Nathan Holic: A Literary Portrait of the City of Orlando

By Sarah Bailey, Christelle Jean Denis, Amara Keizer-Quintanilla, & Katie Valenta

A group of student editors for the Cypress Dome Literary Magazine had the pleasure of interviewing Nathan Holic, the guest speaker at our upcoming launch party for this year’s edition of our magazine. We were able to hear about his affinity for comics and his process of developing and writing story ideas, as well as understand how his love for Orlando has inspired his writing and other works.

Q. Could you briefly introduce yourself?

A. Sure. My name is Nathan Holic. I’m a fiction writer, but I also teach at the University of Central Florida, in the department of Writing and Rhetoric, which is I’m on a different floor from the English department. But I like to think that our disciplines are very, I don’t know, fluid, and our faculty are very collaborative. I’ve been writing fiction for as long as I can remember. My first book was called American Fraternity Man, and it was published in 2013. Then my second novel was called The Things I Don’t See. That was published the year after, or maybe two years after. And then, just in 2019 I published my book, Bright Lights Medium-sized City, which was a sort of long-term project where I tried to create a literary portrait of the city of Orlando.

Q. Thank you for sharing. We’re going to go ahead and jump into the questions we had prepared. People often say that naming your story is the hardest part of writing. What is the inspiration for the title, Bright Lights, Medium-Sized City, and how does this connect with the overall theme of the book?

A. Yeah, I think that the name actually really kind gave rise to, or gave inspiration to, the conceit for the book and the narrative structure. I probably had the original idea for the name shortly after reading Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, sometime in the two thousands. I read the book and I probably had in mind, what would it look like to do this same style of book for the city of Orlando? Because Bright Lights, Big City is a second person point of view book. So it’s all written in that you are doing this, you were doing this, and it’s very experiential, but it’s also a kind of document of the Reagan 80s in the city of New York and the sort of club lifestyle—cocaine lifestyle— you know, that kind of thing.

And I don’t know that McInerney meant it to be that way when he wrote it. Maybe he was just trying to give a glimpse into one specific characters life, but it wound up becoming something bigger— like, here’s this book that encapsulates what it was to be in New York in the 1980s. So I probably read that and immediately have the thought of like, what would the book be like if it were written in that way for Orlando.

So, if you think about it in terms of an Orlando book, we are kind of a big city, but not really. The title would even have to be completely different if you wanted to try that conceit of the second person narrator, that experiential, “what is it like to be here and to be young and successful and that sort of thing?” So, I would say that the title probably came about at the same time as the opening line, and then the overall narrative form that, at least for the first chapter of the book, was all kind of tied together: title, character, narrative structure, point of view.

My favorite part of the [writing] process is discovering.

Q. Speaking of the city of Orlando, obviously it had a big role, especially in the beginning of the book. Did you set out for that to be how it was manifested in your book?

A. I knew it was going to be a book about Orlando, in the same way that Jay McInerney had to know that his book was going to be about New York. This wasn’t a generic city and a lot of the motivation for writing the book came from the fact that very few people have really written about Orlando with any seriousness, so I was curious about what a book would even look like if it took place in Orlando; how do you characterize the city? Every author, screenwriter, and filmmaker sets up a story in New York or LA or Boston or Chicago, and those cities are so overdone. We see them all the time. When we do get the chance, Orlando is generally used as either a punchline or in terms of the theme parks.

So what is Orlando as a city? How would you characterize this place? What type of people choose to live here? Those were the questions that I was interested in answering, and then the more I got into it, it was also what is the history of this place, who has lived here in the past? How has this place developed and grown?

Initially when I first started writing the book and knew that I was setting it in Orlando, I don’t know that my ambitions were quite that grand in terms of thinking about the overall history of the city and all the people who’ve ever lived here and all that. But I was thinking at least about how being young in a place like this shapes somebody.

But there’s only so much you can write just about people going out to bars and that kind of thing. So it became much bigger. I realized even in the first chapter of the book that the characters have to start going somewhere else and not just sitting around drinking. And so, the book winds up going to places— like the millennia mall or I-4— that might seem mundane to an outsider, but are actually part of the daily existence of being here, to ultimately show as much of the city as I could.

