John Nicholson and the quiet writing revolution – By J. J. Harrison
I got in touch with John to interview him about his Nick Guymer novels for a project I was working on. He was happy to help but also suggested we do something that he could put on his web site. I hope it’s an interesting insight into this fascinating writer’s life and personality.
The Nick Guymer crime novels are a popular mix of twisty-turning, multi-layered whodunnit-style plots, wrapped in and around Nick’s on-going battles with his depressions, his relationships with partner Julie and best mate, Jeff. At times exciting, moving, snarky and funny, they’re a delightful and original creation, the latest of which, ‘Teesside Blues’ has just been published.
We meet at John’s Edinburgh top floor apartment in the Georgian New Town where he lives with his artist partner, Dawn. Commanding panoramic views across the west and north of the city, with the Ochil mountains in the distance, it is, by his own confession, a very messy place, in need of a good tidy up, with boxes of books, rolls of tape, bits of paper, envelopes and clutter filling otherwise dusty surfaces. The wood floors are covered in richly coloured ethnic rugs. One room is full of thousands of vinyl records and CDs, another has one wall lined with books. A scatter-gun assembly of volumes from Tom Wolfe and Steinbeck to football biographies of Brian Clough, books about knitting and crafts as well as Record Collector catalogues, via volumes of Beat Poetry.
A huge ethnic, chenille sofa dominates the living room along with a large TV on the wall. Original, mostly abstract impressionist art, hangs all over the place. The place is decorated with an eclectic collection of vases, lamps and ceramics bought at car boots and junk stores for pennies. Lots of vinyl albums are propped up against cupboards and chair legs, copies of Classic Rock magazine lie on the large coffee table along with a camera and indecipherable scribbled notes in his hand-writing. The whole apartment reflects a magpie mind, full of ideas and influences. In some ways it is the quintessential funky, artist’s loft and very much a reflection of the man himself.
I love it here because I can see people going about their business down in Stockbridge below without getting involved. I like that detachment, so I can see life and energy, but don’t have to get caught up in it, if I don’t want to.
In his 14th year as a writer and now 53, Nicholson, is at turns, very funny, a bit nervous and occasionally serious. He’s lean, a little tanned, about five feet ten, blue-grey eyes, wears a grey V-necked t-shirt, faded old jeans, has a head of messy hair and three days of stubble. Around his neck is a silver pendent on a silver chain, made by his partner. It has ‘Still Got The Blues’ engraved on it. He doesn’t have any kids and doesn’t talk of any family. It’s not hard to see where he drew his inspiration for Nick Guymer from. It’s clear that his protagonist, if not actually him, is built out of John’s DNA.
He makes us Sencha green tea (just as Nick might) and shows me a small pile of vinyl records he’s just bought, talking with enthusiasm about album artwork and the romance of owning second hand records, even going so far as to look up on Google Earth, an address written in fading Biro on the sleeve of a 1969 Humble Pie album.
I just like to imagine what this record witnessed in the house where it once lived. I find that really stimulating. All the Christmases, the birthdays, the passion, laughter and sadness it has been a silent witness to. You can’t get any of that from a download can you? I’m less and less materialistic as the years go by, with the exception of owning records. I can’t deal with the metaphysical nature of downloaded music. I mean, where is it, actually?
Such romantic and philosophic notions seem to come easily to him. He often finds it hard to make eye contact, rarely stops moving as we talk, fiddling with his hair and hands. As we talk he says he wants to be taken seriously as a writer and yet fears being overly pretentious and precious about his art form. As a result, he’s amusing and irreverent one moment and extremely introspective, the next. The whole time we talk, one has the impression of being in the presence of a mind that has more going on in it than he can adequately express or maybe even understand. Perhaps, also like Nick, there’s an air of not being quite comfortable in his own skin. Talk of trying to change and be a better person is a theme that he returns to, feeling he has to try and right past wrongs. He also seems preoccupied by the life choices he has made, and, I felt, regretting many of them. No surprise then, that in Nick Guymer, he’s created a complex, multi-layered character.
I was brought up to not really believe in yourself as in any way special. I think that’s quite common, really, from my type of background, anyway. I was told, not explicitly, but perhaps by a kind of cultural osmosis, to keep my head down and not get above my station. I wasn’t ever encouraged to think of myself as different or worthwhile. That’s caused me a lot of problems over the years, as I felt a great need to rebel against that, almost to cut myself a place in the world and in doing so, I fear I may have got away from my true self.
I push him a bit further on this to explore what he means.
I wrote about this in Teesside Blues, actually. The sense that I didn’t grow up to be who I should have grown up to be. I feel strongly that I was a really nice boy in my teens. Then I slowly started to get away from myself. I think I let life make me selfish and cold, where once I was giving and warm. It wasn’t just the growing up process…it was something else, lots of things, really. I go through periods of being eaten up by regrets, regrets of not doing some things and doing others instead. I know that’s fruitless, but I simply can’t get out from underneath it, so I try and use that in my writing, sometimes. In some ways, I’m trying to find out where I left that nice young lad and reconnect with him. That sounds weird doesn’t it? I just want be a better person, really. It’s as simple as that.
I ask him about a typical working day. Does he sit at a desk and write?
