William has a good, steady job in retail. He works in the bedlinen department of an Oxford Street store. He knows everything there is to know about comfy. Lucy has a portfolio career which, in her view, is no kind of career at all. Her life is a mess, her love life even more unsatisfactory than that. Unable to sleep, she thinks a new pillow might be the answer. William and Lucy are not connected. Yet the pair of them share a terrible memory from the past, the sort of joint recollection that changes with the light, depending on who you were and where you were standing at the time. The question is: what to do with it?
I loved this novel, just as I loved Nick’s non-fiction book The Train in the Night, and I’m not the only one. Pillow Man has been described as “Sharp, witty and beautifully written” (Cara Fielder, We Love This Book) and “a thoughtful and sensitive dissection of modern lives.” (Leyla Sanai, The Independent). I met with Nick to talk about his inspiration for the story, the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction and about whether restraint is the key distinguishing factor that distinguishes the commercial from the literary. But my first question was this:
Jan: You’re obviously a natural novelist, so why has it taken so long to write your first fiction work?
Nick: I was a journalist for 25 years and that was running down badly. I had my problem with my ear and health concerns which reduced my output and my ability to go out into the world and I’d always wondered what it must be like to write fiction. I have fiction writing chums, I read a lot of fiction, I love fiction and I’d tried for many, many years to have a great fiction idea. You know as well as I do, that they don’t always come spangled with bows tied on top – they really don’t. I’d written a non-fiction first book which had done reasonably well and I really didn’t want to do another one, particularly not in my specialist area, which is music.
I was casting around for ideas and I wanted to write some short stories to see whether I could write with a fictive voice. One day, a good friend was at my kitchen table telling an extraordinary tale about going to buy a pillow in John Lewis. She spoke about this idiosyncratic salesman she’d met and what she’d discovered about the procedure of buying and selling a pillow. A character just formed in my head and I thought, at least I could write a nice little short story about a washed-up pillow salesman. I sat down to do it, and after about a week I realised I wanted to write a full length narrative about this individual interacting with another individual in a world that I knew. I began to invent a hinterland for him and the other central character (Lucy) and I could feel I was using a completely new part of my brain to do it. The one thing you don’t do as a journalist is make it up. You can be poetic, but always everything has to be sourced and even if it’s an opinion it has to be grounded in the real world. Suddenly I had this opportunity to invent. Okay, I was being slightly conservative because I wanted to write about a world I was familiar with, North London, department stores, and of course music – I seem to find it very difficult not to write about music. But I found I was enjoying myself in a way I’d never enjoyed myself before, writing. I started in about 2011, and although I still wasn’t very well, I was getting through the days much, much better. Making stuff up. Lovely.
Jan: Tell us about your journalistic background. How has that affected the way you write fiction?
Nick: I was a very particular kind of journalist and I although I was a newspaper journalist for 13 years, prior to that I was Music Editor of Time Out and before that a Freelancer at the long-lost, long-regretted NME (New Musical Express). At the age of 33 I decided I was too old for this malarkey and winkled my way to the Arts Desk of the Independent, where I became Arts Editor and in due course Features Editor. During that time I never swerved from my rather airy-fairy journalistic approach; I’m not a trained journalist, I write not from the heart but from the stomach. I was kind of addicted to writing about music, even as Arts Editor I still wrote about it almost continually, simply because I loved the way it made me feel. It’s the subjectivity of music that I find abidingly fascinating. The part of me that loved writing about music was essentially a frustrated fiction writer. I think I’d have started writing fiction much earlier if I’d had the right idea. I kept having little ideas for fiction and kicking them around the corridors of my brain nothing ever really stuck until the idea for Pillow Man came in. All I had was a character, a situation and an ending. I knew I had to get to the ending.
Jan: Funnily enough, this is one of my questions – about the ending. You pull back from the edge at the last minute and I wondered whether that had always been the plan or whether you’d toyed with the idea of going all the way…
Nick: That’s very perceptive. I had three endings right up to when I was writing the final chapter. I wanted – as an engine for the novel – for it to be real. At every turn I wanted the real thing to happen, rather than the thing that would make a grand operatic, dramatic, exciting gesture. I decided I was going to wait until I got to the end and then work out which of my three endings were the most likely, the most real and the most poetically satisfying.
Jan: There’s a lot of restraint in the novel, which is connected to this desire to make things real, I guess. I’ve been reading a lot of commercial fiction recently and it was very enjoyable to read something that didn’t just go for the jugular. It made me think about the differences between commercial and literary fiction… Pillow Man is definitely literary fiction –
Nick: But it’s pacey I hope!
Jan: Oh yes, but literary fiction doesn’t mean it can’t be a page-turner… The novel is beautifully, very precisely written. I particularly liked the internal joke you seemed to be making – when they’re at the gig and there’s a power cut and Lucy wonders whether Johnny’s going to be found murdered with a knife in his chest when the lights come on again. And of course, that doesn’t happen.
Nick: I’m glad you got that joke. Yes, I wanted to write something with a quiet heart and a quiet ending. I’ve read too many novels over recent years where the shape is just one long climax and I can’t bear it. I wanted a novel that tapered off into quietude and had an optimistic ending – you still felt something big had happened but your heart wasn’t racing and you weren’t sweating and you hadn’t been manipulated into a climax. I didn’t want to dramatise the major event in the book that happened 20 years previously, I wanted to report it, so you get it as William’s memory, and then in turn, Lucy’s memory.