Q. Which part of the writing process was the easiest for you while working on this book and which part was the hardest?

A. I don’t know. it’s all kind of hard, and it’s all kind of easy, you know? There was the cliche about how I don’t like writing. I like having written, I think. I don’t know if I really buy into that, but there’s some truth to it. I think that, the most fun part of writing is when you’re still discovering and, you know, you’re writing a chapter and you have ideas of where to go next, and then a new character occurs to you and it’s somebody that didn’t exist a day before. So every new day, it’s almost the same as reading.

I love sitting down every single day to read. I think that my favorite part of the writing process is discovering. I’m not the type of writer who heavily outlines and does a lot of initial legwork— I’m writing the story and I’m discovering the story as I go. That would be my favorite part or the easiest part. And then the toughest part is when you’ve got some of those initial drafts done and you have to start making sense of it. It’s a whole different process of discovery too, because you’re like, “Wait, why this doesn’t quite make sense, or why do I have this character and this character, how do they not know each other? Or why would they do this and this?” So you have to kind of untangle what you’ve written and try to figure out how to make it make sense again.

I think that’s the toughest part, that’s the first stage of revision of just figuring out what the hell you wrote and what’s wrong with it. This book took me about like nine total years to finish, I believe. So you go through both of those two phases a lot, where even when you’re in that moment of trying to make sense of something that you wrote and trying to find a logical way for it to be restructured, then you have an idea for a new chapter that you hadn’t considered before and you know exactly where it can go and you know how to introduce different things.

So you start getting into that process of drafting new material again, and really enjoying yourself again, but then that new chapter makes some other chapter that you wrote irrelevant, so then you’re back at this, “how do I get rid of this and move this material over here?” It’s just a long journey. And I think also somewhere in the middle, there is a point in time where you have a lot of despair as well. This happens, especially with novels, but definitely the short stories also, or even shorter memoirs, where you’re like, “gosh, like I’ve unpacked this and I’ve rewritten it and revised it and edited it and cut and created a new material so much that it doesn’t look anything like the original, and I don’t even know what it is anymore.”

I just couldn’t imagine that it would be easy for a lot of writers to give up at that moment because you have this original vision and you’re like, this is not that anymore. And you have to figure out what it even means anymore. And then whether you want to commit more time to it. When you’re first drafting it’s like, you could finish it, you could throw it away; who cares? You’re just having fun. But after you’ve dedicated so much time to it, you’re like, “has it all been for nothing? And like, if I dedicate more time to it, what about all these other things I could write? And why am I doing this thing anyway?”

As I was workshopping and as I was teaching those [writing] classes, I was also sharpening my own skillset.

I don’t know that it’s entirely linear in terms of what’s my favorite part my least favorite part because it’s just kind of “This part’s great.” And then, “Oh, crap. Here comes something that that’s awful.” And then, “Oh, well we’ve got another moment.” I don’t want to say it’s like a rollercoaster, it’s just every day is different. One day is fantastic, and then the next day is a really tough day.

Q. How do you feel your experiences as a writing teacher at UCF have affected the way you write?

A. I think it was a little bit easier for me to answer this question when I taught fiction writing courses. It was actually really helpful. I used to teach a lot of creative writing courses, fiction and non-fiction. When I was teaching those fiction writing courses I would make discoveries about what I was writing while I was reading student work. And while I was writing critiques I thought, “wow, this is the thing that I’ve been struggling with,” and it would help me to have discoveries, to sort through my own issues.

There are probably a lot of students that I wrote critiques for that might not have even realized I was also kind of writing a critique for myself at the time. “We need to work on this,” I was saying it about their story, but also about my own. So in that sense, I think it was one of those sharpen the knife kind of moments, where as I was workshopping and as I was teaching those classes, I was also sharpening my own skillset.

