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Monday, 10 July 2017

Interview: Nico Lee

This morning I have comedy author Nico Lee on the blog for a chat about writing, books, inspiration and his novel A Good Lie Ain't Easy.

To start off, tell me a little about your background.

At the moment my background is Leeds Bus Station, which tells you all you need to know about the life of a successfully published author in 2017. At least it’s National Express and not the Mega Bus - one must maintain standards. After all, I am solidly working class. Although I’ve now found, after many years, that accessing my inner Cockney can be a daunting task; it seems the accent just drifted away from me… and now I sound like I should be advertising a cure for some woefully embarrassing medical condition on late night local radio. This is what happens when you go to university. That and a newfound inability to pronounce quinoa the way it’s actually spelt. In fact, looking at artisanal bread and knowing what spelt is, is another symptom.  
My father had no time for such loafing about. He was a refuse collector, my mother a cleaner. We come from dust… and then we attended Kent to study English & Philosophy in that brief window of time when you could come from a background of having no flippin’ cash and still be able to do so. God bless the full grant. Since then? Other than the hideous inconvenience of having to pay the rent, I’ve spent most of the rest of my adult life singing in bands, and generally lollygagging around.

How did you first become interested in writing?

I guess it may be something innate, but mum did read to me quite a bit as a nipper. I spent a lot of time back then writing little plays, in my head, for my Action Man, which never did seem to include him being ‘the greatest hero of them all’ as it said in the adverts - more a despicable rogue. This jaded approach found a mirror when I started to read the comic 2000ad in the late 1970s. I never wrote S.F. though, more stuff that was just… I dunno, wrong? A bit odd?  
One of my most vivid memories was finding a copy of Playboy in a hedge when I was a wee lad - strangely for a precocious little tyke, it wasn’t just the nudes that stayed with me. Back then they were still attempting to legitimise the magazine by commissioning articles by various famous writers. Reading William Burroughs and the cartoons of Robert Crumb when you are 9 years old is bound to inspire you. Probably to get arrested… but, fortunately, I internalised these influences and allowed them rarely to escape. I learnt my lesson after I wrote a short story at school where someone is murdered using a trouser press and my teacher marked it down for being ‘fantastical, made up’- at the time I argued isn’t that what a story is? Bloody kids, eh?

Tell me about A Good Lie Ain’t Easy.

It’s a novel about not staying true to yourself and all the joy that can bring to family and friends. Set on the road somewhere between the cheap ache of nostalgia and the numb regret of last night, it charts the trajectory of four young drifters set to wandering, in a time so primitive that Grindr was just a really bitchin' Death Metal band, and... well, that’s roughly what is says on Amazon, so it must be true.  
A Good Lie Ain't Easy, Nico Lee, book
Image: Nico Lee
It’s had a few reviews so far - one of which very kindly said that if I continue to write in this vein I will surely garner a cult following, one that said it was a roller-coaster of a debut and another described it as a gem. I wanted it to sit somewhere between it being a solid piece of well written and emotionally affecting literature and on the other hand… well, I wanted it to be funny, amusing at least, as I can’t see why you can’t do both - and that’s certainly how I believe life to be. A veil of tears that obscures one’s vision on a path that leads inexorably towards the inevitable banana skin.

How do you get inspiration?

I think generally it comes and gets you. When the desire to write is flowing, it is an unstoppable beast and a pain in the neck. Rising at god-forsaken hours, your fingers smashing the keyboard in a flurry of two-fingered desperation. Or, if out walking, you’re writing endless notes in half legible biro on the back of train tickets. A Good Lie Ain’t Easy, which is your standard 63,000 words in length, was written in a week and a half. Which means that I owe the person I was on holiday with at least half a holiday’s worth of apologies. I’ll admit it took a lot longer than that to, somewhat sporadically, edit it, but I’m definitely not one of those who rise every day at 9am and writes x number of words - I write instead when I am compelled.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Getting people to read it. I lucked out in getting published because a friend of a friend of a friend of a… was looking to publish fiction for the first time (Mega Dodo Press generally publishes music biographies) and they found the first few pages of the book, when I submitted it, hilarious. Now all I have to do is get reviewers to review it and people to buy it. It’s a long haul and I’m useless at social media… however I’m even worse at knitting, so I might as well, you know, give it a go.

What do you love most about writing?

