by Nick Sweeney
Nolan Kennedy is a young American teaching English in Istanbul and hanging out with his alcoholic friend Don Darius. Don might also be the greatest living American novelist judging by the script Kennedy finds in Don’s trash. But Don has left town and Kennedy had better find him and persuade him to get serious about the book before Don decides to get serious about the vodka. The catalyst Don thinks will help is finding the woman he met on the Laikonik Express. Kennedy and Don embark on a journey to find her in back-of-beyond Central Europe but en route find much more than a mysterious woman.
|Cover designed by Ian Nettleton – it hits exactly the right notes.
Laikonik Express has been described as ‘Sideways with Vodka’. It’s basically a picaresque-type trip through the Poland of the early 1990s, set in Warsaw and in a small town on the coast I’ve called Abel – ‘a place for the daytime, and the summer’, as my characters kept getting told. Unfortunately, Don Darius and Nolan Kennedy, two 30-something American slackers, find themselves there on a winter night, after a colourful journey on the Laikonik Express, the train that runs from Krakow in the south of Poland to Gdynia on the Baltic Sea. They are in search of a woman Don has met on that same train, but find a different woman, and a different point-of-view, and some pointers towards redemption from their self-centred preoccupations.
Passage from Laikonik Express pp168-170:
There was nothing on the water apart from a guy in a rowboat some way out, fishing, they guessed, crazy, certainly; maybe he had been there since New Year’s, frozen to his boat, with nobody screwy or sober enough to go reel him in.
Kennedy recalled the Baltic beach scene from Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum, shit-stirrer Oskar and his mom watching a longshoreman fish off a shore a lot like the one he looked on now. The guy had a rope tied to a horse’s head and had let the sea carry it out; he reeled it in and it was full of black eels, trapped by their greed in gristle and bone. The sight of it made Oskar’s mom barf, turned her brain on the spot and drew her into suicide. Kennedy thought the scene was meant to have convinced her that the world was a corrupt and evil place; never mind the fact that the entire continent was in the grip of Nazis at the time.
Krystyna pointed at the nearby ruin, said, ‘That was the church of Saint Barbara. I went there every week, when I was young.’
Don and Kennedy drew their attention to the building, a skeleton of fused, blackened bricks and stone, and burned wood that resembled leather. It was held up by rusted scaffolding. It looked forlorn and dangerous.
‘It could sure use a lick of paint,’ Don said, and Krystyna turned to him and let out a bark of a laugh.
‘In the summer after mass we bought candy from stalls along there on the front, and the adults bought beer, and we played on the beach and paddled in the water, and the day seemed to go on for so long. It was like a…festival, and we looked forward to it very much.’
‘Well, that was one way to get you all to church,’ Kennedy said.
‘Oh yes.’ Krystyna nodded. ‘They were not foolish, those priests and parents of ours.’
‘What happened to it?’ Kennedy asked.
‘A German ship,’ Krystyna told him. ‘It shot at the pleasure boats in the yacht marina first. That was the day the war started. I think when we saw that, we knew that we were not fighting against…gentlemen. Then it turned the guns on to the church. It was just for fun, or maybe target practice. The ship passed up the coast, toward Gdynia, and then people came running to put out the fire, but they were too late. They were aching to get on with it, those Germans, we could tell, when they shelled Abel. And then we were very afraid, and we knew that it was the end of our lives as we had known them.’
Poland was full of churches, though, Kennedy was about to observe, but prudently muttered only, ‘That’s too bad.’ He tried to imagine what it had been like, stood on the edge of the land, gazing out at the start of the second world war, heard Don say a soft Jesus next to him.
‘Why do you write?’ Krystyna, tired of the war and the idea of it, or just used to it, maybe, aimed the question at Don.
‘Why?’ Don deflected it at Kennedy.
Kennedy did not know why Don wrote, just knew that he should. The movement of his shoulders probably failed to put that over.
