Review of A Journal for Damned Lovers by S.K. Nicholas/By Jasper Kerkau
One of the first pieces I wrote for Sudden Denouement was called, “Writing isn’t Going to Save Me.” Over time I have changed my perspective on this; I realize that writing is absolutely necessary to my survival. It is what gets me through all the dark days, the clouds hovering over me as I try to find my place in the universe. Writing is the ointment for my soul, the salve for a heart tarnished by the cold hands of fate. I devour words and regurgitate them in a fury that cannot be contained. I now understand that writing will eventually save me, though it may take a while.
When I started to blog I wanted to write long-winded, Menckenesque social criticism that put my friends to sleep and, of course, failed to find an audience. My works were long, pretentious, lacking heart and insight. I had lost my voice in a life of tedium, married with children, distracted by the quest for the American Dream that eventually left me washed-out, stricken by the devastating reality that was a nightmare. The question was how do I express myself, find the right format to sing the song that was buried in my heart?
In the early, dark days of my divorce, while wrestling with tone and format, I discovered the short fiction of S.K. Nicholas. A lightbulb went off. It had an immediate impact on my writing; I felt less confined by format and more willing to express my thoughts and actions from a more honest place. Eventually, I discovered others who created poems in the guise of short fiction, rife with description intertwined with inner dialogue, though none seemed to possess the power of Nicholas. His work was a revelation for me as a writer. As one who cut his teeth on Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, and Allen Ginsberg at a young age, his work challenged me to rethink what and how I communicate with the audience, and I know I am not alone in the influence his work has had on me.
Nicholas calls his first book, A Journal for Damned Lovers, a novel. It is a collection of his short pieces of fiction, originally published on his site of the same name. The novel weaves together a tapestry over a two year period, creating a narrative in which the reader is given little pieces of the writer. The individual works are short, usually only three to five hundred words. In these short bursts of fiction, the reader is given more and more of the writer, who is also the hero of Nicholas’ work, as he lives his life with all of its disappointment and failures. He is going through the motions in Journal, thinking aloud in a sense. In the process, he gives the reader insight to himself with a beautiful combination of poetry and fiction. A line such as, “The scent of war in my greasy hand grows by the second as headlights illuminate those nowhere left to go. Writing takes me to an elevated state,” captures my imagination. The writing is crisp, unique and dripping with poetic sensibility.
The hero of the novel is not Nicholas, as protagonist as he moves through life, looking to press himself against the bosom of the universe, looking to find comfort in the arms of beautiful women, the hero of his novel is truth. In one passage, I find a clue to his process in writing his life:
Through unreal streets, we bow down to crippled crows and absence. Eclipsed by half-formed shapes on the side of her face, she riddles me with a kiss. Nerves as strings snapped on a drunken whim, I attempt to multiply myself by zero (51).
His portrayal of himself in Journal seems to be an attempt to multiply himself by zero. He presents his life in full color, musing about his flaws and failures. The piece “Damned Lovers” is rife with self-doubt and loathing. Unflinchingly, he calls himself a “bad lover” who can be described as “distant” and “out of sorts.” In “Hell” he paints images of himself spitting blood, panicking over beer, and smoking a cigar in the garden. In these descriptions, Nicholas shows himself as a fearful man in a perpetual search for love, sex, and intoxications, unfurling his thought-life. He states:
Got to stop walking the same thin line as the days swirl in the mire with no sense of perception. The pain of our histories, it goes even on. Past, present, and future mistakes merging into an endless mess of self-destructive tendencies. The maze of your mind, crushing your will to survive like a beetle beneath a stamping boot (71).
It is here that he connects with the reader. It is hard not to relate to his character, inject some of our own fears and failures into our reading of the work. The authenticity of his treatment of himself, gives life to his protagonist, makes him more accessible.
Since discovering Nicholas’ writing, I have discovered numerous other writers who use a similar format, and though there are many talented writers of the same ilk, none have the energy or authenticity that the writing of Nicholas possesses. Though I had read a great deal of his work previously, the novel gives a clearer picture of the writer and his evolution. There is a strength to his writing which is apparent from his earliest works; however, it is hard not to become aware of a voice taking shape while reading A Journal for Damned Lovers. He takes the reader by the hand and leads them into his world, invites them to watch him fail forward, seeking love under an endless succession of dresses, and he also invites the reader to watch him stretch and evolve as he works through his life by sitting in front of a computer monitor hacking away at everything around him.
Perhaps I glean from his writing my own desire to write myself a way out of the fog. And it is possible that there is something noble in him bearing his soul to the world, exposing his weakness, while many of us cower in fear, hiding our failures. But, that is only one component of his greatness as a writer. His writing, coupled with his authenticity, make his writing worthy the attention. To get a fuller understanding of the work of Nicholas, I suggest spending a few days walking around in his world, getting lost in his novel.
