‘On the Perils of Research and the Pleasure of Surprises’: Nicole Flattery & Cecile Pin In Conversation

Nicole Flattery’s first novel, Nothing Special, is a ‘bladesharp coming-of-age novel’ (Spectator) set amid the sleaze and glamour of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Flattery deliberately writes against a misty-eyed reverence which has often characterized portraits of sixties New York City, that notorious crucible of creativity, revolution and exploitation. Instead, she asks her reader to consider who is able to survive such a crucible — and what version of them emerges from it. With the flinty wit and composure her readers will recognize from her critically acclaimed story
collection Show Them a Good Time, she interrogates art, sex, friendship, women and men, youth and regret.

Cecile Pin’s first novel, Wandering Souls, follows three orphaned siblings cast adrift on the merciless tides of geopolitical disruption — carried away from their home in post-war Vietnam to wash up (after some wandering) in Thatcherite Britain. Polyphonic and meticulously wrought, it is a reminder of the psychological cost of migration, and a thoughtful meditation on the narrative bonds that hold us to one another, unbroken even by death.

Five Dials invited Nicole and Cecile to meet and discuss their work in March 2023.

Nicole Flattery: Hi.

Cecile Pin: Hi Nicole. Where are you now?

N: I’m in Dublin. In my spare room. Where are you?

C: I’m in Camberwell, in London. Just in my living room. I think we had the same publication day. 2nd March.

N: I feel like everyone had that publication day. I was like, ‘Oh my God, is there any book that’s not out today?’

C: No, it’s been good. I had quite a fun launch as well.  I thought no one would show up, but it was great!

N: That’s the fear, isn’t it? But it’s good to actually mark it rather than just letting it pass.

C: It can feel a bit anticlimactic when you’ve been working on the book for so long.

N: Yeah, definitely. Were you working on yours for a long time?

C: Yes and no. Because it’s partly based on family history. I had it in my head for a long time, but I really started working on it in 2020, during the pandemic, and more intensively in January 2021, until summer of that year. How about you?

N: I’ve been working on [Nothing Special] since 2019. I properly started writing it during the pandemic as well. So yeah, a while.

C: I loved your book by the way.

N: Oh, I loved yours too. We should have started with that part!

C: How did you get the idea to write about Warhol’s Factory?

N: I was reading Olivia Lang’s Lonely City and it mentioned Warhol’s book [A: A Novel]. I got interested in the idea of working on something which won’t have your name on it – which is what happened to the women who actually wrote that novel for Warhol. I found that quite sad, that these women worked on something for so long and there has been no trace of them since. Our idea of history only includes the big players and I wanted to do something with that. All my stories are about people, or women particularly, in the orbit of celebrity. It’s funny because initially people were like, ‘What is she doing? She’s Irish. She won’t know anything about New York’. And maybe I don’t. But now that it’s come out, a lot of the reviews are like, ‘This makes sense. It makes sense that she would do this because all the thematic concerns are the exact same.’  So yeah, it was a challenge. But please talk to me about the writing of your book, because it involved lots of research as well.

C: I felt really paralyzed about wanting the book to be accurate and represent the Vietnamese boat people well. But there isn’t much written about that part of history, especially about the Vietnamese people that came to the UK. So a lot of it was just looking at archival documents and photos and videos of the camps at the time. I didn’t want to ask my mum too many questions either because I wanted the characters to come from me. And I wanted to separate the fiction from the truth, to really make the book a novel even though it’s partly based on real events. So, at first, I was doing almost too much research and that was stopping me from actually writing the book.

N: I did the same thing. I was like, ‘I can’t write anything unless I know everything’. I’ll never do that again. Not that it’s a race, and I’m sure all that knowledge was useful to me, but I really slowed myself down.

C: At one point, a friend pointed out to me, ‘Are you sure this is not just a way of procrastinating your writing’. And I just said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right’.

N: People were saying this to me too, but I wouldn’t listen to them. I was like, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. Maybe you should write a book if you’re so great’.

C: Once I got into the mindset that I was writing fiction, I realised it was okay if I got one small detail wrong, and I just hoped people would be kind about it and understanding. I felt more free after that.

N: My research was quite fun actually. I was like, ‘Ooh, the 60s!’ But I feel like your research could have been quite challenging and upsetting.

“Once I got into the mindset that I was writing fiction, I realized it was okay if I got one small detail wrong… I felt more free after that.”

