A Conversation With Nick Sweeney

I have a pleasure to talk to Nick Sweeney, a freelance writer, novelist, songwriter and musician from London – his novel of friendship, Poland, snow, trains and vodka, Laikonik Express, was published by Unthank Books, he had stories published in Ambit literary magazine, and you can taste his writing on his author website. He also plays a guitar and writes songs (as Niko Nezna) for Trans-Siberian March Band, a tasty and energetic “Balkan” brass band – you should check them out.

Nick Sweeney

Nick Sweeney


Hi, Nick, tell us something about yourself, please.

I live in SE London, and I’m lucky enough to overlook the trees and open spaces of Ladywell fields. If they could demolish a few more houses, the view would be even better. I’m originally from South London, from Camberwell. I lived in North London for a few years, so I don’t feel tied to one particular area. My parents were from Dublin, and I was brought up in a largely Irish Catholic community – however, it would be fake of me to claim to be proper Irish, and equally false to say I’m English, so I’m happy being a Londoner first, and a Brit second.
My dad was into jazz and blues, and though he died when I was quite young my mum also had a love of music, and so I remember that music was always a presence at home. I’m not sure where I got a liking for Eastern European music, but as a kid I always enjoyed it when some Gypsy or oompah infiltrated its way into pop music – Cher’s Bang Bang, for example, David Bowie’s Velvet Goldmine, Boney M’s Rasputin, even. That survived my liking for punk, which appealed to me for its colour and noise aside from the benefits of dressing up, going out, staying up all night in the week and at weekends and spending time with like-minded people. I liked the late 80s house music boom for the same reasons.
Books were always important in our house, too, so I used to read a lot, going straight from children’s books to recognisably adult books – mainly throwaway things like the James Bond books, Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie – with no transition. One of my favourite places was the Victorian library a short walk away from me, and as I got older and wanted to appear cool to the other kids I knew it became a bit of a guilty pleasure. I tried to write a novel when I was 13 or 14, but it was just something I wanted to do, and I soon got distracted by whatever else there was, like appearing cool in Camberwell…

You are both a writer and a musician – which of both fields provides you more pleasure?
I think they’re about equal in both the pleasure and frustrations they bring. Writing is solitary, of course, and a lot of being a musician is about collaboration and communication, whether that’s taking part in rehearsing with a 13-piece band like the Trans-Siberian March Band or standing on a stage and singing and playing to people. There is also the composing and practice side of music, which is more like being a writer, closeting myself away and working to produce something that often remains vague and elusive, often remains as process rather than product, which is frustrating on the face of it, but makes an invisible contribution. What would my work have been like if I hadn’t tried and failed this or that… It’s all part of the process, which is why I think we have to take the frustrations on board as well as the pleasure. The same with writing; sometimes you don’t know that an idea won’t work until you’ve proved that it won’t, by trying it, but in trying it you affect whatever comes next, hopefully by learning from the experience.

What is the mission of a writer today?
As a rather over-serious young man, I always felt that the primary mission of a writer was ideally to try to reflect in some small way some aspects of what is going on around us in society, and, if it’s fiction, to make sure it is entertaining as well as enlightening. I still mostly feel that way. If you’re sharing your work, and you want to reach people with it, then I guess it shouldn’t give off the impression that you did it mostly for your own pleasure. That’s why I don’t really like art by, say, Tracy Emin or Damien Hirst; it’s clever, but they’re doing it mainly for themselves. There is no humour in it. It’s the same, I feel, with Irish pub musicians, who play a very pure form of traditional Irish music, and who never look up from their instruments, never look at their audience, never acknowledge applause and seem annoyed if you clap in time, or if you ask for requests – compare that to the invitations of Balkan musicians to take part, dance the horo in a circle, wave a handkerchief, contribute to the experience in your own way. Irish trad music is good, and I like it, but not as much as I would if the players were more inviting. Again, no humour, and they look like they take themselves far too seriously.
I feel the same about writing, really: it should reflect the world, but not be preachy, it should have art, but not for art’s sake, and achieving that is difficult. I don’t like books that are designed and written purely for the purpose of being best sellers, and nor do I like books that are just written for the art of it. I think novels should contain quite a lot of humour, because making people laugh is an invitation to them, and a kind of gift. Like actual gifts, it may not work, and they may not like it, and it may even offend them, but the invitation is there. I also don’t think there are any great writers, only great books. Nearly all my fave writers have written extremely bad books, for a number of reasons I can only guess at. My favourite books include Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Danilo Kis’s A Tomb for Boris Davidovitch, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Josef Roth’s  Hotel Savoy, Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Sandor Marai’s Embers, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and many others, and many of them more obscure, of course, which may or may not give some idea about my answers to this question.