It isn’t knitting. Or maybe it’s the hours? Is it the hours? Sometimes they let me touch the yellow crayons? Really, I love that they don’t have to put my dumb face on the cover of the book. When you’re singing, for instance, a lot of how you are judged has everything to do with your personal image - which is irrelevant. I guess if you just released albums and hid on an island… with writing, individuals either get what you’re doing or not - they judge you just on this. What you’ve thrown on the page. It’s unrestricted access to someone else’s head, both ways. Here try these words. Do they smell good to you?

Do you find it difficult to write comedy?

I think you either are the kind of person who has offended people all your life or you don’t write comedy. If in any given situation you sometimes find your mouth racing for the joke so fast, you have no idea what you yourself are about to say and you laugh at the same time the room does and also sometimes when the room is looking at you like, ‘what kind of an animal would say that, five minutes after his mother died?’ then you are probably the rube for the job. Difficult doesn’t enter into it. You are driven to it. Whether anyone else laughs is a different matter.
author, Nico Lee
Image: Nico Lee

Which authors inspire you?

Nabokov. Nabokov. Nabokov. Say his name three times and he appears in the patterns of your wallpaper. References aside - actually does he inspire or just make me want to give up? Damn, he’s so good. He’s very wittily dry on occasion too, but you’d never guess from most reviews. Then I guess, Thomas Pynchon. Proust. I respect Joyce but he just doesn’t quite ‘do it’ for me. Then it’s odd books rather than an entire particular author’s oeuvre. 

Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

I have only just been published. Given my age? That is indicative of how lazy I have been, at least up until fairly recently. So my first advice is carpe piggin’ diem. This question I’m guessing isn’t so much about how to become a writer, how to write - as that is a personal, random thing - so much as how to get published, or taken on by an agent. I was lucky, but not lucky enough to have attended the same school as the head of Harper Collins. Also, I’m a bit old school. I tend to think that what makes a great writer may be antithetical to what makes a successful one.  
It seems the only way to grab attention, especially now, is by building social networks - something that shouldn’t be normal for someone who chiefly should have their head in a book, learning the craft or be observing rather than partaking in life. That is a little specious. You do need to live. Engage. I mean, observation is essential and even Facebook/Twitter et al are tools that can facilitate that but learning from other writers combined with your own real world experience, that is what makes an author, in the main, I guess… Also listen. Listen all the time. Listen to your friend’s stories. Again, live some of your own. Of course, nothing would beat being related to a mainstream publisher - unfortunately, I’ve yet to work out how to arrange that, after the fact.

What’s your all-time favourite book?

I think the best book ever, ever, ever… ever, ever written may well be The Gift By Nabokov, (I may have read Tolstoy, but I haven’t got round to War and Peace yet, so what do I know… and I’ve only read Ulysses once, a shocking admission) but my favourite? That’s Ada by the same author. It’s often accused of being over-blown. But I would argue that this a deliberate ploy which comments on the moral bankruptcy of the central protagonist - in much the same way that Humbert in Lolita is allowed to hoist himself with pretension as well as his reprehensible tastes.  
I’m looking forward hopefully to that moment where I get a review which conflates this author with his creation just so I can fume too. That is the disadvantage of writing non-fantasy. No-one asks J.K. Rowling what it’s like being a twelve-year-old boy that rides brooms. Although I have heard from a reliable source that Stephen King was covered in pig’s blood on his prom night.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing?

I think ‘being’ a writer is not dependent on being published. So unless they are going to ban paper - which, hey, given the way this world is going is not without possibility, I will always be a writer. I will always sing too. Can’t stop it. I get paid for it now as well, better than I do for writing, anyway - so some buffoons… I mean discerning audiophiles, must like it. My 1920’s band The Devil’s Jukebox just played the National Laurel and Hardy Convention - and you have not lived, my friend, until you have led in song a packed ballroom full of grown men in fezes through ‘The Trail of the Lonesome Pine’.

What are your interests outside of writing and reading?

Man, I love to dance. Dance like a maniac. That’s not very authorial - although Virginia Woolf could apparently do a mean foxtrot. I also like pina colada's and getting caught in the rain… no, wait a minute that’s not me, that’s Jimmy Buffet. Er… Film. I love film. Fellini. Jodorowsky. Svankmajer. Jarmusch. Stranger Than Paradise and Withnail and I are the two biggest non-literary influences on my novel.

What are you currently working on?

A novel set in 2035 in Japan. But it’s more Big Lebowski than Ghost in the Shell. It has the working title of Tokyo-yo but we will see.

A Good Lie Ain't Easy is available to buy now. For more information about Nico and his writing, you can hop on over to his website.

What do you think? Are you a fan of comedic fiction? Let me know in the comments below!

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