In his new novel “The City Under the Skin” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 272 pp., $26), Geoff Nicholson plumbs the depths of an unnamed city after young women begin turning up with crude maps tattooed on their backs.
His characters, including a hapless map store clerk, a haunted urban explorer and a reluctant gangster, tangle with a homicidal kingpin, becoming embroiled in a fast-paced cartographic thriller that requires them to decrypt the complex, coded mysteries of the city where they live.
Born and raised in England and a longtime resident of Los Angeles, Nicholson is no stranger to urban exploration; in books such as “The Lost Art of Walking” (2009) and “Walking in Ruins” (2013), he is continually interested in how people interact with their surroundings. Writing a novel in which cartography plays a key role, then, feels like a natural next step.
I spoke by phone with Nicholson about “The City Under the Skin,” the evolution of overlooked places and the importance of getting lost.
Did you start off wanting to write a book about cartography? It plays such an integral part in the novel, like a character in its own right.
I’m a bit of a serial obsessive in that I get deeply interested in things for a short time. And as a novelist, I’m always thinking ... “Is there a book in this?” So I think I have been wanting to. I wouldn’t say I collect maps, but I’ve been accumulating maps all my life. It’s not a collection in any meaningful sense, it’s just a couple of boxes in the spare room, but some of them are really quite old. Like the first time I ever went abroad from England was to France, I still have the map I bought there, two maps — one of Paris and one of Nancy, which is where I was. It seemed looking at the map was a pretty good way of understanding one version of what a town was, a city was, a place was.
And if you were to look at my work altogether, one of the recurring themes is the relationship between people and things. It seems to me that a map is a strange kind of halfway house between an object and, as it were, reality. You look at the map and it’s clearly an object and thing in itself, but it doesn’t mean anything except as it refers to an actual world out there.
Do you collect maps as artifacts or more as portals into memory?
It’s entirely a mnemonic device when I look at it. It’s not a beautiful or rare object, but it has meaning and value to me. So to that extent, it’s very much about my relationship with that time and place and the map was useful. I didn’t buy it as a souvenir, I bought it out of a need to get around.
In “The City Under the Skin,” the dialogue is crisp and quick. With this much fast-paced dialogue on the page, you must be very comfortable writing scripts.
I’ve been a reader and a writer since childhood. When the hormones were kicking in as I was a teenager, I did have some very intense experiences going to the theater seeing Pinter and Beckett, Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare. There was something incredibly exciting to me about being in a comparatively small theater and having people on the stage speaking words. That was my first ambition, to be a playwright. I did get plays on in the London fringe or the fringe of the fringe. It was an amazing experience to hear live actors speaking my words. That was a very early enthusiasm and one of the first ways I ever wrote. I spent a lot of time just writing dialogue, and that’s been incorporated into my novels. My attempts to write screenplays have been universally disastrous. Most screenplays are universally disastrous — they don’t get made, they don’t find a producer or a director.
I often found myself laughing out loud while reading, even though the novel is quite dark. How important is comedy in helping the medicine of darkness go down?
There was a strange time in my life when I used to write TV comedy for various British shows, one ... [of which] was for Tracey Ullman before she came to America. I was doing sketches and sending them in, and then I got the occasional contract. You’d have to write 60 minutes’ worth of comedy sketches, and you had to submit them and you’re paid by the minute. I found this absolutely excruciating. To sit down at your desk at 9 a.m. and be funny was just the hardest thing.
To write something with a narrative and description and characters that was or wasn’t funny, that might be incidentally funny, whether the comedy, humor or the wit would come out of the situation, was an enormous relief. I know that there is humor and wit in what I write, and I’m very pleased that there is. It’s nice to have the humor, but it doesn’t rely on the humor. If you laugh aloud, that would be great, but even if you didn’t, that would be OK.
“The City Under the Skin” never names the city it is about — it feels like bits of London and bits of Los Angeles grafted together. Yet you have a beautifully illustrative section about a young boy who is continually dropped off in different parts of the city by his mother and has to find his way home to become a “man.” How important is a sense of place in your work?
What I found is that people who read the book bring to it their own sense of place. I did a reading, and there was a guy who said it sounded amazingly like London. But then, someone else in the room said it sounded like 3rd Street in L.A. It does seem that people project their own notions of the city onto it, which is very much what I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be somewhere; I didn’t want it to be nowhere. I wanted it to be a fictional city, but not a blank city. There’s a lot of description that is quite specific, but there’s enough room for people to project their own ideas of what a city is and the cities they’ve known. When I was selling this book, there were an awful lot of people who didn’t get it for that reason. Some people seemed to think it was clearly a European city, some people thought it was Baltimore.
To answer your question about place — once you’ve described any city in a novel, it becomes a fictional city anyway. Raymond Chandler’s L.A. is not like any real version of L.A., and Dickens’ London, Simenon’s Paris, they’re all literary constructs, and we like them for that reason. Being the walker that I sometimes am, I walk around in what I think is Raymond Chandler’s L.A., but it’s never quite Raymond Chandler’s L.A. He’s another guy who tends to describe things very specifically, but if you ever go there, you realize there’s this gap between what he describes and the actual city. I think that’s what all novelists do.
What are some of the best parts of Los Angeles you’ve seen?
I always find this kind of tricky. I don’t want to get zen about it, but wherever you happen to be is the walk. I love poking around in the back alleys of L.A. Because in Hollywood, they’re now refurbishing and reclaiming certain alleys, and I always like them better when they were crumbling and falling apart. I’m very attracted to edge lands, however they’re defined. I often find edge lands aren’t really on the edge. If you go one street over from Hollywood Boulevard, or even one street over from Rodeo Drive, you go into the service streets and it’s strange and peculiar and quirky. And, of course, it’s changing all the time. I used to really enjoy pottering about in what has now become the Arts District downtown. There was a moment when it was just scary enough to be fun. It wasn’t too scary, but you walked down there and there was a vague sense of lack of ease. And now when you walk around the Arts District, it’s like wandering in a theme park. What you want is to find that moment when things are either falling into ruin or just about to change from being ruined to being restored.
How important is it for writers to get lost?
It’s vital. In a physical and metaphysical way, writers have to get out. I cannot imagine any author who sits down to write a book and knows exactly where he or she is going, and gets there. If you knew exactly where you were going, there would be no need for the journey. The process of writing is always about going up the wrong alley and coming back down and eventually, you hope, getting into some kind of territory that is more interesting and exciting than anything you ever imagined.
Waclawiak is essays editor of the Believer and author of the novel “How to Get Into the Twin Palms.”