A Chat with Nicolas Poynter

I’m pleased to welcome Nicolas Poynter, author of Stories From the Bottomless Pit, to our features. He had his fiction piece “Gringo Town” published in the the fifth issue of NicheYou can also read some of his other work at Gravel, The Chagrin River Review, The Citron ReviewTupelo QuarterlyThe East Bay ReviewThe Siren, and  The North American Review.

NICHE: When and how and why did you begin writing? Can you tell our readers a little bit about your journey?

NICOLAS POYNTER: In the beginning: I was a really eccentric kid. And I was listening to my teachers and classmates who were telling me that this was a bad thing. They always seemed so disgusted with me and my inability to behave normally. It gave me some serious self-esteem issues that I still carry around with me today. I still walk into large groups of people telling myself, okay now,…don’t say anything strange, Nicolas. Be normal! But one day I started reading and then I discovered Vonnegut and Tom Robbins and Catch 22. The characters is those books were just as odd as me and, more and more, I began trading reality for fiction. This is a good trade. I don’t care what anybody says. Kurt Vonnegut saves kid’s lives.

Of course, after developing a love of reading, it is a short jump to writing and it can also be very therapeutic for lonely kids, even though this type of writing is generally self-absorbed and really disgusting. I must have gotten a little happier in my twenties and didn’t need to write so much. I kept thinking about writing. I just didn’t actually do it, until I took a traveling job in my late thirties. Being cooped up in lonely hotels rooms for eight years reintroduced me to my two first loves–whiskey and literature. But this time I had matured and I wasn’t so horribly lazy. I have stuck with the writing this time, even graduating from a MFA program a few years back.        

NICHE: What can you tell our readers about your collection of stories, Funny Stories From The Bottomless Pit?

NICHOLAS POYNTER: There are two stories that I first wrote when I was very young, sixteen and eighteen, and thinking about suicide often. I put them first even though I don’t think they are the strongest stories, because I think there is an interesting transition happening. There is, of course, something biochemically askew in my brain. I am now guessing it is bipolar disorder or mild autism or some wicked combination of several things. But I didn’t have a clue what was happening to me when I was younger and I think the early stories show this raw frustration. I now understand it–the cyclical nature of it–and am able to control my life in a way that I never could before. I think this comes into focus story-by-story. At least I hope it does.  

Funny thing: After I read an article on bipolar disorder in my late thirties, I looked at my college transcript and it was like watching a rhythmic EKG printout–two semesters of perfect grades and then a semester of failure and withdrawals, over the course of six years. You could set your watch by it. This had been happening in high school too–great semesters followed by flunking the sixth grade followed by straight As followed by jumping off a cliff. I never had a clue. For most of my life, I self-destructed every so many months as if on a schedule, but I never had any idea that there was an explanation for it beyond me simply being a loser.

NICHE: Can you tell us a little bit about how you go about balancing humor with grim themes?

NICHOLAS POYNTER: It is easy for me to get pulled into my own tragedy and start writing page after page about my stupid feelings, which will only serve to torment the reader. Humor is a way to cut the drama. I want to tell the truth and talk about the dismal nature of being alive, but there is no reason this can’t be funny. However, it doesn’t have to be. The Grapes of Wrath is one of my favorite books and I don’t think there are more than a few small jokes in there, if that. But aside from John Steinbeck and Virginia Woolf, I prefer writers who make me laugh.

I also think that humor is especially relevant and powerful regarding the troubled-loner character.  It horrifies me that there are kids out there who share my same tendency towards isolation, and maybe some of my mental issues, and they are walking into schools and churches and theaters to murder innocent people. But when I look into the faces of these murderous kids, I don’t see a sense of humor. A person that can laugh is a person that loves life and loves people, not a person filled with hate. This is an important distinction for me. 

NICHE: What are you working on now?

NICHOLAS POYNTER: My book–Volcano Wars. It tells the story of a lovable group of mental defectives that precipitate the secession of California from the United States of America. I thought it was good enough last year and it came close to finding a publisher, but now I realize it wasn’t good enough. So, I cut half the characters, using them for stories in Funny Stories From the Bottomless Pit, and then built it back up again, more focused on a smaller cast of characters. I am almost ready to put it out there again. And if it still isn’t good enough, I will gut it again and build it back up again. I can do this for eternity if needed. But I’m optimistic (and I am never optimistic). It’s a funny book. It will make people laugh.

NICHE: As you might know, Niche runs a profile series called “Careers for Writers,” which aims to give aspiring writers advice on how to “make it” as a writer once they enter the workforce. Can you tell us a little bit about how you balance your day job with your writing life?

NICHOLAS POYNTER: Sometimes I am inspired to write. Other times I am not. I have learned to force myself to write even when I don’t feel like it and I think this is a very important step. And it doesn’t matter if you are working two jobs or unemployed–if you don’t write, nothing gets written. That’s physics. And very often, when I force myself to write a few pages even though I don’t want to do it, it turns into twenty pages and some of my best stuff.

NICHE: What words of advice or inspiration would you give to aspiring writers?

NICHOLAS POYNTER: I think some writers are craftsmen. They may not have anything important to say, but they can write really well and are fun to read. I don’t know anything about that type of writer. Other writers write because it is saving their lives. These people will never stop writing, regardless of how bad they are or how many rejections they receive. 

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