You lived in Turkey and in Poland, and you seem to know pretty much about the tragic nineties in the country formerly known as Yugoslavia. How much was your writing influenced by that period?
My first published story was set during the siege of Sarajevo, after I’d read the diary of Zlata Filipovic, the so-called Bosnian Anne Frank. Mine wasn’t a great story, it was a bit of a mish mash of ideas about war and its imposition upon the wishes of a young girl much like Zlata, but it synthesised some ideas I’d had about the siege, and the awful position of the people of Sarajevo, and of Bosnia in general. When I lived in Turkey I used to get the train through the Balkans up to Budapest, and pass through what was Yugoslavia, and there was always a certain defensive aggression, for want of a better phrase, from some of the people I met on these journeys, and, of course, talk of war that I laughed at a little, even though it disturbed me enough to make me think they meant it.
Turkish men I worked with claimed to have been saying that there would be a war among the peoples of Bosnia ever since they heard the news that Tito had died. One was chillingly spot on, said that the Serbs and Croats would form an alliance to destroy the Bosnian Muslims, and he was only wrong in his prediction that they would also incorporate the Slovenes into a greater state that would be for Serbs and Croats alone. He told me that the enmities went right back to Ottoman times, and that the Serbs, especially, had never forgiven the Bosnian Muslims – to whom they still referred as ‘Turks’ – for their perceived betrayals of their Slav origins, and lots of stuff like that. It always sounded like a paranoid rant to me. (He urged me to read Ivo Andric’s The Bridge Over the Drina, which I didn’t get around to until a few years ago.)
On my first journey, in January of 1991, the trains were packed because there were fewer planes – NATO had commandeered much of the airspace for what was to be known as the First Gulf War. Turkish men who worked in various parts of Europe were strangely gung-ho about the war – there was always a strong anti-Saddam Hussein vibe in Turkey, though I felt it was partly an expression of anti-Arab feeling in general – as were the Serbs I met in Nis, some of whom were disturbingly loud and aggressive about it.
Hostilities started in Yugoslavia when I was living in Turkey, and continued into my time in Poland. I think I felt a little closer to them, feeling that I was a train ride away rather than in detached old fortress Britain. In reality, of course, this didn’t put me any closer. When I was in Poland I got word that a Turkish friend had volunteered to fight in one of the Muslim militias in Bosnia – he was actually Kurdish, and it made me think, and also made me laugh, a little, because he had spent much of his life trying not to get involved in the bad blood between Kurds and Turks, and had been dismissive of friends of his who supported the anti-Turkish PKK. Lots of the landmarks of the war occurred when I was in Poland, like the revelation of the Omarska camp, the mortar attack on the Sarajevo market, the burning of the Sarajevo library, and the killings in Srebrenica, and I found it frustrating that everybody I knew, both Brits and Poles, agreed that it was terrible but actually never really got exercised about these events, seemed to have no strong opinions about them, were more bothered by football, or tracking down videos of their favourite TV programmes. I had the vivid idea that this was happening ‘on our doorstep’, and that we should care about it more than we did just for that reason – as if victims of war in further-flung places didn’t matter quite so much.
I had another Sarajevo-set story published, and I wrote a few more. The last was published a few years ago. None of them matter, really, or make a contribution to anything other than obscure literature, and none do justice to the banal and everyday horrors suffered by people caught up in war. But yes, the period demonstrably had some influence on how I thought about the world and put it into my work. One of my novels in progress features a group of Yugoslav Roma in Rome, who have been displaced from Banja Luka by the war: some regard it as no more than a sob story from which they can profit, while some see it as an experience that made men of them, for various reasons, and some think it vindicates their view of gadje, or non-Roma – all of them crazy and oppressive when they get the chance – while one keeps thinking she has spotted Serb warlord and gangster Arkan in a cafe in Rome, sipping coffee and boasting of his exploits, living a ‘normal’ life, and is frustrated and angered by the idea. I haven’t read any good novels about the war. I’m sure there are some out there. One of the best books I’ve ever read about it is Anthony Loyd’s My War Gone By, I Miss It So, a dark, stark and chilling account of his time in Bosnia and Croatia as a correspondent for various newspapers.

What does your work day look like?
It’s a bit chaotic, in general. I work as a freelance writer and editor, so when that kind of work comes my way (it’s sporadic and unpredictable) it gives my day some urgent focus. I often work on education-related research, and insurance, so it’s not creative in a recognizable way, though I need to be quite inventive with it to make it as readable as possible. I usually get up early, work on the ‘proper job’ of paid work, have a short break, which often involves cycling out to a café, then get on with some writing of my own. In terms of my own work, I have to isolate the different things I’m working on, and determine to work on one of them only, or I just lose concentration altogether. The older I get, the more easily distracted I become. There is also the temptation to admit that the writing isn’t going very well, so give it up for the day and work on some music, do some composing, play scales, riffs, work out jazz inversions and see which ones work. My music theory is always at a rudimentary stage, and so is my understanding of how jazz hangs together, so any work I do on either advances me a little further with it. However, it isn’t always a good solution; if I’ve left the writing at a particular stage it stays with me, and I feel I’m giving up too easily, and when I feel that way I can’t seem to do anything very well.

