This week’s Book Diner interviewee is the highly talented and very witty, Nick Sweeney. He’s a writer of short fiction, novellas and the novel, Laikonik Express, which was published, like my own debut, Welcome to Sharonville, by Unthank Books (which makes him my Unthank Brother). Nick also happens to be a gifted musician and is part of a Clash fan band called Clashback and, before that, he was in the Trans-Siberian March Band who wowed festival punters all over the world. I personally think it’s a bit greedy to be gifted at both writing and music, but Nick is funny enough to get away with it and I think you’ll have a good chortle at what he has to say here – and want to read his work.

Welcome to the Book Diner! Can we take your order – coffee, tea or soda? Eggs sunny side up or over easy? Home fries, French toast or biscuit?

Breakfast is for construction workers. I’m not that fussy about what I eat. That doesn’t mean I’ll eat any old thing, but I could probably eat any of those things above, though I have no idea what home fries are. Are they the things featured in Vera Lynn’s smash hit ‘Keep the Home Fries Burning’? I’m not going to France just to have toast and wouldn’t expect anybody to go there to get it for me. Biscuits have a short and doomed existence wherever I am. I always wanted to go to an American diner and order ‘eggs over difficult’, but didn’t. Next time. [Hilarious!]

When did you realise you were a writer?

You know when you’re a toddler and adults lean over and say, “Give us a smile?” Well, I gave them a simile instead. [So witty!]

Are there particular symptoms you think people should look out for if they suspect they may be coming down with Writer Syndrome and do you think there is any cure?

A bit of ridicule, a good talking-to, a slap round the head with a not-that-fresh trout, plus locking in a room with some VERY. CRAP. NOVELS.

Can you tell us about your latest project?

I’ve been working on novellas for the past few years. An agent has advised me that most agents don’t think it worthwhile to try to interest publishers in novellas. I don’t care at the moment!

I have a set of three that are linked, under the general title The Fortune Teller’s Factotum. They are set in small-town America and focus on two young women, one from a family who made its money dealing arms and the other from a crass daytime TV dynasty. The books look at small-town America, arms dealing and serial killers. [Sound fab to me!] I’ve written the first two, but the third is taking some doing, and looks like it may be bigger than the novella word-length.

I also have one called The Dali Squiggle, focusing on the adventures of a twenty-something British guy from an Irish and Caribbean background. He has tried various careers, including town planning and TEFL, but realises that he is best as a barman – it’s a job he likes and takes pride in, but he has to go to Madrid to find that out. He falls in love with one girl and may be falling in love with her friend, the affairs complicated by the lover of the first girl. There are some questions of identity in terms of race and gender, but I stress that I don’t write books that are tied to ‘issues’ and hate writing that does that. Novels should tell good stories, first and foremost.


What inspired you to write it? Where do you generally draw your ideas from?

A starting point for The Fortune Teller’s Factotum is the Fiery Furnaces’ song Crystal Clear. It seems to be about a girl having a manically bad day and the pace is frantic with a genuine sense of urgency. The Fiery Furnaces are on the verge of avant-garde. What they do doesn’t always work, but Crystal Clear ticks all the boxes for me. All the ideas for The Fortune Teller’s Factotum sprang from this central idea of a girl in the middle of a bad day. The Dali Squiggle had a gentler start, with my scribbles from various travels in Spain complementing notes I’ve had in mind since my spells working in catering and in TEFL, as well as memories of a mixed-race friend I had back in the 80s.

Can you talk to us about one or two of the characters from your latest work? How do your characters emerge?

I usually have some kind of idea of who they are – age, background, class (for want of a better word) and the kinds of things that appeal to them and motivate them, partly determined by what their assigned role is. If the finer details don’t come into place soon, as I’m writing, it’s worrying, and that makes me wonder if a project has legs or not, and if I need to have a good think about it. If I’m not inspired to give these characters a bit of life, then a reader will hardly be interested in them.