Jan: Which is another example of that restraint – you could have very easily done a double-time kind of thing.
Nick: Yes and I didn’t fancy doing that at all. It would have completely altered the tone of the whole thing.
Jan: The pillow was your starting point and it plays a central role in the story… Tell us about that.
Nick: I love the use of objects in stories, like in the films of Robert Bresson for instance. I love the magic of objects that become thematic; they tow the reader along. The pillow is a big narrative tow, and it has thematic body to it as well. The main character’s anxieties are governed by his obsession with the pillow; William drones on about Comfort and Convenience, the loss of comfort, the difference between physical and metaphysical comfort, how they relate to each other and what’s more important. So the object facilitates the revelation of the guy’s character.
Jan: At the centre of the book there’s this issue of the Past – how we are shaped by events, things we do, things that are done to us, things we witness… William has this life-changing experience – or does he? Do you think of him as changed or simply submerged?
Nick: One of the things I like about William is that he is a really principled guy and I don’t think any of his principles would have been changed by the awful experience that happened 20 years ago. But I think his whole emotional address to the world would have been changed. So although I imagine him being very depressed by the experience and submerging himself, he doesn’t try and change his world. He simply goes to work in the department store because he thinks he’ll be a better version of himself by doing so. He doesn’t reject himself but he realises that his contribution to the awful thing that happened was his rage. I know from my own experience that if you have a short temper, you’ve got to work on it if you want to grow up, and that’s one of the ways – and there aren’t many – in which the novel is autobiographical.
Jan: I’d like to talk about Lucy now, the other main character in the book. At first I found her difficult to place, she seemed younger to me than 38 but I think that’s because when I was that age I was quite settled, and she isn’t at all. She seems very strong and perceptive and yet her life is all over the place. What sort of function does she serve for you in the story? How does she work as that counterpoint to William?
Nick: They are both self-loathers at different levels and in different ways and I wanted to explore a charitable meeting between self-loathers. Lucy is partly constructed out of certain things I know about myself. I’m really interested to hear that she seems a little young, that may well be right, but there is a deliberate immaturity about her…
Jan: And I think that works because it makes you think, hang on, she’s 38. I don’t think it’s a poor characterisation, I think it makes her really interesting.
Nick: The point about Lucy is that she desperately doesn’t want to be in that unsettled state but she desperately doesn’t want to leave it either. She’s still stuck in late adolescence. I don’t think she serves any other structural function except to be a plausible character that William could be attracted to and who could possibly be attracted to William. It’s the one thing that really, really worries me: is it plausible that this slightly chaotic 38 year-old woman would understand William sufficiently to find him sexually attractive?
Jan: Well, I think they’re a very good characters. They’re 3-dimensional and surprising in different ways. I think that’s great.
Nick: Good. I’m really pleased to hear that.
Jan: We’ve already talked a bit about your passion for music, and obviously, we write about what we know. Having read The Train in the Night, I know how incredibly articulate you are about your responses to music. You’ve given William Carberry this facility as well. Did you have trouble keeping your voice out of his character?
Nick: Massively, yes. A lot of the stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor was when I realised I’d been writing as me, the music critic, and also crucially as the life-long frustrated musician. And what lies beneath all of it is that I would have loved to have been the serious Rock’n’Roller like William, but I was cursed with the realisation – as with acting – that I didn’t have the talent. So I think there is a level of indulgence in the musician side of William as a projection of myself and there’s no two ways about it. And the gig is the greatest I ever played at that I never played at!
Jan: Having written a non-fiction book and a novel now, which did you prefer and where do your thoughts lead next?
Nick: I’m writing a non-fiction book, because the publisher expressed an interest in the idea – I’m one of those feeble people who writes better when they know somebody wants something. I’ve always been a terrible self-motivator and if someone says, ‘please will you do something’ I’m very happy to do it, and my mind comes alive. One of my great failings as a freelance journalist is that I hate rejection and I’m very bad at pitching so I don’t do it anymore. I would love to have another fiction idea. My daughter occasionally asks me – because I must have been a nicer Dad when I was writing fiction – “Have you had your idea yet?” I’ve had lots and lots of half-ideas and you will know very well that a half-idea is almost worse than no idea at all. I was very fortunate that Pillow Man just popped into my head, almost fully formed with the beginning and the ending – I’m kind of expecting it to happen again and it’s just not. Have you got any tips for having ideas?
Jan: I actually don’t try too hard. I don’t have an Ideas Day, I find that doesn’t work. I have my ideas at really inconvenient moments, often when I can’t write them down, but then I think, if it’s a really good idea I’ll remember it. Sometimes I don’t or it’ll come back to me a week later. It seems to be totally random. But I’ve a feeling that readers of Pillow Man are going to be asking to read your next novel, so hopefully that will be the trigger you need for the imaginative sparks to fly…
Thanks Nick, for a great interview. I wish you every success with this and future books.
Writers – do you have any tips for generating good fiction ideas? Do you find a good idea is one that develops its own momentum? Does it keep its original form or does the story change massively as you write? I’d love to hear your thoughts – on this subject or Nick’s books, or any other aspects of the writing process. Please leave a comment below.