Interview with Nick Sweeney - 2022
Interview #10 (fiction, literary fiction, road trip, travelogue, novel)
Nick Sweeney’s books include a hapless lover’s jaunt around Poland in Laikonik Express (Unthank Books, 2011), an opportunist’s wander into the wrong part of Silesia in The Exploding Elephant (Bards and Sages, 2018), and a look at the genocide-surviving gamblers of 1960s Nice in A Blue Coast Mystery, Almost Solved (Histria Books, 2020). "The Émigré Engineer" (Ploughshares, 2021) is about a man who escaped the bullets of the Russian Revolution only to find plenty more in Prohibition America. His story "The High Life" (Wordrunner, 2021) has been nominated for the 2022 Pushcart Prize. He lives and works on the North Kent coast of the UK. More than anybody ever needs to know about him can be found a nicksweeneywriting.com
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Randal Eldon Greene: Hello, Nick Sweeney.
Laikonik Express begins in Turkey and ends in Poland. But it also traverses the grounds of history and friendship, romance and dreams. The method of locomotion your book uses is the road trip novel. But it approaches the form somewhat slant, differently than any tripping novel I've ever read. When approaching this book, how did you manage navigating the hazards and tropes of this genre?
Nick Sweeney: I rarely write anything while considering the tropes, to be honest. If I did that, I'd never get started. In the back of my mind there is the idea that there are a limited number of stories to tell and that they have already been told. My job is to aspire to tell them better - a big task - or at least to tell them differently, and if it's still familiar to some readers, it's still all mine. My approach to writing anything is to throw any words that occur, then sort it out later, whether that's terrible phrasing, cliché of any kind or the hundreds of commas I need to search and destroy during a second draft. It's the same with the trope-avoidance; the clichés sink in and while not quite keeping me awake nights, start to bother me on some level at all times till I've worked round them or got rid of them.
The idea behind Laikonik Express is simple: two guys who are friends but have at times an almost antagonistic relationship bond, and join together in the uniting force of a quest, and of the road itself, or in this case the train lines. It came to me more or less fully-formed. I made some intense friendships when I was living and working in Turkey, and missed all of those friends sorely when we all left Turkey and were living in different places. The book went a little way towards preserving some aspect of those friendships. The first draft was a self-indulgent bromance and actually, some beta-readers said, excluded readers. Changing it from first to third person afforded the necessary detachment, I found, and so did cutting out a lot of the wordy show-off fat it was carrying.
The journeys were journeys I did often when I lived in Poland. As the Lajkonik Express goes from Kraków in the south to Gdynia in the north, stopping in Warsaw, where I lived, it was a train I got often, not in the company of friends but my then wife. I also did a job two hours out of Warsaw twice a week so shared the early morning train with a cast of drinkers, traders, soldiers, cigarette smugglers and aimless older people who had a free travel pass and just loved riding a 7AM train going through a country covered in snow. Some of them ended up in the pages.
These people line the pages, and are all 'real' in their own way, their passing shapes, now long changed, of course, paradoxically frozen and trapped in my fiction. There are the bars, too, the wise, sardonic people either side of the bar, the kindly stranger who appears out of the snow, and his ailing mother who, perhaps, holds the story at the very heart of Laikonik Express, and has the bright idea of using a car at last for one leg of the road trip. They are both real in the way I sketched out above and tropes, but I think it's how you do it that counts in a book like this. Likewise the setting: Poland, under winter snow, a freezing sea onto which only crazy people venture to fish - and of course there is one - and the very air crackling, ruined churches on the sand dunes, and the ghosts of the Second World War that will forever follow Poland and all who are born there or live there. I wanted to do the country justice in some way, and hope I haven't just added to the sob-story that many younger Poles, rightly, are tired of.
Randal Eldon Greene: Your character Nolan Kennedy is on this trip because he's discovered his friend's manuscript in the trash. And it turns out that this novel his friend Don Darius wrote is genius. So he takes a vacation to Poland in order to encourage his friend to finish editing his book and get it published. Kennedy himself dreams of being a writer, but he realizes he must get this friend's work published, a friend who he didn't even know was a writer until he found the manuscript. In some form, did you have such a friend or have you been that friend?
