First-Time Novelist Nico Walker Feels Lucky To Tell His Story
Nico Walker’s life story, covered by a range of media outlets including the New York Times, is incredible enough in its twists, many death-defying: a student turned Army medic turned war hero turned heroin addict turned bank robber turned federal prisoner turned writer. But that Walker’s debut novel, based on his experiences and written while serving an 11-year sentence, is as good as it is? That's far more surprising.
Those of us who read fiction for a living are prone to cynicism-the PR is often better than the product it’s pitching-but here, as you’ll read in Esquire’s exclusive excerpt, the effect of the prose is immediate and exhilarating. In Cherry, Walker achieves and sustains a marriage of subject and style that’s unusual in emerging storytellers and all the more disorienting and damning of our shared American story for its hard-won authenticity, how the personal informs and reverberates through the fictional.
As Walker points out in this Q&A with Esquire.com, he counts himself lucky because he survived what so many have not. It’s little wonder the stakes from sentence to sentence feel so high in Cherry for however tragic its story, and however indicting it is of Walker and frankly all of us, its very existence isn’t just a triumph of art or literature-but of redemption.
ESQ: The narrator of your novel and you have some things in common-you both were students, then soldiers, then addicts, then bank-robbers. How do the two of you depart? And what freedoms/license did fictionalizing a familiar story give you?
Nico Walker: I can't keep track of where one ends and the other begins. I'm so far from where I've been that when I try and figure out how I used to be I'm only guessing about most of it.
I had to allow myself a lot of creative license when I was putting the story together for Cherry because in real-life I'm not interesting. If I were to write a memoir, I doubt that I could get anyone to print it.
How much of your personal story derives from how ill-suited any flesh and blood human is for the kinds of horrors you saw while in combat?
The horror is a universal thing. We all see it. Some handle it better than others. I didn't handle it well.
Your book has been described as one of the first great novels of the opioid epidemic. But based on your story, would you have become addicted if not for your ptsd? Do you feel there must be better methods for treating PTSD and its connection to drug addiction-I have to imagine these approaches should be linked for veterans, in terms of how PTSD is treated?
I have no way of knowing whether or not I'd have become addicted under different circumstances. There are plenty of reasons to take dope. You've got close to two-hundred deaths a day from overdose nationwide. So something's wrong with us. Something is driving people to try and escape.
As far PTSD, I don't know much about what's done for treatment. I don't have much experience with it. One thing I did do, and that worked for me, was a doctor here at the prison had me tell him over and over again about some traumatic thing that happened to me. And then when I wasn't there with the doctor, I was supposed to take time to write it down over and over (this was before I started working on Cherry). The idea was that, if you went over the thing enough instead of trying to avoid thinking about it, you would get so used to thinking about it that it wouldn't affect you like it did before. So I tried that, and it helped. Whereas before I couldn't think of what happened without bringing myself three quarters of the way to a breakdown, after going over it so many times the memory of it didn't take me that way anymore. It got to be almost like it were something I had read about, something that had happened to someone else.
And did your military experience prepare you in any way for what you're living in prison?
In some ways it did. In both cases you grin and bare it.
How much personal responsibility do you take for what happened to you?
Seven and a half years worth so far.
What kinds of clarity do you have now? I imagine you have plenty around not wanting to be where you find yourself, but what else? Lessons learned and vital to convey? What is your relationship with sobriety and is it tested while incarcerated?
I've learned you don't need much at all to live off of. You can get by with more or less nothing.
Are you able to write every day? What is your routine there like? What would you say the writing has given you?
No, I can't write every day. Too many people around and it messes me up. Sometimes I get a lucky break though, and I can focus for an hour or two. So I just have to wait for those times and make them count when they come by.
It's been reported that you were sent stories by Barry Hannah and that inspired you to write. Who else/what else was in your head while you were forming your voice, your sentences, the shape of the novel?
I read a lot of Thomas McGuane and some Henry Miller at different times when I was working on Cherry. From a technical standpoint they influenced me more than anyone else. Sometimes Miller would wear me out with his chauvinism and his bullshit, but he wrote very beautifully; he had ideas that were beautiful, and I respect him. Also the old Russians were an influence on me, how they understood that you can't write a tragedy if you don't have a sense of humor.
What is your mantra or those things you tell yourself in order to endure this time? Are there other prison writers in your head at all, for the purposes of relating to your landscape in a different way? Or do you find you rely on messages from other places, sources (from music to fortune cookies), even from loved ones in order to get by?
It isn't a question of enduring anything. I'm here. This is my life. I'm not waiting for prison to be over. On the day I'm supposed to get out, I'll have spent over a quarter of my life in prison. You can't just wait for a quarter of your life to be over. You can't endure a quarter of your life. You accept it as your reality, and then you live day by day like everybody else does.
What do you long for most? Dream of-in terms of food, music, settings, company and/or solitude?
Mostly I just miss my people. And being in love. And marijuana. And cigarettes.
Are you haunted by things you once took for granted?
You are nearing the end of your sentence: What sort of man/writer/prisoner were you when you landed in prison versus now? What do you anticipate once you're out? What are your strategies for staying clean?
I'm older and I understand things better since I wasted most of my youth between the Army and prison. The truth is I've had the shit kicked out of me, and I know well enough to try and avoid that sort of thing if I can from now on. I don't know what'll happen when I get out. I don't even know for sure that I will get out. But whatever happens I'll be grateful that it wasn't worse. Really my luck is absurd.
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