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Nicolas Dickner reveals the story behind his novel Nikolski

The first inspiration for Nikolski goes back to 1995, when a friend and I were debating the relationship between Moby-Dick and hitchhiking. (As you can see from the photo at left, my obsession with the sea and its creatures began at an early age — I'm 10 here, hoisting a giant lobster.)

More precisely, we were discussing a strange phenomenon both of us had observed: you can live someplace for 10 years and not meet your next-door neighbour, yet the very second you set foot in Oslo International Airport you will inevitably bump into an old friend.

I'd experienced (or heard friends' stories about) these improbable encounters way too often to believe they were just random. These kinds of meet-ups left me with the feeling that homo sapiens might be travelling along invisible veins, just like the sperm whales in Moby-Dick.

My friend was skeptical, and since I couldn't prove my hunch, I announced my intention of writing a novel about it. Back then, I was convinced of the power of fiction, certain that being right was less about the rigours of fact than the rigours of elegance. The problem was, I would come up with three ideas for novels each day. So many potential novels — and yet I was so lazy I could never muster up the energy to follow any of my trains of thought.

After some years of travelling, I started writing my novel in Lima, Peru, in January 2001, still not knowing exactly what I was doing. One thing was sure: all thoughts of Moby-Dick had floated away. As a matter of fact, the Whale didn't come back to my mind until 2004, a powerful flashback that would enlighten and colour the whole book. But in January 2001, during those humid Lima nights, I wasn't trying to prove anything about homo sapiens and hitchhiking. I was just toying around with characters, ideas, roadmaps and disconnected bits of stories. I was learning storytelling, that complex process they can't really teach you in creative writing classes. I was proceeding by trial and error, a very slow way of working, but since no one in particular was waiting for my book — no readers, no editor — I felt totally free to experiment and waste my time in a playful manner.

It took four years and a great deal of rewriting to get a version of Nikolski that satisfied me. Not every moment of writing it was fun, but all in all, it was a happy time of my life. I think people feel that in the text, since the book still leads a good life, both in Quebec and elsewhere, and keeps on meeting unexpected readers in unexpected places. And in the end, this little book with the fishes on the cover might be my best argument for those invisible veins Herman Melville was talking about.

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