Interview with James Nulick
April 6, 2019
MM) You are a rare book collector / bibliophile / book aficionado/ fetishist. Tell me how you first got into collecting. What sort of books do you tend to seek out? And how/when did you start doing your signature stove top pics on Twitter?
JN) I’ve always been a collector, even as a teenager. I was also a completist. Back in my teens it was Stephen King books. I had all of them. Then I’d find another author I liked, and I had to have all their stuff, too. It’s an unhealthy habit, being a collector. It reminds me of the Steve Buscemi character in Ghost World, the record collector. At one point Buscemi’s character Seymour says to the Thora Birch character Enid that collecting is an unhealthy habit, or something to that effect. And I agree, it is unhealthy. Every now and then I go through a period where I’ll cull everything, either sell it on eBay or donate it to Half Price Crooks, who’ll kindly give you $2 for a three-hundred-dollar book. Sometimes I regret selling a title later on, but then I get over my regret by buying more books. I got into collecting hardcover first editions in my late twenties. I had a friend who owned a rare book store in Tempe, Arizona. He was a young man, about a year or two older than me, maybe thirty. He had his own business in a small shop near the university and he knew his stuff. This was in the very late Nineties. I’d go visit him every payday and he’d have a few titles set aside for me, things he thought I’d like. I was impressed because he was so young, yet he was doing his own thing, he was his own boss. And he had a good eye. He handed me Michael Gira’s book The Consumer and said I’ll sell this to you for sixty dollars, but you’d better hold onto it because in a few years it’ll really be worth something. I also bought a copy of Total Abuse by Peter Sotos from him that I sold years later for an ungodly amount. It still had the cellophane on it when I sold it – I never bothered unwrapping it. There’s something sacred about the untouched object. Books I seek out now tend to be hardcovers of books that had an impact on me when I was younger, books I could only afford as cheap paperbacks at the time. I’m no longer a young man – I admit it! – and I like buying things that made me happy, that influenced me, when I was young. When I was twenty-three, I possessed the foresight to purchase Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son in hardcover. I only regret that I didn’t get him to sign it. I still own it! A direct connection to my early twenties, which is awesome. I’ve been wanting a hardcover copy of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, which had a huge influence on me as a young writer… I can’t stress how influential that book was on me. But it’s a very thin hardcover, and it costs around $80. There are a few decent copies on eBay and abebooks. I just don’t know that I’m up for paying $80 for such a thin hardcover. But it’s Hardwick, so perhaps I should spring for it. Can you spot me a loan until payday, Manny?
The stove top pics were an accident. That came from my eBay bookselling days. I only buy books on eBay or abebooks if there is an actual photograph of the book in the listing, otherwise you’re gonna get screwed. And I got tired of seeing the same types of photos, the book laid out near a pair of eyeglasses, or on a nice piece of mahogany, or on some creep’s bedspread. Boring! So I thought, well what about propping them up on the stove? A ‘hot off the press’ kind of inside joke? I have a few Plexiglas book props/displays I bought from Borders when they were going down in flames, and so voila, I started selling rare books on eBay by propping them up on the stove. I don’t sell books like I used to. I keep them now, for the most part, unless I feel they are weighing me down. I recently sold my entire William T Vollmann collection – all signed personally to me – to a buyer in Minnesota. I don’t know, I felt like Bill and I needed a little time away from each other. The student must divorce himself from the master. The crazy thing is maybe someday I’ll buy them back, one title at a time. I get in these moods. I’m weird about books. Some days I love them, and other days they make me sick.
MM) You’re a veteran author, yet Haunted Girlfriend is your first short story collection. How has writing/compiling in the short story form differed from writing novels? I understand you’re presently working on a new novel. Describe the trajectory from Distemper to Valencia to Haunted Girlfriend to the novel you’re currently working on.
