NAME: John Nichols
VOCATION: Author of 19 books offiction and nonfiction, including The Milagro Beanfield War, The Sterile Cuckoo, Conjugal Bliss, The Voice of the Butterfly and If Mountains Die.
Thoughts on Death and THE Afterlife “You just die. It’s over, Rover.”
Advice: “Part of surviving is not to stress yourself out and make your life miserable.”
Favorite fishing spot: Far below the Rio Grande Gorge bridge. He wears a helmet to protect himself from objects dropped from the bridge.
“Caw. Caw. Cawww!” The throaty, discordant squawk comes from a tall man, not a raven, although there are plenty of ravens in this Taos parking lot. The man’s face is pale, creased from decades of too much sun and too much smiling. Dressed in layers of button-down shirts, he runs long fingers through gray-streaked hair and pats it down with his palm. The ravens eye him curiously and chatter as he ambles over to a boxy little 1993 Dodge Shadow. He winces as he drops into the driver’s seat, the cortisone shot he just received in his hip still niggling. The New Mexican sun has roasted the car’s interior, where a dusty dashboard shelves a stack of mail: The New Yorker, information on a pension plan, an envelope scrawled with “To John Nichols (the writer) c/o Taos Post Office.”
Nichols, best known for his 1974 novel The Milagro Beanfield War, slips large tortoise-shell glasses over blue eyes and motors down the alley. He passes a dumpster and shouts out the window: “Caw! Caw!” He loves ravens, magpies and jays for their intelligence, adaptability, and monkey-like behavior. Maybe he also likes them because, like him, they are gleeful thorns in the side of a more refined society.
This fall, Nichols will publish his 19th book, The Empanada Brotherhood, which he describes as “a strange little book about a bunch of yahoos in New York City.” Aside from his fiction and nonfiction writing, Nichols is noted for his activism (last year, a Denver newspaper columnist compared his rhetoric to Lenin’s), his nostalgic vision of New Mexican culture and his Rabelaisian charm. Nearing 67, and with a weakened heart, Nichols still keeps his maverick edge. He wants to converse with Canadian jays, write about his mom and pop, go for long hikes, get laid, and eat good food, just like always. But the 20-hour writing frenzies are no more, and nature and family now occupy more of his time. Used to be, he’d spend the midnight hours weaving the gossip he’d collected into a story — “Gossip,” he says, “is a great way to get a novel.” These days, he’s more likely to read books about ants, or note down a few observations from his daily hike.
That doesn’t mean he ignores gossip when it comes his way. As he gallivants around Taos, he banters with Gail at the bank and Wendell the mechanic, not to mention his friends the dumpster-diving ravens. Waitresses pause as they serve him a breakfast of sausage and eggs, or dinner of calamari, and describe how things are going with their now-grownup daughters. When Nichols hears an Irish jig floating from a nearby motel courtyard, he strides over, his thin, chapped lips arcing into a wide grin, and compliments the fiddler and guitarist. The traveling musicians from Maryland offer him the small guitar, and after a bit of encouragement, Nichols strums an old folk tune: “I’ll get mine,” he sings.
Back in the Shadow, with its cracked windshield and cluttered backseat, Nichols navigates winding alleyways. He pulls into a labyrinth of storage lockers and parks, shedding a layer and pulling himself out of the car. He slides open a large metal door, revealing box upon box of paper, some yellowing and brittle, some still white and fresh. It’s the detritus of 40 years of writing: Unpublished manuscripts, drafts of screenplays, the typewriter on which he punched out the Milagro Beanfield War.
“It’s been one bad book after another,” says Nichols of his career, which officially began with the publication of The Sterile Cuckoo, when he was 23. After that success, he thought writing would just get easier and easier. “But it’s the opposite,” he says. “It’s hard to write something that has value, that works, that’s not a piece of shit … for me, it’s a frickin’ miracle to get anything published.” The Milagro Beanfield War was different; it was the easiest and sloppiest book he’s ever written, he says. If he had had the chance to exercise his penchant for endless rewriting, he’d have cut the gratuitous obscenities, and more than two-thirds of the Ay Chihuahuas, he says. But he has no real regrets. He’s always maintained his integrity, refusing to take any money up front, and he’s still creating fiction for a living, just like he always wanted.