We’re Great: A Conversation With Nico Walker
In Iraq, Nico Walker received seven medals and commendations for valor. In Ohio, he robbed ten banks and shot heroin. In prison, he wrote a book, Cherry, and in Hollywood, it was turned into a major motion picture. None of this really matters though in the end times. What does matter is the fact that everyday someone does something extraordinary like Nico has. He found his voice with a typewriter and married someone he loves. He doesn’t care what you’ve done or where you come from, as long as you’re cool and don’t call the police on half-Chinese men locked out of their Airbnb. Apparently this happened to a friend of his that was visiting. He told us this over the phone, though it’s not included here. What is here is everything else: fear, hesitation, masturbation, motivation. We spoke a few days ago. | n matsos
Aquarium Drunkard: Where are you?
Nico Walker: Oxford, Mississippi.
AD: How do you like it down there?
Nico Walker: It’s alright. Pretty hot during the summertime, ya know, and it’s pretty quiet around here as far as town life goes.
AD: Did you choose Oxford?
Nico Walker: I did. The guy who discovered me, Matthew Johnson, is down here and my family had left Cleveland by the time I got out of prison so there wasn’t really any reason for me to be there. So, I fought for a transfer.
AD: How are you?
Nico Walker: I’m doing pretty well. Living with my wife, Rachel, and setting up our home situation. Hope maybe to get back to NYC at some point. She definitely does. She’s from there. I have only been in and out.
AD: She’s a writer, too?
Nico Walker: Yeah, she wrote a book called Porn Carnival that’s really great. It came out right around the time we met, actually. I wrote to her while I was doing something for a magazine, and this is right before all the COVID shit happened, and the piece never happened but I reached out to her. I had read her book of poetry and was fucking floored by it. It’s some of the best shit you’ll ever read. It’s timeless. It’s current but it would hold up anywhere.
AD: Do you read a lot of poetry?
Nico Walker: I used to read a lot of poetry. I like poetry books. They’re short and don’t take too long to read… Probably the first writer I was ever into was E.E. Cummings. His poems, Buffalo Bill’s and Who Knows if The Moon’s a Balloon, that sort of shit. When I was a kid, I thought that shit was beautiful. Went through a William Blake phase when I first went to prison. Read all his stuff, even the super esoteric shit. Doesn’t make tons of sense but his texts illuminate. Dug that for a long time.
AD: What was your COVID year like?
Nico Walker: Fuck, it was pretty crazy. I had gotten out of prison in October and I was supposed to be in a halfway house.
AD: In 2019?
Nico Walker: Yeah. I was supposed to get out in November, 2020, which was my release date. So I was supposed to be in a halfway house during COVID but they let me out early ‘cause the pandemic was coming and I guess they wanted to free up space. I was in a room with 31 other dudes, no social distancing, and that was the situation. I got out of custody the day the lockdown started in Mississippi, so…
AD: Holy shit.
Nico Walker: Yeah. I went from prison to prison. So that was sort of ironic, which is sort of an egocentric lens to view it through…But the thing about COVID is that’s when Rachel and I bonded. Got really tight because she flew down to Oxford the day they locked down NYC. So she wasn’t trying to go back to New York and you couldn’t travel if you wanted to, so we were with one another for about a month and a half. That was the quarantine situation.
AD: Did you get married during the lockdown?
Nico Walker: No. There’s a piece in Interview Magazine with Rachel and I and we were really serious at the time but not married and there was this joking vibe she was the bride of Nico Walker. The pious bride of Nico Walker or something like that, and people took it literally and the next thing we knew we were married on Wikipedia. But to answer your question, we were engaged in October . It’s been pretty fast, all things considered, and then we actually just got married just the other day in Biloxi.
AD: Congratulations. I was going to ask you about married life but can sort of tell by the sound of your voice that you’re happy.
Nico Walker: It’s great. I’m not used to having things this good.
AD: What’s next?
Nico Walker: I got this manuscript I’ve been sitting on forever and I’m trying to sit down and focus and package the thing into a book.
AD: Do you want to talk about the manuscript?
Nico Walker: Sure. I have hundreds of pages of writing that’s just, fuck, I don’t even know.
AD: Any themes in the manuscript?
Nico Walker: Well, the thing about the book right now is everything keeps changing. I got out of jail and the transitions I kept going through fucked with me…I couldn’t write shit for months.
AD: I can relate to that. My COVID year sucked. I was on antidepressants and I didn’t know this at the time, but it completely robbed me of …
Nico Walker: Motivation?
AD: No, ‘cause I was writing every day.
Nico Walker: Inspiration? What were you on, Prozac?
