Student. Soldier. Addict. Bank Robber. Convict. All these labels describe one of the year’s most acclaimed debut novelists, Nico Walker. Written while in federal prison, Walker’s novel Cherry is a poignant, fictional account of all those things—and an important book with regards to the treatment of Veterans, mental health issues, and the addiction crisis that plagues our country today. It has earned praise in such high places as Harper’s and The New York Times, not to mention the lofty discussions we’ve had at BookPeople.
We had the good fortune to interview Nico, and asked him about such things as influence, process, life as an incarcerated author, and his preference on the folks he might spend time with in a foxhole or a jail cell. Here’s what he had to say:
I’m just kind of floored when I get stuff like that. I don’t know what to think. But I’d be lying if I were to say I didn’t like being compared to writers like [Jim] Carroll and O’Brien, because how could I not. I don’t know. I guess I feel like I could cry when people validate my book, and I’m very grateful. I was worried most people maybe wouldn’t get it. But it seems like a lot of people do, and I’m grateful to them.
Can you explain how you came to be a writer and some of your writing process?
I came to be a writer by way of blind luck more or less. But I think I’ve always had some ability at it. I have to be careful though when I go about writing. Much of the process is about avoiding mistakes, and I have to know what mistakes I’m trying to avoid first, so I had to read a lot to see what other people did right and what they didn’t do. The good writers, as far as I know, what they all have in common is that they don’t spoil what they’re doing the way the other writers do. You might laugh too hard one time and you break the spell. Or you can overwrite one part and now suddenly the reader thinks you’re a loser. But if you can avoid those mistakes then you keep your credibility and whatever you write will seem real to the reader. It’ll ring of truth. Touch the fabric, and it’ll feel right.
Characters should be real people. Protagonists should be complicated and fallible. With a bad writer you get prejudices instead of characters. Or you get an ego instead of a protagonist. This is where honesty comes in; namely keeping yourself honest. If you can’t then you’re going to write some trash.
And you need to have balance in a story. You can’t be serious if you can’t be funny. You’ll bore people to death. And what you’re writing won’t seem real. It’s like when we’re in a bad spot we make jokes, don’t we? Well it has to be that way in the story too.
I don’t know. My writing process when I’m actually doing it, I just go word by word. I don’t outline or anything like that. I write some things and then maybe later I’ll write down on a piece of paper what order I think the things ought to go in, and that’s about it for my outlining. I concentrate on sentences and paragraphs. Every little detail. I do that for a long time and hope it adds up to something. And that’s how I wrote Cherry.
I approach writing like I’m one bad sentence away from ruining everything, like if I miss on one sentence I could lose the reader forever, jack my career off before it ever started. Like that.
By the by, there are three sentences in Cherry that I absolutely hate. I’ve thought about having them fixed, but then I’d draw attention to them. Maybe it’s four sentences actually, come to think of it. Anyway I don’t know what to do about it.
Another thing: I worry about sound the most. Sound is the most important thing to me. It’s probably the hardest thing to explain, but it has to sound right. I’ve got rules about sound I try and follow but it’s complicated and I couldn’t really tell you.
In your situation, with so little time to actually write, how do you go about ensuring your good ideas aren’t forgotten?
I can’t. I’ve even tried jotting down a couple lines before, and then I go and look back at them later and I won’t know what they mean, won’t have the slightest idea what they’re about. What I hope for, and what sort of happens though, is I get ideas and I forget them or I have some kind of insight and it gets away from me, but it doesn’t get all the way away and it leaves a trace of itself in my subconscious that will come across when I’m actually doing work.
Do you have the occasion to discuss literature much with your fellow inmates? Do they know you have a book?
Sometimes. Not often. But yeah, about everyone knows I have a book out. Some have even ordered it. I’ve even signed some copies.
Do you see yourself writing about prison in the future?
I don’t know. Maybe there are people better qualified to write about prison. I don’t think I’d want to focus on it, but I’ll probably write some things about it just because it’s something I know a little about, and people might be interested to read it.
Has your time in prison helped cultivate any interests other than writing?
I got into soccer. I’ve only ever played soccer while incarcerated. I’m about to play one more match this upcoming Monday, [September] 3rd; then I’m going to retire. I’m tired of having to rip my toenails out when they die.
Was writing as an interest or profession something you thought about at all while serving in the military?
No. I wanted to be a librarian though. I thought that was a job I could have. I was wrong about that, I guess.
After I got out of the Army and I was on drugs I thought maybe I could be in a band for a living because I thought that was a good job for someone who was depressed and on drugs.
I did like writing poetry but I don’t think anybody makes a living doing that. Or maybe just one or two people, and they’re probably a lot better at poetry than I am.
The narrator of Cherry states on several occasions throughout the novel that he “tried to be good.” Would you say this is the theme of the novel? Is this aim of trying to be good something you frequently think about?