JN) I learned how to write somewhere between Distemper and Valencia. Distemper is very much a young man’s novel. I started writing it when I was twenty-five, in 1995, and finished it when I was thirty-three. There is a huge gap between twenty-five and thirty-three. I was a different person when I finished it. I can’t read Distemper at all, and I’ve disowned it, more or less. It’s showy, it’s loud, it’s brash, it’s over the top, and the things I was doing with sentences back then I now find cringe-worthy. When I was writing Distemper I was in my mid-twenties, and I was very much a maximalist, a kitchen sink writer. I think David Foster Wallace may have rubbed off on me a bit too much. I’m a totally different writer now. I prefer quieter novels. Yet at the same time, regarding sentences, I prefer staccato to lugubriousness. I’m closer to death now, and there is still a lot I want to say, so I must shorten the path to get there. I have maybe two or three more novels in me. I can’t get those written if I’m writing barbed-wire sentences that are twenty-five feet long. As far as the short story form, I’m a dilettante. I’m not at the Kafka level. I always fight the compulsion to turn a short story into a novel. Short stories are fun diversion, at least for me, because they don’t carry the heft or import of a novel. When I’m writing a short story I’m not thinking ‘oh god…’ They are fun, and they allow me to practice economy.
The short stories in Haunted Girlfriend started bleeding into the novel I’m currently writing, and vice versa. I wrote “Body by Drake” while working on the new novel, and one informed the other. I needed a break from the novel, and that’s how “Body by Drake” materialized. Benji and Elijah and Nicole, the young people of “Body by Drake,” are mirror images of Jace and Nicole and Baby J of my new novel. Or at least I think they are. They’re all friends of mine. I feel like I know them, like I’ve lived with them forever. If they feel real to me, they’ll feel real to the reader. They’re not characters, they’re friends, people I know and love and care for. I think that’s the only way to write, to think of the characters as your friends, or at least very close associates. That’s why it’s so terrible when you have to kill them off. The mistakes I learned while writing Valencia and Distemper are informing my new novel. I think the most important thing I’ve learned from writing those two books is to allow the character to breathe. It’s not about me, it’s about them. Unlike Valencia and Distemper, which were both kind-of semiautobiographical, my new novel has nothing to do with me. And that has been very freeing. I guess it’s truly my first “real novel,” in that it’s completely fictional.
MM) The centerpiece of this collection is the novella-length “Body by Drake.” It’s a vision of the future most unsettling, dystopian and yet irrepressibly human. What did this come out of? How do you feel about humanity’s future, and the future of literature?
JN) “Body by Drake” was written in four weeks! Can you believe that? It’s my ‘As I Lay Dying,’ except I’m not a security guard at a power plant, I’m a tiny cog who works for a large corporation. I work in a cubicle. I eat my lunch in my cubicle. I am very much invisible, just like a Kafka character. It’s quite dull, but it pays the bills, and more importantly, it allows me to write. I appreciate that it allows me to write. Writing is my real work. There is an incredible unease in the land right now, incredible mistrust. Our government hates us. Our “elected officials” no longer care about the desires or the wellness of the people. Everyone is trying to get something from someone else. It’s a terrible world we live in, but it’s also terribly exciting. I feel like the world could explode at any moment, like people are getting tired of the BS and want to rebel in an epic 1789 fashion. Off with the heads of authority, destroy the cockroaches sitting at the top of the pie crust. Because right now all we’re left with – the common people, that is – are the scraps. What am I working for? Why do I get up every day, take a shower, trudge off to a job where I am invisible? So I can fill my landlady’s coffers with rent money? Does she really need that second BMW?