C: It was a bit upsetting at times. It involved learning a lot about, for example, I didn’t realize the sexual assault that some of the women went through, or just the sheer number of deaths. But there were also some heart-warming moments. I was reading testimonies of refugees who came to the UK, and lots of them felt like they had been welcomed quite well by the British people. So, I tried to put that in the book as well.  I get a lot of people telling me they read the book and cried but I really wanted to also show the good sides of things. They experienced a lot of discrimination and hardship but I also wanted to show that there was some goodness in their story. Did you mostly do your research through reading?

N: There is an unending trove of stuff about Warhol. Almost too much. So I felt like I had every kind of reference point; books, films, music, all that stuff. I was also hyper-aware of the book I didn’t want to write. The book I didn’t want to write was like, Austin Powers, like, ‘It’s the 60s, baby!’ I did not want it to be like an Instagram filter, or a really terrible TV show. That led to me taking things out more than putting things in. Was there anything like that for you, something didn’t want to do in Wandering Souls? Did you feel challenged to write a different kind of story than people expected?

C: I didn’t want to just write a trauma story. That’s why I included some kind of nonfiction bits and different narratives in it.  Initially, the focus of the book for me wasn’t really the narrative thread, which is about Anh, Thanh and Minh, the three protagonists. At first,  I was more interested in writing about grief.

“The book I didn’t want to write was like Austin Powers, like, “It’s the 60s, baby!” I did not want it to be like an Instagram filter or a really terrible TV show.”

N: You write really well about grief.

C: Thank you! And more of the feelings that come from grief and displacement and so on. I found it quite scary to write the characters and I don’t like writing dialogue. At first, I was quite distant from the characters and it took a few drafts for me to feel comfortable making the narrative itself longer and more lively. Also I’m not used to writing young characters, because I don’t usually read books that have child narrators. I was very scared of writing it in a way that felt cringey, or a bit young or naive. It took a lot of work to get their voices right. How did you find writing a teenage character?

N: Everyone keeps saying in their reviews, ‘She’s not likable at all, but she’s trying her best’. I’m like, what? She is likable. She’s only young.

C: I thought she was very endearing.

N: It’s interesting what you said about the child narrator because my initial problem with writing Nothing Special, I thought, was going to be New York. I was writing during COVID, I lived there for a year once, but I couldn’t go back there and walk around obviously. But I was surprised that the challenge really came in remembering what it’s like to be 17, more than what it’s like to be in New York. Mae is desperately trying on different parts of herself in the way that you only do when you’re that age. I think she only really started to make sense to me when she started speaking. Did you find that?

C: Yeah, I had to add more dialogue to really make their voices come through. Are you someone who knows a lot about their characters before you start writing them? You know, some writers write down their characters’ astrology signs and all these things?

N: Their favourite TV shows. No, I’m a real re-drafter and I don’t plan. I didn’t plan at all with this book. In the opening few chapters, the characters were totally different. I changed all of them as things developed and I wrote in new characters where I hadn’t expected there to be any. I’d be interested in doing things differently the next time around. That’s the exciting thing really, isn’t it? You have to kill the last book by doing something new. I’m more interested in having a little bit of a shape next time.

C: I had the vague skeleton for the book before I started it. I wrote the final chapter quite early on, actually, because the book has short chapters and fragmented narration, so I didn’t write it in a linear way. If I didn’t feel like writing part one, I would go and write part three. But same as you, I wasn’t married to that skeleton. I changed things as I went along, and same as you, I didn’t really know who the characters would be until I began writing them. I found that so satisfying. That moment when you start thinking of your characters as friends. When you start having moments of,  ‘Oh, they would act like this, actually, not like that’.

N: Definitely. They surprise you like people surprise you. I noticed in both of our novels there is a jump in time. Did you always plan to do that?

C: Yeah, I think so. I wanted the book to come into the present day to show that the issue of refugees is still ongoing. For example, I talk about the Essex lorry event, where a lot of Vietnamese refugees died. I wanted to include Jane, Anh’s daughter, in the book, because I wanted to show how trauma can be passed down from generation to generation. So yeah, that was something that I was keen on doing from the beginning. How about you?

N: When I started writing, I was like, ‘What do books that I’ve liked the most do?’ And I was like, they always show a change in time and play with your expectations. And also, I wanted to show that these things that happen to you when you’re 17, they have more of an effect on you than you initially realise. You carry them into the rest of your life. I wanted the book to be more about Mae than about Warhol. It has to be about her relationship with her mother and it has to be about the relationships she has when she’s older. That was my intention from the beginning.

C: I love how the book is about Andy Warhol but he barely appears in it. I was at a talk with Ottessa Moshfegh and she said that in Eileen, the protagonist is a person who you would usually expect to be the sidekick. She was interested in writing about someone we would think of as a secondary character.

N: I think both our books do that. You’re taking people who aren’t written about very often and putting them front and centre.