Do you have any special routine, or ritual to get your juices flowing?
Not really, or at least none I recognize as something as rigid as a ritual or routine. I carry a notebook everywhere, and write in it constantly, whether on things I’m working on or just stuff that occurs to me and might fit in somewhere, so very often the first thing I do is open my notebook and read whatever I may have written the day before, to see if it has some immediate use, and of course to add it to work in progress if that’s why I wrote it. It’s a good prompt to start doing something, at least. I also read through whatever I wrote the day before on the computer, though this sometimes leads to unnecessary editing rather than getting stuck in to writing.

Have you ever wrote, or thought about writing, for film, TV or theater?
Yes. I have had a script in progress for the past few years – though the very expression ‘past few years’ suggests there’s not that much progress being made. It’s set during the Second World War in occupied Paris, and it’s called The Last Gypsy. It focuses on a Gypsy Jazz guitarist who has been more or less ostracised by his fellow Sinti for various reasons. He is alone in Paris, as he regards non-Gypsies as the enemy: in a way, he is less bothered by the German occupation than most French people, as they are all oppressive uniforms to him, whether French or German. He comes to the attention of the chief of police, who makes it one of his missions to track him, and all of his people, down and rid Paris of them. Two Germans from the occupying army and SS, who were friends before the war, and are cautiously anti-Nazi, make it their mission to ensure that he is unharmed. The army officer is an idealist from an aristocratic background, the SS sergeant a cynical street tough from Berlin, so they are a bit of a comic duo at times, but both are struck by the idea that, after the war, no matter what shape the world is in, they want to be able to look other people in the eye and declare that they did nothing that makes them ashamed to be who they are; that is the one coherent idea they have left from the madness they have been a part of. It all sounds a bit idealistic, and perhaps it is, and that is why it is in a state of permanent revision. It was influenced by the book Swing Under the Nazis, by Mike Zwerin, and by one of my favourite stories ever, Jack Pulman’s Private Schulz. I can’t make up my mind if it’d be better as a TV one-off or a film, and must confess that I have no idea about how to write for either, which makes it a diverting amusement, a side project rather than something I work on very productively.

Which of your work are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of a completed novel that no publisher seems to want. Unthank Books, who published my first novel, Laikonik Express, didn’t want it, so I’m trying to find another publisher for it. I wrote a first draft in 1995, originally, and it was with two agents who loved it but just couldn’t place it. It’s not like I’ve been working on it ever since, though I added a lot of stuff in 2011, and revise parts of it occasionally. It’s set in the Delaware Bay area in the 1940s and 50s, in a town full of Slavic migrants, and parts of the story go back to the Russian Revolution. It’s a love story in the face of the dark forces in American life, and in the religious and cultural attitudes of people who live in the New World but have brought the superstitions and rituals of the old world with them, as well as the Nagant pistols used by both imperial and Soviet gunmen, a true assassin’s weapon, as it was, and still is, I think, the only revolver that can be silenced: the Nagant has a starring role in the book. It also features the idea of escape from the working class life via art and sport, in this case pro road bike racing, the sport I love. It’s called The Last Thing the Angel Said. I’m resigned to it never seeing the light of day, and that bothers me sometimes, but I think it’s foolish to dwell on things that haven’t happened, or won’t happen, and believe in concentrating on the things that have and will.
Of course, I’m proud of Laikonik Express too: it brings together much of my experience of being in Poland in the 90s, and brings back to life places I went to and journeys I took and friends I miss and things we did and said and enjoyed and observed and laughed about uncontrollably, and it’s the one book I associate with a sense of joy as I wrote it – I was fizzing with it for the 6 months of its first draft, and really felt I’d accomplished something whether it ever got published or not.

How important do you find the Social Media is for your writing and promotion of your work, connecting with your fellow writers and reaching readers?
I was a bit reluctant to use Facebook and Twitter at first, but Unthank Books prodded me into it. I can’t say it has worked for me very well in terms of sales, but it’s great to be able to connect to other writers, and readers, in a way that just wasn’t possible before. It’s not just about writers and readers; I learn so much from other people’s enthusiasms and the things they post. I think the key to using Facebook is to regard it as a treat, and not an everyday necessity, or it’s just too distracting. I sometimes pay attention to this advice myself.

