Novelist John Nichols, along with the venerable Frank Waters, is the closest thing Taos has to a dean of letters. His New Mexico Trilogy, The Milagro Beanfield War (1974), The Magic Journey (1978), and The Nirvana Blues (1981), traces the fictional history and the modern traumas of Chamisaville, a small town, not unlike Taos, in northern New Mexico. In the trilogy, and in his non-fiction If Mountains Die (published by Knopf, all other works having been published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston), a lyric evocation of the Taos area with color photographs by William Davis, Nichols gives a fuller expression of his deep political concern than in his previous books, The Sterile Cuckoo (1965, the mopvie of which starred Liza Minelli), The Wizard of Loneliness (1966), and A Ghost in the Music (1979). His newest book, The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn, is expected to be in bookstores June 18. Recently, John has become involved in writing for films, working on screenplays not only for his own Milagro, with Robert Redford, and Magic Journey, with Louis Malle, but Missing, directed by Constantin Costa-Gravras, and another film in the works by Costa-Gravras.
Nichols has lived in Taos since the late ‘60s, and though I have often seen him at the Post Office and breakfasting at Dori’s Bakery next door, I never spoke with him until Stephen Parks set up our interview. John lives in an old adobe house just outside of town, and we pulled up to it on a blustery early spring day in late March. Nichols was on the phone when we arrived and he waved us into the kitchen, continued with the phone conversation, running his hand through his hair, looking harried and boyish – almost like a grown-up Dennis the Menace. Nichols hangs up the phone emphatically, and breezily welcomes us “Siddown, siddown.” We sit at the kitchen table, Nichols, Parks, and I, which is piled high with newspapers, reference books, manuscripts, works in progress, his typewriter precariously perched on a thick book so he can sit comfortably at it. “Just shove all that stuff outta the way,” he directs as we sit down. I push over a section of the heap, making room for my tape recorder and notebook. A large file cabinet stands next to the refrigerator, news clippings and cartoons are scotch-taped to cabinets and areas of the wall around the sink. A combination wood and gas cook stove, into which he periodically tosses a small log during the interview, sits against the opposite wall. Nichols is the height of informality as he offers us instant coffee or, if we prefer, something stronger.
I’ll have a beer. Thanks John.
Let me get you a glass.
What about that movie you saw last night, Reds? I saw you sitting at the end of the row. What did you think?
I thought . . . Well, first I get so enraged by the fact that the guy can’t get a bulb into his goddamned projector, so that every time he switches projectors you get a wiped out, vapid, drab shining on the screen. One of the things that makes me so mad is that nobody in the audience complains or gets upset. (Shouting) I mean, people just accept this mediocrity! They don’t even notice it. I’ve walked out of films two or three times screaming, “Would you please frame it?”
You go to movies a lot?
I go to them less than I used to. I love movies, but it’s like I’m just infuriated. It seems like I’m struggling in everything I do to try and avoid mediocrity or compromise. Gosh, I’ve been working on a non-fiction book with my own photographs and it just breaks my heart . . .
What is that?
It’s called The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn – a little bit like If Mountains Die, but in a different vein, with sixty-five of my own photographs. And just the process with the color separations, and trying to get them right or be willing to put the money into getting the color right, it’s totally frustrating. The press prints come back, and they’re bland and drab, out of register, and they look like the Sunday comics.
I was just talking to somebody about that and the book, Two Cheers for Democracy, by E.M. Forster. He reserved his third cheer because essentially democracy, despite freedom or because of it, means mediocrity in the end.
Yes, because democracy lowers everything to the least common denominator . . .
Well, maybe. I don’t know. First of all, we don’t live in a democracy. (Pause, then laughter) It’s a capitalist society, and capitalism and democracy aren’t synonyms at all. But anyway, what do you want to know? (Laughter)
That’s enough. (Laughter) “We do not live in a democracy.”
Uh uhn. (Pause) One of the greatest successes of our country is the ability of the myth-making propaganda and educational system to equate democracy and capitalism. To actually sit there with the Declaration of Independence that says all men are created equal – except blacks of course, and women, who have no rights at all . . .
