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An Interview with John Nichols

By Steven Robert Allen

JUNE 26, 2000:  John Nichols is "the author of The Milagro Beanfield War," but that doesn't necessarily mean he wants those words carved on his tombstone when he dies. Set in a moderately fictionalized version of Taos, Nichols' best-selling novel was made into a movie by Robert Redford in 1988. The book garnered widespread acclaim, but it also became something of an albatross around Nichols' neck--as if this prolific author of 16 fiction and non-fiction books and several screenplays were some kind of one-shot wonder, surfing on the fame of a single brilliant novel written over 25 years ago.

"You know, I have a whole career," Nichols says. "I've been writing since I was 16, and now I'm 60, but it's an easy tag line for people. And that's fair enough. A person should be grateful that they're known for anything, I suppose."

As a writer, Nichols has a lot to offer readers beyond that single novel. Over the years, he's come to be recognized as one of New Mexico's most talented and memorable word wizards. His non-fiction books, in particular, are often unjustly neglected. He's also published several excellent collections of photography, two of which grace this page.

Nichols' most recent release is a collection of essays called Dancing on the Stones. The book sketches a more complete portrait of the writer's life and views than any of his previous works. "The idea was to take different essays that express different parts of my life or concerns and put them together," he says. As always, foremost among those concerns are the political beliefs that Nichols has made a career out of expressing in his characteristic impassioned, humorous style.

The Alibi recently had an opportunity to speak with Nichols about his life, his writing, his photography, and the future of our sad, funny, little species.

Writing After Midnight

Nichols has always worked extremely hard at his craft. He writes every day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, come rain, shine, sleet or hail. "I have a tendency," he says, "to work from seven or eight or nine at night to seven or eight in the morning." Ever since his college days, he's always been a night owl. And now Nichols feels most comfortable working words when everyone else is asleep. "Even when I've been married or with families or stuff like that, I'll usually work until three or four in the morning, because basically that's when everyone else finally shuts up. Curiously in my life, it seems even though the writing is what earned the living and all that, I've never gotten down to it until everything else was sort of taken care of and people had finally gone to sleep and all the demonstrations were over and the world was quiet. Then I had a tendency to work--'til I dropped."

One reason Nichols has worked so strenuously at his writing is because three quarters of what he writes never makes it to print. Surprisingly, considering all the griping you usually hear from writers regarding the publishing industry, Nichols isn't particularly bitter about this. "Usually when stuff doesn't get published," he says, "it's because I haven't been able to figure out how to make it work. Just because you put a lot of time into something doesn't mean it's going to turn out good. They say it's just as difficult to write a bad book as it is to write a good one."

Though obviously rewarding, writing has always been a difficult, laborious process for him. "I have to work awfully, awfully hard just to elevate it to mediocre," he says. "And if I get to mediocre then I have to work really, really hard to elevate it to slightly better than mediocre. But that's what I have faith in. I don't have much faith in talent or inspiration, but I have a lot of faith in work."

The Mechanical Eye

In addition to writing, Nichols is also an extremely talented photographer. In several beautiful books, he's collected together photographs of small but poetic subjects near his home in northern New Mexico.

"Years ago," Nichols says, "I just started walking around with a camera. I did a book called If Mountains Die with a photographer friend named Bill Davis, and that was fun. And I thought, geez, if I took my own pictures they would relate more personally to what I had to talk about. So I started carrying a camera around."

Eventually, Nichols began using his slides in presentations for various political and environmental causes. His photographs chronicle a landscape that's close to his heart and that he's expended much effort in protecting. "I found it was kind of fun to take photographs, but just of places that I really care about," he says. "I've never been able to take a photograph of the Grand Canyon or Canyon de Chelly or something like that. That doesn't interest me, because those are just tourist places. The snapshots I take are just of places really close to home where I spend a lot of time."

Eventually Nichols discovered that his photographs enhanced his non-fiction writing. "They're not fancy or anything like that, but I think that they go along with the writing about this particular area. They've also been effective in little books like The Skies the Limit or Keep It Simple in making certain environmental cases for the planet."

From the beginning, Nichols has never been interested in the technical side of photography. "All I take are slides," he says. "In my life, I've only used two films--Kodachrome 25, Kodachrome 64--and I just use a little Nikon FE camera and three lenses. I never used a filter or stuff like that. I just like it to be real simple."

