interview with james nulick
by nick deforest
Nick DeForest: Hi James, thanks so much for agreeing to the interview. One of the reasons I wanted to talk was because The Moon Down To Earth single-handedly got me interested in small press publications. Before then I had always thought of that world as a gimmick for the internet addled or yet another social club for well-connected New York media types. But here was a book that took itself seriously, that existed entirely on its own terms, that had its own voice and its own pace, that marked out an entirely new geographical territory (who writes about the American southwest?) far apart from any established literary scene. It struck me, basically, as a book that was both conscious of its predecessors and yet attempting innovation, a book wherein the tradition of literature was subsisting, yet, funnily enough, it occupied a space far outside the accepted bounds of literature.
All this is a long way of saying you seem to have a lot of experience writing and a lot of experience within the world of writers. What is your read on the state of mainstream publishing today? Did you ever aspire to a more mainstream type of success? (I think we all did, or all do, especially those of us who came of age in the 90s/00s.) And how did you find your way into your current place in the literary ecosystem?
James Nulick: I've been writing since I was ten years old. My father bought my first typewriter when I was ten. That was forty years ago! I discovered pretty early that I had a natural knack for it, so I would write stories starring my grade school friends. I figured out people like seeing their names in print, and kids would gather around me as I read their adventure stories. I was pretty popular in school, despite being shy. I’m pretty sure it was the writing. I was also the class clown, which is a weird dichotomy when you’re shy. I didn't have the talent to be a musician, so writing is the next best thing. Luckily I'm pretty good at it.
I'm not sure what the world of writers means, I've always existed outside that world. I've never been part of the cool kids club. I'm definitely an outlier, which is fine. I have some very fierce fans who are passionate about my work, which is wonderful, so it's nice to know I'm not writing to the void. I'm not sure what I'd do if I had Tao Lin's following, or Kate Zambreno's. I'd likely freak out. I don't think I'm built for mingling, I'm too solitary, though I do love people intensely... but from afar, lol. Oh yes, I definitely wanted mainstream success when I was younger. I wanted my books to be sold in airports. Obviously, with the subjects I write about, that's not going to happen. And the last time I was in an airport (Heathrow, November 2019), I took a look at the fiction on the shelves at WHSmith and thought, nah, this is definitely not for me, I can't write this garbage, even if they paid me handsomely.
How can I say this politely? Mainstream publishing, in its current state, pretty much sucks. Mainstream publishers are business people who are only interested in sales, not in the art of literature. When I discover an exciting book, a book that has something to say, it is invariably published by a small, independent press. I submitted The Moon Down to Earth to a few large publishers when I was shopping it around, and none of them were interested. Luckily Manuel Marrero at Expat Press said yes.
I found my way here by publishing Valencia with Nine-Banded Books back in 2015. Chip Smith is an absolute doll to work with, and he's a really smart guy, smarter than me. He introduced me to my editor, Anita Dalton, who is smarter than both of us. Anita has edited three of my books, Valencia, Haunted Girlfriend, and The Moon Down to Earth, and will soon be editing Lazy Eyes. I submitted Valencia to 26 publishers. 23 said NO! 2 totally ignored me, and Chip Smith said yes. Chip was my final submission, my next option was suicide (kidding). I think I grabbed Chip's attention with an unusual elevator pitch. And that's how we are here now, chatting like old pals.
ND: Given that you have been writing for so long, how have you seen your style evolve over time? Generally speaking, what is your process? You make mention in Valencia (I believe) that you are searching for perfect sentences, but what strikes me most about your work are perfect paragraphs, perfect tiny chapters — small understated juxtapositions that sort of knock the wind out of the reader. I’ve also noticed subtle repetitions of events or sentiments that echo throughout the text; are these patterns that you plan on, or do you discover them in the process of editing? If I had to guess, it looks like your books are cut down from significantly larger manuscripts.