I think Drake comes from a terrible frustration, the disconnect from humanity we all feel. I’m not a Boomer, I’m Gen X. I’m 49 now, and I’m part of a small, silent generation of people who came of age with computers. We were right in the middle of analog and the birth of digital. My sixth-grade teacher had a computer – one computer – in his class, and I remember how fascinated the kids were with it. This was in 1982. And there was something about it, even then, that I didn’t trust. I didn’t like how easily people seemed to give themselves over to it. I still have that love/hate relationship with technology. Computers, the internet, they were supposed to bring people closer together. And yet I feel we’re now more alone than ever, and it kills me, it really kills me, because I genuinely love people, and I hate to see people suffer, I hate to bear witness to the incredible loneliness. But I am only one person, and sometimes it’s too much, the disconnect from my fellow man and woman. Sometimes it gets so bad I feel like all I want to do is stay in my apartment and get drunk. But that’s the easy way out. Drake comes from this anger, which I’m surprised I still have because I’m so old now – I’m supposed to be settled! I see young men and young women without opportunities, without a future, and I get angry. Why go on? Why walk out the front door? The American dream – the house, the two-car garage, the children – it’s officially dead. Our banks and our politicians have seen to that. I don’t know, personally I think we are doomed as a species. We’re too hateful, too selfish, we don’t know how to love one another. It’s easier to hate. You hate someone because of the color of their skin, or their sexuality? I don’t know what to say… perhaps we deserve extinction, and the sooner, the better. But then I’ll wake up on a Friday and think life is good, maybe I’ll stick around. I’ve always played with the notion of suicide, with the easiness of it, but frankly my heart isn’t in it. I have a good companion. We’ve been together for eleven great years. I’d hate to leave a mess for him, I love him far too much. Death is a cheap showboating whore, always wanting all the attention. Plus it’s in bad taste. Who wants to clean that up?
The future of literature. I’m a professionally trained librarian who has never worked in a library. My highfalutin master’s degree allows me to say the future of literature is fine. There are so many small independent presses publishing exciting literature at the moment! Sure, you have to slog through a lot of dung to spot a diamond, but the diamonds are out there. The big publishers are no longer willing to spend money on experimental literature. That’s where the small presses come in. Expat Press, Nine-Banded Books, Amphetamine Sulphate, Les Figues Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, Snuggly Books, We Heard You Like Books, I could go on. Literature is doing just fine. Every time I read about ‘the death of the novel’ I want to clobber someone over the head. There are awesome, hallucinatory, mind-bending novels being written right now, as we speak. Some poor broke schlub is honing a knife blade in their basement apartment. You just have to be open to the vibrations on the street.
MM) You were called (called out, I should say, to use the contemporary parlance) by Out Magazine as a “mashup of Nabokov and Larry Clark.” Do you feel that’s accurate? Your fiction does strike me as the work of an elegant and sinuous stylist like Nabokov. The Larry Clark comparison is interesting. Are you influenced by film and photography as well as literature?
JN) In the parlance of our times? I love The Big Lebowski, man. A mashup of Nabokov and Larry Clark… Yes, I do feel that’s accurate. I like playing words games, dropping Easter eggs in the text for careful readers to find. My sentences have gotten smokier, more opaque, yet at the same time I like to keep it close to the bone. The more shocking the image, the simpler the words. It’s a trick I learned from Kafka, who I’ve been reading since high school, hell, maybe before high school. I had an old copy of The Metamorphosis, the kind of paperback one would be assigned in high school (now sadly lost), and I read it and other stories like “The Burrow” and “Josephine the Singer,” and I loved the imagery, but I had no idea what he was talking about. But I knew I wanted to write like that. Transmissions from another planet. And then I read David Foster Wallace when I was twenty-six and everything went to hell in a handbasket. It took me ten years to recover from DFW and Vollmann. I have my own style now. I like who I’ve become as a writer. I allow my sentences to breathe. It’s not a race! Distemper was written by a meth head. Valencia is calmer, quieter, more of an XO cognac. My new novel is neither meth nor cognac, it’s extraterrestrial. The Larry Clark influence goes back to his books The Perfect Childhood, Tulsa, and Teenage Lust. I owned all three and, sadly, sold all three. Dry times, man. Yeah, The Perfect Childhood hit me in the gut when I was twenty-five. I’ve always been drawn to skaters and BMXers. When I was in high school, I was always hiding who I was. I didn’t let on how smart I was. Instead of hanging out with the nerds and the geeks, I hung out with the stoners, who were often skaters or BMXers. I’m old now but still, it stays with you. I gave my Free Agent to my friend’s son for Christmas about five years ago, and now I’m wanting a bike again. I’ve been thinking of a Subrosa Malum. We’ll see. They’re kind of pricey. Full chromoly!
