Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Nick Sweeney’s fiction piece, A Song as Old as the World
John: The impermanence of the world is on full display here. Like the coming dawn, Kathy is in a liminal world between what has been and what is to come. Do you find these places uncomfortable or exciting?
Nick: I spent most of the 90s overseas, and sometimes it felt like camping in somebody’s garden; sometimes it was great to be invited in out of the elements for a hot meal and a shower, but then you overheard next-room conversations you didn’t want to hear, and were invited into kitchen table conversations you didn’t want to have. You dropped the soap in the bathroom, and saw the creeping mold under the sink in a hard-to-reach spot, stray hairs, dried blood, a discarded condom. Assimilation suits the refugee, maybe; people who get persecuted want to blend into a new location. I don’t think assimilation suits the artist quite so much. Americans and Brits I saw settling down with local partners brought out some inner compassion in me (if I liked them) and scorn (if I didn’t); I used to think they’d taken the trouble to live in a foreign country and live a different life, and yet just did a lot of the stuff they’d have done back home. Same shit, different parents-in-law. I enjoyed being an outsider. It was exciting, but I also found it uncomfortable at the same time.
Kathy has narrowly survived a brush with fame, or at least as a hanger-on to fame. Writers, especially literary writers, seem to have a very ambivalent relationship toward fame. On the one hand, we would like to know that our work is being read, but most of us are unwilling to make the compromises that would cause us to be read more. Where do you come down on this?
The ‘aside’ to the famous one is a paradoxical position. An artist’s partner can be lauded as a muse, or dismissed as a no-talent appendage. Famous people get criticized for their seeming incestuous bent, only hanging out with and partnering other famous people, but then when they are drawn to somebody ‘ordinary’, the partner is the one under scrutiny and question. In A Song as Old as the World, Kathy has decided that she isn’t going to occupy this precarious position. It’s not like Marek regards her as his muse, anyway: if she’d stayed with him, she wasn’t going to be adored, like Dali’s Gala, just slagged off and discarded, like Bowie’s Angie.
I want to be read. I can’t imagine any writer who wouldn’t.
I see no upside to being famous other than raking in money for nothing—how many famous people do one good thing, release one great album, one great book, and then just trade on it forever? Who really wants to do that, deep down in their hearts? As I’ve got older, and amassed money, property—stuff, a house full of stuff – I find it all a bit of a pain. Childless by design, who will I leave it all to? (Don’t write to me offering solutions—ha ha! I have a few.)
Kathy thinks that Marek is most likable when you don’t know him well. Do you think this might be a secret fear that we all have–that if people really get to know us, they will no longer love us?
Absolutely, and not so secret. When we’re younger, we actively seek out the people who’ll become our friends, whether it seems like that or not. Some of them reveal themselves and hurt us, and very often at the worst possible moments—the guy who dumps you on the second evening of your vacation together, the soul-mate who goes off with a stranger at a party on a sudden whim, the close friend who borrows a relatively insignificant sum of money from you and then avoids you forever—and we move on, and hope we won’t treat others the same. We can develop deep dislikes of our friends that bring out these things; they’re a way of letting them know you don’t like them, without stating it so baldly. We all want to be liked for who we are. We all like to have a take-me-or-leave-me thing at various times in our lives, which is either frighteningly honest or frighteningly fake.
The story leaves Kathy mid-transition. Do you think about what might happen to your characters after a story ends or are you one of those writers who refuses to speculate on the future of these people?
I like to think my characters have another life beyond the story. Some orthodox short story theories demand that characters change, but I think it’s only situations that change. Maybe Kathy will go on to avoid artists in future (as some of my friends, originally drawn to the artistic temperament, have done—they now shudder at the idea, and have gone for stockbrokers, or policemen)—or maybe she will find her Dali and become an essential part of his work. Who knows? Kathy is based on several friends in Warsaw, and in Istanbul, who wavered between the urge to keep moving, and the apparent safety in assimilation and stasis, and found both to have unthought-of traps.
I like to speculate. They are real people to me, even though, like the ‘real’ real people in my life, they fade in and out of my view. I was in Warsaw in the late 90s, and the archetypes of Kathy would be in their mid-40s now. I sometimes wonder what they’re doing, and, with the aid of social media, I sometimes find out.
You are in a Clash cover band. How did that happen? What is your favorite Clash song?
I was lucky enough to see one of the Clash’s first gigs (Screen on the Green in North London, 1976, the Sex Pistols headlining). I don’t remember much about them—thought they sounded ‘interesting’, I think. The Buzzcocks were also on that bill, and I don’t even remember seeing them—though I guess I must have. I loved the Clash more or less unconditionally up to their third album, and saw them a few more times. My favourite song of theirs is Complete Control—one of my fave singles from punk, the other being the Damned’s Smash It Up Part Two.
I was in a big Balkan band for nearly 10 years, with the usual band commitments and distractions of rehearsing, gigging, touring, writing, recording, “musical differences,” bickering, etc, so when some old friends invited me to join their established Clash covers band I jumped at the chance of what I thought might be some musical light relief. Doing covers, and as close to the records as possible, is actually a really odd musical task. Most of it is not written down, and though there are a good few tuition videos on YouTube, it’s still mainly a matter of listening, and committing to memory. I do the ‘Mick Jones’ job, so all the sometimes tricky lead guitar parts. It was a great learning opportunity, to dive into this great body of work and break it up, learn it, and perform it. On the surface, it’s easy: just copy the records. In reality, it’s very intricate, and somewhat demanding. Unfortunately, it sometimes looks like we may never play again, as we are now geographically scattered, but I hope we will.
I’ve just joined a local band playing ‘Americana’—the music of bluesers, early jazzers, swingers and shitkickers from the 1880s to the 1960s (there are differing views when ‘genuine’ Americana died out, and musicians like The Band, and Canned Heat, for example, were both channeling it and reviving it). I’ll be playing guitar, mandola (big mandolin) and banjo with them. I can’t really play the banjo, and sort of gave up the mandola when I stopped playing with a Gypsy orchestra I was in briefly, but I’m looking forward to nailing them, and have been spending a lot of time on them in these past weeks.