Nuala Casey was born in Stockton on Tees on 4thFebruary 1979, the youngest of five children. She grew up in the countryside with eight acres of fields and woodland to play in as well as numerous dogs, cats, horses and donkeys.
Nuala graduated from Durham University in 2001 and moved to London to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. However, her experiences living in Soho where she chronicled the comings and goings of the people around her, took her life in a different direction.
She went on to work as a copywriter and was awarded an MA in Creative Writing. Her debut novel Soho, 4am was published by Quercus in 2013 and was described by the Huffington Post as “the London Novel revived.” Urban living and the voices of the city continue to provide inspiration for her writing. Nuala’s latest novel, Summer Lies Bleeding, is out now (Quercus).
Whenever I read Woolf it feels like coming home. I love the dream-like quality of her novels but I also love the sharp, witty tone of her diaries and essays. Like me she liked to walk across London and once dedicated an entire essay ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ to her journey across town in search of a pencil. Woolf captures both the beauty and the brutality of life, moment by moment, breath by breath.< >
I first watched this when I was in my early teens and identified immediately with the character of Jimmy. Quadrophenia has inspired my work in so many ways: the idea of rootlessness; of trying to recreate a past that no longer exists; the search for an identity beyond the family is something that crops up again and again in my writing. It’s played out to the most magnificent score by The Who and the scene where Jimmy drives towards the cliff to Love Reign O’er Me gives me shivers every time.< >
This Soho institution, on Great Chapel Street, with its red gingham tablecloths and movie star memorabilia has been going strong for eighty years and was my favourite place to have breakfast when I lived in Soho. I always pop in when I go back to Soho, not least to catch up with Mario, the legendary proprietor whose father opened the café in 1933. There are not many places like this left in London.< >
This beautiful Andalucian town on the hill with its white buildings and Moorish architecture is one of my favourite places to visit. It’s a little pocket of old Spain hidden away on the Coast of Light, with miles of unspoilt beaches in easy reach; medieval herb gardens and narrow, winding streets. If you climb to the top of the hill on a clear day you can see the North African coast.< >
‘I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn.’ Paul Auster is the master of the killer first line. I first discovered his work when I was nineteen and was hooked immediately. Even now, all these years later, the release of a new Auster novel is always something to look forward to, and I have to set aside a day to read it all in one go.< >
When I lived in Soho I would spend idle Sundays walking across the city almost as though I was on a country ramble. Back then I didn’t know there was a word for my seemingly aimless walks but then I discovered the work of the Situationists and the idea of the flâneur; I read Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territory and Richard Steele’s ‘Twenty-Four Hours in London’ and suddenly everything made sense. Wherever I go in the world I’m never happier than when I’m getting lost.< >
I love the fact that the people in Hopper’s paintings look like they are on their way to somewhere else. They all appear to be lost in time, floating between worlds: the lone woman sitting in an all-night diner, head bowed, dreaming; the couple standing on a veranda bathed in white light. I spent my twenties going up and down the country on trains and buses and Hopper’s paintings remind me of that feeling of stepping out of real time and entering the netherworld of motorways and service stations, twinkling streetlights and Styrofoam cups. I could look at his paintings forever.< >
Pacittos ice cream is the best ice cream you will ever taste and their famous Lemon Tops are something of an institution in Stockton, the town where I grew up. The Italian Pacitto family have been serving ice cream to the people of Stockton for generations and their café, a 1950’s-style soda bar, is still as popular today as it was when my parents were teenagers and had one of their first dates there. I always stop by and get one whenever I go home.< >
To me witches represent strength, beauty and natural powers. I think all of us would benefit from listening to our inner witch from time to time. One of my favourite books as a child was Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch, the story of Mildred Hubble, a less than perfect student witch. I was a bit like Mildred at school, particularly when it came to PE and Maths, where I always got the wrong end of the stick, literally.< >