Non-property holders, in fact.
Yes, but to equate that statement with capitalism which is a class society, which is just the opposite... Adam Smith says that for every rich person you have to have 500 poor people. That’s the way a capitalist society works.
Did you see that Academy Awards last night when Beatty accepted the director award? His speech got political all of a sudden, talking about what a great country we live in because he was allowed to make the movie with money from Gulf and Western, a “serious film,” he said, about the left, and about the Communist party, and the Socialist party in America, which I thought . . . It wasn’t a serious film about the Communist party in America, it was a little romance, confection . . .
And another reason it was so successful was because it’s an anti-communist film. Basically, everybody’s disillusioned, the revolution’s over, Emma Goldman says get the hell out. There are some real good things in the film. The first film I’ve seen in public in America where someone admitted that the Soviet Union, after the revolution, was invaded by twenty-two different nations – actually, the movie says sixteen. The movie’s full of shit. (Laughter) it was interesting. It’s hard in a film to get into the intricacies, but when you make a decision to end a picture like that – when he dies – instead of during his funeral and the fact that he’s the only American buried in the Kremlin Wall. He was buried as a national hero! His death was a huge thing of national mourning. Millions of people came out. I just finished a biography by a fellow named Robert Rosenstone (Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed . . .)
Yes, I’m looking at it right here.
Louise Bryant arrives in Russia and they spend months running around going to cafes and drinking, having a great time. Things were bad and things were good, but there was this incredible ferment. Not at all cynical and miserable. But like I say, it’s not really important to . . . verisimilitude is not very important. I’m a firm believer that you buy a book, throw it away, and then go see the movie. It takes a whole different kind of construction. Ninety-nine percent of the films I’ve seen have been taken from books or real life, right? And they’ve been awed by the writer or the stature of the event so they try to repeat it word for word and they fail miserably. For example, The Great Gatsby . . .
I saw it in the middle of the afternoon. I enjoyed it a lot. (Laughter)
Just horrible. And one of the reasons it’s so bad is that were so awed by Fitzgerald that they used his lingo word for word.
What about The Sterile Cuckoo? Doing that . . . did that change your mind?
I wrote a couple of drafts. The concept changed radically when Liza Minnelli came into the film. It became a star vehicle for her, which meant all the social comment from the book came out. The book’s main comment about how social relationships in college go down during the ages of 18 to 21, that was pretty much lost. So the whole tone of the movie was real different from the book and yet the reviews of the movie almost read word for word like the reviews of the book. It’s interesting. I blew it because I didn’t understand how to translate books into movies. For example, books are exaggerated, prose is exaggerated. You make your point with prose on a page with little black symbols and have to stimulate people’s imaginations to make things real. You write your ass off. Most dialogue is exaggerated or repeated to make a point. Movies, because the impact is so huge on the screen . . . if somebody twitches their eye it becomes a character trait or an emotional cue as to what they’re thinking. Just the clothes they have on have an enormous impact.
You just did some work with Costa-Gavras (Z, State of Siege, etc.).
I’m still doing it. I rewrote one picture, Missing, which just came out. And now I’m doing another one.
But it was for work you weren’t credited for, right?
No, I didn’t get credit. The Writer’s Guild holds an arbitration to see who deserves credits according to their formula. They have a formula like you have to write a third of the picture. Which can be real bullshitty because often . . .
It could be key scenes.
Yeah. It could be not even a lot of writing but something like editing or fine tuning in a few key scenes that divulge something.
Is that what you did, fine tune?
Well, I rewrote the whole script. And my basic job was to give the people personalities and relationships with each other. What they had was a kind of Kafkaesque thriller/search.
Yeah. And the relationships between the three main people weren’t worked out at all.
But it worked very well, I heard.