It’s a little bit different now, because I teach courses that aren’t entirely related to fiction writing, like writing for publication or a freshman composition course. But I would say that teaching, writing, and being a writer does help you to sort of compartmentalize these different times of day and projects that you’re doing. It helps with things like managing the number of projects that you’re doing. Knowing that you have to read a certain number of student assignments, write a certain number of critiques, or offer feedback, and then you also have to work on this other project and you can’t do both at once, you have to say like, “I’m going to dedicate this portion of my day to this. I’m going to take a brain break.”

When I was a student, I was really bad at that kind of thing. Both in undergrad and then later in grad school, I would put off writing until I had time or until late in the day when I was exhausted. And it didn’t happen as much or as well as I wanted it to, because I was always just kind of waiting for a time when it would happen organically on its own. That wasn’t always the case. So I think teaching it while also doing it has helped me to create those times that work for each.

And then also, I had mentioned the words like brain break— I think it’s so important, whether you’re a student, a teacher, a writer, to make the time to just not do anything, like to take a walk and clear your head, because I think you can drive yourself crazy by just staring at screens and pages all day long to the point where, you know, you’re just not doing anything productive at a certain point of the day.

Q. It sounds like you’re learning from your students just as much as you’re teaching in your position.

A. Yeah. I have, I do have a lot of really great students. I think my favorite courses are the ones where our students surprise me, you know, where I get some sort of student work that is not at all what I could have predicted or expected. Like I’ve taught courses called The Rhetoric of Comics, or a course in personal essays, and I get a lot of stuff that is very surprising and in a good way. When you get that kind of stuff, even if it’s has nothing to do with what you’re working on, it can be inspiring in the sense of like, wow, you can see somebody’s mind at work. Even something that you might not have even picked up in a book that you were interested in, it’s “here’s this thing that is wildly outside of the subject matter or the style that I would have selected on my own.” And so, teaching also forces you to read a lot of things that you wouldn’t have ordinarily.

Q. That’s a great point. And speaking of comics, how has your love and fascination with comics evolved over the years? Have any comics you read or written affected your perspective on particular moments in your life?

A. I’ve read comics since like the third grade. I don’t know that I read, you know, truly adult or literary comics until probably late in high school and college. So for a long time, my relationship with comics was very much superhero comics. But I think that the comic that really did change that was Watchman. That probably does the same for a lot of other younger readers. That really changed a lot of the way I thought about comics, for a lot of reasons.

It was, it was so wildly different. I read it in conjunction with a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, who incorporated a lot of images into his books. So if you ever read Breakfast of Champions, it’s like every other page there’s some sort of hand scribbled Sharpie drawn image. That opened my eyes up to where it was like, “wow, literary writers can put random stuff into the book.”

Alan Morton Washman, sort of the same but opposite, would insert. So he’s got a traditional comic and then we’d have like a magazine article in the comic. On the one hand you had literary writers who were text-based incorporating images, and on the other hand, you had comic creators who are text and image based, who then switched solely to texts, and there’d be files and all these other extra textual things that you had to read.

I think the combination of the two of them really kind of changed my outlook to where I wasn’t just thinking about a lot of these books and stories—and even memoirs—as being solely one thing or the other. It wasn’t just, “here’s a story, or here’s a comic,” a story could also have a comic as a part of it, it could go back and forth.

So I became really interested, especially in grad school about— I don’t want to call it a genre, but it might be a genre—works that are able to incorporate other forms and other types of images into them. I think that that’s where a lot of my own work has gone, where American Fraternity Man had diagrams in it and it had schedules in it. And then, Bright Lights Medium-sized City has comic pages in it. It’s got watercolor illustrations all throughout. There’s all kinds of stuff as you read the book, and I think comics inspired all of that, just understanding that you can tell a story through text and image.

I wasn’t just thinking about a lot of these books and stories as being solely one thing or the other… I became really interested in works that are able to incorporate other forms and other types of images into them.

Q. Did you initially set out to write a novel in second person point of view? Or is that something that developed later as the story progressed?