I grew up listening to The Beatles; I wanted to write songs like them, I wanted to dress like Astrid Kirchherr and drive a VW Beetle around Hamburg; I wanted to sit down at a piano and write something as sublime as Let it Be and still have enough energy left to rip into Twist and Shout. But it was the storytelling that really inspired me; those perfect novels in three minutes like Eleanor Rigby, Penny Lane and A Day in the Life, tales of lonely women and bored barbers, obsessed vicars and runaway schoolgirls. The Beatles, to me, stand outside of genre and classification. They are the poster band of the sixties yet they don’t sound like the sixties; their songs could have been written today or fifty years in the future, that is their genius.< >
I’ve always wanted a time machine – when I was little I even tried to build one – but the nearest thing to time travel for me is the Venice Carnival where you can walk through winding streets as freezing fog rises from the canal and masked seventeenth century figures appear through the mist. I love winter and I seem to come to life as the nights draw in and the air turns cold so Venice Carnival, which celebrates Candlemas, the darkest point of winter, is heaven for me.< >
The scene in the cinema queue where an obnoxious man is standing pontificating behind Alvy Singer is one of my favourite pieces of cinema. I’ve often felt like Alvy when I’ve been stuck on a train behind some loud-mouthed bore,spouting opinions and mis-quoting ad nauseum. Forget rom-coms, this is the ultimate feel good film for me, not least because it is about somebody who is even more of a worrit than me!< >
- Virginia Woolf
- The Star Cafe
- Vejer de la Frontera
- Paul Auster
- Edward Hopper
- Lemon Tops
- The Beatles
- Venice Carnival
- Annie Hall
What inspires you to write?
People first and foremost. I am a great people watcher, something that stems, I think, from being the youngest of five children. I spent most of my childhood listening in to conversations and trying to build up stories and characters around the snippets of gossip I overheard. I love developing a character, fleshing it out and working out how they will react to a set of circumstances. I am also interested in how living in a city can alter a person’s psyche; how the urban landscape affects people’s decisions, tastes and behaviour.
Do you have a writing routine?
Yes and I have to stick to it as I write when my little boy is at school. I am usually at my desk by 9am, coffee in one hand, pen in the other. If I’m writing something from scratch I like to write in longhand first. There’s something about the hand to brain connection that gets the words flowing. If I’m editing, I will be typing away furiously to a soundtrack that differs depending on what kind of scene I’m writing. Death scenes are usually accompanied by Mozart’s Requiem; psychological scenes by Einaudi. I also try to read before I start writing each morning; something to get me into the mood of the piece. I usually read a poem or a short story – particular favourites are Alice Oswald’s Dart for her hauntingly precise interweaving of voices and landscape; Virginia Woolf’s Selected Short Stories and Dickens’ Night Walks for the hidden voices of the city. Mornings tend to be dedicated to writing; afternoons to editing, answering emails and updating my blog.
Are there particular themes in your books?
I am fascinated by the past and how people deal with it and I think this is something that comes through in my writing. I also like to look at the armour people wear to withstand modern life, the coping mechanisms that can develop into dangerous addictions and obsessions. Rootlessness is another theme that tends to crop up in my work: the search for a home or a place to belong. My writing has been described as psychogeographical and there is a strong element of ‘wandering’ throughout Soho, 4am where the voices of the city interweave with the thoughts of the characters.
Who are your literary heroes?
Virginia Woolf for her use of language and her boldness in creating a whole new literary form. I love the sombre beauty of her sentences and the way she uses words like scattered petals, throwing them up into the air and seeing where they will land. I also love her essays, where you get a real sense of the sharp-minded, witty person she really was.
Paul Auster for his spare, yet hypnotic prose, his killer first lines and the strange otherness he creates out of seemingly mundane circumstances. In one of my favourite of his novels, Mr Vertigo, he describes, in minute detail, the process of teaching a young boy to fly and you believe every word.
Chekhov: I first discovered him through his plays, which I loved, but then I read his short stories and was utterly bowled over. They are a masterclass in the art of observation and I still turn to them again and again whenever I want to remind myself just how good writing can be.
James Joyce: I read Dubliners when I was seventeen and had never been so drawn into a world, its sounds, smells and voices. It was like shining a spotlight onto a stage and seeing a life unfold in the space of a few moments before the light faded again. It made me want to write stories, tell stories and explore those hidden worlds beyond the light.