Yes, it worked out real well! It breaks my heart when I see the movie because the writing that I did was so crucial to making it function. There’s hardly a scene in the picture that doesn’t have something, a touch, language, lingo. The film had no Americanisms. But anyway, the politics are real heavy in the industry. (Pause) I know a lot more about the process now. And if it comes up again I know much better how to fight.
That brings up the subject of unions and how their role has changed in U.S. history.
Well, unions are really important. The Writer’s Guild is a very powerful union. It’s essentially a closed shop. You don’t work in the industry unless you are a member of the Guild. That’s an important union concept. Unions are like everything else in our country. They’ve been corrupted by the system. That doesn’t mean you throw them out. (Pause) Anything anybody’s got in this country, workwise, is because of unions – from women’s suffrage to the eight hour work day, to workman’s compensation, to retirement plans. Anything is because the unions, because no employer would voluntarily give anybody anything, as we who live in Taos know. Try to get a job in the area and the only decent job in Taos County is at the Moly Mine as far as wages and benefits. (Pause) But unions have been co-opted, union leadership in particular, just like any other institution in the country. Name an institution that hasn’t been co-opted.
Baseball is interesting. Football is interesting, because it’s one of the areas where you have a definite class struggle where workers have some power. Of course what you have happening is the management and the unions pretty much battle each other with the same philosophy, which winds up with . . .
Let’s see who can make the most money.
Yeah. Everybody losing. It’s the reason why the feminist movement collapsed, or I think it collapsed. It never got political. It never had a historical perspective. It never had a political perspective. Women wanted equal pay for equal jobs, right? Within a capitalist system. Which simply meant that even if a woman gets equal pay for an equal job, she’s still going to have to step over thirty people, whether they’re men or women, to get up to that job.
Where do you start then?
You change the system. You change the philosophy.
You think that’s the first question?
Yeah, of course it’s the first question. No woman is ever going to have equality as long as she asks for it within any capitalist system, because the system depends upon a class structure where somebody has to be exploited. It’s like a glass of water filled to the top – you put another drop in and something has to fall out. That’s the way the system works. It’s like the perpetuation of the great myth. Warren Beatty makes Reds, or Costa-Gavras makes Missing. John Nichols is allowed to publish things like The Magic Journey in the straight press. But the fact is that the system doesn’t change at all. We just maintain the illusion that we don’t live in a class society. (Pause) I was reading an article by Henry Steele Commager in the L.A. Times, dumping all over Reagan. And he’s not the most radical person in the world, but he said the Reagan administration is the first administration that will openly admit that we live in a class society, we have always had a working class in the country of anywhere from thirty to ninety million people. We always have a base of poor people, we have to. We can’t live in a society based on profits without somebody . . .
Taking the short end.
Yeah, that’s right. But we never admit it. There’s always the myth of democracy. The myth that they’re all shiftless lazy welfare bums, because anyone who works hard can make it. That’s bullshit! There isn’t enough money, there aren’t enough jobs. Anybody who lives in Taos County knows the tourist industry is based on having a wide base of people who are very poor who will work for very low wages in order that the hotel, motel, and gallery owners can make their profits. They’ll never rise. It’s impossible, there isn’t enough wealth, as long as the few people who control our economy insist on making the kinds of profits they make.
(At this point a woman enters with a phone message for John. She leaves, John picks up the phone and dials . . . ) This is the Costa-Gavras thing. You keep making travel arrangements and then you keep having to change them. It’s crazy. Airplanes . . . they use airplanes like . . .
(Laughter) Yeah, taxi cabs. Hello . . . (phone conversation arranging travel to Paris. Afterwards – ) I just did this book tour and I had to take about thirty-five plane flights in a three week period, plus do Hollywood stuff at the same time.
How did you keep it together? Your health among other things?
I didn’t. I’m not very good at any of that stuff.
What does that kind of schedule do to your writing?
It’s getting harder. Last year I rewrote one screenplay for Costa-Gavras in January and February, I wrote a 100,000 word book March through May, I did four drafts of The Milagro Beanfield War . . .
For a screenplay?
Yeah. And I did a first draft of a nuclear scientist script for Costa-Gavras.