Ashley Hyde is the main character in The Fortune Teller’s Factotum (the first book in the trilogy of novellas I mention above). She is twenty-ish, in passing gives herself  ‘seven out of ten for looks’ and is doing a pre-med course before she goes to Columbia. She is the only sane one in her household, of a daytime TV host stepmother and her TV producer dad, plus her angsty younger sister, Donna. She suffers being dumped for her one-time best friend, two crashes in two cars and catching up on the college courses she missed during her ill-advised romance. She is level-headed and serious, while still able to see the funny side of life. Events in the first novella, including an ill-advised party while her parent and stepmother are away, the subsequent problem of the house’s celebrity daytime TV cat being harmed {THIS I need to see!] and the theft of her dad’s car almost wipe the smile off of her face and yet those events lead her into an intense friendship with Mary Dorn, the impoverished ‘last of the Dorns’, a family who made its money dealing arms.

Is there a particular theme or message you’d like readers to take away from this book?

1) While serial killing is disastrous for the victim, it’s also not nice for the people left behind.

2) Arms dealing affects everybody in the entire world, even the people who do it and their loved ones.

3) That Nick Sweeney fellow sure knows how to tell a tale, egad. [Chortle.]

What kind of writing process do you have? Are you very disciplined in terms of having a set work routine and doing a lot of planning, or are you more of a pantster? (You fly by the seat of them – Zinkologism.)

I like that Zinkologism, and, while I like it, I am pained to say that I’m a dedicated pantster. I’d like to get up at seven every day, walk the dog, stop off at the local shop to buy some milk, take the children to school in a four-wheel drive people carrier, settle down and do my daily 1000 words, then be on the golf course by 2PM after a light lunch, as most authors seem to do in ‘My Writing Day’ features. {All the lols!] However, I have no dog, am dairy-free, have a clapped-out Fiat that is almost one-wheel drive, am a dedicated non-breeder, don’t generally eat lunch and don’t play golf. I also only see 7AM if I forget to go to bed. So it’s haphazard all the way for me – naphazard, even. I think I’m slightly feline, in that I have a firm belief that, if I don’t get horizontal and sleepy at some point in the day, I won’t have any ideas to wake me up.

I think I’m slightly feline, in that I have a firm belief that, if I don’t get horizontal and sleepy at some point in the day, I won’t have any ideas to wake me up.


Do you write longhand or on a computer or both? Do you believe that writing method makes a difference to style?

Both. I like using ‘proper’ fountain pens, though I use almost anything to write, including ball point pens, chewed pencils, a hammer and chisel and a cocktail stick dipped in my own blood. (Actually, I’m too squeamish for that – it’s usually dipped in somebody else’s blood.)

I like using ‘proper’ fountain pens, though I use almost anything to write, including ball point pens, chewed pencils, a hammer and chisel and a cocktail stick dipped in my own blood. (Actually, I’m too squeamish for that – it’s usually dipped in somebody else’s blood.)

I like using notebooks for anything from jotting down ideas, not necessarily to do with my writing, as such, to writing out scenes as they occur to me, redoing stuff that has been difficult to write, for example. I like notebooks because you don’t have to worry about them getting stolen or running out of power. Who’d steal a notebook? Most tiefs* don’t want to write stuff down and if they’re stupid enough to steal a mere notebook they probably can’t write or read, anyway. And, like reading books as opposed to e-readers, there is an appealing feel and look to them. However, I’m no Luddite, and I also like using all the electronic gizmos when I’m in the mood. I don’t think the method makes any difference to my style, really, though I can see that writing longhand for many people is a slower process and they may have more leisure to think – I’m not an amazingly fast typist, though! In any case, longhand versions of any of my work go through a vigorous editing process during which they’ll pick up style … or lose it, maybe.

*Intentional spelling – I’m from London.


 How do you approach research?

