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A working writer

John Nichols won't quit till it's right, and he has the drafts to prove it.

November 04, 2007|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

TAOS, N.M. — John NICHOLS can't stop writing. He often produces 10, 20, 30 drafts of a book, some more than 1,000 pages long. Nichols saves them all and frequently returns to things he started decades ago. Threads of stories surround the writer like milkweed seeds with their gauzy fibers. His little adobe house in Taos is full of books and other projects. Overflow goes to one of several storage lockers.

Three years ago, a documentary filmmaker named Ariana Cardenas made a short movie about Nichols called "My Beautiful Storage Locker." In it, the author, with his gray ponytail, beatific smile and finely articulated hands, guides us through drawers and shelves filled with 40 years of manuscripts, notes, photographs and letters from everyone he has ever known. There are the directors he has worked with: Redford, Pakula, Costa-Gavras, Ridley Scott and many others. Editors, politicians, other writers, old girlfriends and ex-wives. It's been quite a life.

Now, as a high-desert wind comes through the kitchen door of his home and blows a pile of white pages across the floor, the writer -- normally placid and self-contained, who cares nothing for earthly possessions and spends most of his waking hours in the mountains around Taos or at his desk -- leaps to his feet, waves his arms and chases after them.

Nichols' 11th novel, "The Empanada Brotherhood," has survived many drafts and now weighs in at a tightly honed 208 pages that display the author's gift for language and his ear for dialogue. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about it is that Nichols, whose outspoken progressive politics have been at center stage in almost every one of his books -- "All writers are morally obligated to overthrow the capitalist system and to end racism and chauvinism and sexism on the globe," he told the Rocky Mountain News in 2006. "And stop preemptive wars and basically hold the feet of their country's leaders to the flame" -- has produced a completely apolitical work.

Of course, after struggling with his last novel, "The Voice of the Butterfly" -- a rollicking tale of environmental activism -- Nichols may have needed a break from politics. He rediscovered a draft of "The Empanada Brotherhood," which is set in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s (Nichols lived there during that era), in one of his lockers and worked on it for nearly a decade before sending it to his editor, Jay Schaeffer, at Chronicle Books.

Nichols likens his writing process to looking for Mayan temples in the jungle. "You just start hacking," he says. "You miss it, you hack, you go by it 30 times. You start out with big ideas and 10 years later stagger to the finish line just trying to salvage something."

He likes the work. Once he starts a book, he feels obligated to finish, long after the pages "look like Jackson Pollacks. Write 500 words, cut 700." As an example, Nichols mentions a 1,300-page novel he once wrote about a man who heads into the mountains to escape the chaos of his life. Decades later, Nichols cut the novel into a 24-page story, titled "Spoon Mountain or Bust." Schaeffer has been known to say to him: "John, you're not getting to the mountains soon enough."

Nichols grew up on a 600-acre estate in Long Island. "I was a mistake," he laughs. His mother, Monique, died when he was 2 of a heart condition, endocarditis, which Nichols also has. He's had heart surgery and takes several medications. It doesn't stop him, though, from hiking alone well above 10,000 feet in the winter. His father's father was a naturalist and ichthyologist at New York's Museum of Natural History. His father studied psycholinguistics at Berkeley. They used to talk about the failure of language, Nichols remembers, how it just doesn't work. In his own experience teaching, he found that most students were remarkably imprecise with words.

With "The Empanada Brotherhood," Nichols felt it was important to get the voices of the characters -- a group of expatriates from Argentina whose social hub is an empanada stand on the corner of New York's Bleecker and MacDougal streets -- just right. His narrator, a young man fresh out of college who dreams of being a writer, falls in love with a flamenco dancer from Buenos Aires. She treats him with disdain, calls him a "little gringo mascot."

"So tell me blondie," she says. "Do you yearn for a Latin soul?"

The kid admits it. And Nichols, who went to bullfighting school in 1960 at the age of 20 and for many years collected postcards of leading matadors, does as well. "The empanada stand was a great way to socialize without spending too much money," he explains, shedding all pretext of fiction as he talks.

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