[Thank you Christine Ray for your assistance with this piece. Your insight made it all possible.]
Buy S.K. Nicholas A Journal for Damned Lovers
Interview with S.K. Nicholas
JK: You have a distinctive style of short fiction. In your book, you mention numerous writers, Bukowski for one. Which writers had the biggest influence on you and your writing style?
SKN: Bukowski for sure influences just about every word. From his poetry to his prose, he cuts through the bullshit and always speaks from the heart. Reading him has taught me you have to bleed with every sentence- anything else just won’t do. Then you’ve got the likes of John Fante. The Bandini Quartet was like a bible to me a few years ago, because that coming of age arch was something I could really relate to. Ask the Dust is the kind of novel I would sell my soul to write. It shows an author at their very best, who captures so much with every sentence, almost how a painter like Van Gogh could show so much emotion in a single brush stroke. Reading Henry Miller gave me the confidence to explore the most explicit side to my personality. Tropic of Cancer and Under the Roofs of Paris are fearless. The sexual content may be shocking, but it comes across as natural- that’s always been a big draw for me, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find my voice when it comes to detailing that aspect of my life. Alberto Moravia wrote a book called Boredom that spoke to me a lot about obsession and sexuality, as well as the artist’s struggle for control over his muse. There’s also this lesser known novel, A Sun for the Dying by a guy named Jean-Claude Izzo. Similar kinda thing to the authors I’ve already mentioned, yet no less impressive. In terms of more modern authors, Paul Auster is a master. New York Trilogy is perfect storytelling. Stephen King may sound like an obvious name to drop, but I’ve read over two-dozen of his books, and each one has affected me in a different way. The Shining speaks to me in particular. Madness, Alcoholism, the supernatural- they’re three key elements I always try so hard to focus on in my work. And King can touch upon so many styles and themes it’s almost infuriating. How is it possible for one man to have so many stories in him, and so many that are able to touch millions upon millions of people in such an intimate way? I hate him for being so good at what he does. Ian Banks’ The Wasp Factory fueled my interest in the macabre, and anything by J. G. Ballard, although Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition are two personal favorites because of the subject matter and the way it all just feels so effortless and visionary. I’m always drawn to authors who speak what they mean to say and who constantly look to push the envelope. There’s no pretension with these guys. They weren’t trying to impress anyone with their words; they were writing because it was what they were born to do. Palahniuk is another. He tells stories and doesn’t hold back. And I like the darkness. There has to be darkness because it resonates so exquisitely with our innermost fears.
JK: What was the learning-curve for A Journal for Damned Lovers?
SKN:It was a steep yet fulfilling one. In the early days of the blog, there was no intention of working towards any kind of published collection, it was just about writing what was on my mind. There was a load of abstract stuff going on with not much bite, but the more I wrote, the more I discovered the themes that allowed me to speak in a voice I could call my own. Loneliness, obsession, sex, death, damned love- every time I sat down to write my ability kept growing when I focused on these core areas. The more truthful I was about my life, about my failures, the stronger the content I kept producing. Maybe it’s a bit egocentric, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing if you end up with something that speaks to others in a truthful tone. In the early days, my problem was in trying to please other people with what I thought they wanted to read, and so the end results were bland beyond belief, but then the more I wrote about how I really felt, the more they begun to respond.
JK: Your book covers two years of your work on A Journal for Damned Lovers. When did you realize what you were doing was working and connecting with readers?
SKN:I wrote a piece called ‘Stay Beautiful’ one night while drinking wine. At the time, I was in love with this woman, and she didn’t love me in return. We had dated in the past, and my heart was set on winning her back, so this one night I drunkenly wrote this open love letter to her and went ahead and posted it on WordPress. I’ve no idea if she ever saw it, she probably didn’t, but suddenly people were reblogging and commenting on it in a way I’d never experienced. From then on, whenever I sat down to write, I reminded myself that I had to be honest, even if it painted me in a bad light, or showed me as being weak. There were times when I struggled to keep the intensity, or when I’d lapse back into abstract, but whenever I snapped out of it and focused on expressing the areas of my life that were causing me turmoil, again there would be a response. People could relate to the emotions I was putting down onto paper, and the more open and honest the piece, the more they resonated. An important note, I believe, is that when I now write, I picture one person in particular as my reader. Their identity is known only to me, and trying to judge their reactions based on the content, or the style, helps keep pushing me forwards while retaining that sense of passion and intimacy. And those are so important when trying to put your writing out there. They speak volumes.
JK: The book frames a period in your life neatly, do you anticipate continuing in the same vein?