Nick Sweeney: An early beta-reader questioned the value of Kennedy's judgment in deciding that Don's work was 'genius'. That was in its original first-person slightly arrogant narrator version, where an over-serious bookish man, young-ish but old enough to know better, can see such things with clarity, where others can't (in his world-view). It's a form of delusion, and a form of delusion we often apply to our own work, in a way. My reader didn't suggest this (she's a writer, herself) but years later I thought it was perhaps an expression of my own view of my own work - 'my book is great, why don't you see that, and publish it...' So that whole sub-plot can be seen as a (maybe not so) deep-seated expression of wish-fulfilment. On the other hand, it's also 'just' a McGuffin to get Kennedy out of his chair and on trains across Europe, as he himself reflects. I know a McGuffin is seen as sort of throwaway and unimportant as a mere device upon which to hang more important story developments, but implementing one with stealth is difficult, I think.
In some ways, anybody who knows a writer knows 'that friend' who ploughs away at their book out of sight and mind, and believes in it enough to do that, hoping somebody else will read it one day. I've known that writer, of course, and I've been that writer, too. Part of me is always that writer, never quite published enough - or, in my case especially, with the two novels I really feel strongly about remaining unpublished while my other books are getting out there.
The friend I based Don Darius on was indeed a writer of sorts, though he never attempted anything as weighty as a novel, mainly short, entertaining stories of his travels, often couched in e-mails and letters. He was also a compulsive postcard writer, and at one time was prompted by a correspondent to collate them all and put them in a book, a project that faced several difficulties: he couldn't remember a lot of the people he'd sent them to, for example, plus the fact that many people read them quickly and chuck them, or, as in my case (somebody very reluctant to chuck anything written down) were unwilling to part with them for fear of losing them in the process. It's a great unpublished work, I guess - not the original idea I thought at the time, as the Beatles' Ringo Starr published a book of postcards he'd sent - which I bought 2 years ago at a car boot sale.
Randal Eldon Greene: I'd say the McGuffin works well, as it adds to the characters of both Darius and Kennedy. Darius doesn't truly realize his potential and Kennedy envies that potential, though not so much that he doesn't also wish to cultivate it. It also works because that envy is swapped. Where Darius is a talented writer, Kennedy is a steadfast lover. And Darius envies this in Kennedy. In fact, I'd say it's this envy of Kennedy as someone who found clichéd love-at-first-sight romance that prompts the second train ride in the novel.
Nick Sweeney: Thank you. The whole 'Don's book' theme in the novel - the 'novel within a novel' - receded in clarity as I was writing it, and at one point I realised I needed to bring it back in or it would indeed be exposed as a mere device. It was a good hook on which to hang some of Krystyna's curiosities about the two men, and a way to put her more in the frame, a little piece of immortality for her that, even facing what she must face, pleased her in some way and took her mind off it. It also added to the core theme of the novel - unperceived even by me until I was halfway through - that of friendship. Friends CAN both envy and support each other. I'd go so far as to say that supporting friends who have achieved the thing you wanted to achieve, rather than giving in to your under-the-surface jealousy, is a true mark of friendship. The second journey is certainly prompted partly by Don's envy of Kennedy's relationship. A reader suggested that, had Kennedy not been with Ling (even though he thinks it may be doomed), Don might not have even bothered with his journey, and I had never thought about that. It's great when readers go down wormholes the author didn't know were there, and ferret out these sub-themes and raise questions.
Randal Eldon Greene: Don seems suspicious of the kind of enculturation that extends beyond providing another culture with basic trade and language. He's worried that capitalism will come in and finish off the job communism started. This book takes place in the early '90s, right? Do you believe that this is what happened to Poland – that the trappings and symbols of neoliberalism such as McDonalds and Snickers bars came in and ruined the culture with toxic consumerism? Or was he wrong?
Nick Sweeney: Don is showboating a little when he decries capitalism's encroachment into Poland. I think he reflects a complicated point-of-view evinced by myself and other foreigners I knew in Poland. We all did that from time-to-time, genuine sometimes, prompted by guilt at others, but glad of home comforts. I think, to be fair to most people, if home comforts are there, you'd be really stretching a strange point not to take advantage of them sometimes. Yes, the book is set in the early '90s when I lived there (1993 for 7 months, in Silesian town Gliwice, and then from 1994-1997 in Warsaw) so I was very much aware of the process, and not always pleased about it.