C: It’s true that there’s not been a lot that’s been written about the British-Vietnamese diaspora. And  I really wanted to make them feel seen., even for a few hundred pages. And it’s been really rewarding, because I’ve had messages from readers saying, ‘Oh my God, this is my family’s story. And I never read about them. I’ve never seen them in books’. So that’s been a very nice, and moving thing that came out of the book.

I’ve noticed that both our books are quite short. Not too many pages. Did you ever think about making yours longer?

N: I gravitate towards things being shorter. I think, because I wrote short stories before the novel, my natural inclination is to cut and not to broaden. I wrote whole chapters of this book that I didn’t include. I gravitate towards brevity in everything. Like if I see a good three-hour film, I’m like, ‘there was a great two hour film in there’. Shorter length allows a little bit more ambiguity. I don’t like fully explaining everything.

C: Yeah, I gravitate towards a shorter story too. There are exceptions. I went to see Seven Samurai at the movies the other day, by Akira Kurosawa, and that was 3 hours and 40 minutes. I was really dreading it.

N: I think you can make an exception for Kurosawa.

C: Afterwards I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is perfect’. Yeah. But you have to be a really good writer to write a 400- or 500-page book! And I also wanted to leave some gaps in the story, leave some things unsaid, for example how Anh and Thanh and Minh’s parents and siblings pass away. Give space for the readers to have their own interpretation. My first draft was probably a bit too short, I needed to go back and make the narrative thread longer, but now, I’m happy with the final length.

N: It’s a one-sitter, you know, a weekend. That perfect weekend with a book. I just don’t think length has anything to do with emotional impact. I just read Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan. Really good.  And her books couldn’t be any longer.  I wonder if I will ever write something longer, but I don’t think I will. Unless people are demanding,  unless they’re like, ‘I need a 400-page book from you’. I don’t think anyone wants that, or they haven’t told me if they do.

C: And you’re working on a second novel.

N: I’m working on a second novel, yes. It’s going to be first person again, and it’s going to be from a female point of view. It’s set in Ireland though, which is good, which means I don’t have to panic. For my first book I was like, ‘No research’, and then with Nothing Special I was like, ‘Actually, research would be great. It will make me feel like I’m really doing something and finding ideas outside myself’. And now for the next one, I’m like, ‘Oh, no, I really don’t want to do very much!’ How about yourself, are you working on something new?

C: Yes, I’m slowly starting work on book 2.  I’m finding it hard to write when I’m doing publicity and the more social-facing part of being published. I left my job in October, so I used to work during the day, and then in the evening I would write. But now that I have more free time, I feel like I’m less productive. Especially if I have an event in the evening, or a podcast. I’m nervous during the day, and it’s hard for me to focus on writing. I want to really start working on it more this summer. But I think it’ll be more contemporary, maybe set in London, because, same as you, I want to do less research for this next book! Also, a story that is a bit less personal. The first one was based on my family history, and this one will have less to do with me, which will be nice.

N: Every writer I know finds the same thing [about writing while you’re promoting a book]. Your whole day is spent getting your adrenaline up for this hour-long event, and then it’s over. I was in a group of friends, and everyone was talking about their New Year’s Resolutions, like, ‘Be more punctual!’ or do this and that. And I was like, ‘Maintain my inner life’.  I think it’s really important to not just be the person that sits up there on the stage, you know? You still have to watch films that you’re interested in, read stuff, try and keep thinking. Because I find the thinking part of it really, really difficult.  So yeah, that was my New Year’s resolution. I don’t know if I’m doing it though.

C: And I’m still finding it hard to know exactly how much I want to share in interviews. Just knowing how much of myself I want to put out there. Do you have that as well?

N: Yes. And I’ve often said really stupid stuff. But I’m actually getting a lot less personal questions for this book. I’m just being asked about Warhol and research. Do a lot of your questions feel very personal?

C: Yeah, a lot of them. I think it’s normal. When I read a book, I’m also curious about how much of it is personal. A lot of people have been curious about how much is based on my mum’s story, or confused about who the characters are based on, or they think the modern character is based on me, but I just encourage people to treat it as fiction. The book is set in the UK and my mum went to France, so from the get-go, the stories diverge quite drastically. But I don’t mind talking about it too much, because it gives me some control over how much I share.

N: I find that fascinating, because I do feel like every piece of fiction, book or play or film, contains a trace of the person who made it. More than a trace.  But certain people get asked more direct questions, like, ‘I deserve to know how much of this was made up and you have to tell me,’ even though every book is an imaginative exercise.

C: Yeah, I know. And it doesn’t really matter, does it?

N: No, it doesn’t affect your enjoyment of a book at all.