Nick Harkaway: Screenwriter turned Novelist

Nick Harkaway. Photo by Rory Lindsay.

Born in Cornwall, Nick Harkaway is a screenwriter turned author of two novels: The Gone Away World (Windmill Books, 2009) and Angelmaker (William Heinemann, 2012).

What is your earliest childhood memory?
One end of the converted cottage/barn we lived in was a kind of mad, double-height, yellow, seventies living room. I used to sit in the sunken bit on a deep, sunburst carpet and play with bits of Lego. (This was when Lego bricks came in primary colours and none of them were shaped to a particular task.) My mother was basically an enormous leg covered in blue corduroy.

What makes you happy?
My family. Seas and mountains. Snow and sun. Good red wine, good friends, good music. Hints of convivial wickedness. Sourdough bread with Tuscan Olive Oil.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Never. I always wanted to tell stories. Writing follows from that, but there are other ways of doing it and I love them, too.

What are you reading at the moment?
Lots of things: Ha-Joon Chang on capitalism. James Gaines on Bach. Sebastian Junger on war. PG Wodehouse on pigs.

What advice would you give to a first time writer?
Read. Watch TV. Go to the Tate Modern or the Uffizi or the Rodin Museum, to the places people talk about but somehow don’t pay any attention to. Uncover secrets.

Use your eyes and don’t let your brain interfere with what you see, don’t let your preconceptions tell you something is ordinary when you have no reason to think so. The man in a postman’s uniform may not be a postman. The woman running may be late, or she may be afraid of werewolves, late for her own wedding, or chasing an assassin. We’re taught to ignore the unlikely, to think it’s impossible, but it isn’t.

Write for 15 minutes every day even if it’s really bad. Push forwards – it’s easy to write chapter one for 10 years; the trick is to write 10 chapters and the final full stop. Be savagely honest with yourself – write who you are, not who you wish you were. By which I mean that there’s no point trying to do knock-off Dickens if your voice is more George V Higgins. And it’s all about the story. Follow the story.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Guilt is narcissism, guilty pleasures especially. “I’m better than this TV show I’m watching, I should be reading Proust.” But I bet Proust would watch it with you if he were around. We live in an amazing world. Even our trivialities are almost miraculous. Act or don’t act. Don’t waste your time with guilt.

How do you relax?
Walk, cook, sleep, read. Spend time with my wife Clare and our daughter Clemency. Right now, I’m in bed at two thirty on a Saturday catching up on some rest. My wife’s playing an iPhone game beside me and my daughter is upstairs snoring like a bandsaw. Doesn’t get much better – except maybe if I was in Montepulciano or Kleine Scheidegg doing the same thing.

What is your favourite book?
I have to pick one? Honestly, I can’t. For the sake of argument: The Count of Monte Cristo.

Which author is underrated or deserves to be better-known?
Josh Bazell. He wrote a thriller called Beat The Reaper. It’s funny, scary, smart, well-written, and it deserves a wider audience. I think maybe the Millennium sequence buried it. But if you like your crime hard-boiled and sassy, you can’t do better.

What’s the worst job you’ve had?
I wasn’t keen on screenwriting – it’s a kind of institutionalised emotional abuse. I didn’t much enjoy doing brochure copy either, although sometimes it was fun – lingerie copy was a blast. Cleaning bird crap off cars ranks as my least favourite task. That and photocopying so much stuff that you can taste toner for days.

What is the most important thing life has taught you?
Ask me in a few decades. For the moment, though, it’s the value of being nice. Not cool or sexy or clever; just rock solid nice. It becomes more valuable and admirable as time goes by.

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