Seventeen-year-old Mae is drawn into the world of Andy Warhol’s factory in 1960s New York. As she transcribes the tapes of conversations between Warhol and his alluring friends she finds escape from her home life, with her alcoholic mother and her sometimes boyfriend, and the banality of her school friends. On the fringes of counterculture with her colleague Shelly, Mae finds herself increasingly drawn into Warhol’s world and increasingly numb to her own reality, and walks the line between art and voyeurism. Stylish and original, Nothing Special is the debut novel from Irish author Nicole Flattery.
Tell us about the real book Nothing Special is based on and why it inspired your novel.
Nothing Special is based on the novel a, A Novel by Andy Warhol, first published in 1968. It was supposed to be a day in the life of Ondine, Warhol’s most verbose superstar, but it was actually recorded across four sessions. It inspired me as I’ve always been fascinated by recordings and surveillance of every kind (an influence on the novel was Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation, a paranoid masterpiece). a, A Novel throws up interesting questions – who benefits from the creation of art? When does star-making turn into something more sinister? What happens when we record every minute of our lives? Nothing Special is a historical novel but these questions are more relevant than ever.
a, A Novel contains a lack of editing and inconsistencies, and Warhol believed doing something the wrong way opened doors. Were you tempted to employ any of his spontaneity or rule breaking in your prose?
I was not; I’m not that sort of writer. I enjoy the long, unwieldy paragraph, the big chunk of text (anyone who has edited me is probably too familiar with this). That’s the way I write now, the way I approach a page. I don’t know if that will ever change. Warhol did make me think about time though. He was immensely playful with time: his film Empire is a long static shot of the Empire State Building for eight hours; Sleep is footage of his partner John Giorno just sleeping. This was not a man who got straight into the action. And I thought, well, I’m going to do the same. If the reader wants to go to the Factory, I’m going to make them wait for it.
Mae spends so much time transcribing Warhol’s tapes that she begins to live inside them. Is the same true for the novelist?
I can only speak for myself here but yes, absolutely. There is a brief elation when you finish a novel – it lasts for roughly a week or two, until you’ve exhausted all your friends, all their stories. Then the darkness, what to do with my life now? What will happen to me?
Mae describes a time in New York when “the city was controlled by children… the streets were wild, overrun by children making children’s decisions” and “young people were treating adults with bare contempt…”. Was this specific to New York in 1967-68 or was this echoed elsewhere and at different time?
I think the younger generation have always rejected the previous generation. It’s part of their development. I think it was more apparent in the 1960s because the gap between the fifties and sixties – the gap in how they thought, how they approached sex, what they wanted – was so huge.
Mae is savvy and resilient in comparison to Shelley and others around her. Are New Yorkers born, not made?
I think that savviness is something Mae learns. It’s not something she starts the novel with. I think what Mae has, possibly more than the other characters, is a unique sense of self-preservation. I think that’s more to do with her upbringing and her relationship with her mother than anything to do with the city. I think the general consensus is that people in cities grow up quicker, but I’ve met people who grew up in cities who are incredibly sheltered. Some people who live in cities seek out experiences that are specifically sheltered, only mixing with those who are like them. It’s hard to speak generally about anything.
Warhol was enamoured with women but Mae, herself unpaid, sees those who orbit the Factory and populate his art as demeaning and humiliating themselves. She sees others around him are exploited as well. Can you tell us more about Warhol’s complicated relationship with women and can we overlook all his flaws because he was something special?
I’m not sure you can overlook anyone’s flaws because of their talents or gifts. I guess that’s been a conversation we’ve been having for the last few years. Warhol felt very close to women. That’s clear from his relationship with his mother. He was very good at identifying women who were rare, beautiful or charismatic, and putting them on screen. The ability to do that is a gift in itself. I’m sure he could turn on people, become cruel and uncaring, or worse, disinterested and bored. I’m sure receiving attention from Warhol felt amazing, and when it was taken away it felt like failure, like death. I don’t think he was the devil though. Like everything, it’s more complicated than what we’re familiar with.
Does the Irish diaspora still shape New York’s identity as it did and is it one of the reasons you were drawn to writing about it?
I wasn’t thinking about the Irish link to New York – although it’s strong – when I was writing this. Really, I was more concerned with questions about self-invention, identity, work, and friendship. The link is interesting to think about though. I, myself, spent a year in New York, which was useful, in retrospect.