Name: David Nutt
Current publication: David Nutt's "The Great American Suction" is out on Tyrant.
Recommendations: The Illustrator by James Robison. A crackling, whip-fast novel from 1988 that encapsulates the detonation of pop art, lingering Me-Decade mercenary-ism, punk insouciance, and the uneasy armistices forged in the aftermath of the imploded sixties dream and the sexual revolution. All rendered with beguiling wit and a romantic and lurid sheen.
Hairshirt of Purpose by Pile. A difficult album, and band, to describe. Maybe if Richard Buckner or Will Oldham fronted the Jesus Lizard? Gut-achingly sad and abrasive, with enormous sweep and bombast. The kind of album that makes you want to curl up under your desk and pound a few nails with your forehead.
If you enjoyed this interview with David Nutt, visit his website for more information about him and his work.
When did you start writing- and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about literature and writing that drew you to it?
I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid. Music was my big obsession. Listening to it, trying to play it, failing at playing it, shrugging and surrendering and trying again. I had my scrappy suburban punk band in high school, followed by my scrappy angular post-punk band in college. In my late teens and early twenties, I discovered a certain strain of wild and weird, darkly comic literature – Samuel Beckett, Donald Barthelme, Barry Hannah – stuff that made my brain ache in a really satisfying way; analogous, perhaps, to the way my ears rang from excessive exposure to Husker Du and Fugazi and all the other agitated guitar rock I sopped up as a music-hungry teenager.
I don’t know where I got the gumption or hubris to write fiction of my own. I had just enough naiveté, I guess, dumb animal ignorance, and maybe, too, the same shy arrogance that drives most writers, who – let’s face it – tend to be skittish, introverted sorts, easily discouraged, yet stubbornly committed to the sadomasochistic slog of failing, shrugging, failing, shrugging, etc.
Then eventually you poke your head up from the gopher hole and realize you wrote a book. And it’s not very good. So you write another and another and another.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
It’s funny: You spend your apprentice years building this pantheon in your head of the writers who excite and inspire you most, writers you want to sidle up beside, or draft behind, and you become overly self-conscious, even cagey and defensive, when you realize how much you’ve been cribbing from them. The realization can be paralyzing.
So you read a lot, absorb new influences, dilute the old ones, forget a few, trying all the while not to rip anyone off. Somewhere along the way, you might produce something that feels halfway original — an original muddle, at least — and then you spend the rest of your life trying not to produce lazy facsimiles of this new writer, yourself.
What were your main writing challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
This may sound glib, but the main challenge was to avoid being terrible or cheap. Sadly, everything is bad at the beginning – to the extent that it feels perfectly normal to curl up under your desk, bang your head on the floor, self-flagellate, etc. And everything is cheap when you are not fully invested in and attentive to the project at hand, i.e., when you don’t care enough to curl up under desk and bang head, etc.
There’s two possible solutions, and neither is very nourishing. You either reconcile yourself to the fact that your story or novel or poem or whatever will get less and less bad the longer you scratch at it, so you start to give away years and years of your life, toiling to improve, so much time, gone. Or you step back and let your standards erode, and you’ll never be disappointed again. You also won’t get any better.
The greatest satisfaction arrives, for me, when I’ve labored so long on something that I no longer recognize it, nor the person who produced it. Maybe that is a form of nourishment, after all.
What does writing mean to you personally? What is expressed through literature and poetry that can not be expressed through other forms of art?
Oh god. Talk about paralyzing thoughts. I guess fiction is the most expedient way to inflict my secret terrors, agonies, and occasional lapses of sheer unrepentant joy on an unsuspecting public that, frankly, could not care less. That is the absurdity and ultimate reward of writing. It’s pointless and silly and frustrating and ignoble. And yet it still somehow feels meaningful.
More and more, the production and publication of literary fiction seems an antiquated vanity project, a lost trade from a long-forgotten century, something akin to the manufacturing of merkins (to hijack a metaphor from Barthelme). That’s okay. Someday, maybe merkins will be back in vogue.
How do you see the relationship between style, form, plot and storytelling – and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
Honestly, I don’t distinguish between them. A matterful sentence, told with a distinct tilt, will beget another sentence with simpatico qualities, and then another and another, spawning paragraphs, pages, and eventually, characters and plots. Enough forward momentum and the various pieces jostle and chafe, resulting in a hundred tiny calamities that constitute a narrative. The trick is to be consistent, in terms of urgency and verve. And when you become too consistent, when the various strands align, the fragments cohere, and everything falls into pattern, then you disrupt the pattern. Make some reckless turns. Veer off. Contradict yourself. This way you cut against the reader’s expectations, as well as your own.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
As a contrarian and luddite who is easily stupefied by instruction manuals and household appliances, I try not to dabble with anything so complicated that I’ll be stranded in the boonies when I inevitably drop or wet or break it. People do adore their gadgets, and I’m sure for many it’s a stimulating experience, how they use, or misuse, their bright, chirpy things.
That’s something people excel at: misusing things. Especially ourselves. We humans have a unique talent for harboring delusion, squandering opportunities, botching our wellbeing. That’s really the only topic that interests me, and thank god I only need paper and pen (or crayon and napkin, chalk and cave wall, Stone Age tools) to dabble in it. But I will say, when machines malfunction, when they commit egregious acts of self-sabotage, too? I do find that endearing. We could almost be pals.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do writing and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I write in the morning, every morning, for an hour or so before heading to my 9-to-5 job. Maybe I’ll revisit and edit the morning’s work on my lunch break, or tinker late at night after a brisk drink. During the weekend, I’ll write for longer stretches, but I’m not much good after three or four hours. If I tried to write all day, I would end up running everything through the garbage disposal in disgust or feeding it to my dog.
My wife is a writer, too, and we have concurrent writing schedules at different ends of the house. We sit in parallel states, both of us muttering, cursing, quietly rereading our work aloud. She calls this “the whisper factory.”
As for my 9-to-5 gig, I am gainfully employed as a science writer in the news division of a large university. I interview faculty members about brain-bogglingly technical research, and then I try to weed out the jargon and translate it into some kind of recognizable English. It’s a hoot. I have no background in science, no innate understanding of scientific concepts, theories, or principles. (I couldn’t even tell you the difference between a concept and a principle; which is to say, I still don’t have much of a handle on English, either.) So in a sense, there is a loose kinship between the fiction I write – which generally deals with ridiculous people confounded by the ridiculous mess they have made of their ridiculous lives – and my writing about scientific research that doesn’t make much sense to me, either.