“I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer” is about the ups and downs and the ins and outs of John Nichols’ vibrant life. At 82, Nichols, a New Mexico literary treasure, is still writing.
If one had to pick his most well-remembered book, it would probably be his 1974 comic novel “The Milagro Beanfield War.” It has long been a cult classic, though never a bestseller.
Its underlying conflict is over land and water rights. Among its colorful characters are a developer who wants to turn a recreation area into a posh vacation resort. Opponents of the development are a group of the Hispanic farmers and sheep men of the fictional town of Milagro. The action is triggered when farmer Joe Mondragon illegally irrigates his beanfield.
The book is based on the personalities and events Nichols covered for the monthly New Mexico Review on his Taos neighbors, and on aspects of local Hispanic culture, especially what he learned from the locals’ attempt to defeat a conservancy district and dam.
“I Got Mine:Confessions of a Midlist Writer” is a rich, earthy memoir in which Nichols examines what it has meant for him to be a writer. Not just the act of writing.
Nichols candidly describes his foibles, his joys, his family, his friends, his politics. They seem linked to his writings, including “The Milagro Beanfield War.”
“The novel was banged out in desperation to keep my fiction-writing career alive and provide for my family,” he writes.
The author and his wife, Ruby, separated for one year; she in Albuquerque, he in Taos, their two children splitting time with their parents via bus.
In the memoir, Nichols recalls the frenzy of correcting and editing the first draft (“rereading and rewriting each page 30 times!”) He retyped the draft on a portable typewriter that bounced on the kitchen table with each stroke.
“I attribute much of my enthusiasm to the departure of American troops from Vietnam,” Nichols writes.
Nichols’ politics unabashedly lean left. He mentions his anti-capitalism when an editor at publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston agreed to pay him $5,000 for “Milagro” plus another $5,000 on publication day the next year.
Nichols can hardly live with himself: “Oh my god, how awful. Saved again by capitalism! How could I ever come to terms with such hypocrisy?”
His many friendships course through Nichols’ life. One friend was Rini Templeton, a New Mexico artist friend, who critiqued many chapters of “Milagro.”
“Her laughter at many scenes buoyed me up. She agreed to illustrate the part headings and jacket cover when I finished,” Nichols wrote.
Another friend was Marian Wood, his editor at Holt for 25 years or so.
“Though I didn’t know it at the start, she was going to give me a literary life in New York City publishing,” Nichols wrote.
“… the heart of my career and modest reputation was created by works that Marian published with Holt …”
Besides “Milagro” those books have included “The Magic Journey,” “The Nirvana Blues,” “American Blood” and “An Elegy for September.”
In 1969, Nichols had moved his family from New York City to Taos, a town he fell in love with. It became the model for Milagro. If he painted Taos as almost idyllic, he confessed, he wanted to fix that impression: “We arrived during a migration of counterculture longhairs to maybe a dozen sketchy communes around Taos, an invasion that had become a Hippie-Chicano War.”
Researching “Milagro” meant Nichols read at least a half-dozen books on water-adjudication lawsuits, land battles, culture, history and justice in New Mexico and the Southwest.
His literary output had begun with the earlier novels “The Sterile Cuckoo” and “The Wizard of Loneliness.” In all, he has written 13 works of fiction and 11 nonfiction books, including “I Got Mine:Confessions of a Midlist Writer.” He’s also written screenplays and drafts for screenplays.
What’s the source of the subtitle of “I Got Mine”? The epilogue explains that years ago the publishing industry labeled him “a midlist writer,” a mediocre joker who never sells more than 10,000 copies.”
His last 10 publishing efforts probably averaged no more than 1,000 copies each, or less, Nichols notes. Which, to him, made sense, given his attitude toward money and fame.
A blue tone creeps into the book’s aftermath. Nichols has been living alone in his 800-square-foot Taos home since his last divorce in 1996:
“Usually I feel upbeat, yet lately the state of affairs on earth makes me sad. And for the first time ever, I feel lonely.”
Perhaps the loneliness was related to the hiatus of the six-piece jam band he’s played guitar in – Ricky and the Rewrites. They jammed for 14 years before the COVID-19 lockdown. Down to four musicians, the band is back playing every other Monday.
“I love it. They’re the players. I’m the pet monkey,” Nichols kidded about his role in a phone interview.
Recently, Nichols has been trying to edit the hundreds of essays, speeches, etc. he’s written/presented over the years into a new collection.
He’s also organizing his manuscripts, journals and correspondence for the archives of University of New Mexico’s Center for Southwest Research.
“I need to get them in order before I croak. It’s a tribulation,” Nichols said.