AD: Fluoxetine. I’m not knocking antidepressants. I think they help a lot of people but I should have been on them for six months instead of the three years. I actually got off them a month ago and the difference has been insane.
Nico Walker: Hey, I know exactly what you mean. I was on Prozac for a little while when I was in prison. In some ways it was really good ‘cause I’d have my shit together but I was going about things so nonchalantly. I only wrote poetry back then.
AD: I think the word I was looking for was self-confidence. My self-confidence with writing was gone on antidepressants.
Nico Walker: The one thing about antidepressants is you’re not fucking depressed. When you’re trying to write, being able to access different moods and different feelings is important. I remember when I started taking Prozac and I was trying to write Cherry and things weren’t going well with it. I was working at it but it wasn’t clicking. I had gotten so fucking pedantic. I was in a sort of mindset where I was hard for Finnegans Wake and shit like that. Writing these half page sentences.
For real. I stopped taking Prozac and the first thing I wrote after was the recruiter office part in Cherry. Then I sort of felt depressed again. It was like being away from home for a long time, on a trip or something. It was like coming back from your grandparents’ house when you’re a kid. I had been gone for a long time, then I came back.
AD: That’s a beautiful way to put it.
Nico Walker: You take for granted you have a home when you’re a kid. That security of having a home. I think the last time I felt like I had come home was when I stopped taking Prozac in 2013. Depression has it’s up and downs. Obviously it has a ton of fucking downs.
AD: And if you’re really depressed, you can’t write. You can’t do anything.
Nico Walker: You can’t. It’s hard to start something when you’re depressed and it’s hard to keep things up as well. I used to have such debilitating depression where I would lay flat all day, in a fucking room with nothing. You can’t do anything… But hey, it is what it is. I still have bouts of depression but it’s never been as bad as before. It’s scary and people don’t understand until it happens to them, being absolutely paralyzed by depression.
AD: My favorite color is pink but when I’m depressed, I wouldn’t know that. Does that make sense?
Nico Walker: Yeah.
AD: Has success, in terms of having a published book, and a bit of change in your pocket, helped elevate any of your depression. I think a lot of people, and I’m definitely guilty of this at times, think once they get their book published, restaurant opened, college degree, etc, they won’t be depressed anymore.
Nico Walker: It’s nice. It’s a mixed bag with everything that’s been going on. We’re sort of in end times, an eye of the storm, a total collapse of western civilization. Not to say that good things are not happening but at the same time there’s more there that isn’t good.
AD: I feel like the good is “summer’s here” and the bad is “We’re not going to have a country in three years.”
Nico Walker: Or three minutes… It’s sort of a letdown. Getting out of prison and getting out of the halfway house. I was looking forward to normal life and missed it by five minutes. The first thing that happens when I get out is my mom dies and…It looked like she was going to live for a minute and then the doctors said the leukemia is back and she got put in hospice and died. Then on the heels of that, I get out of the halfway house and I’m like “finally, fucking life” and the COVID shit happened. But I understand a lot of really bad shit has happened to a lot of people and I’ve been very fortunate. But the disappointment of the anticipation of having a normal life again and waiting for that for nine years and almost on the fucking day I get out…It was never in the cards. It was pretty devastating. But, a lot of other people suffered- lost family, lost their jobs, lost their businesses, and loved ones. A lot of people’s faith has been shaken, ya know? I think their trust in the system and society is completely fucking broken. Heads: facism, tails: facism. Death by expert… On the other hand I’ve never had it as good as I have it now. My job is to finish this book and I’m married to a person I’m so grateful for. Someone who has done so much for me and has been so supportive. I shouldn’t complain. I shouldn’t and I should.
AD: It sounds like all of your success has come with a very big price tag. You go to jail and then your book gets published. You get released and then your mother dies. Quarantine happens but then you get married and now you have this manuscript. At this point, is writing a choice?
Nico Walker: That’s hard to say. When I was writing Cherry, I had no clue. I wrote it under the assumption no one would ever read it. Success was like, if it sold a thousand copies.
AD: I think that’s what happens to a lot of great art/artists. They do something they want to see, read, hear, feel and are always surprised when it connects with more than twenty people. When Cherry came out, it was a big book for me because it felt like someone I knew changed the score from 13 to 14 against the opposing team’s 1,000,233,455. That was my first reaction.
Nico Walker: I really appreciate that.
AD: What was the reaction in jail when you got published?
Nico Walker: Well, nobody knew a thing until Esquire did that piece. My picture was in Esquire.
AD: Is Esquire in jail?
Nico Walker: People have subscriptions to it, or at least they could at the time… When you’re writing a book…When I was writing the book, I was not a published writer. I had no credentials that would recommend me to write a book and, literally, I would have rather been caught masturbating than to have someone say “hey, are you trying to write a book?” I’d rather be caught watching porn. I was mortified. I was so embarrassed.