A. As soon as I knew what the title was and then knew what the overall story was, a second person point of view was what I used. But the first whole chapter of the book is a choose your own adventure novel. That wasn’t originally part of the deal, but that came fairly quickly. It was one of the ways for me to distinguish my own book from Jay McInerney— I’m not just doing what Jay McInerney did. I kind of am, it’s a starting point, but my book is going to be a choose your own adventure book, which is wildly different than what he did. And then that choose your own adventure style winds up having real impact for both the character and also the city of Orlando, because the book is to some extent about how Orlando is a gimmick city and the idea of a choose your own adventure novels is the height of literary gimmicks.

So all those things work together. But then the thought was like, “all right, I’m going to write a chooser and adventure novel and that’ll be it.” But then I decided wow, this story keeps going, but I don’t want to write a, choose your own adventure novel for the entire book, and so the second chapter, I was like “how am I going to do this different and still keep the second person point of view?” I’m sure I had thoughts like maybe I’ll change it to first person point of view. Maybe I’ll do something completely different, but the book is five total chapters.

What I decided was with each new chapter, I would think about a different use for the second person point of view or a different way. The second person point of view has been appropriated in literature, or just in texts overall; so what I decided was that the second chapter would be, uh, sort of a second person tour guide. It’d be directing the person through, rather than having the person choose the direction. The third section is a rule book. Generally when we see rule books, you know, they can be written in the second person point of view, like, “you must do this, you should not do this,” so that becomes the whole conceit behind the third section.

The fourth chapter is a different, sort of wild, style. I don’t really want to give away what it is because it has to have meaning when you read it. If I explained it, it would sound kind of odd. The fifth chapter and the final section of the book is written as an exam, so that once again it’s sort of directing the reader, like you should make this choice here. It kind of mirrors that original choose your own adventure style, but it’s slightly different at that point.

Q. So this is our final question. This question is a very cliche one that every author gets asked at some point, but every writer has a different answer of how they approach it—and especially considering how the Cypress Dome kind of focuses on the writing of the students on campus and everything, we wanted to include it. So, what advice would you give to new writers working on their own things?

A. I would just say to write as much as possible without thinking of where it’s going to go or without putting any pressure on yourself, every day writing a new story. I think that a lot of writers can frustrate themselves by wanting to be something, or wanting something to be a certain way before before it’s time.

I think that sometimes we live in a culture that’s so success-driven and goal-oriented that it’s like, if I’m not writing and finishing a story, if I don’t have a plan for my novel, I’m never going to do it. And I just feel like if you’re a young writer and an aspiring writer— especially if you’re freshmen, sophomore, junior in college— just take the time where nothing matters yet. You don’t have a world where you have to be committed. If you want to try one day to write fiction and the next day to write poetry, go for it, you know, write a new poem tomorrow. Don’t feel like you have to try to publish it, just write it. Um, because I think then the more that you do write— and I teach courses again in publishing, and then a course called marketing your writing, which is about like finding a writing identity and studying how writers  establish their identities— once you start to do those things, I don’t want to say that your life falls apart, but like, your life narrows.

For a young writer, embrace that sense of possibility, and write as much as you possibly can in as many different forms as you can.

And there’s nothing that says that if you decide, “I want to write a lot of fiction” that you can’t then also write nonfiction, but I just feel like there’s sort of an internal pressure to a certain point where you’re like, “I want to write this novel” and you start committing to it, then every minute of your life matters. And if you’re not writing the novel and you choose to write poetry one day, you’re going to feel guilty about it because “I needed to get this next chapter done.”

I’m making writing stuff really grim. But I just think, especially early in college or early in any writing career, when there’s no pressure on, you just write daily and write in every genre in every medium, and you can try writing and creating a comic— like why not? Nobody’s waiting for you to write any one specific thing. Nobody’s out there being like, “I cannot wait for Sarah’s short story. She has to have it in by blah, blah, blah.”

It’s all very “I can do whatever I want to.” And I’ll just say for a young writer, embrace that sense of possibility, and write as much as you possibly can in as many different forms as you can.

If you would like to hear Nathan Holic, speak at Cypress Dome Society launch party on Tuesday, April 20th, register to attend. Keep an eye out for the 32nd issue of the The Cypress Dome Literary Magazine!