 I enjoy it, in general. It’s necessary for background, whether the story is set in the past or not. You can do too much of it, though, and spend time on it when you should be just getting on with the writing. And then there comes a point at which it’s suddenly very tedious and  I can’t be bothered with it, so I write ‘ghost facts’, for want of a better phrase, with the intention of researching at a later date and correcting them. For instance, in The Firemont Dorns I mentioned a definitive, authoritative book on the American Civil War. I made up a title and author and got so used to it that I thought I’d already researched it. Six months on, I needed to check something that could possibly have featured in it and was very puzzled that I couldn’t find any mention of it on Google. Doh. I then found a real one, so changed it to that, but, in fact, I don’t think it matters in that case. People who are bothered about whether some book you mention in your tale is real and Googleable are really not paying attention to the story.

I like making up fictional places and basing them on real ones, such as Abel in Laikonik Express, based on Łeba in Poland, and the towns in The Fortune Teller’s Factotum – Falkender, Firemont, Barnton, Aliceville and St. Maz – are based on clusters of Pennsylvania towns like Scranton, Allentown, Bethesda, etcetera. Then I can do the research, but gloss over inconvenient truths about the layouts of towns, facilities and so on. I may be wrong about this, but I think over-researching just leads to a load of text in novels that really shouldn’t be there – as in Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, with sixty pages about tunnelling. If you’re not prepared for your hundreds of pages of research to end up as one short paragraph on the page, you should probably stick to writing academic texts for scholars.

How do you deal with autobiographical elements in your work? Do you worry about offending people or baring your soul too much?

I certainly wouldn’t want to offend real-life people who don’t deserve it, family or not. You have to be very careful, as you’re no doubt aware. I don’t think any piece of writing is worth offending people for whom you have affection and respect and, even if you don’t have any, it’s a cowardly way to attack them, IF that’s all you’re prepared to do. In Laikonik Express there is one unflattering portrait of somebody I knew (a TEFLer I once worked for), but it’s nothing I wouldn’t say to his face if I ever met him again. There isn’t very much of me in my work; I got all that out of the way in the first few novels I tried to write, I think. Laikonik Express features characters who lived in both Istanbul and Warsaw, as I did, and taught English abroad, as I did, and it also has characters based closely on people I knew and still know, but I think and hope I’ve treated them fairly and made them unrecognisable in my fiction.

I don’t know about baring my soul, but writers have to be honest, or what’s the point? At the same time, it’s unwise to off-load every single thing that occurs to you or goes through your head in something as public as a novel. Funny enough, the original draft of Laikonik Express did indeed feature a character based on me, but he never appeared in the novel, was just mentioned by the two main characters. It was a bit silly – so clever clever it was stupid.

What’s your editing process?

Probably like that of most writers: a first draft written fairly sloppily, then at least three or four edits. I prefer to have the whole thing done and edit the whole thing without a break to keep hold of whatever mood I’m in, but inevitably this process gets interrupted, so sometimes I may not have finished a first draft before editing bits of it and, sometimes, I just do an edit piecemeal. Or wholemeal, even.

Name one book you wish you had written and explain why it’s fabulous?

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. [One of my fave writers!] It has a great atmosphere of worlds colliding, when a group of classics students set themselves apart from the Vermont college surrounding them, invent their own rules and try to abide by them. It also features several gruesome murders and is a fantastic moral tale. Importantly, it has some brilliant moments of comedy, too. I loved her second novel, The Little Friend, too. I am SO disappointed in The Goldfinch that I went round wearing black for days and biting the postman. [I LOVE that book even more and I didn’t like The Little Friend!]

What advice would you offer to writers just starting out?

Ask yourself if you have a voice. If that’s a yes, try it out. You don’t know if you have one till you put in some time writing. Fix on stories and your style will come naturally. Get some peer opinions, but choose the right peers – your mum probably WILL like it. Don’t rush into publishing something just because it’s relatively easy these days to self-publish. There’s far too much of that in self-publishing these days. Don’t write about vampires – there are enough books about them – nor hairy-chested shouty beardy men with swords in some vaguely medieval kingdom. There have always been enough of them.