Thoughts on Armageddon

As a writer, thinker and activist, Nichols has spent a lot of time pondering the future of our planet and species. Much of his writing, both his fiction and his non-fiction, expresses a deep concern for the direction our civilization seems to be headed. "Well, first of all," Nichols says, "we're destroying the fucking planet. Monopoly capital is going absolutely crazy across the globe, and we live in a society based on conspicuous consumption and planned obsolescence. You know the rap."

We have to do something now, Nichols says, or run the risk of extinction. "Our consumer habits are simply destroying the biological resources that sustain us," he says, "so anybody with even a tenth of some kind of social, environmental conscience should start by leading a simple life. If you earn $100,000 a year, live like you earn $15,000 and give the rest to organizations that are struggling for human rights, civil rights, fighting against racism, fighting to ameliorate some of the savagery against the environment--the natural environment and human environment. It seems to me that anyone who calls themselves or wants to be a conscious political person, their first act would be to do as little damage as possible, i.e., lead a modest, sustainable life."

All this talk of gloom and doom, though, is typically accompanied by big whopping doses of Nicholsian humor. For all his many fears about the future, Nichols holds on to the hope that we can and will somehow find a way to ensure our survival. The same human energy that creates great art, he points out, also created the Nazi Holocaust. "We have the capacity to do remarkable things. We have the capacity to do horrible things. Theoretically we are programmed with the instinct for survival, and therefore we will adjust in time."

And if we don't, life will go on. The cockroaches and other hard-bodied insectoids will survive to preserve life on Earth. "The universe will go on," Nichols says, "the sun will keep burning until it flares out, the dark matter of the universe will keep revolving around out there, galaxies will explode and contract. I mean it's no skin off the universe's ass if we exterminate the human population. But given our consciousness and our self-awareness and our ability to analyze the situation, it would be wonderful if we could adjust our habits in order to extend ourselves a bit."

In his speeches and non-fiction, Nichols often jokes about Marxism, rifles and revolution. Yet when pressed, Nichols expresses his belief that we need an intelligent, sustainable alternative to both free market capitalism and Marxism. "I think that our modern society has proven that there are great flaws in Marxism, the same way there's huge flaws in capitalism." Consequently, we need to come up with a rational alternative to both these models of social organization. "I don't really know what the 21st century will produce in terms of socialist, democratic ideology," he says, "but I hope it produces something, because climax capitalism is a really, really fast way to destroy the planet."

At the moment, Nichols is working on several different writing projects. Early next year, a publisher in Minneapolis called Milkweed Editions will publish a tract he wrote called Down in Guatemala. The book discusses in detail some of Nichols' political, environmental and social concerns.

He's also finishing up a farcical novel called The Voice of the Butterfly, which he's been plugging away at, off and on, for about 12 years. The idea was to use the storytelling style found in lame brain Hollywood blockbusters like Independence Day or Jurassic Park to tell a serious tale about Nichols' favorite subject. "It's a kind of slapstick Keystone Cops cartoon comedy about everything we're talking about," he says, "the building environmental, social, human holocaust on the planet."

It's been a long, difficult struggle to sculpt the novel into the shape he envisions. "The culture is dominated by this kind of vapid entertainment cartoon, all explosions, action, that kind of stuff. So what I wanted to do was write a kind of cartoon novel in the dominant language of the culture but have it be meaningful, have it be totally political. I've had a hard time figuring out how to do that."

Hardcore politics isn't Nichols' only bag, though. "Another book that I'm rewriting right now," he says, "is a real small little novel about unrequited love between two young people. It doesn't have any overt politics. It's just an attempt to tell a beautiful little story in simple terms."

These days, it's hard for Nichols to look back on what he's written and assess its meaning. "Once you finish a project," he says, "it's sort of good riddance to bad rubbish. I just want to move on. It's almost impossible to reread any of my books once they've been published. Mostly, that's embarrassing. You just say, 'Oh, my God. Grammatically it stinks. I should have done this. I should have done that. There's too many cuss words. There's not enough politics, yadda, yadda, yadda.' It's like Pancho Villa. He was just born to attack. He just kept moving forward."

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