For example, on sale in most supermarkets were cornflakes, basic cornflakes like you'd find anywhere, and they had made and sold them for years in Poland, usually in clear bags with dark writing on them, like old-fashioned potato chip packets. They cost a dollar or so. By about 1994, Kellogg's cornflakes were there in their bright boxes and opaque waxed paper bags. They too cost a dollar or so, at least until the local cornflakes manufacturers were out of business or had been bought up by Kellogg's, and disappeared. By then, Kellogg's no longer cost a dollar; they cost 4 dollars. It was the EXACT SAME PRODUCT, of course. This happened with more or less everything local: foodstuff, cigarettes, alcohol, cars, even, a very familiar trajectory of capitalism. Why didn't the locals see it coming? Some did, I guess. It was not for me to lecture them about it, of course. It's a bit like the climate change thing now, I guess: western countries have spent a century and a half of industrialization ruining the environment in the pursuit of cheap goods and convenience, but now want to wag a finger at eastern countries when they do it.
The culture of the onetime communist bloc countries has indeed been changed by consumerism. Some of it is kind of good, I guess, when looked at simply: a slick if nutrition-free McDonald's burger versus the greasy sausage in a hard roll from the old East German style schnell-imbiss stands, no contest, though paradoxically the unattractive-looking option was surely better for its end-user - more actual meat, and a hard roll taking more calories to digest. But it'd still be better to have the choice. Have the cultures been ruined? In a way, it's not for me to say for sure, as an outsider. There are now people approaching early middle-age in those countries who have grown up not knowing anything else but the capitalism they inherited and subsumed.
Oddly enough, the first McDonald's was opening in Poland when I was on my first visit there, summer of 1992 and part of a wildly meandering backpack around wherever the train seemed to take us. It left us with a surreal memory: as a gesture of good faith, McDonald's took on all the staff they'd need throughout the Warsaw area at once, even though they then had only one site, at main street Marszalkowska, so when we walked in, the area behind the counter was crowded with McDonald's workers in their livery, and the front of the counter was basically empty, as with so many staff customers got served immediately. We sat and observed people clutching their food en route to their tables with a genuine shiny-eyed excitement, bizarre enough in itself. We then saw them unpack their apple pies, examine them, take a large bite and howl with pain and spit: in their eagerness to eat them they had not read the warning about the molten-hot filling – very funny.
I still visit eastern and central Europe as much as I can, and one thing I love about all those countries is that they have changed in the big picture, sure, BUT there are always wormholes in the little pictures in them that are exactly as I remember them: a shack selling home-made tripe soup hidden almost in plain sight in central Warsaw, a building from the Warsaw Ghetto neither plaqued nor re-clad nor turned into a hotel, a hut by the river selling what is possibly illegally-imported bottled beer in the summer, little corners of Budapest in which an old woman still comes out all weathers without pay to sweep the foot of the monument to the poet - there is nearly always one somewhere, to some poet or other - a glove shop in Bucharest in which a man seemingly from the inter-war royalist 'Paris of the Balkans' comes out perfectly-attired and speaking impeccable English to measure your hands, a hotel in Debrecen where the bell by the bed attracts room service... eventually, a restaurant in Sarajevo in which old men sit at a table, finish their cevapcici and sing, almost without catching one another's eyes. All these elements exist within the perceived toxicity of the big changes, almost like inhabiting a parallel world. They may die out with the people who make them what they are, and that WILL be an ending to the old world of which I have caught a very occasional glimpse.
I had the Snickers-Bar-in-Auschwitz experience. It was on my first visit there, and it sort of freaked me out a little... but there is really no reason why people can't eat, and eat what they like. The visit is recounted in this very short flash fiction piece I had published in the Burningword Literary Journal a few years back, and can be read online. These things will be with me all my life, and will never quite leave my thinking, of great or little consequence, they seem to be always there.
Randal Eldon Greene: How important to you is personal experience for the process of crafting stories?