JN: My style has definitely evolved. I started writing Distemper in 1995, when I was 25. Then a year later a man named David Foster Wallace came along and dropped an epic tome called Infinite Jest onto the world. I was 26 when I read Infinite Jest, which is the perfect age for reading that book. But I have to admit its radiation infected my writing, and my sentences became longer, more colorful, and laden with lots of pretty words. I was improperly performing a butterfly stroke, and couldn't breathe, I was too busy looking at the bottom of the pool. Distemper is clunky, overwritten, and embarrassingly tumescent. I finished it when I was 33, an entirely different person, and didn't, at that time, understand or know how to kill my children, nor did I have the desire to. I didn't write again for 10 years. But then something unfortunate happened (a tainted piece of ass), and I contracted HIV. I thought I was dead for sure. And all the old lessons that Beckett taught me when I was 25 years old, before I met DFW, came rushing back. I read Beckett again. I read Lydia Davis, specifically The End of the Story, which is a brilliant book. I reread Sleepless Nights, by one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Hardwick. I was listening to Local Business by a band called Titus Andronicus. I was listening to them really loud, and on repeat. And then I sat down one day and started writing Valencia, every day, out of a place of great anger. I had a pretty solid manuscript after two years. I set it aside and kind of forgot about it for six months. I read a lot of nonfiction, lots of science books, lots of books on consciousness. Then I came back to the manuscript and started hacking at it without blinders, without remorse.
I cut over 10,000 words from Valencia. I cut close to 14,000 words from The Moon Down to Earth. Nothing is sacred or precious when it comes to my writing. I hack at my work like a serial killer. I work on my sentences as I imagine a jeweler must work at cutting and polishing a diamond. The difference between Distemper and Valencia is the difference between Pablo Honey and Kid A. They are completely different animals written by totally different people. I learned how to properly write in the ten years between Distemper and Valencia. I finally learned how to write dialogue when The Moon Down to Earth came along. I don't know what happened, it's like being near death has turned me into an idiot savant with regard to dialogue, and I really enjoy writing it now.
Thank you about the perfect paragraphs, though perfect paragraphs are born from perfect sentences. I am always chasing the perfect sentence, which is why it takes me so long to write. I live for the perfect sentence, as it is my only contribution to humanity. I want my sentences to move people, to wake them to an inner joy they possess for language, though they may not know it. I want my sentences to make love to the reader. Is that too heavy?
My process, hmmm... that's difficult to nail down. I don't outline at all, I loathe outlining, I feel it destroys spontaneity. My brain doesn't work like that. I bullet things on a piece of paper, small scenes in my head I want to explore, and then build around them, like a mollusc constructing a pearl around a grain of sand. The subtle repetitions are always planned, and usually occur in threes, three being a magic number. Nothing is an accident, but then it's not very well planned, either. It’s difficult to explain. I always start fresh every day. Do you know jazz at all? What I'm doing is shuffle drumming. Which is difficult to do, but I want it to be smooth for the reader, the way you hear ball bearings when you're on a skateboard yet you don't, you're just moving. To be perfectly honest, my writing always begins with a question, a question I have about the world, the way the world works, because the world is so confusing. I don't think I ever find any of the answers I'm looking for. If I did, I'd probably stop writing.
ND: I’m not at all surprised to learn how involved it is. The hardest trick in fiction is trying to write a piece in which nothing seems to happen. And it’s funny you should mention Beckett, because he was the first author who came to mind when I discovered the world of indie presses. Not because anyone’s work closely resembled his. But after years of looking at my own work through the eyes of the “industry,” reading contemporary fiction that actually took chances reminded me of how I felt when I was a teenager reading Beckett and Pynchon. I certainly didn’t understand what I was reading at the time, but I remember being floored by the idea that in literature you can do anything you want.
What role does Anita play in this editing process?
JN: Anita helps me with continuity. She also lets me know when something rings false. For instance, in The Moon Down to Earth, there was a scene in the third draft of the manuscript where Elizabeth's mother was wondering if her daughter was in her room masturbating. Anita advised me that it was highly unlikely that a woman in her seventies, coming from where she did, would be thinking about her daughter in such a fashion, so I cut it from the final version of the draft. As Moon was mostly feminine based, Anita also helped me with dresses, as I had trouble wrapping my head around the difference between sundresses and A dresses, and why an obese woman would never wear a sundress. Though I am quite fastidious at self-editing, it's impossible to catch everything, and Anita lets me know if something seems off or rings false. She's also quite forgiving of my unusual punctuation, and my strict abolition of quotation marks. Anyone less would run screaming in the opposite direction. We work very well together, and I'm happy I have her as both an editor and a friend.
ND: What is your writing schedule like?
JN: I write every day, in the morning, from 5am to 7am. I have a fulltime job, so writing in the morning is the only time I have. I can’t write after working a 9 to 5, I’m too exhausted at the end of the day. So I wake up at 5am and begin typing in the dark. It’s a laptop with quiet keys. The laptop is in the bedroom. My partner of 13 years hasn’t complained, so far…
ND: Would you consider yourself to be a "writer's writer"?
