Nicole Flattery has always had a special fascination with tape recordings, so it makes sense that her debut novel, Nothing Special, focuses on them. Author of the short story collection Show Them A Good Time and winner of awards such as the White Review Short Story Prize, Flattery brings Andy Warhol’s 1960s New York City to life by reimagining the women who work behind the scenes at his studio Art, which Sally Rooney aptly described as “bold, irreverent and excruciatingly funny”. Nothing Special follows 17-year-old high school dropout Mae, who is hired as Warhol’s typist, along with several other women, as they put together a novel based on photographs taken by his famous friends. Mae befriends one of the typists, Shelley, and the two embark on a journey to find themselves and how they fit into this world, but as Mae becomes increasingly obsessed with the tapes, she grows increasingly numb to her own Reality.
“I keep coming back to that particular era, probably because I studied film in college and the ’60s and ’70s were such an interesting time for films,” Flattery tells me via Zoom from her home in Dublin. “But I was inspired to this particular idea about Warhol by Olivia Laing’s Lonely City, where his novel is mentioned, and I wanted to know more.” Warhol’s novel, entitled a: a novel, is actually real and was published in 1968, existing from transcripts of conversations that took place in his studio, The Factory.
But Flattery didn’t want to write a book about Warhol, but the complex lives of the women behind the scenes who make his book possible. He’s only mentioned a few times in Nothing Special. “He hired people like Mae and Shelley because they came from an unstable background and because he needed that kind of energy from them. I wanted to explore those power dynamics and instead focus on their thoughts and experiences,” she explains.
Below, Flattery reflects on celebrity culture, writing during lockdown, and her fascination with the internet.
On the subject of celebrities:
“I find the concept of a celebrity and the construction that goes into a celebrity’s brand or image quite fascinating. All the people working behind the scenes to build that special image and how that has evolved over the years, especially with the rise of the digital world. As a society, we tend to make people iconic, which is what I wanted to convey with Mae in Nothing Special. But with celebrities or famous people like Warhol, there was a distance between us and them. An air of mysticism surrounded her that was separate from her public image.
“But now celebrities feel closer than ever because we want to get to know them, but there’s also this push-and-pull effect because we also want to believe in the fantasy and mystery of them. I think that’s why there’s been so much appetite for biopics like Elvis and Bohemian Rhapsody lately, because we want to take a look inside the world of these icons. The construction of celebrity has made us feel like we know musicians, movie stars, artists, etc. and form these parasocial relationships with them, but all we actually know is what they presented to us.”
On the break from social media:
“I take a break from social media every now and then, but I actually stopped using Twitter for a while during lockdown and writing the book. And I really didn’t think it was going to have a huge effect on me or my mind, but I was surprised at how much clarity and calm I felt as I embraced it. I don’t think all that noise is good for anyone. But I find the voyeurism and surveillance aspects of the internet particularly odd and interesting, and that’s probably why they’re such a prominent subject in the book.”
About writing a book in a gallery:
“I’ve been writing a lot of ‘Nothing Special’ during lockdown so like so many of us I’ve been spending a lot of time at home in my flat in Ireland. But when the restrictions eased I was lucky enough to get a job as a writer-in-residence at the Temple Bar Gallery and they gave me an office which was a lifesaver. It was such a brilliant environment and having my own space just for writing was just what I needed. I honestly don’t think I could have finished the book without him.”
On finding her voice:
“When I first started writing, I felt that stories should be read and written a certain way, and it took me a long time to write beyond that. I thought literature had to be serious (especially as a woman) to be taken seriously, if you’re funny and like to read humor or love romance, there’s no way you can put that into your writing. But it’s just unaffordable for creativity. Finding your own voice in your writing and trusting your own instincts can be nerve-wracking and take a while – I definitely spent several years in my 20s feeling that way – but that’s where the good stuff is. And even if it takes a while, chances are you’ll come across something more interesting than you expected.”
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
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