Oh no, that’d be far too formal for me. I get up early, if I can. The earlier the better. I love the dawning of the day. Every day feels so fresh and unspoiled at 6.00am. Each day follows a similar path. I load the dishwasher with the previous day’s dishes, then make a big pot of black coffee. I’m sort of Paleo, so I don’t eat until mid morning. I go at least 12 hours every day without eating. I’m working by 8.00 am at the latest, listening to Radio 4 and then Radio 2 or playing records. It’s rarely silent in here. I flop around the place, working on a lap top. In the past couple of months I’ve started working while standing up for two hour stretches. I think it keeps your metabolic rate higher and keeps you fitter. It’s also good because it means you can easily roam around the place and dance to music. I say dance, in my case this involves some sort of approximation of a nervous fit. In the afternoon we usually go for a walk for an hour or more. Then it’s more work until 9.30pm or so, an hour of TV and then bed. I listen to rock music all the time when working, it really is my muse – not to be too pretentious about it – he said, being too pretentious about it.
By the end of 2014 he will have written six Nick Guymer novels in two years. How does he produce such a huge volume of work, so quickly when it takes a lot of writers a year or two to do one?
Well, these are not literary novels, they’re intentionally commercial, easy-to-read fiction. So I don’t sweat a lot over hewing words and phrases out of my literary quarry. I could do that, but it doesn’t interest me. I don’t want to write for a literary or intellectual elite. I like writing for regular people. And I suppose I’ve got a lot to say and I’ve got all day, every day to write. I don’t take time off. I’ve not had a holiday since 2009. Every time I try to take an extended break I just can’t do it. I end up writing again within a couple of days. It’s an absolute compulsion. I feel at a loss when I don’t have a book on the go. It feels like life is less colourful and more empty.
I wonder if that means the art form comes to him very easily.
Maybe not easily, exactly, but all my life I’ve been accused of over-thinking everything and asking too many questions, right since an early age. I’ve always defaulted to finding elaborate ways to express ideas and observations. That comes naturally to me. While this has driven some people nuts over the years, this actually seems to be a strength when creating novels and I think that’s one reason I can write so much, so quickly. As you can see, I live a messy and badly organised life. In many ways I struggle to keep life together and yet I possess huge amounts of determination and discipline. I do 12 hour days, almost every day. I just live to write and it often seems that the more I work, the easier it gets. I’ve done 8,000 words in a single day before now and they were quality words as well, none of your rubbish cheapo Poundstretcher words! Once I’m in the world of the book I’m writing, it all comes much easier. It’s far harder for me to dip in and out, because I need to subsume myself in what I’ve started calling the Guymer-verse.
I voice my view that I am obviously in the presence of the real Nick Guymer. He shrugs a little awkwardly.
Almost everything in the books is something I’ve gone through, am going through or have witnessed. I just edit the reality I’ve lived and place it in a fictional context. All I can say is I don’t leave anything of myself off the page. It’s all there. I create additional fictions, but I leave nothing of myself out. I mean, I think you can tell what sort of person I am through reading the books. I am pretty confessional, for good or bad. I don’t seem to have a filter that could stop that being the case even if I wanted it to be.
Does he have have any big ambitions as a writer?Does he want fame and a high profile?
In my 30s I tried the money and expensive stuff power trip, but it made me unhappy. As I’ve got older I’ve realised that the less I want out of life, the happier I am. Also, the less I aim to acquire material things, or define myself by possessions, the happier I am – I exclude vinyl records from this, obviously. Though even in that regard, I’m trying to cut back on bulk buying and just go for things I really want to hear. All I want to do is make a very modest living from writing, that is the full extent of my ambition. I just want to be able to write and have an audience, until my dying breath. That would be an incredible thing to achieve. I really feel that time is the most valuable currency you can earn and to not have to live by someone else’s timetable is the biggest luxury. I would love for the Nick Guymer books to be made into TV movies. I think they’re perfect for that format, but if that doesn’t happen, as long as a few thousand people buy each of my books ever year, I’ll be more than happy.
I tell him I’m not sure he realises the degree of his achievement with the Nick Guymer books. He looks at me with a wide smile, pleased to hear my praise but, clearly unsure whether to take it seriously.
I worry that if I believe all the nice things that people say about them, it’ll change me, maybe make me work less hard and even become arrogant. My job is just to invent stories, characters and relationships that entertain people. That’s how I see it and I feel honoured and chuffed to bits that people take my books into their lives, it is genuinely humbling to share what I do with regular people. There are a billion books to read, so the fact that a few thousand read mine is still quite amazing to me. Even so, I just find it so hard to feel confident about what I do and I’m not sure I ever will. I actually have very little ego about them. I’m a mess of contradictions really. I feel like I’m bluffing my way as as a writer, but I have enough self-belief to keep on doing it. I’m introverted, but also a show-off. My upbringing means I’m geared for failure, more than success. Criticism feels much more comfortable than praise. But I’m changing and growing, I hope, I’m trying to get to a better place in my mind about it all. These past two years of writing have really helped heal a lot of wounds, one way or another. Readers have been very kind and said lovely things to me and really, I can’t say how important that has been…really, its amazing to me that people might take time out to say something nice. Just a few words here and there. It’s touching, almost beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.
Lots of people would love to live your life as a writer, but does it make you happy?’ I ask, as a parting shot. He pauses for a moment, runs his fingers through his messy hair and smiles.
I don’t aim for happiness, I aim for contentment – that seems more achievable.
…and that, of course, perhaps inevitably, is a very Nick Guymer thing to say.
John Nicholson and the quiet writing revolution – By J. J. Harrison