You wrote The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn from March to May?
Yes, one draft. Corrected it and typed it out. Usually things don’t work out that way.
That’s pretty fast.
Yeah, I wrote Milagro like that.
Came right out?
Oh, yeah. I wrote it in about five weeks. I sat down and I was editing a newspaper called The New Mexico Review. It was all voluntary, and some people were going to take the editorship and they were going to kill it, and I said, no, no. I’ll edit it, right? And they said okay, you’re welcome to it. I edited it for six months.
What was it?
It was a muckraking journal. It was a good paper. Neat paper. Lots of good people worked on it and never got paid.
Where was it? In Taos?
No, out of Santa Fe. I worked on it two years. It was originally called The New Mexico Review and Legislative Journal and then was called The New Mexico Review, and it was run by a board of editors as a collective kind of thing. It was funny because the two guys who owned it would always get outvoted. These two wanted the paper to be more like a Southwestern New Yorker. They wanted pictures in it and poetry, and they kept getting outvoted by all the pinks on the board, (laughter) who said, no, there’s so much political stuff not getting covered elsewhere that we have to cover it. It died in November, 1972. And I sat down in November to write The Milagro Beanfield War. Wrote a first draft in five weeks and corrected it in three weeks, typed it in three weeks, sent it to New York, and they bought it three weeks later.
Has it been so easy since?
No, that was the last easy thing. I had about eight weeks to rewrite it after they accepted it. The Magic Journey took about four years. Plus I had spent about eight or nine years before that working on books that were never published, including this one novel that I rewrote for ten years and could not get it to work. So it’s real weird how one thing will work right away and others . . .
How many years between the second novel and Milagro?
I finished writing The Wizard of Loneliness in 1964 or in 1965. No, I finished it when I was still 24. Published in 1966, then Milagro was published in 1974. So that was an eight year hiatus.
Were you able to live without having to work jobs elsewhere?
Yes, but I couldn’t live off my writing now. Most of my income comes from film options or filmwork. About a tenth of my income comes from writing. The best royalties I get are from If Mountains Die. It’s funny. That one book comes out with about $1,700 a year. The other six books in print add up to that. (Laughter) So, it’s not a real fast living out of books.
Were you real young when you decided you were going to be a writer?
(Pause) It’s very strange how you wind up doing what you do. I decided to become a writer when I wrote The Milagro Beanfield War. That was when I decided I was going to be a writer, and yet I’d already written ten books. I started writing a lot when I was thirteen. I wrote a novel a year in college. I just did it because I loved it. When I got out of college I had no clear understanding of where I was going to go, except after the best private education money could buy I was not going to Wall Street, or be a lawyer or insurance agent. I was going to write novels or play guitar or be a cartoonist. I was really into cartooning. I tried them all after college, and just sort of hit on The Sterile Cuckoo, which was probably the sixth or seventh book which I’d ever written. And wrote The Wizard of Loneliness and then got into being pretty political . . . into the Movement. Which changed everything I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it.
Was there any political activity for you during those years in college?
No, there was just Fair Play in Cuba, the Bay of Pigs, stuff like that. (Pause) One of the novels I wrote in college was about the Emmett Till infamous racial lynching. But about 1964 I really got politicized and started questioning what I was writing about, and why I was writing about it. The legitimacy of being an artist or a writer in the United States, because everything just gets co-opted. That was my kind of attitude. And for many years I had real trouble feeling that my own particular kind of art or writing was a legitimate kind of political expression. As legitimate as being on the barricades, or organizing, or marching. So I was always torn and I almost quit writing.
A sort of paralysis set in?
Yes. So finally I sat down and couldn’t write any books that were publishable. Most of them were terrible. I was trying to learn how to write a political book which ain’t easy. Then it was funny, about ’72 I said, “Look, maybe you’re just stuck with being a writer, whether you like it or not, and you’ve blown through a whole lot of your talent or whatever and . . .”
What, in political novels?
Just in not really concentrating on it.
On the craft?