Film and photography are a big influence on me. Perhaps more so than literature. When I write I engage more with the visual aspect of storytelling than the verbal or the written word. I’ve always written in that mode. My style has always been cinematic. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil had a big influence on me when I was fifteen. I saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet repeatedly when I was sixteen and it blew my mind. I was also heavily influenced by the 1970s ABC Movie(s) of the Week… Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Kim Darby!), Trilogy of Terror, The Night Stalker, to name a few. My mother was very young when I was adopted. She was only twenty. She’d force me to watch those kinds of junk movie things with her. It definitely had an influence on how I see the world. Mama was dark, and I took after her.
MM) Why do you write? And for whom do you write?
JN) Oh no, not that one. I write to keep my friends alive. As far as for whom do I write, I don’t write for an audience, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t know how. But I’m very appreciative of the readers I have. When writing, I find it helpful to write for one person. “Body by Drake” was written for the teenage son of one of my best friends. I’ve known his mother since high school. He’ll be eighteen this year, and Drake is very much a young man’s story. It’s a warrior story. There’s also a strong young woman in the story, she’s central to the story. I wrote it for young people – it’s the only gift I thought appropriate. The oceans are dying, animals are rebelling, the planet wants us out of her hair. Who needs another fifty dollar bill? Drake is my Rosetta stone for the young people right here, right now.
MM) Tell me about “Delonte Lost.” What inspired this one? What drives you to spend time with characters who are unsavory? While we’re on it, “My Name is Luka,” “Peach,” and other works of yours demonstrates a fascination with the taboo, in a way, or outsiders, people left behind on the fringe. “Husk” is a psychosexual work of pure imagination. Is it accurate to say your interests and preoccupations gravitate toward the obscene? Why is that?
JN) “Delonte Lost” was inspired by the city I live in, Seattle. We have a huge homeless problem in Seattle. There is an incredible juxtaposition of wealth and homelessness. Seattle is a tech town – a boring tech town, I might add – filled with technocrats flitting from cars in underground garages to glass offices, meanwhile homeless people are pissing in the streets, in alleyways, there are hypodermic needles on the ground, and the stench of cannabis is quite heavy in the air. All this incredible wealth enveloped in filth. A lot of the homeless are obviously mentally ill, but nothing is done about it. Two of the wealthiest men on the planet live in Seattle – Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates – yet the homeless problem in Seattle is massive. I work downtown and I encounter homeless people every day. You get inured to it, but it’s always there. I see the homeless, the mentally ill, and think ‘there but for the grace of god go I.’ I think Delonte bubbled up from all this negativity toward the mentally ill. I think Delonte West’s story is fascinating. A man who had everything and then lost it all. I feel for him, I truly do. It must be terrible when your head is broken, when what one sees outside his own head looks different from what everyone else sees. There’s a great tragedy in it, the waste of a life. I hope he is receiving good treatment. I hope he has found some sort of peace. Hopefully he has good people around him.
I think it’s safe to say my preoccupations gravitate toward the obscene. I’ve always been drawn to darkness, even as a child. My father owned a wrecking yard and a towing business in Phoenix in the late Seventies. He had his business through the end of the Eighties. As a child, I would accompany him to accident scenes. He had a contract with the city. We would tow a car away after the occupant had been transported to either the hospital or the morgue. Lots of blood. Clumps of hair hanging from a shattered windshield. These things populated my childhood. You pop the trunk of an abandoned vehicle and you find a stash of porno mags. My father had an old city bus tucked near one of the razor-wired fences of the wrecking yard. He used it for storage. I would spend hours in that bus looking at all the porno mags he had stored in boxes. Other people’s pornography. Of course, no one ever came to collect. I was maybe nine, ten years old. I’d be looking at Hustler, Cheri, Juggs. I didn’t bother with Playboy because it sucked – no hardcore pictures. I was transfixed, fascinated by the male body. Hustler used to run this column called ‘One for the Ladies,’ a picture some young buck had mailed in, and I’d always skip to that section, looking up from time to time to make sure my father wasn’t checking up on me hiding in the back of the bus. I didn’t really understand what I was looking at, but I was certainly drawn to it. There were boxes filled with murder magazines called True Detective and Master Detective, and I’d read stories about young women raped and murdered by horrific men, the kill scenes grainy images forever burned in my mind. Sex and death accordioned in my ten year old brain until I could no longer differentiate one from the other. Sex and death have always been bedpartners. I also read DC Comics House of Mystery and House of Secrets, which I probably stole some of my storytelling techniques from. Always go for the shocker!