SKN: Absolutely. There’s no going back; there has to be evolution. The drive- the need- to express myself is still the same, but there’s a continual thirst to explore who and what I am and my ever-changing relationship to the world. The more I write and the older I get, the more there is to discover, and with every such discovery, there are more and more questions. The trick for me is how to stay fresh, and how to stay relevant. The first journal paints a picture of who I was when writing became the center of my world, the second journal, when it comes out, needs to show growth and progression. It’s not enough to sit back and take it easy. There has to be an increase on all fronts. An increase in truth, in how I seek the answers to my existence, and in how I challenge the answers that confront me. Most people my age are settling down and getting married, and although I’ve come close on both fronts, this life pursuit doesn’t interest me anymore, nor does earning money and buying bigger and better things. The nature of my existence- this is what drives me. The scrutiny of my place on the ‘outside of society’. I’m educated and dwell in suburbia, but I don’t belong here at all. Never have done. But why? Why do I feel like this? These are the questions that need to be answered. And what of my past? What of the man that came before the writer? What of the relationships that shaped who I am right now? This is where I go from here. It’s a continual search for identity- which is what art should always be.
JK: You have amassed a large following and now a book. What advice do you have for those who are getting started and looking for an audience?
SKN: Write every day, and stick with it even when no one else is looking. When I started out, there were no followers or views or comments. I was writing for an audience that wasn’t there, which in many ways is how it should be because it’s about you and your ability to work the word. Nothing else. Keep writing- condition yourself so that it becomes as necessary as eating or drinking. Even when you don’t think you’ve got anything to say, or when not much has been happening in your life, keep searching. Pick at old wounds- never let yourself rest. It has to take over. If you’re serious about making it as a writer, it can’t just be a cute little hobby; it has to be your lifeblood. It’s not always a pleasurable experience, and you’ll lose friends pretty quickly, but the more energy and emotion you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. For me, the act of writing is on a par with making love. It’s about getting in the zone- about severing those connections with the outside world until all that matters is you and your lover- your lover here being words. It’s a state of mind. The euphoria from expressing yourself should be the same as an orgasm. It should leave you feeling exhilarated, and a little dirty, too. And there have to be tears. If the act of creation doesn’t reduce you as well as shake you to your bones, you’re not doing it right.
JK: In your piece “Losers,” you write “the worst thing you can ever do in life is try to fit in. If you do, it’ll ruin you. Just you see.” Could you expound on that assertion, and how does that notion inform your writing?
SKN: The older I get, the more I see how everyone wants to be like everyone else. The crowd brings comfort. It offers warmth. But where’s your identity? We only get one shot at life, so why not go down a different path instead of following in the same old footsteps every other fucker is taking? From early childhood, you’re told what’s expected of you regarding the eternal thirst for a better job and more money and social standing and all that guff. It’s implied that this blueprint is what makes for a happy and purposeful life, but I don’t think it is. I think happiness can be whatever you want it to be. Why not take a risk and live life on your own terms? Do what you want to do and not what you’re told to do. Think for yourself. Don’t let others tell you what constitutes success and failure. None of us are getting out of here alive, so write yourself a life that’s different- be somebody else. This is what helps drive my writing- what has carried me forwards for the past few years. I see this path I’m on through life as a continual discovery of unknowns, and writing is my way of documenting that. And yet writing also fuels my desire to see and feel new ways of being. It’s a beautiful dance.
JK: The book is amazing. When did you first realize that you wanted to put your work in book format? How difficult was the process?
SKN: A few people had commented on how my writing would lend itself to a published collection of prose, but at the time I was busy working on an ongoing novel, and yet after pondering the idea for a few months it seemed to be the logical next step. Both in terms of having something out there for people to read, and also for the experience. Sifting through two years of blog pieces was quite something. My first draft saw the journal come in at around 150k words, so I knew I had my work cut out to trim it down to a tight and palatable 90k, and being something of a perfectionist, I went through dozens of rounds of editing, and even after it was sent off to be proofread there was still a few more drafts of trying to achieve something that was as good as I could make it. More than anything, I wanted a book not only that I was proud of, but that was a true documentation of my transformation into a writer. There’s a spectrum of highs and lows within its pages- a mixture of difficult times when I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing and times when suddenly everything made sense. As I mentioned before, we’re all on a journey, and it felt so natural to be leaving a footprint of my own. I didn’t like the idea of being on my deathbed suddenly aware that a lifetime of memories and emotions were going to die with me. It’s not enough to just live once. And, in many ways, I saw it as an apology to the women I had dated in the past. I’d always held back, been quite closed-mouthed because I had yet to figure out what I was doing with my life. So, I saw the book as a way of showing how there was more to me than this guy with his head in the clouds with an apparent lack of interest in life. I’m not sure I’ll be getting any thanks, but, y’know, it’s the thought that counts.