Nick Sweeney: Very much so and, unhelpfully, not at all. Outwardly, it isn't important at all. My default position is that I'm a writer, and I make stuff up and finesse it so that it's entertaining to read, in some way - in a number of ways, ideally. In theory, that's all the authority I need. I have indeed been asked something like 'Where does your authenticity come from when you write about e.g., Poland?' I have answered that I was there, and my novels and short stories are informed by this experience, but I would be just as happy (if I were in a grumpy mood) to stick to my 'I'm a writer and make up stories' answer.
My novella A Blue Coast Mystery, Almost Solved (Histria Books, 2020) is set on the Cote d'Azur, a place I know well from holiday trips, BUT I don't need to know it. It features a junky based on a guy I met during a long spell in hospital in 1973 BUT (again) I could have made him up. The real story (the one the junky tells a nurse based partly on my mother, or perhaps as she is contemporary to me a sort of imaginary sister) is about French Riviera gamblers who survived 20th century genocides, and of course I have made them, and their story, up from my imagination. It's informed from things I have learned and people I have known and trips I have made, but their story is a construct. All the same, I don't think I could have written it had I not met the people I mention above, nor been to the featured places along the Cote d'Azur, etc. In this case my personal experience has been essential.
I had a story published a few years ago by The Squawk Back, the 10000-word “The Escape,” a speculative piece whose main character is a cosmonaut whose mind expanded during the Soviet Space Programme, giving her certain skills and powers that help her in extremis in her exile to a Soviet backwater. It was all completely made up, with only my existing knowledge of what cosmonauts went through, of necessity culled entirely from TV, movies, books and stray 'stuff' on the internet, though my lifelong obsession with the Soviet Union aided it.
I guess I'm prepared to write about whatever strikes me as a fit subject for a story, and to get to the end of it I use whatever aids it the best. Some of that is, inevitably, my own self and what I've done and the way I've remembered those experiences.
Randal Eldon Greene: I certainly am suspicious of the old adage write what you know, and often wonder what fantasy writers think of that advice. I also got into an argument once with a fellow who was adamant that all first novels by an author are autobiographical. I suppose I should ask, was your first book autobiographical? And I'll tack on a related question: How did you get into writing fiction in the first place?
Nick Sweeney: I guess 'write what you know' makes both utter sense and none at all.
I'm all for committing to the story and taking it into the unknown and sorting it out later. At some point, unless one leads a life so exciting that, arguably, there would be neither time nor inclination to write about it, writers need to see what they do in fact know, or can imagine, examine their knowledge, and, if there are gaps in it that stand in the way of their creative ambitions, then begin, consciously or not, to fill it and extend it. Whether this is by personal experience or extensive free reading of fiction and non-fiction, by doing a course or two or just getting out there and talking to people, it sort of doesn't matter. I have done all of those things. As I've got older I've become a frenzied note-scriber, but of course when I was younger I trusted the best parts to stick in my mind. I now still chuck out the odd short story inspired by a seemingly inconsequential chance meeting with a stranger years ago, or a half-skimmed news item, or even the latter reminding me of the encounter in some way and triggering the glimmer of a story.
This memory came to mind a few years back. I have no idea why:
(Late-ish night bus in South London, Christmas 1985-ish)
Man in his 70s I thought to be an Arab or perhaps Asian: Hey, I know you - how's it going?
Me: [cautious] Okay... but remind me: where did we meet?
Man: You were at that arts centre film do thing - I remember. [shakes my hand] We didn't get the chance to talk.
Me: Oh, right, Hi. [At the time I could have been to any number of things that fitted that vague description.]
Man: I've just been to see [a movie - I can't remember it, but knew I'd seen it too] and in it James Woods sings Plaisir d'Amour.
Me: I thought he sang Ave Maria. [Not true - I'd got those two ancient tunes mixed up.]
Man: No, it was Plaisir d'Amour. You just don't expect a hitman to sing Plaisir d'Amour.
The conversation went on.
Man: I'm a right-wing Roman. [He was actually from Peru, but spoke note-perfect standard English.]
Me: I'm a left wing atheist.
Man: But still... We can communicate.
As I got off the bus, he said, "Listen - can you get me a Christmas hamper? I'd appreciate it."