Yes, just concentrating on the craft. Or just admitting that that’s what you are. Because if you admit that you are something it entails admitting that you aren’t a lot of other things. I’m never going to be a barrel house blues piano player if I really concentrate on writing, or I’m never going to be a revolutionary organizer. But a lot had to do with justifying writing as a viable political act. It should be automatic. My God! Most of the consciousness of the world, from the revolutionaries on, is built on the power of the pen. I said, “Okay Nichols, you better get serious about it and dedicate your life to writing.” And I started Milagro. And I said, “Okay, I think I’m going to call myself a writer.”
And not feel guilty about it.
Yeah. Try not to. You always feel guilty. There’s just nothing but guilt. (Nervous laughter) Sometimes I’m sitting here writing but sometimes I’m giving a lot of speeches or helping people organize. And then I get torn because that screws up the writing.
Are you worried about your time?
Yeah, but at the same time a lot of the energy that goes into writing comes from having a lot of contact with the outside. It’s that old kind of conflict. The politics are real important to me. When you work on a film like Missing, to me that’s a real political thing. This film on the nuclear scientist is predicated on how you do something that will add to the amount of information that will help people imagine what a nuclear war is like before it happens so we can avoid it. It’s real important to work on projects that are . . .
Well, either politically valid or just culturally valid. There’s so much schlock out there.
It’s not a particularly supportive milieu out there in the U.S. for a politically concerned artist.
No, but we have a long tradition of politically concerned artists. Since the ‘50s, it’s been muffled. Everybody got a little paranoid during the McCarthy period, and that has led to a kind of conservative outlook.
Films are very immediate in terms of getting to the people, much more so than books.
Yes, they do blast people right out of their seats. (Laughing) You wouldn’t believe the first day that Missing was released. More reviews came in than I’ve garnered with all my books in my whole life.
Have you seen it?
I saw a sneak preview in Philadelphia. It’s real hard. I can’t read my books after they go into print because I’m really bored, and that’s exaggerated in a film. You know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to get involved. It was more powerful, the sneak preview, than when I saw the final release. The studio demanded concessions, like more music or to cut certain scenes and add other scenes that I thought were a little bit hysterical or tipped slightly the good rhythm that I thought had been gotten in the film. Plus, it’s just freaky to look at all the things that have to happen in the film, all the compromises or cuts that have to go down just because of the time limit. Like you can’t write a 1,000 page novel. You always have to write a ninety page book or something.
Something like that can really hone down something, too. Make it really tight.
Most of the arts are constricted within boundaries. One of the nice things about novels is that you can take side trips and ramble around and come back, do it in 200 pages or 1,000 pages, or write a trilogy. This next one is going to be long! (Laughter) Sell it by the pound, like a fish market. (Laughter) You want another beer or coffee?
Thanks John, no.
Aah, nah (laughter) I mentioned Gabriel Garcia Marquez before. There’s a certain density to your description, a very mythical tone that you got in the beginning of Milagro. The believability was stretched . . .
Everybody says, “Hey, you were really influenced by Marquez.” I finished A Hundred Years of Solitude three months after I finished Milagro. You want to get into mythology for influences, you get into the French, Dickens, to just growing up with the Elizabethan ballads. My God, our literature is so full of myth making. The point is that people say Marquez and I say, “Of course, I love him.” Sure I’m influenced by Marquez. I’m also influenced by Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda, Diego Rivera, Jose Siqueros, Thomas Berger, Mark Twain . . . I’ve never met a book I didn’t like. (Laughter) Damon Runyon! I love Damon Runyon, Isaac Bashevis, Singer, Yiddish writers, Malamud. There full of mythical weirdos, angels, talking birds. Asturais – he was great. All this mythological . . . But we got all that stuff in our own literature. Moby Dick, for Christ’s sake! A white whale zooming around the ocean. (Laughing) Every sentence is a myth. (Pause) I think it’s because I wrote about the Latin American culture, and the only thing people here are familiar with is A Hundred Years of Solitude.
