Sitting at his home in Oxford, Mississippi, acclaimed author Nico Walker lights a cigarette, closes his eyes, and starts talking poetry. “I’m a huge fan of poetry,” Walker says between exhales. “I love the sound of ordinary words.”
Nico Walker may be a fan of common words, but his journey as an author has been anything but. Walker served as an army medic during the Iraq war, and when he returned home he had been on more than 250 combat missions and developed post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, so he turned to heroin to cope. The drug habit led to a criminal life, which led to a period in jail. He began to write his first novel, the semi-autobiographical Cherry, while serving an eleven-year prison sentence for a series of Cleveland-area bank robberies committed over a four-month span. It soon became an unexpected phenomenon (“we thought maybe 1,000 copies would be sold,” he recalls. The actual number is 100,000 copies in print) and earned several accolades, including a PEN / Hemingway award nomination. As a form of penance, Walker used the book’s proceeds to pay for the banks he robbed.
The Russo brothers’ directorial duo caught on and, after featuring a few Marvel epics, have adapted Walker’s work into a dramatic thriller. The film opens this weekend in theaters and on AppleTV on March 12, starring Tom Holland. GQ reached out to Walker to discuss the film adaptation, what he’s working on now, and how he’s dealing with writing during a pandemic.
You are a writer used to working in unusual circumstances. First in prison and now during a pandemic. Are there any similarities between the two?
It is similar in many ways. The messages we receive from those who are trying to keep us safe remind me a lot of prison. I really can’t complain about that right now. I am relatively unaffected. I can work from home. I feel like a bum. I’m sitting here comfortable, ordering Doordash. Then you have people who have to go out to work and feed everyone.
You declined to be an executive producer on Cherry. What do you think of the movie?
I ended up being an executive producer “on paper.” The Russians fulfilled the contract by paying the rights to the book. They didn’t necessarily use me in the movie, which is their prerogative. I’ve seen a bit of the movie. I’m not really trying to see it. I guess the main reason is that I have my own idea of what that story is and I don’t want to replace it with someone else’s version. I know that’s a bit selfish.
However, there is a precedent there. Steinbeck never saw Of mice and men on Broadway, for example.
I really like John Steinbeck. Sweet thursday Y Flat tortilla they are killers. Steinbeck is actually underrated, which is saying something. One of the first things I read in prison was a biography of Steinbeck. It was as big as a phone book. Anyway, I wish you all the best of luck with the movie. I hope the spirit of the book is intact.
Did you ever hope Cherry to become the sensation you are today?
I felt like I was gaining something. This is not how things normally went for me. It really took off in a direction I had never thought of. Of all the books that were published, people were paying attention to what I wrote. It was a very surreal and unexpected experience. That wasn’t really how things went for me.