Me: "See what I can do." [Very unlikely from the relatively penniless student I was at the time, even if he had given me his address.]
None of that is a story, but parts of it might well slot into one if I see an opening - I have already used the idea of a stranger asking another to get him a Christmas hamper. I heard him doing the hey-I-know-you spiel to various people on that route for a few years, and then next thing I was no longer living there, and years passed before I thought of it. Now I wish I had learned more about him.
As for interesting lives lived. John Le Carré acknowledged that he has indeed worked for MI6, but that if he put in all the 'authentic' procedural details into his spy novels his readers would not get many pages in. Ian Fleming had a similar background and likewise ignored all that to come up with the high-octane fantasy of the James Bond books.
My first novel was decidedly not autobiographical. It was a slightly hysterical love story across the political divide, incorporating flight from the consequences of a murder and the criminal and far-right organizations who set it up, the shared (and more or less accidental*) theft of a rare ikon and the search for a home free of past associations. Written in the mid-'80s, it was set in Berlin as a hot-spot torn apart by the fight to re-unify the two Germanies, a thing that happened a few years on, but pure fantasy when I wrote it. The couple go to Romania in an effort to disappear. At the time, I had never been to either Germany or Romania. (If I'd been to Romania, I would have known that two foreigners were never going to just rock up to Ceaucescu's secret-police-haunted Romania and conveniently disappear.)
*as in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch!
One of the main characters was based loosely on a woman I knew when I lived in Paris in the early '80s, a single-minded young German woman who was raising funds for some repugnant far-right group. I was repelled by her politics but all the same keen on getting off with her. (I never did.)
I made up for my audacity by getting to Berlin for New Year 1989 and a few years later spending a bit of time in Romania. So - no, none of that was me. The novel was called, somewhat artily, (a Young Couple in) National Drag - I guess it still is called that. It may come out one day, I guess, but it would need a lot of work.
Laikonik Express, my first published novel, has plenty of autobiographical moments and incidents and, while not based on me directly, is based on friends, and on the life we lived in the '90s, of working in Istanbul, Poland (in my case) and in what was Czechoslovakia, Saudi Arabia and China, in the case of my friends, and some of the journeys we thought nothing of doing, hundreds of miles across Europe on trains (or planes) to meet up and ensure that we stay in touch.
Being a concentrated and absorbed reader from a young age, I saw my path as a writer fairly early on, even if it wasn't as clear as a decision to write. I think it must have been sparked initially by disgruntled moments as I got through series of children's books (such as those by Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton, Frank Richards and others, but also one-offs, like Iain Serrailler's The Silver Sword) and found them wanting in various ways: the writers often got jaded and sloppy as the years went on towards the end of the series, and I often wished they hadn't written some of the later books the way they did. Those moments became, almost unnoticed, a form of obsession. I was also perennially disappointed to get to the ends of the series and think 'What - is that it?' Of course, the writers died, and may have left them in mid-sentence, or just got too old to continue, or wanted to spend more time golfing, but I didn't understand that.
By the age of 13 or 14 I had a ton of unwritten fanfiction taking up intrusive space in my head. Certainly by the age of 16 I had begun dreaming of my alternative endings and stories, a thing that persists to this day. I was also very taken with long-running cartoon stories, such as Herge's Tintin, but also strips running in weekly comics, and missed them sorely when they finished. I once wrote to one comic to ask if they could run another series of one strip - Joe White and the Seven Dwarfs, about a young boy and his companions cast adrift in wartime Germany or occupied France when their circus is broken up. I remember the stories vividly, but not the comic. I don't think I ever sent the letter, for some reason. I was also taken by the bleakness of some strips, such as George Herriman's Krazy Kat, which I only ever saw occasionally - I can't remember which newspaper ran these already ancient strips - and often had the urge, but not the intellectual means, to flesh out those Coconino County backgrounds, and follow up the stories of Krazy and Ignatz. I still love them, and now have entire albums of them and what's more am old enough to get to the end of them and forget the beginnings, so can read them again and still be amused...