‘You,’ Krystyna said. ‘Keats, Shelley – why?’
Dumb question? Probably. Kennedy did not know. He saw himself up nights, lit by a square of screen that displayed what at the bottom line was just the end of a series of mechanics: brain, fingers, binary numbers, stuff that looked like words. And why? He saw Don in that kitchen in Bakirköy, tapping out a version of his life that had been altered by the fears in his imagination…but why? Just so it could be the start of a process that had led him to that shore, a continent away from anyplace he could call home, trying to think of an answer?
And why were they stood on the edge of that frozen land talking, when they had come all that way in the name of action? Kennedy would rather have known that. Who cared what anybody wrote, when others were fishing and freezing, dying indeed or just luckless in love and dying inside?
‘I don’t know.’ Don realised how underwhelming that had to have sounded, and hurried out, ‘Just get the urge one day, write down the thoughts going through my head, change them around a little…Not a natural urge, I guess. I mean…Well, take a look at Barnacle Bill out there.’ He pointed to the fisherman. ‘Sits and reels in his fish. He has thoughts going through his head, right? But he doesn’t feel the need to come and spill them out so other people can know them.’
‘Maybe he does.’ Kennedy thought Don was being unfair to all the little people who got exactly that same urge one day, just like Don himself, and wound up writing books.
‘No. Sure, he’s got thoughts, like anybody else, but he isn’t going to spot us here on shore and row like a fool to come share them with us. Not going to write them down, either.’
Krystyna nodded, waiting for more, though Jack was not bothering to pretend that he was anything other than cold and agitated, and worried about his mom.
And Kennedy was thinking, Out on the water in the sub-zero, unless you’re truly certifiable, all you think about is keeping warm enough to reel in those frozen fish fingers. Hey, but then you’d need to be certifiable in the first place, even to be out there…
He sent a look to Jack that said, See the kind of thing I have to put up with, huh? He was not surprised to see the same look returned.
‘The urge finds you,’ Don said. ‘If that’s what it wants to do. And if you’re willing. He knows.’ He tossed his head at Kennedy. ‘He writes, too.’
‘A little kid’s urge.’ Kennedy was glad to junk lofty old Keats and Shelley. ‘To tell what he sees.’
‘To show the world how smart he is.’ Krystyna had a leather-clad finger aloft to say ah-hah. ‘For scientists, the same thing. There is no point in doing it, we used to think, unless everybody knows you have done it. My point, Mister Dariusz, is prompted by another question.’
‘What question would that be, ma’am?’
Krystyna said, ‘Do you want to find this woman just to show her that you are a clever man, and can find her if you want to? If that is the case, then I think you should go there now, and she can answer her door and you can examine her face to see if it is delighted or not.’ She laughed. ‘Or her husband’s face, to see if he too will be as pleased.’
Kennedy almost applauded the trap Krystyna had opened in the middle of what he had been dismissing as highbrow small-talk. There they were, then, back on-topic at last, without even realising. He and Jack perked up and closed in on Don.
Nick Sweeney is a special writer; erudite and cosmopolitan, simultaneously clever yet warm, droll yet melancholy. Laikonik Express has a range of references and obsessions that are much broader and more intriguing than those found in most contemporary novels. It is a meditative comedy, and also a great read –
Nick Sweeney’s Laikonik Express is one of those rare things: a debut novel that is both original and immediately recognisable as a work of true voice – Lee Rourke.
Contact Nick Sweeney:
Website, The Last Thing the Author Said: http://www.nicksweeneywriting.com
Twitter: nikone3na http://twitter.com?#search?q=nikone3na
Unthank Bookstore for sample pages and ordering: http://www.unthankbooks.com/bookshop.html
Facebook: under my own name, Nick Sweeney (among the many with that name!)
Trans-Siberian March Band: www.tsmb.co.uk and all over youtube
Click below to an interview with Nick!
