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Nico Walker on Storytelling

Nico Walker on Storytelling

For issue 07 of WIP magazine, photographer T-Bone Fletcher travels to Mississippi to catch Nico Walker, the army veteran turned bank robber turned bestselling author, as he discusses the process of storytelling and the myth of agency with writer Holly Connolly. 

 

It is difficult, maybe unusually so, to use the bare facts of the story of Nico Walker’s 2018 work Cherry to give any kind of impression of what the novel is actually like. An unnamed protagonist drops out of college, enlists as a US army medic and, as it’s 2003, is deployed to Iraq. He serves a term, returns to Cleveland, Ohio, resumes an on/off relationship with his girlfriend/wife Emily, and they both quickly descend into heroin addiction. Running out of money, and with few options left to fund their habit, he embarks on a series of bank robberies. 

 

But already I have made Cherry sound more cause and effect, more bro-ish and more cinematic in scope than it is. This is not war as it’s depicted in films. “We’d grown up on high-fructose corn syrup, with plenty of television; our bodies were full of pus; our brains skittered,” Walker writes of the enlisting soldiers. Nor is there any dark glamor in the drug addiction. One thing doesn’t lead to another, mostly it all feels aimless. The bank robberies seem almost incidental when they happen. As Walker himself puts it: “To me one of the most important things, when I was doing Cherry, was to try and make it the most anti-climactic novel about war and robbery ever written.”

 

The overlap between the events of Cherry and Walker’s own life undoubtedly helped give the novel an early intrigue – he was still serving an 11 year prison sentence for bank robbery (eventually reduced to nine years in custody) – when it was published. His backstory had the dual effect of providing the novel with a certain credibility, an insider’s perspective, while signaling Walker as a fresh voice in an increasingly professionalized publishing landscape. (The critic Christian Lorentzen called Cherry, “The rare work of literary fiction by a young American that carries with it nothing of the scent of an MFA program.”)

 

Then there is the backstory to Cherry itself; one of ownership, the way stories are packaged for an audience, and the points at which something both starts and stops being, if not real then true. You could say that it began as a 2013 Buzzfeed article, written by a journalist who visited Walker in prison. Heavy on heroism, the article bears little resemblance to the book, but it did catch the attention of Matthew Johnson, an editor for the cult independent publisher Tyrant Books. Johnson started writing to Walker in prison, encouraging him to try writing himself. Over three years, and with input by the late Giancarlo DiTrapano, this became the early manuscript of Cherry. Early hype meant the rights for the book sold to a major publisher, Alfred A Knopf, who adapted it into an, if not more conventional, at least more commercially viable book. Eventually, it was optioned into a film, which Walker says he still hasn’t watched.

 

Now based in Oxford, Mississippi, a condition of his prison release, when we speak over the phone in mid-August Walker is living between hotels. (“I’m sort of half-ass homeless right now. I’m not living under a bridge, but I was living in the Motel Six for like a month.”) Unfailingly polite, Walker is funny in that way where you’re not entirely sure it’s intentional; when we finish our call he sends me an email with the heading “i misquoted Oasis.” 

 

He speaks candidly about himself and his life, and when he does raise the occasional, “Don’t put that in there,” it tends to be to protect someone else’s privacy, or feelings. He seems mostly uncynical on the motives of others too. On the film adaptation of Cherry, for instance; “I don’t want to disrespect anybody, people worked hard on it. I just don’t think they got it.” On the writer of the Buzzfeed article; “He's got a kid, and like everybody else he is just trying to get a check.”

 

Here we talk about his writing process, adjusting to life after prison, and what might be his next book.

H C

I’m interested in how your position has changed since Cherry was published. To go from working very much outside the publishing system, to then being venerated within it. Has this affected how you approach writing?

 

N W

I'm not too much of an insider, I don’t have an advance or anything like that, I guess I still haven’t got that kind of approval, which is good. I don’t mind the pressure, I don’t want to be comfortable. I don’t want to feel that I've fucking arrived anywhere, or made it, and that now I can just write whatever. It’s good to be insecure when you’re trying to do stuff like this, because it keeps you on your toes, keeps you self-aware.

I think, for myself, the bad side is that I have a tendency to not be able to see the leaves through the aphids sometimes. I get into navel-gazing stuff, worrying about where adverbs should be. Also, I want to be sensitive to the time, and do something that’s right for the time, and to strive for that, because otherwise it’s sort of fucking pointless.

 

H C

I want to talk a little about your writing process for Cherry, especially the fact that it developed over time with this kind of constant feedback from Matthew Johnson.

 

N W

The one thing about working with Matthew, is that Matthew isn’t going to let you do anything corny. To have somebody like that, who can put the brakes on you before you make a proper fool of your-

self, is invaluable. And I’ve talked a lot about what other people have done, the acknowledgement section of my book gave a lot of credit to different people. With Matthew, I probably haven’t given him enough credit, in a way, because it is really easy to forget yourself and do something corny, and he’s definitely not going to let anything get like that. He’s got a sharp eye for that, he doesn’t let it through.

 

H C

What do you mean when you say something is corny?

 

N W

To be real honest with you, as somebody who doesn’t have a college degree, and who has this sort of low-life past, I’m very self-conscious about how well I write relative to other people, in a way that’s not really productive. I just get so far into the technical elements of writing that I tend to overdo it, and at the end of the day most people don’t read books for the most unusual, but technically correct, way that you can use fucking grammar. I’ve got a bit of a chip on my shoulder about stuff like that, and I think I overdo it, overwrite sometimes, and it’s a habit that I’ve gotten into and gotten out of, from time to time. Matthew is going to be the one to say, “This has taken too long. You need to cut to the chase.” and reminding me again, “This isn’t that big of a deal. You are never going to see a fucking writer on a billboard, nobody really actually gives a shit that much.” The story, that's a different matter altogether, the story is a different story. You’ve got to have a story, otherwise they don’t care.

