Tom Holland in Cherry, adapted from Nico Walker's book.
The new movie Cherry stars Tom Holland — you might know him as Spider-Man from the Marvel movies. It's directed by Joe and Anthony Russo — their first since directing Avengers: Endgame. Not that any of this meant much to Nico Walker, who wrote the book the movie Cherry is based on. Walker was in prison as the movie was being sold and hadn't seen any of the Russo brothers' Marvel movies. People explained to him the Russos had just directed the highest grossing movie of all time, and that this was a big deal. "I just had to take people's word for it," he says.
Cherry is a semi-autobiographical novel that follows Walker's path as a decorated U.S. Army medic in Iraq who returns to Cleveland, gets addicted to heroin and ends up a convicted bank robber. Walker was written about in a 2013 BuzzFeed profile, which attracted the attention of Matthew Johnson at Tyrant Books, who persuaded him into writing a book. He'd never thought about writing a book before, and spent hours at the typewriters in the law library working on the book after teaching a continuing education class in prison.
The book is dry, crass, and the kind of funny where you laugh and then get sad about laughing. Tim O'Connell, who edited Cherry for Knopf, said that the book was timely as it tackled the opioid epidemic, the disillusionment with the Iraq war and vets returning home with PTSD. "It is, to me, uniquely American in its tone," O'Connell says.
It quickly landed on the bestseller list and drew even more press attention to Walker. Someone sent Joe Russo a copy and within ten pages, he knew it was the next movie he and his brother would make. "It felt to me like the friends and family close to us that were struggling," says Russo. Like Walker, the Russos were from Cleveland. They knew the same sort of people, drove past the same sort of places — Joe Russo even worked at the same restaurant as Walker.
Walker was suspicious of the Russos handling his story — the same way he'd be with anyone. But when he talked with Joe Russo on the phone for three minutes, "Joe Russo said this is the next film that I'm going to make. It's not going to be optioned," says Walker. There was no talk of writing a script and seeing what the next steps were. "There was no option. He just bought it straight up."
There's a scene early on in the book where the unnamed narrator is going through training. A drill sergeant punches him in the penis for no reason. Walker writes, "you'd have that though. You just had to remember it was all make-believe. The drill sergeants were just pretending to be drill sergeants. We were pretending to be soldiers. The Army was pretending to be the Army." Joe Russo quotes this line as he talks about the self-referential voice of Cherry. "He can't separate his life from its fictional influences. He's trapped in an artifice," says Russo. "He's stuck in this sort of referential echo chamber from which he can't escape, and that contributes to the decline of his mental health."
"I have a tendency to get mentally fixated on things," says Walker. Which is partly why he doesn't plan on seeing the Cherry movie. "I just don't think it would be good for me to see, you know?" It's too close, too personal of a story for him to see someone else's take on it. Even the rollout of the movie has him feeling a certain way over his success. We got to talking about other writers he admires — namely Scott McClanahan, whose books Walker read while incarcerated — who haven't gotten the same opportunities as Walker. "You see things like billboards and whole streets full of posters with Tom Holland's face on it, and it says Cherry and I'm just like ... is that even right?"
Walker's out of prison now. He got out early on compassionate release to take care of his mother, who died of leukemia last year. But not before she got to read his book. "I was glad to be able to do something to make her proud after so much infamy," he says. She did ask that he not swear so much in his next book, which he's almost finished writing. It's a third-person narrative based on his time in prison.
This story was edited for radio by Nina Gregory and adapted for the Web by Andrew Limbong and Petra Mayer.