What would you say are the toughest things and the best things about being a writer?

It’s great to be able to work independently and to create your own work; it’s tough not to have it recognised, sometimes, but then you can move on and work on something else – you’ve got to achieve the distance to do that without losing confidence in your work. I think it’s the same with any kind of work you produce, creative or not: you have to tread a careful line between over-confidence and under-confidence and I think you need to look at everyday craftspeople for that: don’t set geniuses as your benchmark or you’ll fail, but don’t slop out with the hacks, either; look at a carpenter, making a chair that’s functional – it doesn’t have to be Chippendale, but it should also be something you don’t mind looking at when you’re not sitting in it.

As a writer, I’m in a room on my own all day. I counter it with also being a musician and standing on stages playing and singing in front of people. I like the contrast, and think I’d go a bit nuts if all I did was write.


As a writer, I’m in a room on my own all day. I counter it with also being a musician and standing on stages playing and singing in front of people. I like the contrast, and think I’d go a bit nuts if all I did was write.

How do you handle the rejections and bad reviews all writers experience?

I’m kind of philosophical about it these days. When I was younger I went through a lot of angst about it. Being older allows me to see not only that I’m not the genius I once thought I was, but it also allows me not to care about that so much. The world isn’t going to change if one of my novels doesn’t make it into print. It’s absurd to be upset about the absence of something that was never meant to happen. (I stress that I’m philosophical, NOT religious – I’m an atheist. Some religious people seem intent on insisting, against all evidence, that the two are the same.)

How do you deal with the Inner Critic who likes to tell us our work is worthless?

Most of my work is trial-and-error and I rarely think of it as worthless; maybe it was something I tried and it didn’t work out. Maybe I learned from it, or I’m not aware of that yet, till I attempt something else. A lot of life is like that. I think one problem people set up for themselves,  especially young people (I think – I may be generalising a bit), is the determined sense of entitlement to full-time satisfaction and happiness: you CAN’T be happy all the time, you can’t be satisfied all the time, otherwise the times when you are happy and satisfied have no meaning. You have to be sad to become happy, have to be unfulfilled to become fulfilled, dissatisfied to become satisfied, have to be angry to become calm,

etcetera. (And if you expect to be happy all the time, and right every time, and constantly lauded and indulged and congratulated, you’ll be severely disappointed.) So I seem to have dismissed the inner critic, at least where my work is concerned.


You CAN’T be happy all the time, you can’t be satisfied all the time, otherwise the times when you are happy and satisfied have no meaning. You have to be sad to become happy, have to be unfulfilled to become fulfilled, dissatisfied to become satisfied, have to be angry to become calm, etcetera.

What are your feelings about the growth in self-publishing? Would you advise emerging writers to self-publish or pursue a traditional book deal?


I think it depends how hard they’ve tried with their work. I don’t think I’d self-publish, though I wouldn’t rule it out completely. I’d advise anybody to pursue a traditional book deal first. The unfortunate thing about self-publishing is that much of it is unedited, unfiltered and ultimately unreadable – much of it is by people who’ve decided that they’ll just ‘do a book – looks easy enough’, and it shows. A lot of them seem to know nothing about how to tell a tale or develop a voice and are too lazy to master basic grammar and technique, and, at the same time, they’re too arrogant or cheapskate to pay for editing. It’d be like me deciding I’m going to take up spot welding tomorrow and just go out there and spot-weld. A whole industry has grown up to facilitate self-publishers’ delusions and, really, sell them a dream that is going to disappoint them. I’m not only talking about self-publishing here; I also mean all those writers who run ‘you can be a writer if you shell out to spend a week in Tuscany on our course’ set-ups. It’s utter nonsense, really.

