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Nico Walker was born in 1985 and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Aged 19, he joined the US army as a medic and served 11 months in Iraq, returning with what a forensic psychiatrist later described as one of the worst cases of PTSD he’d ever seen. Walker developed a heroin addiction and in 2011 began robbing banks, carrying out 10 heists in four months before he was arrested and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Now, with less than two years left on his sentence, he has published Cherry, a novel partly based on his experiences, which the Washington Post called “a miracle of literary serendipity, a triumph… his prose echoes Ernest Hemingway’s cadences to powerful effect”.
What prompted you to start writing?
Matthew Johnson, who co-owns Tyrant Books, read a  BuzzFeed article about me. We started talking and he told me I should write a book about my experiences. I wasn’t so eager to do it, because a lot of the stuff touched raw nerves. But he convinced me, so I went at it one step at a time. I definitely didn’t want to write a non-fiction memoir.
Legally, I didn’t think that I could. Beyond that, it was nice to have some ambiguity to hide behind.
Tell me about the practicalities of writing in prison.
When I started, I didn’t have tons of time. I had a job, working all day as a GED [general education development] tutor. The jail was very crowded, so there wasn’t a lot of solitude to get your thoughts together. I’d work on a typewriter in the law library, shoulder to shoulder with people. After a while, I’d get up really early when everyone was still asleep.
Were the prison authorities supportive?
I don’t think they were aware that I was writing it. They weren’t preventive, so that was good.
Is the book autobiographical?
On a very basic level it isn’t what happened to me. The military parts are the ones that most closely mirror my experience. But even then, there’s a lot that’s quite different.
Iraq turns out to be much worse than your narrator is prepared for. It’s a really tough section to read.
It was something I didn’t want to lie about. I needed to show it for how it really was and dispel any myths. It was a pretty bad experience. We had been told there was this existential threat [to the Iraqis] we were supposed to prevent and it turned out to not be the case. Going there, you find out you’re the problem. It seemed like we were trying to provoke as much fighting as we could.
Do you believe that aggressive approach was sanctioned higher up?
I can’t really say. Maybe the people who were making the policy knew that was how it happened and counted on it. Definitely I feel personally culpable. I don’t want to give this wrong idea that I was some kind of pacifist or observer – I was an active participant. [In the 2013 Buzzfeed article, Walker describes raiding houses and participating in combat missions during which innocent Iraqis were killed.] Maybe not to extremes, but I certainly didn’t try to ever stop anything and I endorsed whatever was going on just by being there. I look back on it and think, wow, I was an occupier and all that entails.
When the diagnosis of PTSD finally came, years after you returned from Iraq, was it helpful?
It wasn’t really important to me. I never went around telling people I had this thing and I never felt vindicated. But it was nice to have someone acknowledge at least the possibility that I wasn’t just some sort of antisocial, sociopathic person.
So you’re not citing PTSD as an explanation or excuse for what happened in the years after you came back from Iraq – the drug taking, the bank robbing?
Well, I was a criminal before Iraq. I used to sell marijuana. I’d broken into a house or two. So I had that aspect. But when I was arrested, I couldn’t understand what the big deal was. I was a little bit out of my mind at the time. Compared with what I’d been doing in Iraq, robbing banks seemed like kids’ stuff. Obviously it was wrong; I realise this now.
To what extent has writing helped you deal with all this?
A lot. [Iraq] used to be something I couldn’t think about without getting very upset. I’d be back there and it would be very intense. I’d get in a real excited state. You’d have some despair after that. Nowadays, it doesn’t seem like my life any more – it seems like somebody else’s. It’s not even something I think about.
Now you’ve published a book, with a couple of years left on your sentence, how do you feel about the future?
I feel all right about it. I’ve caught a really good break and I’m going to try to continue writing. Having the possibility of a career, having money, having motivation, having a purpose, a reason for getting out of bed… a lot of these guys here don’t have that. For them, getting out of jail is just going to be when a whole new set of problems start and I’m lucky that’s not the case for me so much.
What have you been reading and what will you read next?
The last good thing I read was Cockfighter by Charles Willeford. It’s a bleak narrative, but has character. The ending is perfect. Willeford takes the voice all the way. It comes off true. Next, I’m planning to read Robert Fagles’s translation of The Iliad. My cellmate’s reading it now. I’ve looked at a couple pages of it already and I have a good feeling about it. The language seems less fussy than the language in other versions I’ve looked at.
Have you read any books that do justice to your experiences – of crime, war and addiction?
Angels by Denis Johnson is the best book I’ve ever read about crime. He knew what he was writing about. L’étranger by Albert Camus is another book about crime and punishment that isn’t bullshit. When you get prosecuted, oftentimes you won’t be prosecuted for your crime, it’s how you lived that’s on trial, and Camus illustrates this sort of thing very well. Camus knew his shit, I think. Junky by William S Burroughs is an excellent book about being hooked on dope.
Have your fellow inmates read your book and, if so, what was their response?
Some have read my book. No one’s said they didn’t like it. I imagine that’s just because the ones who didn’t [like it] are being polite. Some prisoners don’t read at all. Other prisoners, all they do is read. It depends on the person. For me, it’s been really important. I’d have been in trouble if I didn’t have books.
• Cherry by Nico Walker is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To order a copy for £13.19 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
• This article was amended on 6 March 2019, to correct the detail that Matthew Johnson co-owns Tyrant Books and is not solely run by him.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Nico Walker: ‘I needed to show how bad Iraq was’ | Iraq