Be Inspired Series
A designer by trade, then a journalist, Nick has written three books, the second of which was a Belfast Telegraph best seller in 2005. On the Island, his latest book, follows the trials and tribulations of one journalist’s quest for peace.
What does your job involve?
Well, obviously, writing books. It also involves book launches, book signings and promotional activity. I have always been a terrible show-off and have no fears of public speaking, but attracting attention because of my books I find surprisingly unnerving. It's the only time I ever really feel shy.
How did you get into journalism?
I was working for Eddie Shah on Today Newspaper in its early days. I was only 25 years-old and the art director of the Sunday supplement magazine, 'Extra'. I then got into writing reviews of shows and exhibitions. It developed from there.
I remember an exhibition on London's South Bank. It featured the favourite paintings of various celebrities. Greta Scacchi had chosen some multi-coloured swamp of a picture which I whinged on about at great length.
There couldn't have been much news that week and since Ms Scacchi was glamorous at that time, they made my story the lead on the front of the magazine.
Did this lead naturally into writing novels?
More or less. When I moved to Northern Ireland twenty years ago I redesigned Northern Woman, but also started to write the magazine's diary column ... anything that came into my head. I did this for a few years and then moved on to book writing.
What are the main qualities you need to be a successful novelist?
There's a difference between being a successful novelist and a good writer. To be a successful novelist you need a lot of luck, stamina and a very thick skin.
To be a good writer takes talent. You can become commercially successful overnight, but to become a good writer can take years.
My work isn't designed to be commercially successful. It is aimed at being honest.
I would rather get a positive response from one reader who buys into the emotional core of a book than sell a shed load of books. Well, both would be ideal, but I definitely don't write to make money.
What's best about your job?
I have complete artistic freedom. Within reason I can write whatever I like. I enjoy being able to manipulate my characters' lives ... Will they live? Will they die? Will they find redemption ... happiness? I can wipe out whole civilisations with the wiggle of my pen ... "They breathed a sigh of relief ... and then the asteroid struck ... " Things like that.
Also it is an activity that can be done anywhere ... I've written chapters in bed in the Pyrenees, on the platform at Portadown Station and by the sea in Donegal. I just need my laptop.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Having to absorb negative criticism. The most extreme criticism seems to come from those who would like to write a book, haven't, and yet are jealous that you have. The good news comes in emails from those who say this or that about the book really moved them.
What are your aspirations?
To write a book that I am completely satisfied with.
Also, being a lover of film, it would be interesting to see my characters moving on screen. In my imagination I quite often cast film actors as my characters. I often appear in my books too, as do friends and family. I'm usually the down at heel depressive with a drink problem.
Who inspires you?
John Irving, the author of The World According to Garp and anyone who can make me cry.
Actually, I cry a lot. When I got married eighteen months ago, the only way I could stop myself from sobbing in the church was to visualise myself as Steve McQueen. What would Steve McQueen do, I thought. It worked.
How do you make sure you stand out from the competition?
I don't think that book writing is a competitive activity. I always feel a bond with other writers ... published, unpublished ... good or bad ... It's something that seems to attract sensitive, thoughtful people.
If people like my work, then brilliant, and if they don't, then that's fine too. I considered being a fashion designer many years ago, and as with Fashion, with writing you have got to follow your own instincts and not follow trends. Have a strong sense of your own style. Trust yourself to have stand-out qualities.
How did your training and career prepare you for writing a book?
I went to art college towards the end of the seventies. It was a fantastic experience. Punk was happening in London. A very exciting time. We had a lot of freedom. People used to mistake me for Johnny Rotten. Well, once. At college we were trained to look at the world with a different eye, to be broad-minded. I trained to be an illustrator, but then spent a lot of time writing short stories when I should have been drawing.
What advice would you give someone keen to write a novel?
Actions speak louder than words. Just do it. Actually, I remember someone saying that to me at a christening when I had been boring them stupid with all my writing plans and aspirations. Just do it. Well, I did.
Who do you aspire to be like?
These days I aspire to be like my father. He was a real man, had the courage of a lion. He knew right from wrong. He was my moral compass.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself
Last year I was a contestant in Channel Four's cookery show, Come Dine With Me. It hasn't been shown on telly yet. I'm a bit nervous, as I remember singing the Welsh national anthem (in Welsh) and arm wrestling (even before I'd had a drink).
What's the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Actually, it was from Chairman Mao (but not in person), "a journey of a thousand of miles begins with a single step".
Writing a book is like a long journey. It's a process of repetitive steps. Like knitting a very long scarf, you'll get there in the end. Just do a little every day.