Before this summer, Nicholas “Nico” Walker was known as an Iraq War veteran, a bank robber and a heroin addict. Now, he can add “novelist” to his resumé, care of his debut novel Cherry, out last month. But you won’t see him on a book tour in the near future; since 2013, he’s been stationary, serving 11 years in a federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky for bank robbery.
Becoming a writer wasn’t a part of Walker’s plan. Then again, neither was going to jail. During 2005 and 2006, Walker served in the Iraq War as a U.S. Army medic. When he returned to civilian life in Cleveland, he was left with seven medals for his valor, as well as PTSD. To cope with his pain, Walker turned to heroin, and by December 2010, he was funding his habit by robbing banks. Just four months later, he was arrested for bank robbery after stealing nearly $40,000 during 10 heists. In 2012, he pled guilty and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. His expected release date is November 2020.
While Walker may have led a life colorful enough to make a compelling memoir, he didn’t want to tell his story that way. Instead, Cherry reads as a semi-autobiographical love story and war tale that weaves in the national opioid epidemic. Centered around an unnamed narrator, the book follows him as he meets and marries fellow co-ed Emily and battles the trauma of fighting in Iraq.
“As far as the scenes that take place in Iraq, those are the most realistic parts because I wanted to give a true account about what it was like where I was,” Walker, now 33, tells Rolling Stone by phone from prison. “I didn’t want to put more drama in there to make it more interesting, glamorous or romantic.” In order to make it a novel, Walker had to depart from his own experiences, but he also found it necessary to incorporate details from his life. “The people in the book aren’t people I knew — they’re archetypes,” he adds. “I had to change so many things to have story arcs that worked.” The novel’s embedded anecdotes chronicle how the narrator and the secondary characters endure scenarios ranging from horrific and crass to romantic and fascinating. “I wanted to show the terrible things that happened in these kind of relationships. But that’s the point. “[Cherry] was a word for experience,” Walker says, referring to its connotation for newbies in the military and the idea of losing one’s virginity. “It’s what the novel is about: people being changed by their experience. So it seems fitting.”
Following his tenure in Iraq, the narrator in Cherry becomes addicted to heroin and begins robbing banks to pay for his habit. “It’s not personal,” the narrator tells a bank teller in the books. Like the narrator, it wasn’t “personal” for Walker, either, when he spearheaded bank heists for money. “I hadn’t done it before, but in a way I had,” Walker says. “It was something that was familiar to me: going into a place, taking chances and you have to take control of something to do what you want to do. I definitely lost a lot more than I got out of it.” For Walker, he gained fleeting self-respect and temporary contentment from his crimes: “As far as the effects afterwards, maybe you get a little of euphoria after the adrenaline rush robbing a bank, but other than that there’s nothing to it.”
While he’s been behind bars, Walker’s story didn’t go unnoticed. Matthew Johnson, co-founder of Fat Possum Records and part-owner of Tyrant Books, had a longtime fascination with war history. Always on the lookout for an eye-catching story, he decided one day to Google “Iraq war vet and bank robber” to see what would come up in search. It was then he discovered a lengthy feature from BuzzFeed, detailing Walker’s experiences serving in the military, battling PTSD and pulling bank heists. Fascinated by Walker’s story, Johnson decided to reach out to the man who lived such a wild ride. “I was like, ‘Man, if you sell your life story, you’ll make x-amount of money,’” Johnson tells Rolling Stone. “Not much. Like $100,000 is pushing it.” Johnson’s theory was that the story would get told one way or another. “I was like, ‘You have to try getting out in front of this or you’ll be some guy in a bar telling everyone what happened,’” he adds. “I thought if he was smart enough to do it himself then he should.”
With the encouragement of Johnson, Walker began writing pages on a typewriter, sending them via snail mail for editing. Eventually though, Johnson realized he needed help. He was connected to Knopf editor Tim O’Connell for the project, who was subsequently so impressed by Walker’s work that he bought the book solely off of excerpts. But because Walker was incarcerated, it posed a unique challenge for O’Connell: he and Walker would have 15 minutes on the phone at a time to go through edits of his manuscript, and Walker had to tackle rewrites via typewriter. “Any other author could go back to his Microsoft Word, edit and save it,” O’Connell says. “[But] he couldn’t bring his manuscript to our phone calls. He wasn’t taking notes: He had to remember everything we discussed.” O’Connell vied to make sure that the time constraints and limited phone time wouldn’t affect their working relationship. “One thing I said to him was, ‘I know you’re in jail but every single step of the process will be same as every other author I’ve worked with,’” he says. The Knopf editor remains floored by Walker’s skills. “Nico is a writer, not a prisoner to me,” he adds. “If I had seen this book and he was living in Brooklyn or in the Midwest somewhere and was just a guy who wrote this, I would publish it anyway.”
Cherry has given Walker a kind of purpose he never expected while he’s been behind bars. “You lose almost everything when you come here and have to start over again,” he says. “In that way, it’s a great opportunity to recreate yourself from scratch or close to it.”
Since going to prison, he has changed, even if he only notices slight shifts. “I feel luckier than I used to be, that’s for sure,” he notes. “When I get out of jail, I will have spent a quarter of my life here. It’s where I am, and it’s what I do. Whatever impression it makes on me, it’s not a difference. I’m just living day-to-day.”