Interview with James Nulick_part III

MM) One of the most significant attractions of your work to me is your irreverent and bold willingness to write from perspectives you don’t physically embody. In recent years and culminating in this collection, you’ve really doubled down. It’s more alien and eerie now. There’s a sense of disembodiment, dissociation and depersonalization in these liminal spaces you write from, be it a young girl or feline or victim of atrocity. And in your online persona, you’ve continued to drift through various semblances of identity, traces of your past and alternate realities. I think Lazy Eyes your most full frontal yet with this approach. To what is this creative direction owed? I can’t help but think about the last several years of universal isolation, and whether Lazy Eyes would have come about had the pandemic not transpired. Is it fair to say it is the quintessential pandemic book?


JN) Your instincts are one-hundred percent, Manuel… Lazy Eyes is definitely a pandemic book, though I tried keeping that word out of my mind as I began writing it. The first story I wrote for Lazy Eyes was “The Beautiful Sister.” I began writing it in February 2020, right when COVID19 dropped on a nursing home here in Seattle like a bomb. Seattle was ground zero for COVID in the United States, and I really feel that affected my writing. I thought I was going to die. I thought everyone was going to die. I still had so much I wanted to say before I slipped into the eternal black nothingness. 


MM) Segueing from that note, do you have any interest or predilection to write anything memoir-like again? Something personal? Or is imagination more the engine for you now? Why do most writers “write what they know” instead?


JN) There are a couple stories in Lazy Eyes that are semi-autobiographical, those being “four foot nine” and “Bunk Beds,” but no, for the most part, I’m bored with memoir, I’m bored with talking about myself. I want to be completely free of this old, tired husk, and imagination is definitely the engine behind what I’m writing now… I feel I’ve taken it as far as I can go, biography-wise. Plus I’m constantly reinventing myself, so it’s difficult to keep up with who “me” is, anyway.  


MM) As usual with your collections, easter eggs abound. Each story is dedicated to someone else. What’s this about? Is each dedication very deliberate? Is there something you are saying with respect to whom we write for?


JN) Yes, each dedication is very deliberate. Jonathan Lethem loves music, that’s why “four foot nine” is dedicated to him. “The Black Doberman” is dedicated to William T. Vollmann for reasons that are very private. “Spiders” is dedicated to my friend Briar. He’s a software developer, so, you know…


MM) Writers are natural loners, usually off chasing some obsession in their heads. What usually drives you to become preoccupied with a subject or style or idea? Is there a common feature you’re drawn to?


JN) Hmmm, that’s a good question, and not an easy one to answer. It usually starts with a kernel of dialogue wrapped around two people in a room, engulfed in a situation they find difficult to get out of. My interests, as of late, have become really pared down, but yes, it always begins with two people in trouble.


MM) This is your third book with Expat, and you’re the first to reach this distinction. You have full creative control. The big 5 or 6 probably would not abide your artistic autonomy, couldn’t even fathom your mad dabblings with all their rigmarole, red tape and pandering. Was there a point, perhaps while writing Lazy Eyes, that you said fuck it, and leaned into writing with more abandon? While The Moon Down to Earth is in many ways a traditionally capital-N novel, Lazy Eyes is your strangest book yet. 


JN) I am the only author you have published three times, Manuel? I love you! And I fully agree with you, Lazy Eyes is definitely my strangest book yet. My language has become more mathematical yet somehow also more slithery, if that makes sense. And is it ok to say I kind of lost my mind while in the middle of writing it? Will that admission hurt my writing career? Lmao. My father, the man who adopted me and gave me his surname, died in March 2021. He did this in Phoenix, while I was living – and continue to live – in Seattle. I couldn’t be there for him, plus the hospital he was dying in had severe restrictions with regards to visitors and COVID. I feel really bad about this. I was also quite rude, publicly, to a writer who helped me, and had only been nothing but kind to me. I also feel really bad about that. I apologized to her, privately. I still feel terrible about it, but I am trying to become a better person, every day. The unhinged quality of Lazy Eyes is not a put-on, I really felt like I was losing my mind. This is naturally reflected in the stroboscopic quality of the stories. All the stories are haunted by death, mental illness, hyperreality, and an intense longing for escape from the prison that is our flesh.   


MM) With each of your releases, beginning with Valencia, it seems James Nulick the author has been gradually phased out. More and more, your visions are larger than life, fantastical, speculative, and unrestrained by rules. You seem absolutely allergic to rules you don’t yourself adopt, even iconoclastic. Is there a part of you trying to do something completely new? Lazy Eyes is unlike any book I’ve ever read, and while your voice is unmistakably there, it’s never been more bestial and primal, and it stands apart even in your own canon.