You say you have French Ancestry?
Yes, my mother was French. She died when I was two and I was brought up in this country.
Were you born in the U.S.?
I was born in California, but I think I was conceived in France. (Laughter) My great-grand father was a noted writer in France, he was called the “Bard of Brittany.” All his books were about the mythology and culture of Brittany. Full of witches and all that. In fact, there are enormous similarities between Brittany and northern New Mexico.
In terms of cross-over, myths, or temperament?
There are only five stories that have ever been written in the history of the world, and that goes from the Greeks to the Chinese. We’ve got Penitentes here and they’ve got Penitentes in Nyack, N.Y., who do the Stations of the Cross in three-pieced business suits. The ritual is world-wide. They do it in Guatemala, in Spain, in Belgium . . .
Were you raised in a religion?
Episcopalian. You know, Schwinn bicycles . . .
That’s religion! (Laughter)
Vanilla milkshakes. (Laughter) Go to church on Sunday, go to the local malt shop . . .
I just wondered if there was a latent religious streak in you that might have some influence in your life . . . There is a certain religiosity involved in politics. There’s a line that Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill in Reds says, “I love it when American intellectuals get that glint in their eye and start talking about the Russian Revolution. I’ve seen Irish Catholicism before.”
Basically, I suppose that ideologies and thought processes can be called religious. The thing is, when you’re discussing all that stuff philosophically, you need to take two months to sit down and define each other’s terms. To figure out what one really means when one says “God” or “religion.”
Or “good” or “evil.”
Yeah, and you’ll notice there’s not a lot of religion in my books. Especially in this area. I stay away from it because it’s such an important part of the fabric and structure of the culture.
You see it as oppressive, or do you see it as a very fertile kind of tradition?
(Pause) Yeah, I’ve got to. I haven’t figured out how to handle it so I don’t shoot my mouth off about it. It may be a flaw, because we ought to handle everything – or try.
Because it’s one of the greatest myths of this country is that it’s so complex we can’t really know . . .
So we can’t handle it . . .
Therefore, we are not only almost incapable of guiding our own destiny, but certainly we are incapable of having anything to say about history. The problem with that, of course, is that history is being guided by people who know that it’s bullshit, and who have figured out, one, how it works, and two, how to control it. And if you want to change it . . .
You better learn.
You better learn. Just for your own personal reasons, to guide your own personal destiny. (Pause) My daily life, how I live, depends a great deal on the kind of town I live in, and what my neighbors are like. Therefore, a much wider social commitment is imperative for purely selfish reasons. Just so things remain that I enjoy, like killdeer nesting in the back field, or having water in my ditch so that I can garden instead of having the water cut off by the next-door housing development.
That’s what Milagro was all about. The critical choices we have to make.
And also that your life is so connected to the life of the community, the next person, your neighbor, the country, the world. Also, you become much more politically powerful on a very local level if you really understand and admit and use universal connections. It also makes for a much more hopeful life. (Pause) We live in a country that seems to promote nihilism. It promotes the idea that it is hopeless. It seems to me that one of the ideas that keeps the economic system functioning is the myth that it’s all so hopeless that we might as well forget it. Eat, drink, and be merry. Look out for our own self-interests and exploit everything.
Hedonistic nihilism . . .
Exactly. And the world’s going to end anyway. This makes for a lot of selfishness. And it makes people really desperate. It’s really clear that no matter how much materialistic shit you get, it doesn’t make for satisfaction or fulfillment.
You’re not so self-absorbed?
Yeah. I just got real bored with myself. I got bored worrying about how important or unimportant I was. I got bored with worrying about my personal life being the most important thing on earth. I got bored with a whole lot of self-absorption. The Nirvana Blues is sort of a whole reaction to the whole “me-decade” of self-absorption.
I wondered about that the other night while watching Reds, when Henry Miller got on there and started talking about Reed being afraid to face his own problems. I mean you can’t take on the world’s problems. As Miller said, “Jesus Christ tried it and he got crucified.”
That was a very facetious remark.