Who are your literary heroes?
I don’t really see writers as heroic figures, not even those who built themselves up as such, like Hemingway, who after all at the end of the day was a bloke who drank a lot and sat in a room and banged a typewriter – I don’t care how many sharks he shot.
I’m going to assume you mean figures in literature. I like many of Joseph Conrad’s characters, his seafaring narrators like Charlie Marlow, who modestly tells the tales of Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, sidelining himself in the process. I also really admire James Joyce’s Malachi ‘Buck’ Mulligan, who enters the world ‘stately, plump’ on the first page of Ulysses (my favourite book by JJ) and proceeds to be hilariously irreverent as he takes the piss out of the Catholic mass, his Irish countrymen and their culture, the English, poet figures such as his housemate Stephen Dedalus, based on JJ himself, of course, and their sensibilities. His redeeming features are that he is a medic with a dispassionate and expert eye to people’s ills, and he is also a brave man, having jumped into the cold waters of Dublin’s Liffey river to save men from drowning. He is based on Joyce’s one time friend and literary rival the surgeon, poet, essayist, sportsman, politician and all-round genius Oliver St John Gogarty, and I feel that Joyce’s depiction of him backfired a little: despite Gogarty’s annoyance a being portrayed as ‘that Mulligan, whose name stinks all over town’, he comes out very well in Ulysses. Gogarty was a real-life hero, who jumped into the Liffey to save would-be drowners not once but several times (and not always to their gratitude) and who famously jumped in on his own account to escape execution by the IRA in his days as a politician who opposed Irish extremists. He was also a very compassionate doctor, who urged his students to keep their humility and humanity as they did their work. I also like J D Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, and can still relate to him, a little, despite the passing of the years: he is plausible, and funny – more than can be said for most of  Salinger’s other creations, the extremely annoying Glass family. I like Richard Papen, Donna Tartt’s hapless narrator in The Secret History, even though his laissez-faire apathy leads him into being an accessory to murder – I think even people who like the book hate most of the characters, but I feel that Richard would, despite the evidence of the last part of the book, go on to redeem himself somehow, a bit like Conrad’s Lord Jim, who finally overcame the moment of weakness that shamed him, not in the eyes of the world, but in his own eyes. I like characters, and people in real life, who are aware of their weaknesses, and don’t make excuses for them, who aren’t afraid to say they were wrong.

What are you working at the moment?
I have nearly finished two linked novellas, The Fortune Teller’s Factotum and The Firemont Dorns. Both are set in the same fictional town in Pennsylvania – somewhere like Allentown or Scranton. Each focuses on two girls in their early twenties who don’t know each other very well, but have grown up within each other’s peripheral vision. One comes from a new money ‘dynasty’ built on a father and stepmother involved in the inane world of daytime TV, and she is trying hard to remain apart from that world of Z-list celebrities. The other’s family made their money from arms dealing, for a hundred years or so, from the American Civil War to the Korean War, until the CIA took the family business over, and left it more or less bankrupt, both in terms of money and morally. As in The Last Thing the Angel Said, the nature of the stories and backgrounds wouldn’t have worked had I tried to set them in the UK – in fact, I tried, but none of it was very convincing. I have not spent much time in America, so much of it is the product of research, literature and films set in the US.
I am also working on several short stories. They seem to take me a long time to do these days. I have two fresh now. The Place of the Dead is in Exiles, An Outsider Anthology from Blackwitch Press, and Andabatae, which will feature in the Eunoia Review in August. The Place of the Dead is a direct translation of the name of the main square in Marakech, the Djma el Fnaa, and is quite an old story, based partly on a five-week trip round Morocco I made in 1989. It features a twenty-something couple from Durham in the north of England, and how the environment affects their relationship. Andabatae focuses on a group of junkies in Rome, and their gradual resemblance to the unfortunate gladiators called andabatae, who were the lowest criminals and unskilled in fighting, and so entertained the crowds by being made to fight with their faces covered by visorless helmets which of course rendered them blind.

If you met a young (or not so young) writer, what would you tell him?
I do meet the odd young writer, but they don’t usually seek my advice! That’s not a complaint. I think it’s right that young people make their own way. I tended not to want to listen to ole farts when I was young. I say what I’d say to anybody of any age. Firstly, do you have a voice, do you have something to say? How do you know? Write what you’re going to write, and only then will you know for sure. Keep at it, and get it out there, either with peers, like other writers, or with magazines, either print or on the web, and don’t be afraid of people’s opinions, nor dismiss them altogether either. Think about them, see how they fit into your view of your work. Write for a market or audience, but not solely: keep a part of your work that only you know the meaning of, and that others may or may not guess at, and in that way it’ll always be truly unique, even if it fits neatly into a genre.

Thank you, Nick!

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on “A Conversation With Nick Sweeney
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