Patricia Highsmith: Her writing combines the literary with the psychological thriller seamlessly. I love the way she gets right into a character’s head without compromising on plot.
Emily Bronte: I have been mesmerised by Emily since I was thirteen and first read Wuthering Heights. Here is a woman who was crippled with homesickness whenever she went away from Haworth yet who stalked the moors wearing a man’s suit with a bull mastiff by her side; who never, as far as we know, had a love affair yet who wrote one of the greatest odes to obsessive love in literature. Wuthering Heights was seen as shocking and obscene when it was first published, but, like Woolf, Bronte was doing things with writing that were decades ahead of their time.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes. When I was a little girl I spent all my spare time writing plays and stories and ploughing my way through the books in my dad’s study; I once spent an entire summer cataloguing the whole lot with a meticulous hand-written library card system which still exists to this day. My parents introduced me to literature and the power of the written word at an early age. Dad was a journalist and I grew up listening to the sound of the typewriter bashing out scripts to deadline. To me writing was as normal and necessary as breathing. The house was full of singing and storytelling and music too and being the youngest of five I had a wealth of material to draw on from the comings and goings and dramas of my elder siblings.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
I step away from my desk and do something completely removed from writing: hang out the washing; cook; go for a walk. Often when I’ve been struggling with a chapter or a character, I’ll go and fill the kettle and while I’m waiting for it to boil the answer will come. Reading
How has music inspired your writing?
I spent my teens writing songs and singing and was massively influenced by The Beatles. I loved the fact that their songs were stories, precise observations of life, with lines that could grace the best novels: ‘Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name.’/ ‘He blew his mind out in a car; he didn’t notice that the lights had changed.’ Some people get ideas for novels from paintings, I get a lot of mine from songs.
When I moved to Soho, I would sit on the window seat in my little flat and look out as all of life passed by below. As I watched, I would scribble little character portraits, vignettes that I thought would be songs but turned out to be the foundation of Soho, 4am. Frith Street played host to every type of character you could possibly imagine: party girls and businessmen, dreamers and musicians, artists and media suits, tramps and millionaires, they all walked by during the course of a day.
I still have the songs that I wrote back then and music remains a vital element of my life and a great influence on my writing.
What inspired you to write your latest novel, Summer Lies Bleeding?
The idea for Summer Lies Bleeding came after reading of the death of an overworked young city trader and the comments of her colleague who remarked that ‘this city sucks the life out of you’. Through this novel, I wanted to look at the coping mechanisms many of us employ to survive the pressure of city living and how, if left unchecked, these survival tactics can turn into dangerous obsessions. I also wanted to explore the effects of the economic crisis and the isolation and loneliness of urban living; how seemingly un-related lives can impinge on each other and how, in a city of eight million souls, a stranger can dictate your fate.
Is it hard to juggle being a parent with writing?
Being a parent is not easy no matter what job you do and like other working parents, I have to be super organised, make every moment count and survive on very little sleep and lots of strong coffee!
But, I’ve never bought into the whole Cyril Connolly idea that the pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art. For me, having a child has enhanced my creativity. My twenties had been a pretty tough period, where I lost a lot of my teenage zest for life and became quite cynical. Having my little boy gave me the strength to follow my dream of writing fiction and I suddenly began to see things clearly again. I have this little companion who doesn’t miss anything, who points out cobwebs on trees, mushrooms hidden in the grass, a tree turning yellow, the absurdity of one word having several meanings. He makes me slow down and see the magic in the details; makes me look at things as though for the first time. For me, becoming a mother brought me back to life.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a collection of short stories documenting Soho past, present and future. In Apocalypse Soho, voices of Soho residents and workers weave in and out of the narrative, alongside voices of the past, mythic voices, hidden voices and voices of the underground, to create a ‘literary census’ of Soho as it stands on the cusp of radical transformation.
I would really welcome hearing your questions on Summer Lies Bleeding or any of my writing. Please feel free to get in touch here.
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