 

H C

Cherry tells a story about the business of publishing itself. I was thinking that an interesting project would be to publish both versions, the Tyrant one, as well as the Alfred Knopf.

 

N W

So Hill William, by Scott McClanahan. It’s a great book, I think it’s his best book hands down, and I like all his books, but that one really blew me away. Gian [DiTrapano] had worked on it, and he did a similar thing with Cherry, where it was broken up into these short vignettes that were not in chronological order, and he took inspiration too from Michael Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid. It was interesting, Gian I think was more of a voice guy than a story guy. Then you go to Penguin, Alfred Knopf or whatever, and they’re in the business of selling books, and they have to sell a lot of them. They have a lot of people working for them that need paychecks and shit, so they’ve got to sell these books. I don’t know if they want to make you into a professional necessarily, but they try to at least make your work resemble the work of a very solid professional storyteller that runs it in a nice arc, it’s easy to follow. I think that the version that came out [with Alfred A Knopf] was stronger than the other version, but that’s nothing against Gian. I mean I just had more work to do, I had to write some more stuff, and unwrite some stuff to really finish it.

 

 

Nico Walker on Storytelling

 

H C

Do you like yourself? 

 

N W

I mean, well enough. There’s a lot of stuff that I wish weren’t true about my life. I’m happy where I’m at now. I’m married to somebody who I really love [the poet Rachel Rabbit White], and I’ve had a fair amount of good luck, more than I could really expect or have any right to expect. So I’m grateful for all that. I mean, a lot of shit is embarrassing. It’s embarrassing to have occupied a country, or helped, it’s embarrassing to rob banks, it’s embarrassing to have been to prison. It’s not shit you're proud of. But at the same time, it’s done, I guess. Fucking learned a lot from it.

 

H C

Something we’re told a lot now is that everyone has full agency in everything they do, and they’re responsible for everything they do too. I don’t think I agree with that.

 

N W

That myth of agency, and, “You can do whatever you put your mind to,” it’s just not true. I can’t go be in the NBA no matter how hard I work, not in a billion years, right? The reason, I think, that we push it so hard, and that people accept capitalism, it’s an ego thing. They look at the world and think, “Everybody else might be screwed, but I’m going to be one of the ones that's all right.”

 

H C

It feels like it’s common now to kind of tack on a tragic backstory to explain a person in fiction, or for a plot to be almost too neat. One of my favorite things about Cherry was the lack of this kind of easy cause and effect.

 

N W

The myth of cause and effect is a great way of putting it, because that sort of goes back to the myth of self-determination. In reality, in my life, at least in my experience, things are cyclical. It’s not point A to point B, it’s more like having a different version of the same dream over and over again. And I think that’s maybe why the film wasn’t successful, or it wasn’t received in the same way, you know? Because they tried to make it like that.

 

Nico Walker on Storytelling

 

H C

In an interview you did about a year ago, you said you were working on a book about prison. How is it coming along?

 

N W

I don’t think anybody has written more and published less than I have in the last two years. I was looking at everything I’ve done and put together on a computer, which isn’t even everything, because I try all sorts of shit. I try to write on my phone, which kills my eyes, but if I do journalism, I always write it on a phone. I carry the typewriter around with me, because it’s familiar, and I like it, but I’m trying to get out of the habit of doing it, because it's so inefficient. But I think that computer writing makes it almost too easy, it’s like, I can write 45 pages in one day on a computer, but I don’t think it’s likely that much of that will ever be read at any point in time.

 

So, yeah, I was working on a book about prison. I didn’t want to be the protagonist of it, there was sort of a protagonist-less feel in what I was doing. And then at some point, kind of around the time that film came out, I stopped writing for a while, for about a year, and then couldn’t really pick it back up, kind of lost the plot. My whole thing with that was, everybody thinks that you go to prison, and everybody can’t help themselves, they just stab and rape each other all day and I mean, it’s a fucking lie. There’s violence in jail, but there’s violence everywhere. Jail really isn’t that fucking bad, honestly. There’s no bills, people look out for one another, take care of one another, people treat one another with respect, most of the time. Usually, if you’re getting fucked up in jail, there’s a reason for it, it’s not random. 

 

I would have liked to finish it, but I didn’t. I didn’t really even get that close. I got a lot of words, but nothing was really making me happy about it. Then in February I started writing another thing, which is more to do with now, and being out in the world. It’s a hard thing to describe. It’s sort of about a road trip, to go gamble. It’s about stuff that normal people will recognize, but that’s not really portrayed, you don't see it on TV. It’s tricky right now, because there's just been this sort of huge, unprecedented event in everybody’s life, and it’s hard to navigate around that. It’s hard to really read the room right now. So I’m rolling with it, and hopefully I wrap it up soon.

 

H C

How easy have you found it to adapt to life after prison?

 

N W

The day I got to the halfway house was the day that lockdown started, so that was a bit of a kick in the nuts. But I can’t complain, a lot of people get out of jail, and they have zero dollars in their pocket when they leave. So in many ways I had it pretty easy. One of the things that is difficult for me is that things aren’t predictable. In prison everything is predictable. Everything’s on a schedule, everything’s just routine, and you have a routine. That was kind of how I was able to do what I did, because there were no distractions. There is so much distraction out here. People always say to me, “How did you write a book in prison?” It’s like, how the fuck does somebody write a book when they’re not?

 

This article was taken from issue 07 of WIP magazine, available from Carhartt WIP stores and our online shop.


Words: Holly Connolly

Images: T-Bone Fletcher