Q + A

Who are you? 

I am a scrawny, antisocial freak who lives in Glasgow and writes short stories and endless “first novels,” so far totalling nine.  

Why the initials? 

Mark Nicholls is a very common name. M.J. Nicholls sounds snazzier and is more Googleable. Having said that, there is a contemporary artist named Mark J. Nicholls who always comes first in searches, a landscape gardener from Great Boston, and a tradesman from Newton Abbot who share my namesake. They are all very talented M.J.s. 

What do you write and why should we read it? 

I write short stories, though I am permanently engaged in writing debut novels. No novels of mine have made it into print, because of the damn Communists, but some short stories have. You should read them because it would personally insult me if you didn’t, and you don’t strike me as the type who wants to hurt another’s feelings. I write humorous and unusual stories, largely about the absurdity of life and the endless pursuit of existential harmony. I’m also drawn to metafiction, but have had this proclivity beaten out of me over the last two years. I’m a recovering metafictionist.

What do you consider ‘good’ writing? 

I love to read witty, ambitious, surreal, formally or stylistically daring writers. I still drool over the metafictional—stories that comment on their own artifice, that draw attention to themselves and fart around with the narrative.

Humour and wit are big clinchers. I despise self-important or witless work. Stories, even those dealing with serious subject matter, if they aim to properly reflect the human condition, should contain the occasional knob joke. I read and write to make sense of the world, and po-faced work drains all colour out of a potentially beautiful planet. So there. 

What writing advice to you follow? 

Difficult, as writers pick up tips instinctively, or through osmosis. I have been fortunate to meet some great writers through online workshops and on various university courses, and any wisdom I have absorbed is hopefully reflected in my writing.

I think it’s important for a writer to consider every piece of advice given, however trivial, and see how they can use it to improve their work. Writers shouldn’t follow advice to the letter, as they have to grow into their own style, but writing is a profession of continual evolution and self-improvement. There is no point in a writer’s life when he should stop taking advice. For new writers, it’s imperative to find a community somewhere, and online is the perfect place to engage with others, even if the workshops can be pretty dire. 

Know any good online workshops, then? 


What constitutes a ‘good’ idea? 

Making any idea work is entirely dependent on the writer’s talent and skill. The idea can be as banal as making toast or as crazy as nuking the planet Venus with a hairbrush. I tend to start with a scenario, phrase, or character that sparks what can become a story. I write an outline of the story, then usually the original idea leads to others, and a coherent story manifests itself. Sometimes this doesn’t happen. Mostly it doesn’t happen. More recently I’ve become obsessed with structure and form, usually building a story around the best way to represent the subject matter, characters, etc.

What are your weaknesses? 

Since my interest lies in style, character and metafictional games, my stories skewer to the indulgent, the overly satirical. Often I can let my self-conscious style impede on creating believable characters, or attending to the business of plot or basic reader interest. I am trying to become more attuned to how a writer emotionally manipulates a reader, and how to write from a less self-conscious place, to write with more empathy. 

Do you need to have read a tonne to become a good writer? 

It’s rare to find a published author without a varied and impressive reading history. Writers, effectively, are trying to replicate the magic of the books they love, they want to create the same magic for their readers. By that token, all writers are trying to turn readers into wannabe writers. So yes. Reading is crucial. To discover where you are coming from as a writer, what you want to say and how to say it, you have to find comparisons.

You don’t—contrary to what Zadie Smith is telling you—have to have spent your entire childhood snout-deep in Proust. It doesn’t hurt, of course. Look at Zadie Smith. If you are a sensible, intelligent, an unattractive adult, chances are you’ve read a bunch anyway. If you read Dan Brown, chances are you’re an idiot. 

So, do you have to be ugly to be a good writer? 

Yes. You have to be a freak. Good-looking people have nothing to struggle against. They glide through life with ease as the world fawns at their feet. They are scum and will never win the Booker. 

What if I have nothing to say? 

You’re not looking hard enough. If you’ve had a cosseted upbringing in a massive house with a loving family, and achieved a First at Oxford, chances are you’ll end up reviewing books in The Guardian. It is your destiny to call Martin Amis a powerless reactionary twerp.

But, I don’t think it matters if you have nothing to say. Writing is invention. You don’t have to have lived in war-torn Bosnia to write a good novel. In fact, those with first-rate educations are more likely to get into print, even if the books are tedious cock, so despair ye not. 

What writers do you worship? 

Before I came onto the Napier MA Course, I loved Fyodor Dostoevsky. His writing is so messy, pumped full of bile, bleak, and laced with black humour, he was essential for my adolescent development. I also adored Will Self for his remarkable talent to meld genre with satire. Other favourites were Kurt Vonnegut, Mikhail Bulgakov, Georges Perec and Alasdair Gray.

Since I started, I have been introduced to some new favourites. I am smitten with Gilbert Sorrentino, whose novels combine outrageous experimentation with scathing satire and brutal realism. Gilbert Adair writes short parodies which are addictive and charming. My course tutor turned me on to Lucy Ellmann, whose work shook me with its frenetic energy, its drowning-woman-at-sea ranting and razor-sharp observation. Others include: Raymond Queneau, Nicola Barker, Ali Smith, W.G. Sebald, Flann O’Brien, David Foster Wallace, B.S. Johnson. 

Are you happy? 

Of course not. I am a writer.