Yes, it was. Granted, but Miller was making his point. Of course, he was a fellow who was really wrapped up in himself, very self-absorbed. Me-as-the-world.
But I like him. He was great. Lots of levels. A wonderful writer.
(Pause) I have the impression that a lot of people rely on you.
I have a theory that since I can earn a lot more money than most of my friends, and that there’s a real unequal distribution of wealth going down, unfairly . . . I’ve got friends who bust their asses eight, ten hours a day mopping floors or waiting on tables who earn nothing, and yet their work is every bit as difficult or impossible as my own work. Maybe I feel guilty about being able to earn the money. And so it seems that a certain amount of it should be shared. I don’t have any sympathy for how money works, so I seem a real idiot in every facet of dealing with money except giving it away. Like last year, I earned a lot of extra money, it just blew out of the sky due to films and stuff. I went to an accountant and said, “What do I do with this? I don’t want to give it to Haig.” And he said, “Why don’t you invest it?” I said, okay, and invested in a house for a friend to live in. Then the well went dry, and the fumigators had to come because the house was full of bugs and then the tree in the backyard fell on the neighbor’s chicken coop which had to be rebuilt. (Laughter) And I was just trying to hang on. Then I had the drillers come and they hit an artesian well which pumped water out at fifty gallons a minute. They couldn’t figure out how to cap it. I had to call these people from Farmington and meanwhile the drillers are saying, you’ll never get another one. They drilled a couple of yards away and hit another one which had to be capped. That cost $5,000 and not a drop of water. I blew all the money trying to keep the house together and wound up selling it at a ten to $15,000 loss. It was what some people would call a disaster. To me it was just a lesson to stay out of things that you don’t believe in.
What will you do next year when you make a bunch of money? (Smiles)
I’ll just let it trickle away like it usually trickles away. Give it to the Tierra Amarilla clinic.
To change the subject, are you working on a novel at the moment – the big one?
I want to write a book about the rise of industrial-capitalism in the U.S. from the end of the Civil War to the present.
A non-fiction book?
No, fiction. I’d like to deal with immigration, the rise of the robber-barons, railroads, Morgan, Fisk, Jay Gould.
Is this for research? (Indicating one of a pile of books on the kitchen table) The History of Standard Oil . . .
Yeah, I’ll take you on a tour of the inner sanctum, if you like. Show you my research stuff.
John takes us into the main room of the house, the walls lined with bookshelves filled to overflowing with books. At one end of the room is a writing desk, at the other an upright piano. (At the conclusion of our rambling, two and a half hours of conversation, Nichols sits down at the piano and plays us an original composition – a wry, country and western ballad. He is also a fair blues, and boogie-woogie player.) He shows us a page of proofs of his color photographs for his forthcoming Last Beautiful Days of Autumn, and after the tour we head back to the kitchen. The phone rings and John answers. As I head for the bathroom I hear him yell to Parks, “Tell him not to flush the toilet!” I don’t and go back into the kitchen as John, after a long conversation about a speech he has to make, hangs up the phone.
Every day three or four things come up and it’s hard to say “No!” It’s like this pathological sickness, dealing with saying no to these voice or faces. That’s why the phone’s unlisted, but somehow the number got out. In letters I can do it. It’s just a piece of paper. I don’t have much discipline. It’s gotten so the only time I can write is at night because there are so many interruptions. When I wrote Milagro, I had no career. It’s not like I’m rich and famous now, but we live in a very small pond and my stuff is well-known in the New Mexico, Rocky Mountain region. There are always people asking me to do this or that, come here or there. There’s no more autonomy. Plus, just living in Taos, everyday someone calls. A neighbor’s horse died, would I help come bury it? A car won’t work, can you jump it? I split up with my wife, can I stay at your house for three nights? There’s always something. You can’t ignore it. You’re connected in this.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons you live here?
That’s one of the reasons I leave here, too. (Laughter) It just gets harder and harder to work.
You’ve had quite a steady output of work.
