Nick Kolakowski, author of the soon to be released (tomorrow actually) Slaughterhouse Blues and A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps answers a few questions for me....
Is the writing full time? If not, what’s the day job? (Maybe a brief bio?)
I’m a full-time writer, but not a full-time novelist. I’m a tech journalist, so I spend my day writing about programming languages and iPhones and apps. Writing fiction—really getting into the messiness of human beings—is a nice contrast to that.
‘Slaughterhouse Blues’ is I believe your second novel, can you tell us a bit about it? Do we have reappearing characters from ‘A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps?’ (At the minute I’ve read and enjoyed ABBOHS, but not yet started SB.)
“Slaughterhouse Blues” is the sequel to “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps.” Both books follow Bill and Fiona, who are sort of like the Romeo and Juliet of the criminal set—he’s a hustler who’s really good at taking money from bad people, and she’s a hardcore killer who’s finally getting sick of killing folks. They tempt fate by stealing a lot of money from their mob employers, who (predictably) send a whole lot of nasty characters after them. It’s very international in scope, taking place in locations ranging from New York City and rural Oklahoma to Havana and the jungles of Nicaragua.
Did the end result resemble the book you envisaged when you set out? Were there many bumps in the road along the way?
These books never come out the way I envisioned, because I tend to start without a firm plot in mind. “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps” began with a single image: a man dangling upside down in the dark, bound in chains, talking to someone. When I started “Slaughterhouse Blues,” I knew my characters and where I’d left them at the end of “Saps,” but I didn’t really know what came next—but I knew that I wanted to take some of my real-life experiences in Cuba and Nicaragua and transplant them into a fictional context.
How long did ‘Slaughterhouse Blues’ take from the germ of an idea to seeing the light of day and publication?
I tend to write drafts very quickly, shove them in a drawer for a couple weeks, and then rewrite. Repeat that process a couple of times over the course of three or four months, and I have a manuscript that I feel happy sending into the world. Of course, then you run into the book publication process, which is pretty slow—so from the time I finished writing, until the book hit store shelves, maybe a year had elapsed.
I wrote “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps” in the fall of 2015, and it wasn’t published until mid-2017; I started writing “Slaughterhouse Blues” in the fall of 2016 and it didn’t appear until early 2018. That’s a pretty typical schedule in this business, but it’s also a pretty long time in absolute terms. It’s certainly a lot slower than journalism, where you write an article in the morning and it’s on your publication’s website by the afternoon.
Was it an easier book to write than ‘Brutal Bunch’?
It was not. About a third of the way through “Slaughterhouse Blues,” I was gripped by the same realization as every other writer who embarks on a series: you suddenly have a lot of details to keep track of. I found myself going back to “Saps” again and again in order to make sure that I had all my character details consistent across the books.
I also had to readjust the villains of “Slaughterhouse Blues.” When I circulated the first draft to my crew of readers, they came back with some uniform criticisms about the antagonists: they were too cookie-cutter, too cliched in some ways. So I rewrote everything about them—their names, motivations, even how they fought. That was a real haul, but I think it paid off. The villains are… unusual, let’s say.
Are you a plotter, or is it all making up shit as you go along?
I’m a semi-plotter! I usually have a strong, super-detailed idea of a book’s first third, and a very generalized idea of how it ends. I have to be careful about my middle sections, though, because that’s where I get a little “drifty” if I’m not diligent on the plotting front.
With “Slaughterhouse Blues,” I was also pulling heavily from my experience. Before I was a tech writer, I edited a cigar magazine (even though I don’t smoke; it’s a very long story involving a now-defunct publishing company, Wall Street, and an opportunity to edit my own mag), which gave me the opportunity to travel through Central America and the Caribbean. I had a lot of experiences in those environs that I heightened for the book—people I met, things I saw. Those real-life stories added a bit of fuel to the plot.
What’s your typical writing schedule?
I try to stick to a strict schedule when I’m working on a book: from , I write. As any writer will tell you, though, a strict schedule is hard to maintain: there’s family, and freelancing gigs, and a hundred other things all demanding attention.
Any unpublished gems in your bottom drawer?
I have a bunch of unpublished novels in a (metaphorical) drawer, but I’d hesitate to call them gems. Otherwise, they’d probably have seen the light of day by this point! Sometimes I have the urge to do a little surgery, rip out the good parts for other books, but sentimentality holds me back.
The other month, I pulled out one of those novels, which I wrote almost 15 years ago, and gave it a read. It was better than I’d remembered, but I stumbled on the one thing that virtually guarantees it’ll never be published: the plot’s central conflict could be resolved in two seconds with a smartphone with a web connection. The advancement of technology made the thing obsolete, unless I decide at some point to make it a period piece. It’s funny how these things work sometimes.
You’ve also got a collection of short stories out there – ‘Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me.’ Are the short stories a different beast to tackle compared to the longer pieces?
I love writing short stories — you don’t have the room to explain everything in detail, so you need to weave in implication as much as possible. Short stories hinge on your ability to hint at a much larger world beyond the narrative. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but like many hard tricks, there’s a lot of satisfaction in doing it.
Is there a current work in progress? How’s it going? Any hints as to what it’s all about?
I’m working on the third book in this particular series. It’s titled “Main Bad Guy,” and it wraps up the story of Bill and Fiona pretty neatly. I set it in my neighborhood in New York City, so I’ve had a lot of fun (fictionally) blowing up the hated construction site down the block, which has made our street a nightmare of traffic and rude construction workers for the last year. Writers, we’re such passive-aggressive bastards.
Of the three books, do you have a favourite? Which would you press upon a new reader?
I love them all, but I have a special annex in my heart for “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps,” which was the first time I felt that I was getting this whole noir/hardboiled thing at least sorta right.
What’s the best thing about writing?
The whole process: I get to take all the things rattling around in my head and put them on paper, and then someone takes that paper and binds it into a good-looking book, and then people actually buy the book and read it and talk about it. That loop never fails to astound me, from beginning to end.
When you’ve devoted a couple thousand words to something and realize that it’s just not working, and that you have to abandon ship. The wasted time kills me, metaphorically speaking.
What are the last five books you’ve read?
“Sticky Fingers,” the biography of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner;
“Grant,” the biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Ron Chernow;
“Jack Waters,” which is an awesome novel by Scott Adlerberg set in the 19th century;
and half of “Ready Player One,” before I tossed it aside out of pure boredom.
Who do you read and enjoy?
I’ve grown increasingly fond of nonfiction, especially biographies. I’ve been big on generals and captains of industry lately.
Is there any one book you wish you had written?
Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” no question. Hell, anything that McCarthy’s written, I’d have gladly taken in some sort of crazy alternative universe.
Favourite activity when not working or writing?
Running long distances, which is something I share with a number of other writers. We’re all masochists.
What’s the last film you watched that rocked you?
“The Phantom Thread” is a must-see. Subtle, compelling, and a master class (of course) in Acting with a capital “A.” It’s a character study with mystery.
TV addict or not? What’s the must watch show in the Kolakowski household?
We’re big fans of those long-form crime-fiction shows like “Ozark” and “True Detective.” The plot and acting just need to be good enough to commit those ten hours...
In a couple of years’ time…
I want a bestseller. My ambitions are simple.
Many thanks to Nick for his time.
You can catch him at the following locations...
A few thoughts on a A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps here.