The glib answer is that I had to become a writer, or who else was going to satisfy these obsessions? Truer is that the obsession to finish or improve the fictional stories of others and add my own faded for a very long time and got replaced by more tangible and easily achieved ones: jobs, girls, friends, music, sport - even my failed 'career' as an amateur bike racer took a few years to play out to its inevitable conclusion, plus my on-off ventures into music - none of which allowed me much time or attention to be able to sit down long enough to write anything very long. Influenced by people like Orwell and Henry Miller, and Joyce too, I guess (though his name is probably far too hifalutin to mention in this context) I first put pen to paper in Paris in 1981, and scribbled sketches in a carelessly lost notebook for a never-to-be-completed novel set in Paris but which morphed a few years later into 'the Berlin one'. It's mainly fiction, so far. I have one or two ideas for some non-fiction, but can't see them happening at the moment - I have a ton more made-up stories to tell.
Randal Eldon Greene: Had you been born in the 90's or later, your obsession with fixing endings and improving upon the stories you loved would have made you a prime candidate for a fanfiction writer. Do you consider the prevalence of young people's fanfiction today to be good for future novel-writing or something that actually stifles creativity?
Nick Sweeney: Though I 'know what I like' when it comes to reading, and culture in general, my ignoring certain genres is not a pronouncement on their worth, whether it's books, movies, TV series or music. If a thing is done well and with sincerity and an urge to contribute something to culture, and it's a good effort, then I'm in favor of it, whether I actually get anything out of it or not. Fanfiction is not a thing I've been drawn to much, partly because a lot of fanfiction writers use their fave characters and stories to hang their often clichéd issues on, and that never makes for decent writing. It has potential as a form, though - for sure. It stifles creativity no more than writing fantasy/detective fiction/cosy mysteries, etc. would. As long as it's done well.
I'm pretty sure a lot of creators start out like me, with an urge to do a thing they like, a bit, but do it better, and then their own work takes over and replaces it, sometimes with the original impetus/influence subsumed so deeply it's forgotten. Most of them are sensible enough to forget it and get on with real life, but of those who persist, some of them have to be talented, and will go on to produce quality work.
In social media there's sometimes a spirit of everybody suddenly being a critic, with a valid, expert contribution to make. Close examination of this reveals it to be absurd, of course: nobody is an expert in these matters, least of all 'some guy on the internet'. I see a lot of grudging and mean-spirited criticism, on the lines of; 'I sort of liked this - it's kind of about me/my tribe/my types but wish they had done x or y and then it would have satisfied my world-view exactly.' This happened to the second series of True Detective, for some reason (my favorite out of them all, but that's irrelevant) with armchair critics petitioning the writers and the production company angrily to get them to change it in various ways. The gallery has a voice, of course, but when it assumes it's got more expertise than the creators JUST BECAUSE IT SAYS SO then it's time to stand on stage and tell it to fuck off and watch something else or, crucially, go forth and do better. If those issue-haunted critics go away disgruntled and get out of their armchairs and actually create the better version, one that will appeal to their people and wider, then they'll have a voice we can listen to and consider.
Randal Eldon Greene: From what I'm understanding, one has drive and/or talent, and it takes both to create quality work. Drive, I feel, can be learned if it is not innate. But is talent (specifically writing talent) innate or can it too be learned?
Nick Sweeney: There are a lot of people out there with rabid ambition paired with a complete lack of talent. It's a toxic combination.
I guess the nature and extent of talent is too flexible to say much about it for certain; there are surely parameters to mark out a scale from untalented to very talented, but they're hard to pin down and discern these days. I give up arguing with fans of people/books/albums/art whose merit I really can't see. It's just too much of a gulf.
I hold the 'people in the nineties' mostly responsible – remember when 'irony' happened, and it was suddenly okay to like things formerly described, rightly, as 'crap', as long as it was in an ironic way? There was suddenly no argument against the crap anymore, with puzzling conversations on the lines of:
'Why do you like that? It's crap.'
'Yeah, I know. But... I like it because it's crap.'
I think that the acquisition of talent begins with curiosity, about the world and how to express reactions to what is perceived. People too insular to be curious are probably unlikely to become very talented in any conventional sense, I think. Curiosity and expression can certainly be triggered and kick-started into being.