That’s the other thing. In this country . . . you get credit real easily for doing mediocre shit. Everybody always says, “Jesus Christ, Nichols, you have such an output. You do so much work . . . “and I know, one, I know all the flaws in the books, and two, I know how much I could really do with discipline. Instead, I sit down at 8 o’clock and read People magazine, (laughter) then I read a little John Reed, then I’ll make myself a sandwich and have a beer, and then I watch the NCAA (the NCAA basketball championships were going on at the time of this interview), and then I read the Denver Post (more laughter) and then I start working and it’s 1 a.m. and I’m tired.
But you’re trying to make a very big step with this next novel?
Oh yeah. This next novel may take six, eight, or ten years or something. And who knows, it may be the last novel I ever write.
You’re in no hurry . . .
No. I’ll . . . wait it out. If you want to do something you might as well put everything you got into a great big project rather than do . . . Every now and then I get panicked and I say, wait a minute, your career will die unless you do another couple of books in between, or do a smaller novel just to keep the flame burning.
Like The Ghost in the Music?
Yeah. Now that book, I wrote the first draft in 1965, but it was about a lobsterman in Maine. I rewrote it time and time again, and it wound up as a grade Z movie director stunt person on location in New Mexico. But the thing I wanted to do was write a book about what happens to creative energy in America, which nobody’s gonna realize when they read that book. They’re just gonna see this funky little book, but the thing that triggered it was finally reading a biography of Elvis Presley and how this guy with incredible talent just blew it. He got all this money so what does he do? He buys this great big house and then he buys a bulldozer and wrecks the house. And so I wanted to write a book about what we do with our creative artistic energy. It doesn’t have to be any real outlet, so we just self-destruct. (Pause) You know, I get so enraged. To me it’s kind of tragic, the- kind of credence we give to the Scott Fitzgerald myth, and the Anne Sexton myth, the Sylvia Plath myth, Dylan Thomas. That’s it . . . When you have this incredible kind of gift, or talent, or however you got it, through genetics or just hard work, that it’s an obligation to destroy it. Or that people don’t know how to turn it into real . . . I mean, why is it obligatory for Fitzgerald to burn himself out at 41 or 44?
Why? That’s a very good question. Is it because of the cultural milieu he found himself in?
Yeah, I think so.
Yeah. Yeah, I think so.
Everything is disposable. Including artists? You fight for “success,” and once you make it you self-destruct? Like John Belushi, most recently.
There’s no wider sort of social or historical perspective that lets people be survivors. I don’t think that romantic self-destruction myth is half as strong in Europe, in France. Those guys live, and not only do they live a long time and have a distinguished career in letters or whatever, but they even become politicians and statesmen. Mitterand, right? The guy has read. Neruda was an ambassador for his country! He lived, you know . . . it wasn’t a part of the artistic process to destroy yourself. And in our country it is. You know, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley . . . I look around and see people I care about, and they’re killing themselves, and they’ve got so much talent. But it doesn’t get a wider forum. You get Oscars, or you make movies, and you get lots of money, but somehow you don’t really . . . you just repeat yourself and it’s not very fulfilling. It’s sad, and you don’t grow, you don’t grow! You sort of stop or something. (Pause) I don’t know why we got on that. But it’s real . . . it’s not easy to lead a creative, positive life. I’m 42 and my body’s breaking down. I’ve always been an athlete, right? From now on it’s going to be easy to stay . . . I’m going to have to go out there, and I run . . .
Pete Rose is 41 and he’s playing pro ball . . .
Yeah, right, I know, but the point is you have to work at it, and work at it real hard, and society doesn’t make it easy. There’s just a lot of negative stuff from absorption in automobiles to, to . . . what are the values? I mean how many people do you know that are real concerned with values above and beyond the selfish material values? Or who struggles hard to do work – intellectual work, or human work, or work that keeps them from growing? It’s as if we live in a society that encourages people to solidify, and just find their own trench and protect it. But you can grow. You can do it, and it’s important.
Thom Collins, Stephen Parks, June 1982