JN: If by a writer’s writer you mean a writer who is well-respected in the writing community but who doesn’t sell books, then yes, I’m a writer’s writer. I take my craft as seriously as a jeweler takes theirs. I am always in pursuit of the perfect sentence. It’s not unusual for me to spend three months working on a single paragraph. It’s my name on the cover, so I want it to be perfect. I know perfection doesn’t exist, but still.
ND: I’ve noticed a fascination in your work with bicycles, specifically BMX, and electronic music. Where does that come from, and how does it manifest itself in your daily life?
JN: You are a close reader, Nick, what I would call a writer's dream reader! I have always been into BMX, ever since I was a kid. I had a couple of friends in my neighborhood, kids I grew up with, my friends Mark and Chris, more like brothers, really, I've known them so long (Chris is kind of the blueprint for the character Jace in The Moon Down to Earth), and we would ride our bikes on weekends, after school, to and from school, whatever chance we got to terrorize the neighborhood. I’ve almost always had a street bike of some kind in the hallway, in the closet, upside down in a bedroom, always a 20" BMX, always no kickstand (real bikes don't have kickstands). I grew up with bikes. I'm an old man now, but I still have a bike. In fact, in February 2020, I finally purchased my dream bike, a Subrosa Malum 100% Chromoly frame, and then a month later, COVID happened. So I really haven't been able to ride my new bike. Seattle was kind of ground zero for the virus in the United States, and everyone here was thinking they were going to die if they stepped outside their apartment, kind of like Total Recall, when Schwarzenegger's eyes are popping out of his head, that's what I thought was going to happen if I went outside. So I curbed my bike, wrapped socks on the grips, and to my great sadness, put her away in the closet. My apartment has tile floors, so I could probably ride my bike around inside my apartment, but I don't think the other half would like me getting black marks all over the place...
I've always been surrounded by music, my mother and father were really into music. My dad had an old Sony reel to reel. He had a closet full of tapes, all this crazy country and western music on AMPEX. And my mother, who was thirteen years younger than my dad, was the total opposite, she liked soul and R&B, so I was exposed to a wide range of different kinds of music when I was a kid. My mom had vinyl records of bands like Tom Tom Club, Herbie Hancock, Tower of Power, Weather Report. It was a pretty crazy household, to say the least. I was more into heavy metal when I was a teenager, a total Maidenhead. I also loved Rush, Ozzy, Sabbath, Metallica, Slayer. I discovered electronic music when I went to college, far away from home. This gay kid in my dorm was into Throbbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey, Cabaret Voltaire, weird shit like that. He invited me into his dorm room one night, I remember being really stoned and thinking what is this shit...he kinda started trying to make out with me and I skedaddled out of there toot sweet because I wasn't ready for that kind of thing just yet. Then my blood brother Donald, one of my closest, oldest friends, introduced me to Aphex Twin, and I was a goner after that...I was thinking, finally, here is someone who plays music the way I write! Music is a huge part of my life, always has been. I listen to music on headphones while I’m writing, usually ambient or glitch, depending on the mood, something to keep my head open to the magic. When I’m writing faster scenes, I listen to faster music. It’s a trick, but it works, at least for me.
ND: I’m sorry I have to ask, but you probably knew it was coming… how do you feel about life as a writer on Twitter versus off Twitter? What influenced your decision to leave? It’s frustrating because when you exist in obscurity, without connections, you know no one else is going to do your publicity for you. It’s so hard to feel “seen” as a writer, so hard to feel like your published work is going to be read by anyone other than family or friends. And when you want to reach out to another writer you admire, sometimes the only way to contact them is in the DMs. On the other hand, you have to surrender so much of your humanity in order to promote yourself online that I’m still not sure it’s worth it. I still can’t bring myself to attach my real name to my Twitter account. And everything they say about it breaking your brain is completely true.
JN: What is Twitter? I'm kidding! There are plenty of writers who are not on Twitter. Claire-Louise Bennett. Kate Zambreno. New Juche. Zadie Smith. William T. Vollmann. My decision to leave was based on two things, the death of my father, who died on March 7th of this year, and also, who I was becoming on Twitter. I really love people, and love interacting with them, but at the same time it feels false, at least to me, to be a performing seal, and I felt like that was what I was becoming. Each tweet had to be more colorful, more zany, and with better pictures. Being on Twitter as often as I was took me away from reading and writing. But yeah man, my father’s death. Death fine tunes the silence. I couldn’t be there for him when he was dying, and the guilt was intense (I’m Catholic, so, you know). I thought perhaps I needed to be a little more silent, for my own mental health. For all the great good people who are still on Twitter, that's fine, I am happy for them. But in order for me to remain sane, relatively speaking, I needed to leave.