Of course, a lot of mainstream published books are unreadable as well. I think that was one thing that kept me going when I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. I thought, okay, I’ve had twenty rejections, so therefore my work is rubbish. But hang on: loads of published books are rubbish, so why won’t they accept MY rubbish? The other thing that kept me going, I guess, was that I was with several agents for a long time. Ultimately, they couldn’t place my work, but the fact that these were publishing professionals, and not my mum, and not my mates, and not  other aspiring writers I knew, and were trying for so long, gave me the idea that my work had some kind of worth and stopped me giving up completely. Even when I put writing aside for a few years to concentrate on music, I had the idea I’d return to it.

Who has offered you the most encouragement and support in terms of your writing career?


On a personal level, my wife, Jacqueline, who is incredibly supportive and patient if I’m stuck in a writing blast and am rather boring, incommunicative company. [Jacqueline is a fine gal, I can attest.] She is also a great reader of work-in-progress and very honest, sometimes rather brutally. Her comments delayed one of my novellas for nine months; she said the first ten pages were so badly done they were an obstacle to the rest of it. And she was right. Several of those agents, including Ben Mason of Fox Mason, kept me going, and of course Robin Jones and Ashley Stokes of Unthank Books, who took on Laikonik Express. I was also encouraged by Martin Bax and Geoff Nicholson, editors of Ambit magazine, who accepted my early stories and gave me somewhere to head with my fiction. Finally, I get some great encouragement from readers, who are a constant presence on Twitter and via my website, to encourage me. I’m constantly amazed at the things they read into Laikonik Express – some of them are nuts, so out there I wonder if they’ve actually been reading a different book and contacted me by mistake, some of them get it exactly and some bring up things that, were I to write it again, I might have put in there.

If you could fly off to any era on The Book Diner Magic Time Travel Banquette, where would you go and why?

Camberwell, early sixties, to beat up several kids I swore to get back for various things but never saw again … However, that’s not very magic and would only be a child’s short-lived satisfaction, so I’d go for Paris in the 1930s. [Me too!] I’d badger Joyce and Beckett with stupid questions, save Lucia Joyce from her own madness by wooing and marrying her (if I could knock off thirty years from my current age, of course) and give her brother, Giorgio, a damn good thrashing, or maybe even challenge him to a duel in the Bois de Boulogne; he treated her abysmally. I’d annoy Hemingway from a safe distance and would go drinking with F. Scott Fitzgerald [I want to meet Zelda!]. As I did with Siouxsie and the Banshees and Adam and the Antz in the 70s, I’d obsessively go and see Josephine Baker and Django Rheinhardt at every opportunity. I’d finance my fancy Paris lifestyle by placing all I had on Fred Perry to win the 1936 French Open and on Belgian cyclist, Sylvere Maes, to win that year’s Tour de France. Then I’d have to wander down to the rue du Pot du Fer to slip George Orwell the odd sou – I wouldn’t rescue him from his misery, or he wouldn’t write Down and Out in Paris and London, one of my fave books.

If you could write anywhere in the world for a while, where would you head?

Um, difficult. I think it’d be Tbilisi in Georgia. It’s a beautiful city, but without too many distractions. I’d also never learn the language – one thing that always stops me writing in other places is the sheer amount of time I put in to learning languages – no offence to Georgians, but it’s too hard and not spoken by enough people.  I could also ‘pop over’ to places like Yerevan and Baku for a week or two, and head for those haunted inland seas.

Do you like cats or dogs or both? (Writers are known for being pet crazy, so let’s pander.)

The short answer is that I like them both, but only as much as I like spiders, cows, hippos or anteaters. I grew up with an ageless, but shape-changing black cat in the house, which I realised, as I got older, was a continual replacement for unfortunate roadkill or disappearances [oh, my!], and a dog, a lovely mongrel called Brandy who was part-whippet, though I actually thought his head looked like that of a seal, so I suspected he was part-aquatic mammal. He was great. He lived semi-wild on the streets for days at a time. He used to follow us to school if he happened to be out and would run along the main road alongside the bus. He followed me into class and I’d have to take him home. I think some of the teachers thought I’d trained him to do that. When we let him out first thing in the morning, to do his, ahem, business, he would bark loudly, not AT anything, just for the sheer joy and hell of it. We never thought about it much. One day we got a card through our letter box from Noise Control at the Council, saying there’d been a complaint about us making noise. My mum assumed that it was mine and my brother’s habit of playing electric guitars very loudly through amps and massive speakers and made us take them all down to the garden shed, where she locked them up. When the council finally got in touch, we found out that it was Brandy’s barking that drew the complaint. My mum has only reluctantly allowed the amps and speakers back in. We also had budgies (regularly savaged by the black cat(s) so that we had to lock the cage door) and goldfish. I came close to getting a dog a few years ago, but it wouldn’t have worked out, as we go away quite a bit.

