Please welcome Nick Holdstock to the blog! His new book, The Casualties, just came out and he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about it, and more!
Will you tell us more about The Casualties and what inspired you to write it?
One of the main themes of my fiction is the stories we tell about who we are, where we came from, and who we want to be. Sometimes there’s a lot of truth in these stories, but often they leave out things we don’t want to face. I’m interested in what stops us from changing and developing – and what happens when we’re forced to adapt. These questions are at the heart of The Casualties, which though mainly set in Edinburgh in the present, is just in interested in our global future. It’s a novel of catastrophes, both great and small, and the ripples that spread from them.
The book is primarily inspired by the experience of living in Edinburgh, which although Scotland’s capital, often has a village-like quality to it. One quickly becomes familiar with various local characters who stand out for various reasons. Despite the fact that many people recognize them, few people seem to know much about them, and so they tend to be the stuff of urban legend. In The Casualties I wanted to capture something of this phenomenon – to tell the stories of the people we often see on the way to work or the shops, people we’re glancingly familiar with and yet don’t know at all.
I was also greatly influenced by the film Daguerreotypes, a 1976 documentary by Agnès Varda about the lives of the shopkeepers on a street in Paris. It’s able to be both intensely realistic and yet have this slightly magical quality. My main literary inspiration was Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, one of the rare books that works as both a short story collection and a novel. The characterization in that book is so impressive – it’s written with great empathy.
What do you think makes Samuel Clark an intriguing character? What other characters did you particularly enjoy writing about?
Like all of us, Sam has problems, but what I found interesting about him was the idea that he’s so curious about other people’s lives that he fails to examine his own. I think he also has a sense of victimhood, and never considers that he might be an equally negative influence on some of the people around him. It was fun writing about him because I also worked in a bookshop, and so was able to communicate some of the dubious joys of that experience. I also liked writing Alasdair, because he’s so unfettered by social conventions that he can say almost anything.
What kind of research did you do for The Casualties?
Not much I’m afraid – a little about interplanetary bodies, a brief survey of tropical islands, and I think a bit about birds in Shanghai.
What is your writing process like?
I have a set word count for the day, and although I sometimes write more than it, often I’ll be semi-content with getting that done. For me it’s all about having small but achievable goals – basically, I sneak up on having a finished novel.
You’ve written short fiction, and non-fiction, most notably about China, but have you always wanted to write? Will you tell us a little more about yourself and your background?
Like most, probably all writers, I’ve always been a chronic reader, but I didn’t start trying to write until my mid-twenties. Up until then I thought I might be a neuroscientist or a psychologist (both of which I studied) but at some point both these avenues lost their appeal. After I went to teach English in China, in 1999, I had a lot of experiences I wanted to make sense of and communicate to others – my first book, The Tree That Bleeds, was the result. During that time I also started writing fiction, and eventually some of the stories weren’t awful or obviously modeled on authors I admire.
What authors have influenced you the most, in writing, and in life?
The list is impossibly long- but Kazuo Ishiguro, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Pynchon, Bruce Chatwin, and JD Salinger figure prominently.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Life A Users Manual by Georges Perec – it’s a journey through the rooms and minds within a tenement building in Paris. The book contains a lot of brilliant stories, but Perec can make even a list of the contents of a bedroom into compelling reading. It’s also a perfect example of how a writer can employ formal constraints, and a very disciplined structure, without making these an ostentatious feature of the book – essentially, the book has an invisible scaffolding which holds it all together.
What are you currently reading? Is there anything you’re looking forward to this year?
I’m currently enjoying The Good Dark, the new collection of poems from Ryan Van Winkle – it explores that curious phase of late youth/early middle age when you look at all your relationships, and inevitably yourself, and start to (maybe) understand something.
The book I’m most looking forward to reading this autumn is Padgett Powell’s Cries for Help, Various, which if it’s anything like his recent books, will involve him twisting a small number of words into numerous delightful shapes.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to be promoting the novel in the autumn, but after that I’ll be working on my second novel, which is a story of heresy and faith in the Middle Ages, as told by the entity we commonly refer to as ‘Satan’.
About The Casualties:
In Nick Holdstock’s The Casualties, a man recounts the final weeks of his neighborhood before the apocalyptic event that only a few of the eccentric residents will survive.
Samuel Clark likes secrets. He wants to know the hidden stories of the bizarre characters on the little streets of Edinburgh, Scotland. He wants to know about a nymphomaniac, a man who lives under a bridge, a girl with a cracked face. He wants to uncover their histories because he has secrets of his own. He believes, as people do, that he is able to change. He believes, as the whole world does, that there is plenty of time to solve his problems. But Samuel Clark and the rest of the world are wrong. Change and tragedy are going to scream into his and everyone’s lives. It will be a great transformation, a radical change; and it just might be worth the cost.
Written by a rising literary star whose work has been published in notoriously selective publications such as n+1 and The Southern Review, The Casualties is an ambitious debut novel that explores how we see ourselves, our past and our possible futures. It asks the biggest question: How can we be saved?