Here they come now. Edie, Jane, Nico: how pretty their names look in the headlines. See them run now. See their time run out. Never mind fifteen minutes of materiality when the myth of Warhol’s Superstar lives on.
Nicole Flattery is interested in writing against what we think we know. Within her novel Nothing Special, the author tells the story of Mae, a young woman transcribing the tapes from the Factory into what will become a book. Disinterested in the trappings of a normal life, she is fascinated instead by the characters she observes. We meet Edie and Ondine through Mae’s encounters or through the tapes, and we sense Warhol’s presence although his name is barely mentioned.
“Flattery subverts the fantasy that indoctrinates young women into thinking our voices are less important than the costumes we wear”
Instead, Flattery turns off the lights. Stumbling out of the cinema, her writing forces us to confront the stories that are not often told but that we also know. Working in a place where you are overlooked. Coping with sexual harassment. Telling Warhol’s tale through an unfamous girl’s stubborn vision rather than vice versa, Flattery subverts the fantasy that indoctrinates young women into thinking our voices are less important than the costumes we wear.
Waiting for a Factory Girl. Speaking to Flattery, she recalled the intense early pressures channelled into her earlier book of short stories, Show Them a Good Time. Nothing Special takes place in the 60s and the collection takes place in the present day, but the theme of young women struggling to get by is eternally relevant. “The stories came from being in my twenties when I left college” she says. Recalling the recession, “I studied theatre and film and I felt that social pressure to get ahead.”
She continues, “In Show Them a Good Time, there was a job scheme where you’d be on the dole but you’d get an extra €50 a week to do 40 hours of work somewhere, it was kind of like how internships work. But I think, really, it was the appearance of work rather than you actually learning anything…it was sort of ridiculous.” A contradiction, then, in achieving a sense of motion while staying in place. Waiting for life in a fashion not dissimilar to the girls in the screen tests who found themselves doing nothing save blink their eyelashes for the camera.
“I couldn’t do anything that was required of me, it seemed like a big joke or a big show I was supposed to put on”
Social performance is something everyone must cope with. In Flattery’s case, during the time she carried out this scheme. “I couldn’t do anything that was required of me, it seemed like a big joke or a big show I was supposed to put on, like to put on this little costume and be this person.” She concludes, “I like to look at things I find absurd” and recalls that she would come home from work in the evenings to “explore that inherent ridiculousness… that’s my favourite way to look at things.” While aware of it, her protagonists are content to ignore the generational script, which comes across as even more bizarre for being dull and predictable. Flattery says she studied theatre throughout her teenage years, which has compelled her to “really like to watch for those moments when people perform themselves”.
The inspiration for Nothing Special arrived after Flattery read The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing. “I got a copy and I read about the typists that had worked on it. What I was mostly interested in was the idea of working on something creative and your name not being on it, which struck me as a very sad thing.” Immersing herself in the factory scene, she became increasingly absorbed. Even after research, Warhol remained an elusive figure. “When you go through biographies of Warhol, you notice there are a lot of differences.” Unknowable, the man comes across a fictional character of his own making.
Flattery found this fictionality provided artistic freedom in tackling such a “hugely daunting” subject matter. Uncertain circumstances may not be enjoyable in real life but it makes for the best fiction as we struggle to piece together who characters are. Flattery’s characters are spellbound by their proximity to the weird and famous, but the personas these figures exude are at least partially constructed. Likewise, her characters themselves may be concealing secrets of their own. This is true of life in college today. The most confident people may be anything but. The kid who dresses like they do not have a house may live in a mansion in South Dublin. No one knows what is going on with anyone else.
Part of the reason Nothing Special is refreshing is because it is a contemporary novel set in a time before us. There are no arduous sections committed to the difficulties of miscommunication over text or email with the matching demise of punctuation. Nonetheless, it is concerned with performance in a manner which recalls how we present ourselves online, exemplifying its eternal relevance. Flattery says: “We’re always performing ourselves differently, depending on how you are publicly versus on your own.”
Still, the Factory is celebrated for a spontaneity that today’s culture is lacking. Flattery says, “Now it’s much more filtered and managed… people are very aware of their audience and are able to give their audience what they want all the time… now you wind up on Instagram, and so they’re all so careful that to see something that makes you surprised or uncomfortable is a total surprise”. The immediacy of business pervades all. The days when Courtney Love interrupted Madonna at the VMAs are far behind us.
“I wanted to avoid that idea of the 1960s that we have in our minds because it is so romanticised… Nostalgia is pretty dangerous”
In regards to that era, Flattery says, “I love how obsessed your generation is with the 90s.” Our generation romanticises the 90s through a hazy filter like the previous generation looked back to the 60s. In Nothing Special, the character Mae counters this romanticising tendency with a refusal to partake in nostalgia. “I wanted to avoid that idea of the 1960s that we have in our minds because it is so romanticised and I wanted to know what it felt like if you were actually there. Nostalgia is pretty dangerous.”