I think I’ve always been drawn to the loser, to the down and out, the sex addict living in his mother’s house. I’m not like that at all, which is strange. I wear plain clothes. I have an anonymous face. I have a great sense of humor. People at work have no idea what I write. Most people really don’t care. And I was always good at picking up women – and men. I never had any problems there. I was a hustler when I was young. Maybe it comes from growing up in a wrecking yard, cracking the trunks of all those abandoned cars. The lives of sad men. An ocean of glossy porno mags in the back of an abandoned automobile definitely sets a scene. I think my father may have been on to me, but he never let on. He was always a gentleman. Plus, he’s a Southerner, and I think Southerners are naturally more attuned to the darker things in life. I was his weird little boy. But he loved me. My father was a great man, a colossus. I call him every Friday. He still lives in Arizona.
MM) I want to ask about “Vinyl-Hearted Boy.” It’s a sort of confessional about various rites of passage and self-discovery about sexuality, music, romance, and city-living, and seems very personal. It’s dedicated to Dennis Cooper. It namedrops various music icons, and begs the question of how much of it was influenced by real life, given how authentic it feels. Are you a vinyl collector as well? Where does music work its way into literature for you?
JN) I wrote “Vinyl-Hearted Boy” for a boy I was in love with who didn’t love me back. We were in seventh grade – thirteen. I do collect vinyl. I have a decent collection. I’ve grown more particular in my old age. I’m no longer a completist. It’s too draining. I don’t get to listen to my collection very often because I work so much. Work kills. Work destroys the soul. I’ve worked my entire life. I know these things. Music and literature are completely different entities for me. Music is sacred, whereas books are more – well, they’re like old familiar friends. You get used to them and you don’t think of them as being sacred. Music is sacred for me because I’m not a musician, I don’t possess those skills. It still holds mystery for me. Literature, books – I’m trained as a librarian, so maybe the mystery has worn off.
MM) “The Most Beautiful Question in the World” is a novel excerpt. As is “Airweight.” What can we look forward to from James Nulick beyond Haunted Girlfriend? Do you have anything for the thirsty throngs regarding your next novel?
JN) My next novel is going to be kickass! I’ve been working on it for the past two years. It’s basically about a morbidly obese middle-aged woman who becomes obsessed with a young man. She’s a shut-in living in a fifty-five plus mobile home community with her mother. Her elderly mother dies, and then shortly after that she loses her school counseling job. Her mother’s Social Security and AutoPay keeps the lights on, but what of the loneliness? And the young man, a pizza delivery boy, has his own life. He lives in a house with three of his friends. They’re all twenty-somethings, stoners and BMXers. Oh, and there’s a drunken old man in the mobile home park observing everything. He suspects the woman’s mother has died and she is living alone with her mother’s corpse. The young man, the old man, and the main character’s lives come together and then things get weird. It’s hallucinatory, interstellar, all over the place. It’s the kind of novel I’d like to read. I feel it’s going to be big, perhaps my breakout novel. We’ll see.
MM) What are your thoughts on social media and the internet in general existing beside more antiquated cultural forms like physical media? You’ve been off Twitter for a while until recently. Why did you leave?
JN) I’m fine with social media, though I’ve never had a Facebook account or an Instagram account or any of those things. All I’ve ever had is a Twitter account. I like Twitter, despite the occasional acidity. I think social media can peacefully co-exist with antiquated forms of physical media, as you say. The physical book isn’t going away. I ride the bus to and from work every morning, and I always see people – young and old – reading real books. Of course you have your e-readers, but there tend to be more physical book readers than e-readers, at least on the bus route I take. People like the physical object – the feel of it against your skin, the smell, the interaction with the page. The physical book is the perfect technology – why mess with it?
