Andrew Nicoll, author of The Good Mayor, has just released his second novel, The Love and Death of Caterina. Despite being kidnapped by S.A. Jones at a writers’ festival a few years back, he agreed to talk to her about his new book.
The love and death of the eponymous Caterina are both instigated by Luciano Hernando Valdez, a celebrated author in an unnamed South American police state. Valdez leads a luxurious, feted existence. Amidst the prevalent poverty and corruption he swans between his elegant apartment, the polo field, the university where he lectures and the bars where he takes his coffee. He enjoys the favours of beautiful women whilst making cruel observations about how long they can sustain their charms. But Valdez has a problem: he is crippled by writer’s block. The pad he takes with him everywhere contains nothing more than variations on the line ‘The yellow cat crossed the road’. On inspired days the cat becomes ‘scrawny’, and sometimes ‘tawny’.
When a stunning young student by the name of Caterina has the audacity to pen a note to Valdez saying ‘I write’, he is captivated, seeing in Caterina a means of unlocking his creativity. But Caterina is no neophyte and her literary talents soon start to threaten the relationship.
Valdez is a contradictory character. On the one hand he is revered as an artist who has perfectly captured the nation’s soul and made it intelligible to his countrymen. Yet he is so myopic that he hasn’t noticed a deep scar on his upper lip and is seriously disconcerted when Caterina asserts its existence. Valdez cuts against the conventional wisdom that writers are peculiarly sensitive beings with heightened powers of observation.
‘So are we saying’, says Nicoll, when asked to comment on this, ‘that only nice people can produce great art or, at least, people with some kind of empathy? Let us test the hypothesis. Gauguin was a total bastard, blithely destroying lives as he went through the world, shattering his family, breaking Vincent’s heart, but he still produced great art. Cellini, by his own account, was a pretty excessive, lascivious individual, driven by his own appetites and nothing else; ditto Caravaggio, who was actually a murderer…Rousseau made some pretty shocking confessions; Boswell’s diary was suppressed for nearly 200 years since it revealed so clearly what species of man he was.’
Nicoll has created the perfect backdrop for Valdez and Caterina’s story. Whereas The Good Mayor was set in a mythical, magical Balkan country, The Love and Death of Caterina evokes the steamy barriada, sinister underbelly and fiery exchange of Latin culture. There are elements of the whimsy of Mayor, with the landlocked country boasting a navy and the main square constantly changing its name to suit the politics of the day. But this is an altogether darker book. The setting grew out of Nicoll’s need to put his characters in an environment where their darker impulses could thrive. ‘There’s no point planting ferns in a dry and sunny part of the border; they need it damp and shady. So I needed someplace oppressive in every sense, someplace markedly divided as between rich and poor but someplace where culture would flourish.’ Nicoll’s cousin, a long-time resident in South America, helped with details.
Curiously, Nicoll subverts one of the conventions of the psychological thriller by giving away the plot in the opening line: ‘Only a few weeks after it has happened, Luciano Hernando Valdez was almost unable to believe that he had ever been a murderer’. Yet Nicoll denies he set out to play with genre conventions: ‘It was Mr Valdez who gave me that first line. I have no skill for planning and plotting. That first line just came to me and, with it, almost the whole book, fully formed. I see the writing process as being like going down a corridor. Doors and passageways open on the corridor and, if you go through, then certain ways are barred to you, but other passageways open up. Starting off by knowing that Valdez is a killer closed off some possibilities but opened up so many more.’
If Valdez is something of a contradiction, the same may be said of his creator. Nicoll is a gruff, no-nonsense Scot with a keen intellect, dark sense of humour and a penchant for suits. Even in the searing heat of the Perth Writers’ Festival, where Nicoll and I met in 2009, he never appeared without jacket and tie. He tends to be blithe about his literary success, telling one interviewer that he writes to pay off a mortgage. Yet he can also play the diva. When my partner, who loved The Good Mayor, suggested that the voluptuous love interest Agathe was a little one-dimensional, Nicoll threatened, via email, to kill himself.
Nicoll is impatient with conventional notions about the necessary conditions for writing to flourish. ‘It is not necessary to have a little money and a room of one’s own’, he insists. (Anyone struggling to complete their novels in between full-time work and family responsibilities is advised to tune out now.) The former lumberjack turned political editor writes his novels on his daily commute because ‘it’s when I have time to do it. My days are long and hard. Not like working down a mine but it can be pretty absorbing. Then, at either end, there is a difficult commute. Writing is an escape as much as anything else’. Nicoll has finished three novels in this way (the third is due out next year) and has started a fourth.
Asked to comment on the current state of literary culture Nicoll says, ‘It’s a bafflement to me’. He had a brief and rather unhappy tenure with the Scottish Arts Council following the success of the Saltire Award–winning The Good Mayor. ‘I do not understand the current fashions in writing’, he says. ‘I am bemused by the obsession with writing everything in the present tense. I’m told that this is supposed to create immediacy but it just creates neuralgia. I mourn the death of story. Page after page after tedious page where nothing happens and nothing is supposed to happen, just a failed drunk and an angry lesbian sitting in a cellar watching mould form while they internally agonise about the meaning of life. Stop! I get enough of that at home, I don’t want to read a book about it. That’s why the only books that sell are detective slasha shockas; because people know they are going to get a story. Why can’t we have stories that actually have something to say about the human condition too? Homer managed it, Dickens managed it. But the critics go along with it. I don’t know whether it’s symbiosis or parasitism but it’s a self-serving daisy chain. They tell people what is good and worthy and people buy the books, but they don’t buy them twice.’
As to the question of whether Andrew will continue to people his novels with women of superlative physical charms, like Caterina and Agathe, I asked him if we could look forward to a plain but feisty heroine in novel number three. ‘No’, came the response, ‘Novel number three is jam-packed with voluptuous beauties.’ So there you go.
S.A. Jones is the author of the novel Red Dress Walking and a voracious reader. She likes to kidnap writers in her spare time.