So this thing about trying to be good, I’d say it is a theme in the novel. It’s just about how you could get in a bad way even if you start off trying to do the right thing. And that’s simple enough. Not really an original idea. And then maybe I was trying to go further and say something about how you should be true to yourself and not do things you think you must do to live up to another’s idea of what good is.
Everyone tries to be good, at least for a little while. But good is subjective, and that’s why we go different ways and misunderstand one another. Like when I think about the people we killed in Iraq, the people who fought against us, I get sad as hell because I know that they got into it thinking they were doing the right thing. They didn’t want to fight but they felt they had to because it was the right thing to do. Even the guys that killed our people, I can’t feel anger towards them because I know it was all just a misunderstanding. It’s sad and it’s no fun to think about, but that’s how it is. And then all *our* reasons for being there were complicated and insane. You’ll have that.
Anyway what I’m saying is instead of doing what we’re told is good we ought to be true to ourselves, and it’s easier and you get in less trouble. The narrator gets into a bad situation doing what he thinks he’s supposed to, going off to be a man and join the Army. Emily gets herself into a bad situation doing what she thinks she’s supposed to, trying to wait for the kid who loves her even when her heart isn’t in it. By the time things have played out it’s all gone wrong; then they’ve got regrets. Once you’ve got regrets, you’ve got problems that can’t be solved. And that’s when things get worse.
The protagonist in Cherry has, at times, a resigned and almost hopeless outlook—where do you stand on hope?
Yeah. That lack of hope is what really does him in. That’s why he has no courage at the end.
For me, in my life, hope is complicated. In a sense, I was only able to write this book how I did because I had nothing to lose, so I just let loose with it. At the same time, when I had the chance to write this book, I knew I’d do whatever it took to deliver a manuscript, because it was a way out of where I was at. And where I was at was no good. So that was hope.
I suppose that I’m a hopeful fatalist. If that’s something you can be, then that’s probably what I am. I don’t think there’s any harm in being resigned to whatever will come, because there’s no sense in being afraid of what’s going to happen to you. What’ll be will be, and all that. Still, you won’t ever stop running into people who want to mess you up, who get off on taking everything you’ve got and leaving you broke. And you have to fight that. And you can’t fight if you don’t have hope.
Many of your characters in the novel have deep character flaws but you never judge them through the eyes of your narrator. Is this acceptance of human behavior something you strived to capture or was it something that came out in the process of writing?
With writing a story I think going on with a lot of judgments is just bad writing. You want to tell a story, you let the story speak for itself. You want to tell somebody your opinion, just go talk to your friend about it.
Do you consider yourself lucky?
In your mind, is there a soundtrack to Cherry?
Yeah. I referenced Modest Mouse, rubella, Oasis, and Leonard Cohen. Lil Jon, I think too. Anyway. So all those should probably be on the soundtrack. And then there were songs I listened to a lot when I was working on Cherry. Different times, different songs. I remember when I was re-writing the book for Knopf, from start to finish, I did it in about a month, just working my fingers to the bone—literally, it seemed. I was listening to Hamburg Demonstrations, the Pete Doherty album, on repeat for the duration of that month more or less. I do remember that. It was good. Pete got me through some shit with that one.
A lot of the times when I was working on Cherry I was listening to classical music, what with violins and such: Glazunov, Smetana, i.a. Sometimes I’d listen to choral music: Benedictine Nuns of Saint-Michel de Kergonan, Kammerchor der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, i.a. I’m kind of out there on the music. I have an MP3 player, my own, here at the jail. You might be surprised what all is on it. I cast a wide net. Many things appeal to me.
Cherry’s cover art is hands down the one of the best designs of the year. Did you have any input on it?
I can’t take credit for that. All I had was veto power, to a point. But what happened was, when the decision was made, there were several ideas being considered at the time, and then I was talking to my editor, Tim O’Connell, and he told me that Sonny Mehta had said that that should be the cover. Which, if you know Tim, is about the same thing as him telling you that God thinks it should be the cover. So that was that, more or less.
Are there any books you’ve read lately that you’d recommend to fans of Cherry?
I think fans of Cherry will like The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan. It’s a love story told honestly. Also the writing is beautiful. Anyway that’s what came to mind just now.
Another comes to mind. The Long Take by Robin Robertson. It’s about a Normandy veteran trying to make it after the war. It takes place in New York and LA and San Francisco in the late ’40s and early ’50s. The story has parts about jazz music and old cinema in it too. As far as books go it’s A-1. I recommend it.
If you had to go to war with either Tim O’Brien or Ernest Hemingway, who would you choose?
Hemingway. Because he’s Hemingway.
How about cellmates—John Dillinger or Jesse James?
Dillinger. James was a fanatic. Dillinger knew the game.
(Interview conducted by Gregory and Mat.)