I know there are writers who just put pen to paper and knock out classics without thinking about it much - I believe Robert Harris whizzes his finished chapters to his publisher one at a time and doesn't expect to hear about them again till he's signing copies at launch parties, but that's rare. For most of us, writing is hit or miss, a gradual process of putting down words and erasing them and reshuffling and reordering them; it's a process. So is deciding how to present it, where to send it, who its audience might be - you can just write, and see what happens, but it doesn't go anywhere without those processes to guide it. I think good habits that contribute towards those processes can be taught, for sure. And learned, of course. They can help bring the hidden talent out.
Randal Eldon Greene: I like the idea of a hidden talent. For you, does wasted talent mean a wasted life? How would you feel if you couldn't practice your craft, though you knew you had a talent for it?
Nick Sweeney: I don’t think it means a wasted life, necessarily, but feel that people who find what they’re good at and stick with it and get better at it are probably happier than people who have no belief that they have a talent. I’d feel restricted, for sure, if I couldn’t write. However, a few times in the '80s and '90s when I moved abroad to live I didn’t take a guitar with me. I missed it terribly for a while and then just learned to live with it. I was writing, though, and learning new languages, which takes up a lot of time if you do it properly, so maybe had a ready substitute. If I couldn’t write, I’m pretty sure I’d find something else to stimulate me, lead me down wormholes and, possibly, not let me out again.
I just watched a film about Chicago documentarist Vivian Maier, whose entire production of 100,000 photos, plus film and audio tapes was all in her hoarder’s room when she died. Though she expressed an urge to get her work out there (rather diffidently and obliquely to a French photo lab) she never pursued it seriously. She seemed content to be obscure - well, more than obscure: unknown. Henry Darger is another Chicago outsider artist, his odd paintings and 13000 pages of The Vivian Girls novel never seeing the light of day in his lifetime. Was he happy? Nobody will ever know. There are other ‘legends in their own lunchtimes’ whose work I’m drawn to, Van Gogh and Kafka, for instance, and the ‘living diary’ of Claude Fredericks (on whom Donna Tartt based the somewhat improbable figure of Julian Morrow in The Secret History).
I can state categorically that I enjoy being published, and having songs, and photos, out there. While I now recognise that it’s hardly a tragedy if some novel of mine doesn’t get out there - a thing my 30-something self often burned with childish angst about - I still want to get out what I can, just so I can remind myself that I had a story to tell and told it - hopefully we’ll.
Randal Eldon Greene: Will you ever retire from writing, like Philip Roth did after his novel Nemesis was published? Or do you think the business of writing will never quite be complete for you?
Nick Sweeney: I doubt it. I have little reason to believe that the ideas and pictures that keep coming to me about our world and my corner of it, my past - often these tiny incidents of seemingly no importance but which contain massive bytes of significance, if only for me – will ever stop. My ageing brain may call a halt to them, of course. On one level it would be absurd for me to be sitting in my garden 20 years from now going, “Aha!” and reaching for the pen and pad. On another, maybe it’s only absurd if somebody sees it...
This year I finished a massive Dickensian slab of novel I started in 1998 on a trip to Rome. It’s called Cleopatra's Script and it's set in Rome appropriately enough in the '90s and features a foreign couple whose budding love affair is interrupted and almost ruined by their knowledge of the murder of a Roma child. I never formally abandoned it, and in fact always knew what the ending was. I always felt I was ‘about 30 pages’ from the end... which persisted all this year as I added new chapters to finish it. I have no idea if anybody will ever publish it. Of course I wasn’t working on it for over 20 years, and have had other novels published in that time, but there is yet another huge novel I started in 1989 - who’s to say that won’t pursue me to the end of my days?
There is a large chunk of Cleopatra's Script on my website and some background to it.
Randal Eldon Greene: I personally love behemoths of literature. What do you think of the notion that people are too distracted, too busy for big books?
To be a reader of any books is a deliberate choice these days.
Nick Sweeney: I think this question addresses a singular problem authors, and novelists in particular, face: most people are too distracted and busy for any books, let alone big ones. As writers, we can't compete with the multitude of screens that demand people's habitual attention - streamed movies and series from all eras, gaming and the billion-page magazine that the Internet is. There is only one small benefit to this, which is that as we can't compete, we have to stop worrying about it and just get on with writing.
