From Senior Editor Tim O’Connell: Discovering Cherry Behind Bars

On Friday, April 21, 2017 at 7:00 a.m., I found myself standing outside a federal prison with Matthew Johnson of Fat Possum Records. Months earlier, as we met for lunch in a bar that didn’t serve food, Matthew had shown me pages from Nico Walker’s debut novel. They were typed pages, the only copy of the work. And they were brilliant. So much heat to them, I was surprised they hadn’t spontaneously combusted. It was the emotion in the sentences. The black tar humor. All the hopes and dreams of young love buried under the weight of war and bureaucracy, right there in a line or two.

After seeing those initial sections, there was never a doubt in my mind that I would work with Nico. The question was, of course, how. He was in jail. His phone and computer access were severely limited. So the first step was to meet in person. I spent a total of six hours with Nico and Matthew in the prison’s visiting room. We talked about his characters, their motivations. We talked about Cleveland of the early 2000s, Iraq of 2006. We let the prison surrounding us recede. We asked ourselves, what is the novel about? Is it a “war novel,” a “drug novel,” a novel about young love? The answer was all these things, but we knew the book needed to be greater than the sum of its parts. Like everything that was to come, it was an intense, exacting conversation.

As we got up to go, I also told him that I would be posting an edited version of his manuscript to him. All packages have to be processed. Scanned in case they have been dipped in acid or any other type of contraband. This takes a long time. When my edits finally got to Nico, he was excited. He completely disagreed with some of them. He liked others. And that is where a truly spirited and amazing correspondence began. We would get on the phone, and knowing we only had 15 minutes, we would jump right in. But still I got to know Nico better and better as this went on. He had read everything he could get his hands on. Taught himself three languages. I liked him.

We did this until we felt we had a manuscript that was structurally in the place we wanted it to be. From there I sent Nico a clean draft with no edits and we would work through sentence-level stuff over email. They do have email in prison, but you can’t send attachments and emails vanish from your inbox after a month, so there is no referring to older correspondence. I have never had an author work so hard so fast. We discussed everything. Nothing missed his eye. So it was particularly great when I was able to call him one day and not talk about edits, but instead tell him he had publishers in the UK, Italy, France, Germany, and more.

When I was sending early galleys of the book out, I told the recipients that it is rare a blurb could change a life. I guess I can say the same thing about this editing process. I want everything for Nico. Having the chance to work with someone with such an original voice and clear vision was a blessing. It could be tricky sometimes, no doubt. But each and every second of it was worth it because this is a letter-tight book. Sometimes you just know something is brilliant. Cherry is that thing.

—Tim O’Connell, Senior Editor, Knopf