Hi Nick, and welcome to Wise Words. Tell us a little more about yourself?
I’ve worked as a civil servant, in various catering jobs here (London) and abroad (mainly Paris), and as a teacher (here, in Istanbul, small Polish town Gliwice and in Warsaw). I have been a reader of children’s books for a software company, and an editor in educational research and other fields. At the moment I am a freelance writer and editor and a musician, guitar player, singer, writer and arranger with burlesque Balkan troubadours the Trans-Siberian March Band, certainly the most fun part of my creative life; playing to big crowds brings an instant fix that writing, by its nature, lacks. I have been published on a regular basis in Ambit magazine, which has been very supportive of my short stories. Laikonik Express, available from Unthank Books on 1st April, will be my first published novel.
I lived in Poland for 4 years in the 90s, after a 3-year spell in Turkey, so I picked up a lot of impressions I wanted to put into a book, finally – I’ve kept out of the ‘disguised travelogue’ trap, I hope. I’ve had short stories published over the years, mainly in Ambit magazine, and have one in the current edition (which I’d be happy to send you). I’m also working on other novels. You can read some of my work on my site here: http://www.nicksweeneywriting.com/ I’ve long felt cultural ties to what we call ‘eastern Europe’ – as my family background is Irish, I can’t explain it, really!
What inspired you to write Laikonik Express?
The novel is set in Poland, in 1992. After living there on and off for about four years, I had left by the time I started the novel. Part of me wanted to recreate and celebrate one thing I had observed there, the country’s strange atmosphere, especially in the winter and especially away from tourist centres, its silence in the snow, and the way its people dealt with it. I lived there at a time of great change 1992-1996, when the future was very uncertain. ‘Things will be better’ – how? ‘Capitalism will happen’ – how? What do these general statements of hope mean to ordinary people? I didn’t want to write a travelogue, nor some knowing ‘history-as-it-happens’ type of thing. I was still an outsider. I also wanted to put some of the things that happened to me in the story – I travelled extensively by train across eastern Europe in the years I was away, and very often on the Laikonik Express – and recall some of the people I met in passing.
I looked to the community of people abroad of which I was a part, but didn’t want to write an isn’t-teaching-EFL-a-funny-ole-game type of story. One thing that often struck me about myself and the people I got on with was that we felt that we never quite fitted in wherever we were; not in our own countries, not where we were living (in Turkey, and in Poland). We didn’t want to create little corners of England or America nor take part in those created around us, nor did we want to ‘go native’. We weren’t necessarily always happy this way, but it seemed the only way. A lot of people say that teaching EFL isn’t a ‘real job’ – they’re right and they’re wrong: if you hit the right place, you can take it as seriously as you want to, and make a career out of it, and, if you don’t want to, you can fake it fairly easily. I gravitated towards other slackers; we recognised one another. I wanted to examine in some way in the book, the feeling of aimlessness that often seemed to define us. It’s also a look at both friendship and romance, supportive but non-intense, self-assured relationships that, for me, always seem to work best – I seem to have had better friendships with people I can be detached from, so that, even if I haven’t seen them for some years, I can still say we’re friends.
What’s the genre of Laikonik Express?
I don’t think it fits into a genre. It’s literary fiction, whatever that means. To me, it’s simply about writing a story that may feature a romance, or a crime, or an adventure – I’m not into so-called ‘abstract’ writing, so story is always paramount for me – in a register that doesn’t have to conform to any genres, that forms a scheme of its own within the book, that may stray into the poetic (but not too often, and not for the sake of it) that helps to create the world I’m trying to portray in the pages. I’m trying to put my own stamp on a familiar world, or get into the world that may lie inside it and, for the duration of the story, to make a part of that world my own, and, if they like it, one that readers can inhabit freely.
And its story?
