Published from Prison: The Books that Inspired a Former Bank Robber

Posted by Cybil on August 6, 2018

This month, Nico Walker's first novel will be published. But the author's personal story has already captured the attention of readers, beginning with a 2013 Buzzfeed profile titled How a War Hero Became a Serial Bank Robber. A former U.S. Army medic who served on more than 250 missions in Iraq, Walker returned home suffering from severe PTSD and became addicted to heroin. That's when he started robbing small Midwestern banks, hitting ten in all before being caught and sentenced to 11 years in prison. While behind bars, he wrote Cherry. He has two more years left on his sentence.

Goodreads asked Walker to share the books he's read in prison that have made a difference to him.

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I didn't always read much. But I did read. When I was a kid, I liked Joyce and Vonnegut and some others. I liked e.e. cummings—always it's Spring and everyone's in love and flowers pick themselves. (You see.)

I liked stuff like that.

I stole a copy of the Cherry Orchard by Chekhov. I just wanted it. It's still somewhere, I think. If my mom saved it. (She doesn't know it's stolen.)

So I read.

But I wasn't what you'd call a reader. I got into other things. There were times I hardly read at all. It wasn't till I came around to jail, where I've been for years now, that I really got the habit bad. I read for hours every day now. My eyes aren't what they used to be, and I wonder if that doesn't have anything to do with it. But eyes or no eyes, I read a lot these days. I don't know. I can't picture life without books. I love them. I love the good writers. There are so many good writers. The time it would take to read them all, I'll be dead before I could.

But maybe.

I'll have to hurry, though.

Right now I'm reading Turgenev's Sketches. My first time reading it. I'm 33 years old, and I don't know how I got by this long without reading this book. I wonder, What took me so long to get here?

The spirit of the thing is beautiful. It overflows with love. And like all good books, it confirms all kinds of various things that you knew but you didn't know you knew, that you hadn't ever brought out and put into words before, though they were there for a long time, dormant down in your soul somewhere. The eternal truths. The ones that when one of them gets found out, you say, Yeah that is it, isn't it.

And we all know.

So Turgenev's been dead over a hundred years and he's speaking directly to my soul these days (by way of a translator, who also probably is long dead), and that's something of a miracle, I think. And that's what all the real art does, whether it's books or paintings or songs or what-have-you: art. Yet what's special about books is the reader's making it up just as much as the writer. The writer leaves the directions, but the reader does the work; the reader's the one who's got to picture how the things go. And it's the reader's having a share in the creativity that makes books different from the other mediums. When a book connects with a reader, then the reader becomes the writer. There's no deeper contact in art than that, I don't believe.

But this is neither here nor there. And I'm going on. I've been asked to put together a list of the five most formative books that I read in jail. I'm supposed to tie them in somehow with my own book, Cherry, so forgive me when I do that. And I'm sorry that there can only be five books on the list.

The list goes:

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1. A Disaffection by James Kelman

It's about a guy, Patrick Doyle, and he isn't doing so well. He's got ideals he can't live up to. He can't reconcile himself with the nature of what's around him. It's Scotland, maybe the 1980s. Patrick's teaching school, and it's got him feeling like he's the polis. Patrick's origins are working class, and he doesn't like the polis. Not at all. So there's that. Then there's he's in love with a married woman. He feels a need to disappear. This is how the story begins.

It's told beautifully. The writing's second to none. It's vivid. It's dynamic. Kelman writes with a militant conviction that's balanced by a careful sensitivity. Also his jokes don't miss.

I love his technique. He takes chances with the language, and it's brilliant, so if you're into that, then you're in luck because there's plenty. He'll honor sound before syntax when he has to. And it's all poetry. The prose is lyrical. And the dialogue reads natural, and it's subtle. He's got a fine sense of how to increase the tension with it.

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I cannot say enough about this book. The way it ends is genius. I won't tell you about it because you need to read it. I'll warn you, though: Don't read it if you're the type who's gonna say, "Why, there's no commas in this!" Or if you're gonna say, "Not much plot here really," then don't read it. It isn't meant for you. This book's meant for people with sensitivity and love and compassion, who are interested in what's real and true.

The reason I thought I could get away with including A Disaffection on this list of books, a list of books I'm supposed to tie in with Cherry somehow, is Kelman's book, like mine, deals with depression, the morbid kind, the kind that beats you and that you might carry with you all your life. And Kelman works miracles with the subject, how he delivers the most expressive account of a condition that usually leaves most all its experts at a loss for words because they're tired and they don't care anymore. Yeah, Kelman's a hero of mine.

2. Hill William by Scott McClanahan

People sometimes ask me how much of Cherry was real. And they're all right, but I don't love it when they ask me that. What's worse is sometimes they'll even say, "Oh, but this is just an autobiography!" Like they know something. And usually these are people who haven't ever had to worry much about structuring a novel or anything like that. God bless them.

So go on, you say.

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All right. Where I'm going with this is I imagine Scott McClanahan maybe has the same bad luck as I do sometimes, and people will say all he's doing is writing about himself and his life and it's easy. Well, I can tell you, I know Scott McClanahan, and Scott McClanahan knows more about book writing than rooms full of people who would call themselves writers. And Scott writes novels. And they're beautiful.

But sometimes you pay a price for writing what you know or for using the first person or for being authentic and giving people some truth.


I've included a McClanahan novel on this list. It's called Hill William, and it's a masterpiece. If you haven't read it already, you really should. It is one of the funniest, saddest, most powerful, most not-scared-of-anything novels you'll ever read, and it's amazing. Scott writes like Walt Whitman. I'm not lying or exaggerating. And the way the novel is structured is brilliant.

Read this. You'll remember it forever.

