"Closer All the Time," a new work of fiction by award-winning author Jim Nichols, arrived in our office last week. To celebrate, writer and guest blogger, Jennifer Van Allen, sat down with Jim to ask him about his curious road to writing and the inspiration behind the book.
Jim Nichols became interested in writing fiction while working as a ticket agent for a commuter airline in Rockland. Born in Brunswick and raised in Freeport, Maine, Nichols has worked variously as bartender, pilot, skycap, taxi driver, fence builder, orange picker, ramp and ticket agent for a commuter airline, travel agent and dispatcher for an air taxi service. His work has appeared in Esquire, Narrative, Zoetrope ASE, december, Germ Magazine, The Clackamas Literary Review, Downeast, River City, Conversely, and Night Train, among many others. He has been nominated several times for Pushcart prizes, and his novel, "Hull Creek," was the runner-up for the 2012 Maine Book Award for Fiction. He is also the author of "Slow Monkeys and Other Stories." His novel, "Closer All the Time," will be released by Islandport Press in March 2015.
Nichols now lives in Warren, Maine with his wife Anne, and their two rescue dogs Brady and Jessie. They have two grown sons, Aaron and Andrew. Nichols still works occasionally for Penobscot Island Air. He recently took time to chat about his work, his big break with Norman Mailer, and the writers who inspire him most.
Tell me about your new book, "Closer All the Time."
It’s a novel-in-stories that’s set in a fictional mid-coast town of Baxter, Maine. The book focuses on the journey of the main character, Johnny Lunden, through his own eyes, and the eyes of others. It’s about growing up, growing past things, or not growing past things. But it’s also about the lives of real, working people who don’t always show up on the radar. They may be the type of people get passed by everyday, who others might not even register as real people. I like to think of it as a modern day "Our Town." The title comes from one of the stories, and also references a lyric of a song called “10 Miles High” by Nine Inch Nails, “ which goes, “I swore to God I would never turn into you, I’m getting closer all the time.” That felt like it really captured Johnny’s journey.
How did you start writing?
Though we were pretty blue collar, we were a literate family, and everyone grew up writing and reading. We would all write poems and send them around in a circle for one another to read. But I never thought of it as a career for a grownup. I didn’t want to be a writer. I just wanted to be the shortstop for the Boston Red Sox.
The writing came later. When I was in my 30s, I was working as a ticket agent at the Knox County Regional Airport. Several nights a week I had to wait until the last flight to come in at 10 p.m. That meant I had up to five hours of uninterrupted time by myself, which I would spend reading novels, and then short stories, my favorite of which was "In Our Time" by Ernest Hemingway. The more I read, the more it occurred to me that I might try to write a story myself. So I started by writing, trying to imitate Hemingway, then took a course on short stories in Rockland. My teacher, Gordon Clark, published one of my stories in Kennebec Magazine, which he edited. And of course once you get published once - and see your name in print, it’s game over. I was hooked. Before too long, I started getting published pretty regularly in literary journals.
How did you get your first big break?
Around 1990, Norman Mailer flew into the Knox County Airport, where I was working, on his way up to Bar Harbor. I knew he was coming. So when the plane landed, I climbed on board and cornered him in his seat. There was only one exit, which I was blocking, and he was only there for 10 minutes; he was pretty much captive. I gave him a copy of the Kennebec Magazine containing my story, and said “I don’t want anything, I just want you to read this so that I can say ‘Norman Mailer read one of my stories.’” He replied, “Well, that’s a new one,” and then grouchily accepted it. When Mailer came back through the airport on his way home, he came out of the plane to tell me he'd enjoyed the story, and to ask if I had anything more ambitious to share. He laughed when I whipped out a manuscript, and took it with him. A few weeks later, he wrote me a letter, suggesting I submit the story to Esquire, The Atlantic or The New Yorker. He enclosed letters of recommendation for each. I tried Esquire first. The story was accepted, and appeared in the summer reading issue of 1990. It was pretty cool to see my writing in that magazine, accompanied by an introduction from Mailer. He and I kept up a sporadic correspondence until a few months before his death in 2007. He sometimes sent me line drawings he'd done, which I saved, and even gave a novel I’d written to his agent to shop around to publishers.
What writers have most influenced you?
Tobias Wolff. But I also loved Richard Ford, Irwin Shaw, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Steinbeck.
What are you reading now?
I have several piles going. Right now I’m on an Elizabeth Strout kick. I read "Olive Kitteridge" and "Amy and Isabelle". I also try to read the books and support anyone I know. So I also read "Euphoria" by Lily King, "Sparta" by Roxana Robinson, Bill Roorbach’s last two books, "The Remedy for Love," and "Life Among Giants," and always I read everything that Monica Wood and Ron Currie Jr. write.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my next book. I discovered enough in the process of writing the first draft, that I am ready to go back and make it into a real novel.
"Closer All the Time" is the first title in our new program for New England fiction authors. Our goal is to release a new literary work of fiction every February. To learn more about "Closer All the Time," or purchase a copy of your own, visit our online bookshop.