I think it’s cruel to keep animals in a house, unless you live in a palace. They’re not ‘domestic’ animals – they’re ‘domesticated’, which is not the same thing. You know in Jurassic Park, when they’re tethering a goat with which to feed the Tyrannosaurus Rex? Somebody observes, “He doesn’t want to be fed [the T Rex, not the goat] – he wants to hunt.” I think if pets could talk they’d tell you something similar. One of my mum’s series of goldfish did an astonishing thing: the bowl was empty, and we were all puzzled, till I caught a movement on the floor – the fish had chucked himself out of the bowl. We put him back in. He did the same thing maybe six months later and, that time nobody was in, so he dried up and died. He must have so HATED being in a bowl in the corner of my mum’s kitchen and who could blame him? Even goldfishes’ much-quoted two-second memory couldn’t save him. I don’t get why anybody would want to keep a goldfish in a bowl, nor birds in a cage. I know dogs and cats can be great companions, though, so even if I sound disapproving in some way, of other people having pets … I’m not, really – just wouldn’t want to imprison a poor beast myself.

In fact, we ‘have’ a cat, of sorts, in that he lives two doors down, and comes to visit us a few times a week – he’s a serial pet and probably visits other houses. We make a fuss of him – we’re no longer allowed to feed him, which is fair enough – or not, if we’re busy working, and he just amuses himself, or has a rest. I like that arrangement! It was the same when I was teaching: I liked children enough to spend the day with them, but was always glad to send them back to their parents.

The Fortune Teller’s Factotum has a central storyline that pivots around a cat; Araby is a celebrity cat from daytime TV – she is named after my favourite James Joyce story, and, no, she’s not very nice: she knows she’s a celebrity. You can read the part at which things take a turn for her – and at which she becomes central to the story – on my website, on this page.

Complete the following sentences …

Life is like a bike ride, much preferable to a car journey … as long as it’s not raining.

I am like the worst of my mum and the best of my dad.

Writing is like an insect buzzing round my head, till it calms down and makes more stately progress.

If you could choose to have a different creative gift, what would it be?

Carpentry. I loved it as a kid, and am sorry I gave it up once I finished third year at school.

What plans have you got for future projects and events?

I tend to have a vague plan for, say, six months ahead, I guess. I always have plans for writing: you know, finish this, work on that, send this one to that outlet, see if that really works, or is it just a stupid idea … I normally plan for things like trips: let’s go here this year in the winter, there in spring, there in summer or September – all happily abandoned as soon as something else grabs me.

Where can people find out more about you and your work?

My website is called The Last Thing the Author Said, and it’s right here, and contains some extras to illustrate Laikonik Express, some details of where my short stories can be found, some works-in-progress, and my intermittent blog, and, of course, more than any sane person would want to know about me.

Is there anything else we can get you?

An empty page would be good, after all these full ones!

Do you have any questions for The Book Diner?

Why isn’t there some proper food available, as is suggested by the name? (Only kidding: not a real question. I’m sort of self-sufficient in food. That sounds like I eat my own flesh. I don’t.)

Thanks so much for joining us – please call again!

It’s been a proper pleasure. Thank you for having me here and asking such thought-provoking questions. I’ve gone from thinking what-the-hell-kind-of-questions-are-they to realising they cover things I never or rarely think about and maybe should!