Put simply, it’s the story of two men who distract themselves from their basic unhappiness, and aimlessness, with their friendship, who take chances – I think friendship can, and sometimes should, be about risk – and time and trouble just to see what will happen. So it’s about hope, on one level; if you take a chance, things could go in any number of directions, but you need that spark of optimism to believe that some good will come out of it. It doesn’t arrive of its own volition, and your contribution is to risk a little bit of yourself. The book is also, to a lesser extent, about absence, of people, of certainties and how (back to this) if you have hope and take risks, you can prepare for such absences, and replace them, or, if not, deal with them in some way, and not be overwhelmed by them.
I said above what kinds of book I didn’t want to write, but I’m not sure if I ever knew what kind of book I did want. Sorry it sounds a bit vague, and a thing said by ‘creative types’, but the story seemed to fall into place as it went along. My other novels have been, in general, very tightly planned.
Was there a character you struggled with?
Not really. My characters have been inspired by people I have known and still know. In that respect, some of them arrived at the book fully-formed. As ever, in fiction, events and people being ‘real’ is not enough; they have to be tailored to fit into the altered reality of fiction. There was a character based on myself in an early draft, but as he never physically appeared in the story I had to get rid of him. (I don’t mean a narrator; it was more digressions during which the characters, to amuse themselves, discussed ‘me’. It was a bit self-indulgent and, frankly, weird.) Most of the characters in the book were easy to put onto the page, but the one that took the most work was thirty-ish Polish guy Jacek. In the first draft he was pure nerd, intense, awkward, insular, difficult, but I realised this also had to do with how I made the main characters see him – ultimately quite negatively. This wasn’t fair on either the people on whom I may have based him, or on the reader, or on the other characters either. Sometimes it’s easy to have a negative character for people to laugh at/despise, but I saw it, by the second draft, as a bit of a cop-out; it takes a lot more skill to make a character warts-and-all but retain the reader’s empathy. That’s probably basic writing school stuff, but I am sometimes amazed at how much I still have to learn…
How many unpublished books do you have lurking under your bed?
I have at least two novels I regard as unpublishable, but which I’m happy to keep hold of and remain, somehow, attached to. I recently found the first two thirds of a novel I abandoned in 1992, done on a typewriter. As I’d forgotten the details, I came to it like a new reader and, in between the eye-rolling and wincing, was relatively impressed, and I may revive and finish it. It’s called Angelika and the Forgers, and if that sounds like a Tintin title it was probably deliberate. I have ideas for several more novels at the moment, so am not ever down about ‘abandoning’ novels; if they don’t work, they just don’t. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to write them to find that out.
How did you find your publisher? How do they treat you? Would you recommend them?
I had given up writing for a while, partly to concentrate on music and partly, quite honestly, in the face of publishers and agents being generally underwhelmed by my work. I’d continued getting short stories published by Ambit magazine, whose editors Martin Bax and Geoff Nicholson have always been solid supporters. I found Unthank Books’ call for submissions, and liked the sound/look of them – books ‘not published by accountants’ – and especially of Ashley Stokes’ Touching the Starfish, their first publication. There’s something that just grabs me about certain presentations, language or images used – I’m never sure why. We have an informal, friendly relationship, which works for me. And yes, I would recommend Unthank – the Unthank crew are very cool. I think I’m lucky to be able to work with people I get on with – maybe it isn’t always necessary when you have a professional approach, but it really helps when you click with people artistically and personally.
What’s the best/worst part of being a writer?
Creatively? The best thing is the ability to form a little world, whether in a novel or short story, and see it working, somehow, on some level. As a lifestyle choice it leaves a lot to be desired, but keeping my own hours is a bonus, as I have never been very good at keeping other people’s. The worst part is also keeping my own hours, and the need to plan my time carefully. I am easily distracted, and have a lot of interests, both cerebral (music, art, films, etc) and physical (the need to practise the instruments I play, cycling, cooking) and also, of course (in case I appear a bit lofty and highbrow here), by time-draining drivel on the internet and the TV. I really need to plan my week carefully, or I end up with at least a day or two during which I seem to have achieved nothing. I am also in a relationship, and relationships always need special attention, time to themselves.