You say it's frustrating to exist in obscurity? I don't think so. Not giving a damn is incredibly freeing. When you are silent, when you go dark, your people will still seek you out. If they love your work, they will find you. I am as close as their bookshelf, that's where I truly exist. There isn't really an "I," to be honest. I am a cipher. I am my books.
You say if I am not online, my published work will only be read by friends or family? That's wonderful, because that's who I write for. Any potential reader is a friend, humanity is my family. I'm not sure what I'm missing out on. If people want to email me, all they have to do is contact my publisher and ask for my email address. I'm not hiding. I am writing every day, which is an extremely visible thing to do.
ND: What advice would you give to younger writers trying to "make it" (that is, produce good work and be read by the right people) these days?
JN: I wouldn’t concern yourself with making it, whatever that means. Concern yourself with writing great literature that speaks to people, tell good stories that people want to read. If your work is good, people will eventually take notice. It takes a long time, though. I have been writing for over forty years. A lot of people still don’t know my work, but those who know, know. I’m just appreciative of the samizdat audience I have. I don’t like the word advice, but I would say to a young writer, don’t concern yourself with things you can’t control, just do the work.
ND: In your lifetime, what changes have you seen in the publishing industry? Am I mistaken in thinking that there used to be a viable market for more experimental literature back in the 80s or 90s?
JN: You're absolutely spot-on with experimental literature being a lot more mainstream way back when. When I was at university in the early Nineties, my lit professor was this old hippie who was big on the great American experimentalists of the late 60s and early 70s... John Barth, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan, William Kotzwinkle, Max Apple. Of course I realize these writers are male and America-centric. My professor said Jayne Anne Phillips, Lorrie Moore, and Rikki Ducornet were trying to keep the tradition alive in the 1980s, but by then experimental lit had mostly died on the vine. I nudged him with William T. Vollmann's collection The Rainbow Stories, and that’s when he took notice of me, I think he was appreciative of a cerebral student introducing him to an exciting young writer.
I feel experimental literature was bobbing for air by the late 90s, and almost entirely dead in the Aughts. That is changing. There are a lot of great small presses publishing experimental works, so much so I'd call it a renaissance. Presses like Expat Press, Nine-Banded Books, Amphetamine Sulphate, 11:11, Kiddiepunk, Semiotext(e), Fitzcarraldo, Ugly Duckling, Two Lines, and Dottir Press are all publishing great books that exist outside the sphere of traditional Walmart endcap fiction currently being conveyor-belted by our overly-wise New York publishers. We are definitely riding the crest of a new high experimentalism, which seems to occur, like it did in the 60s and 70s, during times of great cultural crisis. But then diamonds are created under intense pressure, yes?
ND: What have you been reading these days?
JN: I've been on a Kate Zambreno binge. I just finished reading To Write as if Already Dead, which I loved, and I am currently reading Drifts, which I adore. I love how her mind works, the way she dispenses with traditional time signatures. And she uses chapter titles the way I use chapter titles, as a mile marker, a guide post. I've also recently read everything Marie NDiaye has written that has been translated into English. NDiaye is a fabulous French novelist who should really be more well-known here in America. You mentioned working in obscurity…if Marie NDiaye is working in obscurity, as I am, then I don't feel so bad. She's the only living writer I have encountered who can do what I do, which is flip seemingly normal situations inside-out and paint them with a slightly psychedelic, satanic sheen. Well wait, I guess Kafka did it one hundred years ago!
ND: Besides the short story collection, what are you working on? Do I remember hearing rumors about a new novel a while ago?
JN: I’m currently working on a short story collection for Expat Press, to be published in 2022. It's nearly finished. It’s called Lazy Eyes. The stories in Lazy Eyes are what I'd call literary horror. And yes, I am concurrently working on a novel, so the novel is coloring the short story collection, and the stories feed off the novel. They are both living things, and everything is connected. Thank you for spending time with me, Nick, I really appreciate it.
Editor’s note: James Nulick returned to Twitter after this interview was conducted. He occasionally tweets @plexibubble