writer?
Niven: Yes, I worked in dance and urban promotion at one of the major labels for over 10 years. It was a brilliant time - when people still bought records! - and I worked with some amazing artists, but writing is my first love, and I knew that sooner or later the books would come first.
Nino: Do you practise any of the ‘original’ hip hop elements - Djing, MCing, beatboxing, breaking or graffing?
Niven: I've played a few records in my time, but that's about it. Watching MC or turntable battling is always a joy though. I would have MC'd if I was better at thinking on my feet!
Nino: Are you into your poetry or spoken word at all?
Niven: Yes, but not as much as prose. I like artists who use spoken word and music together like Jill Scott (genius), Badu (double genius), and Ursula Rucker.
Nino: Who are some of your biggest influences, both as a writer and a person?
Niven: Namely the writers, filmmakers, and musos I've mentioned, and then, friends and family, of course.
Nino: Do you think there is not enough appreciation for literature in hip hop? Why do think that is?
Niven: I don't know. Maybe they're never asked! That’s not to say rappers don't read. Nas always has a book on him.
Nino: Do you think, just like many young MCs, young British writers nowadays need to shock and disgust in order to have an impact?
Niven: Not at all. Yes, the desire to shock can be a juvenile one, but the way to get noticed is write something honest that steers clear of cliche.
Nino: What’s next then? When can we read some more of your stuff?
Niven: I'm finishing my third novel and working on some short stories too. Dunno when they will drop, but will post on my myspace page when they do.
Nino: Any final words for any aspiring hip hop head writers out there?
Niven: To keep writing. You'll never be writer if you procrastinate or stay on the sofa - something that I am always telling myself!