There is a contradiction between what we perceive as the past and its actualised self. “Nothing is what we thought it was.” Flattery describes the ending where Mae never finds creative success as a “deliberate choice. She has all these fantasies about the woman she is going to be, and they are so much more extreme and then there are so fewer opportunities. There’s a sort of dismissal and sexism experienced, and I think we still experience that. It’s kind of amazing how the treatment of women is. I don’t think it’s changed hugely, it’s just become a little more unsaid.”
“And she’s just sitting there. Sometimes you have a feeling as a woman where you can’t say anything or do anything”
She remembers being struck by a scene within Jennifer Clement’s memoir about Basquiat’s muse that featured Warhol. “Basquiat is on the rise, and she’s at a diner with him and Warhol is looking around and pointing out all the beautiful women. And she’s just sitting there. Sometimes you have a feeling as a woman where you can’t say anything or do anything.” It is a common phenomenon whether in a work setting where men banter away or a night out at the wrong club in Dublin. We find ourselves standing there for fifteen minutes of being ignored. Or even better, earning unwanted attention. “I found this anecdote quite revealing of Warhol’s character” Flattery admits, “it shadowed the book.”
Ultimately, Flattery found the Factory “like any place where women are put in direct competition, and they must fight it out for status and money and fame because of how attractive they are, or how unstable they are and how performative and how much of a scene they could make”. It is unflattering to recognise this trend but it’s nothing new in today’s world where young women feel compelled to compete with each other. Of course there is no winning when someone will always be prettier, have more money or even be more delusionally self-confident. Another girl of the year lining up to take your place. “Those places are always going to be hard for women to cope with… When you’re valued by others according to youth and beauty, there’s a constant threat hung over your head by the wrong people. Every six months, a new Superstar.”
“Who’s the girl of the week? I still think that’s the culture now”
Even the brightest lights burnt out fast. “Edie was gone after not very long. She was not valuable any more, very addicted to drugs, too unstable, so replaced.” She adds, “Who’s the girl of the week? I still think that’s the culture now.” The term it girl comes to mind. It attaches the idea of the possession to the woman, she doesn’t have it but belongs to the public, ready to be dismantled into the items she consumes. And then to disappear once she breaks up with her boyfriend, washed away to resurface in a listicle or three per year with all the charm of the discarded object.
Flattery finds freedom in writing about young women who refuse to partake in this culture promoting female competition. She notes, “there’s that performative kind of stuff where you have to pretend something isn’t weird or funny or odd. You can put that into your work and go about pretending to be a normal person.” People are strange. What would it mean to be a strange person and accept yourself? Flattery is keen to find out. “I liked that about Mae… she has artistic qualities and she is a voyeur and also she is not a follower.” Left alone at the end, she does not have regrets. Neither would many 60s artists. “There were terrible aspects, but I think there was a freedom in how they had to look at things and pursue stuff that interested them and be playful in their work, in a way that artists don’t have now. I find it very freeing.” Even Warhol’s assassin had a non-serious quality to her writing. It would appear that nothing was serious till it was over, removed from context and shelved for later referral as ‘special’.
Flattery received less questions on her personal relationship to her characters since it was set in the 60s. Nonetheless, “I do bring myself to my writing… It’s impossible to escape yourself in writing. You’re going to bring you, your fantasies and your vision of reality to your work. Maybe you obscure yourself as you grow older, but I don’t understand that people think AI will write our novels because that’s not what fiction is.” Aspiring authors can breathe easy in the knowledge that they can still write their version of the “Great Trinity Campus Novel”.
“She values ‘books where nothing much happens, but there’s an understanding of the distances between the person you are and the person you are presenting yourself to be'”
Earlier earning her MA at Trinity, Flattery took classes under Deidre Madden. She recalls defining novels when she was 24 or 25 included Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviour and a pivotal literary recommendation, “[Madden] suggested a book for everyone in that class. She suggested Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? [by Lorrie Moore].” She values “books where nothing much happens, but there’s an understanding of the characters and the distances between the person you are and the person you are presenting yourself to be. Books like that help me understand myself a little bit better. And you are shaped by your younger self.” She emphasises the importance of developing your own taste. This makes sense. After all, most of us aren’t Superstars, but there is a freedom in being able to define ourselves on our own terms.
What’s next for Flattery? After writing about strange single women, couples are the obvious target. People in relationships are really weird. “The book I’m writing now is about a couple – I find being a couple and what couples are supposed to do and how they celebrate their love and all the little things so intensely combative about who is more in love. It’s so funny.”
“I like to write about young women because often young women aren’t taken seriously… I hate that, and I rebel against that”
Concluding, “I like to write about young women because often young women aren’t taken seriously, and women who write, no matter how well, and make films are all dismissed like it’s all a trend. I hate that, and I rebel against that.” The recent snub of Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie for Barbie at the Oscars comes to mind. Flattery rejects this all too common phenomenon, calling for us to shatter the silver screen’s distorted projections.
Forget girls on film. Here we have femme fatales who deliberately blur themselves out of the frame. Here we have muses cut to pieces after an instant. Here we have women worth writing about nonetheless. As Patti Smith said about Edie Sedgwick: “she ordered gin with triple / limes. then a limosine. everyone / knew she was the real heroine / of blonde on blonde.” You can take away the screen. Just like the woman, her myth will never be cast aside.