What is the most productive time of the day for you to write?
Anytime, in theory, though I do a lot of writing at night. I also like getting up ridiculously early and writing, a practice partly picked up from my paid work as a freelance writer, and my sometimes bad habit of deadline-surfing.
Do you start your projects writing with paper and pen or is it all on the computer?
I don’t have any particular pattern, but certainly have written stories, and very recently, out in my best, and worst, handwriting. I travel quite often, and travel quite light, and don’t want to take a laptop or a netbook – it’s just more techie crap to get anxious about in case it gets lost or stolen or goes wrong. A pen and a notebook don’t take up much room, and you can just rock up anywhere and buy them.
What/who do you draw inspiration from?
Often, observation of people, travelling, passing, snatches of their conversation, a look on a face, a gesture; a man with teeth that remind me of brazil nuts, a girl who stops in the street and empties out her handbag onto a hedge, the Albanian kid banging his head on the seat in front on the bus. Other writing, novels and short stories, news reports – especially crytpic three-line ones – but also a range of other cultural impulses, including TV, films, art, music, architecture, travel. It’s a chance to slip opinions of/celebrations of/enthusiasm for these things into my work without my doing some academic-type tract that would bore everybody and add nothing to the subject – I think I’d be the first to say these interests are spontaneous, incomplete, rather than scholarly and thorough. It’s a way of furnishing these small, created worlds. My story The Architect Interrupted by His Creations (Ambit 188, spring 2007 – see http://www.nicksweeneywriting.com/the-architect-interrupted-by-his-creations.html ) is a good example of what I’m talking about here. One one level it’s ‘sort of’ my take on Italian Futurism, so is strewn with Futurist imagery, and also features my fascination with Roman/Byzantine art and architecture, without these things taking centre stage. I hope it introduces these elements without distracting the reader from the most important thing, the story, and that they don’t read it and feel they’ve just had an unwanted lecture on art or architecture.
Books I love include Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and The Little Friend, Peter Carey’s My Life As a Fake, Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur, Christopher Woodward’s In Ruins, Annie Proulx, Barbara Kingsolver and Anthony Loyd’s My War Gone By, I Miss It So. I like the writing of Tom McCarthy, Lee Rourke, Tobias Hill, Justin Cartwright, and William Boyd, among others. My favourite genre-type books are Alan Furst’s eve-of-World-War-Two novels – I think they’re informed and literary in the same way Eric Ambler’s are. I’m not a big TV watcher, but stuff I’ve liked includes Twin Peaks, Carnivale, and 1980s ‘Operation Bernhardt’ comedy Private Schulz. I love the films The Maltese Falcon (which features in Laikonik Express), The Mask of Dimitrios, La Strada, Gadjo Dilo, Arizona Dream, Sweet and Lowdown, American Graffiti – I especially like stories that take place on one night, or day. And loads more in addition to all these – my tastes are very broad.
Do you set yourself goals when you sit down to write such as word count?
Only vaguely, but I should – they’re more on the lines of ‘let’s get this bit done/started/redone’. I admire writers who decide on a word-count, get on and do it, and are playing tennis, in the pub or walking the dog by midday. I tend to write either until I’m fed up with it, or it’s not flowing very well, or until I’m distracted by the idea that it’s getting light outside and I really do need to get some sleep. Very haphazard, and far from ideal.
What are you working on now that you can talk about?
The novel I’m keen to finish soon is called Cleopatra’s Script. Though it’s nearly done, I keep taking years off from it to pay attention to other stuff. One difficulty is that the last quarter of the story could go in any number of directions, all of which appeal to me sometimes, none of which seem plausible at others. It’s set in Rome in the 1990s, and centres on a young British man and a young French woman who fall in love just as, somewhat inconveniently, they manage to piss off some local gangsters and blunder upon the identity of a child murderer.