Regarding my absence on Twitter – I was gone for over a year – I wanted to focus on my new novel, and Twitter is too much of a distraction. It’s very addictive. Maybe after my new novel is published I’ll disappear again, I don’t know. I like the idea of living in a place like South Bend, Indiana, or Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Lisbon, Portugal, and just disappearing, not having a social media account, working on a new novel and not giving a damn about anything. Working on something that is mine and mine alone, something the world hasn’t yet seen.
MM) I know your tastes are broad and I want to invite you to talk about your influences, literary and otherwise.
JN) When I graduated from college, I was a twenty-two-year-old nothing. I had a degree but no skills. I was young and slim and had an enormous sexual appetite. Well who doesn’t when they’re twenty-two? I returned home and lived with my mother and her boyfriend in their small house, my tail between my legs, the big boy home from New York City. I got a night job working at Circle K. I wasn’t used to working nights. After a few months my equilibrium was shot. I began to hallucinate while on the job because I wasn’t sleeping, and so I wasn’t sleeping and I had this vast appetite that wasn’t being addressed. I couldn’t really jerk off at home because my room was so small and it was right next to my mother’s room. I found my way through the other side of the hallucinations by reading, and so I read and read and read and it was liberating because it wasn’t the silly nonsense professors made you read in school. I read The History of Luminous Motion by Scott Bradfield and it blew my mind. I read Closer by Dennis Cooper and it rewired my brain. It was incredible, seeing all the self-destruction I craved in print. William T. Vollmann had a massive influence on me as a young writer. I read The Rainbow Stories when I was nineteen and it was the first time I remember reading about the people I saw around me on a daily basis – losers, addicts, prostitutes, wrecking yard trash – and for that I was most grateful. I feel like I’ve finally gotten over WTV’s influence. Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights was very influential. She taught me how to arrange paragraphs in a way so as to illustrate the cyclical nature of coming back to an idea within the text. She showed me a novel doesn’t have to look like a novel. Murder magazines were a big influence on me as a child. And of course, pornography. I don’t judge – it’s all material for the grinder.
MM) Tell me about Seattle, and literary scenes. Do you take to that sort of thing?
JN) There are no literary scenes in Seattle – Seattle is deader than dead. It’s one of the most boring cities I’ve ever lived in, and I’ve lived in a few. Is there such a thing as a literary scene? I thought they’d died with Mailer and Vidal? I don’t know. I was never part of any kind of scene, literary or otherwise. I tend to avoid group things. When I was a boy my mother forced me to join the boy scouts, bought me the uniform and everything, and I hated it. I lasted two weeks. I’m bored to death by religion and politics. I don’t trust man’s inherent need to rule over man. I don’t get caught up in that kind of thing. A writer should be divorced from that kind of thing. If you write for the moment, you’ll be yesterday’s news. I write for the ages, or try to.
MM) What advice would you give aspiring writers, many of whom are younger than yourself, weighed down by this harsh economy, feeling like deadbeats or outsiders or what have you? What is the role of the writer?
JN) What have you? I love The Big Lebowski, man! The role of the writer? That’s a tough one. All the advice anyone ever gave to me about writing ended up being total bullshit. If you’re young and you want to be a writer, all I can offer is follow your heart, listen to the voice in your head. You know what’s best for your story. Avoid workshops and MFA programs, they’re all bullshit. I was in a workshop environment for four years during college. The best thing about it was going out drinking afterward! Writing can’t be taught. You either have it, or you don’t. Like all the arts. Sad fact, but true. I wanted to be a musician, a keyboardist, but I don’t have the gift for music. Took me a while to get over it, but I think my writing saved me. Writing is the only thing I’m good at. If you’re a young person starting out, and you have the fever in you, listen to how people talk. Listen with both ears. If your story isn’t working, set it aside and start something else. Don’t write for money or fame, you’ll only be frustrated. Write for the occasional email you receive from a total stranger, telling you how much they connected with your work. That is the real payment, the reason you’re up at 5am, typing in the dark. You know Ecclesiastes, there’s nothing new under the sun? Screw that – be willing to tell a great story in a new way. If you care about writing, if you care about others, it will come through. Try different things on the page. Rearrange dialogue into a new form. Try to write at least one to two hours per day. Avoid overusing ‘that.’ Do the best you can. After all, it’s your name on the cover.