3. Panama by Thomas McGuane

Cherry is a love story. So is this one. And it just howls. It's like what would happen if Dostoyevsky lived in Florida in the 1970s and did coke. And then you've got McGuane's chops. No one's got better chops than McGuane.

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When you read this, watch how he shifts back and forth between the main narrative and the backstory on the same page and in the same chapter and stays in the same tense throughout, just a simple past tense, and you follow him around and you don't even know. I read it three times before I picked up on this. He won't even transition with a sentence in a perfect tense. It's so rock 'n' roll.

But to the heart of the matter, I've read some things people have written about this book where they try and tell you McGuane's guilty of taking the piss here, so to speak. But whatever; they just missed what's going on, is all. There's heart in this story, and it's real. Only McGuane, he's not gonna be heavy about it; he's gonna lay it down with style, and he's cool about it. Because that's what he does.

4. Angels by Denis Johnson

This is a book about some people. Like in Cherry, there're some robberies in it.

Denis Johnson died last year. He's one of the greatest writers who ever lived, someone who understood what human beings are like. Angels was Denis Johnson's first novel. The writing is beautiful. It's first-rate, and it'll break your heart if you're paying attention. It's a love song about desperation.

5. Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

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I read this book a few years ago. And I was working on Cherry, and things weren't going incredibly well with that. So then sometimes when I'd get to feeling bad regarding what was difficult about writing in prison, I'd think about what Grossman was up against in his life and times as a writer, and it'd be enough so as I'd stop feeling sorry for myself.

Life and Fate is about war. It's about other things. It's also about prison. All the prisons everywhere. And still it's about more than that. If you haven't read this, you actually need to.

So there's the list. I hope you like these. If you've already read them, you could reread them and that way no one feels left out. Take care of yourself. Good luck.

Nico Walker's Cherry arrives in U.S. stores on Aug. 14. Don’t forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf.

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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message 1: by Alex (new)

Alex Bear I don't know how much more reformed and rehabilitated a guy can get. I wouldn't think 2 more years in prison would help him. Why don't we just mark this one in the win column, and let him out to enjoy some of his book advancement and royalties on something other than commissary ramen.

message 2: by Mortisha (new)

Mortisha Cassavetes I was lucky to get an advanced copy of this book and hope to read it soon. Sounds amazing. Another prisoner that just released a book is Steven Russell. He wrote Life After Phillip Morris. It is a fun read in play format. It is interesting to find out what happened in his life after his relationship with Phillip Morris ended after "I Love Phillip Morris" book and movie starring Jim Carey.

message 3: by Sandra (new)

Sandra Wendel Richard Stanley's book Up On Game: From Robbing Banks to Stacking Bitcoin is another inspiring prison-to-success story about a gang member and his experience in prison and out. Makes the case for prison reform and tells the real inside story like Orange Is the New Black, only real.

message 4: by M. (new)

M. Thanks for the list, good luck on your book, the rest of your sentence, and life going forward.

Slightly related:

The Sun Does Shine How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton

message 5: by Amy (new)

Amy Maddess <3

message 6: by Stacey (new)

Stacey Bene Is there any way to send Nico books in prison? I received an ARC of Cherry and loved it!

message 7: by Susan (new)

Susan Alex wrote: "I don't know how much more reformed and rehabilitated a guy can get. I wouldn't think 2 more years in prison would help him. Why don't we just mark this one in the win column, and let him out to en..."

Alex wrote: "I don't know how much more reformed and rehabilitated a guy can get. I wouldn't think 2 more years in prison would help him. Why don't we just mark this one in the win column, and let him out to en..."

message 8: by Susan (new)

Susan I agree with you! He has redeemed himself and deserves a chance to start a new life!

message 9: by Marc (new)

Marc Mayfield Thank you, Cybil. Interesting guy. Like Stacey, I'd like to send him a couple of books. Any idea how I/we might do that? Thanks again.

message 10: by Mick (new)

Mick Just find out which institution he is in. Then call it and ask the proper way to send reading materials. That simple.

Marc wrote: "Thank you, Cybil. Interesting guy. Like Stacey, I'd like to send him a couple of books. Any idea how I/we might do that? Thanks again."

message 11: by Anonyma'am (new)

Anonyma'am Susan wrote: "I agree with you! He has redeemed himself and deserves a chance to start a new life!"

Just wondering how many people would say this if he *hadn't* written a good book.

message 12: by Darica (new)

Darica Stacey wrote: "Is there any way to send Nico books in prison? I received an ARC of Cherry and loved it!"

Stacey wrote: "Is there any way to send Nico books in prison? I received an ARC of Cherry and loved it!"

You need his address and inmate number. Normally you cannot normally send them personally but a bookstore could.

message 13: by Linda (new)

Linda I think anyone who reads this story will be touched by it, it’s strange how life can change on a penny, one day your up high, respected job, next minute your down so low.... you can’t see the sunshine, I hope we can all get something from what this guy has been through. Good luck for the future.

message 14: by Albertine67 (new)

Albertine67 This was fantastic - put your book on my list. I share a number of favorite authors with you, including James Kelman and Vasily Grossman. Thanks for sharing the others, which i'll try, and good luck with your book

message 15: by ELEANORE TOBER (new)

ELEANORE TOBER Nicos' story is like so many veterans returning from the horrors of war. Extreme PTSD often leads to addiction as sufferers self medicate as means of dealing with the hell they face day and night. The USA must engage in mandated vigerous treatment and extensive and long -term follow up. Also, the VS needs to change protocol on dispensing opioid based medication without intensive encompassing support. Yes it will be expensive but it's less than the cost of keeping a person in prison combined with the cost to communities faced with thr fallout of homelessness, addiction and crime.

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