JN) Thank you for saying that about Lazy Eyes, Manuel, that is quite lovely. James Nulick the author is a complete fiction, as is James Nulick the person. My last name isn’t even my own, I was adopted. The name on my birth certificate was given to me by my parents and signed off on by a judge, so my entire persona has been a fiction from day one. I met my birth parents, mother and father, when I was twenty-one and thought ok well, no. It’s easy to make things up when there is no real “you.” I have always envied children who had mothers and fathers who weren’t made of paper. James Nulick the author is definitely being gradually phased out and it feels wonderful. With Lazy Eyes I wanted to completely blow my writing apart, from the inside out. I wanted it to be biblical, an aloof black monolith, a cautionary tale yet also a message of love written in soft dev hieroglyphics. I think I have been mostly successful. I always try to do something different with each book, try to become, I don’t know… more human? Doing the same thing book after book is boring. It’s also insane.


MM) Are you nostalgic?


JN) Funny, a young writer just asked me that the other day. I am not nostalgic in the least. When I write about childhood, it is an exorcism, it isn’t a trip down random access memory lane. It is an attempt to shuffle off my pain and give it to others. Not a very nice thing to do, which is why I wrap the pain in such beautiful sentences, so people have no idea they’re ingesting poison. But it’s such a lovely death…   


MM) To what do you owe your uncanny knack for writing prophetic fiction? “Body by Drake” and now “Spiders” comes to mind. Stories you wrote with themes that later show up in newspapers. Do you study history? Read much news? Does the future resemble the past? Do you find humans predictable? Does it make you cynical?


JN) I try to keep my news consumption to a minimum, because the media’s job is to keep you perpetually depressed, and my chemical imbalance already does that for me, thank you very much. I also think politicians, be they women or men, are con men and used car salesmen who are full of shit… Politics is show business for ugly people. And what kind of psychopath would want to wrangle other humans? I think my uncanny knack for writing prophetic fiction comes from having an almost mythic understanding of human nature, and human weakness. I didn’t ask for this, but I figured I might as well do something productive with it. I am a mirror, that is all. Albeit a very pretty one.


MM) What other artists besides yourself would you encourage others to pay attention to?


JN) Marie NDiaye is an incredible writer. She should be better known in the US. She writes weird horror novels that aren’t horror novels. She also really understands people, like me. Andy Warlord is an incredible visual artist. He loves beautiful young men, BMXers and skaters, and his visual style is sui generis. He’s just really weird… like me, lol.  


MM) Your writing is notoriously voicey. You are a conduit. You have an ear for the way people communicate, and have leaned into directly transcribing others’ thoughts, or the illusion thereof.


JN) Thank you! It took a long time to learn how to write dialogue that sounds true. That’s why I cringe when I skim passages of Distemper, the dialogue is off. And I was still a slave to punctuation when I wrote it. Now I do my own thing, and my dialogue rolls around on the page like ball bearings.   


MM) You have an incredibly dark sense of humor. Is life all a big cosmic joke? And is there a point in life where you found yourself more inclined to laugh than cry? 


JN) I inherited my sense of humor from my adoptive father, who was a Southerner from Arkansas. And also my biological mother, a petite Mexican woman from Los Angeles, which is strange because I didn’t meet her until I was twenty-one. Despite being a Christian (or because of it?) she has an extremely dark sense of humor. She once told me you could fill Dodger Stadium with all the men she’s slept with. When I was a child, my adoptive father, Mr. Nulick, had a towing business. He had a contract with the City of Phoenix police department, and so we would tow away vehicles that had just been involved in automobile accidents. Sometimes the decedents were still there, on the sidewalk, covered in tarpaulin. It was the Seventies, things were looser. I knew there was a body under there, even though I couldn’t see it. Seeing all that death and destruction at an early age likely illustrated that life is indeed a cosmic joke, and can be taken away at any time, in an instant. It also makes one love people more. My humor is indeed dark, but it helps me get through the day. People without a sense of humor scare me. Our time on this doomed rock is very short – don’t take yourself so seriously.   


MM) Can you talk about what future projects you have in development right now?


JN) I’m currently working on two future projects, however I’m only free to speak about one of them, that being my new novel SPEAKERLOUD. Speakerloud is a novel about a charismatic child cult leader who never ages, he is perpetually around age twelve, while others in his circle age normally. As his congregation in Northern California continues to grow, things go awry, as they always do with organized religion. His main focus throughout the book is to build a dam to harness the river in the town he slowly gains control of, and to gain more followers, of course. It’s a weird book. And very likely my last. I’m getting old, Manuel, and writing novels when one works a fulltime job is incredibly difficult, it really drains one’s limited energy reserves. I want to do old man things, like grow a garden, raise some animals, maybe start keeping bees again… I used to be a beekeeper when I was young. I’d like a little bit of happiness in my life before I enter, like fireworks, into the eternal black nothingness. Thank you for caring enough to ask, my friend. And thank you for publishing Lazy Eyes, your generosity continues to stun me. We should chat again in three years when Speakerloud is finished. Thank you, Manuel, it’s been fun.