It could in some ways be set anywhere – once again, I’m not making a travelogue out of it – but I find that Rome, and Italy in general, has a special atmosphere. This is partly made up by its people and their sense of pride and tradition, summed up by the legend SPQR, or Senatus Populus Que Romana, appearing everywhere, despite the distance in time of the Roman Empire, and the fact that they live among, and upkeep, ruins. There is a moral atmosphere in Italy (bourgeois Italy, anyway) that comes close to stating that the only crime is actually lack of discretion. Despite this, the Italians in general remain kind, compassionate, and, surprisingly (to me, anyway) reserved people.
Finally, it looks at the status of the Roma in Rome – I mean here the many Gypsies who live there, displaced in the 90s by the wars in ex-Yugoslavia. How does a kind people regard them? With a schizophrenic view, sometimes.
This looks like a lot of ‘issues’ stuck together, but most of these make up the background, and I think part of a novelist’s skill is in doing just that, avoiding issue rants and weaving it into the big picture behind the characters as they go through the story.
You can read the first few pages of Cleopatra’s Script here: http://www.nicksweeneywriting.com/cleopatras-script.html
I am also working on a novella called The Fortune Teller’s Factotum. Ashley, a mature but unhappy teenage girl, examines the way her life is going since she dumped all her friends for the older man she was going out with, until he dumped her. The small town in which she lives is unforgiving, and scornful. How does she get her life back in gear? Her father has gone on holiday with his girlfriend, a daytime TV star, who has left Ashley and her sister to care for their celebrity cat, beloved of millions of daytime TV viewers, so it was probably unwise of them to have a party, during which the cat ends up very sick indeed, and so on. Does this read like a children’s story? It feels/reads like one at times. I’m not sure I will ever get a teenage girl’s voice very accurate, so may change the orientation/characters.
I have a few short stories in various stages of planning, execution and completion, as ever.
How do/did you deal with rejection letters?
I’ve always been pragmatic; every writer gets them, and you can’t freak out about them. I don’t mind the fact that they’ve been run off in the thousands, and don’t tell you anything that the writer is thinking – don’t even confirm, in fact, that the person whose signature appears has even read your work. I don’t expect a personal letter. The first time I visited an agent’s office I pointed at a two-feet-high pile of typescripts on a table, asked, “Is that this month’s?” “It’s today’s,” I was told. I get slightly wazzed off with rejection letters that have an advert from the publisher on them; you know, ‘we didn’t want your book, blah blah, have you considered buying our latest how-to-write/how-to-handle-rejection book?’ That’s crass – it’s opportunism at any cost, and I’d like to know which marketing tw@ thought that one up… I have a hilarious personally-written rejection letter from a small press publisher, which will go on my website soon.
Do you have a critique partner?
Yes and no. My wife reads everything I write, if I’m ready to show her. I don’t think she’s over-compensating for any possible bias in being savage about some things I produce – she’s like that about anything she reads/sees, and has a low suspension of disbelief, whereas I’m more the type that believes that Star Wars actually happened. I didn’t see any of the flaws in a heroine in one of my novels until my wife pointed out that she was totally irritating and uninteresting – once she’d pointed it out, it was very obvious. She is also very encouraging, and is equally generous with praise, and I trust her praise because it’s sparing, and considered.
I’ve belonged to a few writers’ groups, the best of which was Out of Reality, which met in a London pub from 1998-2003. It was raucous and hilarious, and the critiques may not always have been of the best quality, but it was fun. I’ve belonged to others which were much more formal, one of which I liked a lot, the now-defunct West Hampstead Writers’ Group, and another which didn’t work at all – it was all down to the personalities involved; OOR and the WHWG worked well because there was just the right degree of friendship and distance. I may join another, soon.