AD: Was anyone supportive in jail?
Nico Walker: My boss in the education department in prison was. He was pretty fucking cool about it. My celly, he was kind of supportive. But you know, I didn’t really talk about it much. I didn’t tell people I was writing a book. I thought it was embarrassing that I was writing and there are a lot of people trying to write books in prison. Everyone is like “I’m going to prison, I’ll write a book.” When I signed the contract to Knopf, I showed two people so they could look over it. I wasn’t walking around prison saying, “Hey, I want you to read my stuff!”
AD: “Put down those weights mister. I want you to read my first pages.”
Nico Walker: I was just the guy who worked in the adult continuing education program. That’s what I was known for in prison. The dude you saw to sign up for class. Everyone knew my face and when the ESQUIRE thing happened people were like, “Holy shit, that’s the dude in the fucking school.” Then all of the sudden I went from being a nobody to, well, it wasn’t like people were carrying me on their shoulders, but I done right by people…This is going to sound ridiculous but I was popular in jail. I was well liked.
AD: Were you assigned to the ACEP in jail or did you choose it?
Nico Walker: I started to read in jail and about 9 months in, when I was 26, I realized that I was an ignorant fucking loser. So, I wanted to change that. First and foremost, to know something, anything. So I started to read a lot, about 18-20 hours a day, and all I wanted to do was be by the library…The first bunky they gave me – I didn’t have a cell yet, the place was so crowded at the time – I just had a bunk at the top of the stairs and my bunky had been an orderly in the education department. He got fired and said “they’re hiring orderlies. You should go down there.” So I went to apply for a janitor job in the education department but they weren’t hiring. Then this one guy asked if I was looking for a job and asked if I had some college. I said I had and he went downstairs to look me up – cause, low-key, he didn’t want to hire any sex-offenders – and read about my case and saw I had some school and been in the military, and then hired me to “teach” the GED class. So that’s how I got my job in education. I really kicked ass. Our class got more GED graduates than any other class did. We were turning them out. We did like 60 a year. I killed it as a GED tutor…It was really me and one other guy. The two other guys were assholes.
AD: How long did you do that for? The entire length of your sentence?
Nico Walker: I quit about two months after the book came out. I had money then and didn’t need the 30 dollars a month for the teaching gig. I just laid low, though fellow prisoners would come up to me and say shit like, “yo, introduce me to your agent.”
AD: What was the reaction to Cherry being published amongst family and friends?
Nico Walker: It was good. My parents were happy that I had done something and made some money. My mom, especially. She’s a huge reader. Every day I knew my mom, she read. Paperbacks, mysteries, stuff like that.
AD: Do you think, given where you grew up in Cleveland, and having experienced depression at an early age, that you would have done heroin regardless of going into the army and suffering from PTSD?
Nico Walker: I had done heroin before I was in the army. I’d been around drugs for a little while at that point and I didn’t have a lot in common with my peers in high school and so I hung out with people a little older than me and they were into that shit. They were nice people. They were really nice fucking people. Insane normal people. The connotation for me was drugs are good, drugs are fun.
AD: What about now?
Nico Walker: It’s different now. Back then, it was more…I wasn’t strung out until after the army. The first time I did opioids was after I got my wisdom teeth taken out. Took some Percocet and watched Citizen Kane. Felt pretty good. When I got out of the army and when I got back to town everyone was doing coke and oxy and I was so fucking whacked in the head. I was a total asshole. I had problems. I couldn’t be around people, especially large crowds, unless I was out of my head. I could snort 20mg of Oxy and be laid back in that crowd, talking to people – people I didn’t know. And the more I think about it, it was sort of the thing that was happening to everyone around me. Even normal-ass mother fuckers were taking pain killers. I hadn’t been out of the army a year when my first friend died of an overdose. So many people have died from that shit.
At this point in our conversation, I shared a story about someone I knew who was very close to me and addicted to heroin. I do not wish to share that story with anyone else, but it must be acknowledged for the sake of my last question. Dreams. It all leads to a dream.
AD: Do you dream? What was the last dream you can remember?
Nico Walker: I do dream. I have a lot of nightmares. The last one I remember was I was repairing some fucked up sheetrock in an apartment I rented and the drywall was messed up and I had to patch it up. I had some scaffolding with some really unstable ladders and was crawling across them until at some point I’m hanging over the edge about to fall thirty feet and impale myself on a bunch of painting equipment. That was the last dream I had.
AD: Thanks again for your time. I’m not a journalist and don’t have an agenda and I did this ‘cause I felt like talking to you and it’s been a real pleasure. You’re great.
Nico Walker: You’re great, too.