Getting books out there used to be simpler: write a book – any book, more or less – reasonably well, either within a genre or allowing it to find its own, then whiz it to an agent to find it a publisher. It's a lot more hit-and-miss these days, with both agencies and publishers unable to take a book on unless an accountant has assessed it for its future sales profile and okayed it. Lots of budding authors follow the acorns and try to tailor their work using a tick-box approach - and success is still not guaranteed; there are virtual drawers full of works featuring boy-or-girl-magicians, vampires, steampunk heroes/heroines, jaded feminist detectives, gender-fluid serial killers and morally upright policemen who keep their souls while continuing to work for repressive totalitarian regimes... Again, we have to just get on with writing. There is no longer any formula – the odd exception proves the rule – so we just write, and hope we can draw some of those readers.
To be a reader of any books is a deliberate choice these days. Parents make it for their children, as ever, and I guess teachers do their bit in encouraging it, but once people are free to fill their own leisure-time they are bombarded with so many easier options than books. Some of those people who choose to read books, and expect nothing more from a book other than a story, will inevitably go for big books. Some genres, such as sci-fi or fantasy, make a virtue of some books' unfeasibly enormous chunks of paper. Some individual authors, too – I'm thinking of the ole men's brigade such as Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer – I think their readers expect big books from them, and are disappointed if they're not big enough.
I usually like getting through the latest Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ian McDonald, Alan Moore, etc., and I've done some time with the bigger Dickenses, Dostoyevskies, George Eliots and Joyces (including a possibly unhealthy obsession with Ulysses), but at heart I'm a bit of a big-book-dodger myself, I must confess, at least in theory. I still have War and Peace on the list. Once I've forgotten the mini-series of it I watched recently, I'll make a start on it!
Randal Eldon Greene: Since the internet became the beast of knowledge and vortex of distraction that it is today, I've been bombarded with advice on how to write (including those tick-boxes of "guaranteed-to-sell" content). For a final question, I want you to add to the noise and give us your one piece of writing advice that you believe all people thinking of writing a book should hear.
Nick Sweeney: If you're a writer, read the work of other writers, in your genre and out of it. To me it doesn't make sense not to, and I only say this because lots of writers on various writers' forums claim that they don't, and that they don't have to, with all kinds of lame reasons - 'It messes up my muse/influences me too much/I haven't got time/I only like my own work.' To be honest, their posts to put this over often show exactly why they SHOULD read. A friend who never reads novels decided she'd write one – 'because everybody is, and how hard can it be – and, as a published novelist, could I take a look at it? (Normally I just don't have time to do this kind of thing, though I sometimes want to.) It was exactly as you'd imagine a book by somebody who had never read one: meandering and unreadable, and hilarious for all the wrong reasons.
2) Referring to the same friend: don't write novels that are thinly/badly disguised as polemics about various issues. Nobody wants to read them, not even the people who agree with you, because... they need no convincing.
3) Treat writing as a job. I write nearly every day for 5-7 hours. I don't 'wait for my characters to tell me where the story is going', nor 'allow the muse to take me over'.
4) If you're going to write an action-adventure thriller featuring giant state bodies such as the CIA/FBI etc., don't rely on action-adventure movies to inform you. What works in movies is often absurd on the page. See 1.
5) Vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc. – they have really been done to death, pardon the pun. The world is at peak trope monstahs overload.
6) Don't self-publish just because you can.
7) Instead of paying an editor to correct every run-on sentence, incorrect use of apostrophes, speech-marks, paragraphing, etc., learn how to do those things yourself. They really are very simple. See 1, again. Then an editor will not only be cheaper but will be able to concentrate on your story. And, contrary to what is often asserted, the publisher will NOT 'look after all that side of things because the story is really original' - they really won't. There are NO original stories. A publisher will take a well-edited story over yours.
8) If you're already brilliant, then ignore all of this and be successful.
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About the interviewer:
Randal Eldon Greene is the author of Descriptions of Heaven, a novella about a linguist, a lake monster, and the looming shadow of death. His typos are tweeted @AuthorGreene and his website is AuthorGreene.com