John Nichols -
The Voice of the Butterfly
April 19, 2004
About the Author
John Nichols is the author of the New Mexico trilogy, a series about the complex relationship between history, race and ethnicity, and land and water rights in the fictional Chamisaville County, New Mexico. The trilogy consists of "The Milagro Beanfield War" (which was adapted into the film The Milagro Beanfield War directed by Robert Redford), "The Magic Journey" and "The Nirvana Blues." Two of his other novels have been made into films. "The Wizard of Loneliness" was published in 1966 and the film version with Lukas Haas was made in 1988. Another successful movie adaptation was of "The Sterile Cuckoo," which was published in 1965 and was filmed by Alan J. Pakula in 1969. Nichols has also written non-fiction, including the trilogy "If Mountains Die", "The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn" and "On the Mesa." John Nichols has lived in Taos, New Mexico, for many years.
About this Book
"The Voice of the Butterfly" is a comedic examination of the environmentalist movement in America as it struggles with its antithesis, the progress-at-all-costs entrepreneur of land appropriation: the politicians and land developers. The novel's protagonist, Charley McFarland, is an idealist, a remnant of the Sixties social protest culture. Charley finds himself amid the setting and neo-capitalist atmosphere of Suicide City, where the last known refuge of the Rocky Mountain, Phistic Copper Butterfly, is threatened by the prospects of a new highway bypass. Charley soon enlists an eclectic ensemble, tentatively titled the Butterfly Coalition. The Coalition is comprised of his son, Luther, a 20-year-old Burger Boy employee; Susan Delgado, a subversive newspaper reporter; his alcoholic ex-wife, Kelly, who also serves as the organization's press personae; and Lydia Arlington Babcock, a 92-year-old chain smoker and property owner of the sacred butterfly refuge. The struggle that ensues between the Coalition and its political nemeses is exceedingly comedic and sometimes sentimental. Nichols creates a pertinent parody of what is at stake and what is amiss in the would-be world of eco-activism. Nichols makes this world as humorous, irreverent and poignant as is possible, without mutual exclusion.
Ron Carlson: Welcome to Books & Co. I'm Ron Carlson. And today our guest is the writer John Nichols, who is the author of 18 books, ten books of fiction, and eight books of nonfiction, most recently, the novel, "The Voice of the Butterfly," and a personal memoir, a book called "An American Child Supreme." Welcome, John. It's good to see you again.
John Nichols: Good to see you again, too.
Ron Carlson: Let's not start with "The Voice of the Butterfly," Your most recent book. Let's go back to your beginnings as a writer. You live in New Mexico and have always been associated with issues of the land, and you've written about the land from "The Milagro Beanfield War." Take us back before that. You are a very prolific writer, but let's go back to when you started. What do you consider your beginnings as a writer?
John Nichols: oh, I started writing when I was about 11 years old. I remember writing short stories, always in the genre of Damon Runyon. Have you ever read Damon Runyon?
Ron Carlson: Sure, yes.
John Nichols: Yeah, yeah, they are New York gangster stories. I was obsessed with Damon Runyon when I was, you know, a kid.
Ron Carlson: Where were you? Were you an urban kid?
John Nichols: No, I grew up all over the country. I was born in Berkeley, California.
Ron Carlson: I see.
John Nichols: I moved to Miami, Florida. My mom died when I was two. I lived in Long Island, New York.
Ron Carlson: These city characters had your attention?
John Nichols: Yeah, yeah, I liked slang. I liked gangsters, you know, murder, mayhem, all that kind of stuff.
Ron Carlson: Right.
John Nichols: So all during my teenage years, I wrote a lot of short stories, you know, first person, yiddish starker slang. I'm sitting in Mindy's on a Saturday night when who walks through the door but Harry the Horse. He's packing a John roscoe, the sign of the Empire State Building. So I pulls out my own Piezolever and practically tattoos my monogram on his chest, right? I love that kind of stuff.
Ron Carlson: That's so interesting.
John Nichols: When I was 16, I came out west and spent a summer in Portal, Arizona, working at a research station for the American Museum of Natural History. I fought forest fires with a lot of Chicano guys from rodeo and Mexican nationals from Mexico, went back to prep school in Connecticut after that summer and wrote my first novel, which was set in the southwest about a --
Ron Carlson: Had the southwest claimed you by that time, then, that one trip?
John Nichols: No, no, no, I read Tom Lee's book, "The Wonderful Country." Have you ever read Tom Lee?
Ron Carlson: Sure.
John Nichols: I read a lot of Hemingway. I was really into Spanish-speaking culture, that kind of stuff. My mom was French. She was raised in Barcelona, so I had a lot of the Spanish culture, too, you know, in my background.
Ron Carlson: The dichotomy you talk about in your memoir is the dichotomy of that, the West, the rough and tumble west, the edge of things, and then this other thing you were doing, which is going to Loomis, a prep school?
John Nichols: Yeah, I went to prep school in Connecticut. Then I went to college in upstate New York. I wanted to be a professional hockey player for many years, from the age of maybe 15 to the age of 20. That's all I wanted to do.
Ron Carlson: Yeah.
John Nichols: And my whole, you know, mythology was French Canadian, then I got injured in my junior year in Hamilton College in upstate New York.
Ron Carlson: Okay.
John Nichols: But that got me out of the army. So instead of going into Vietnam at the beginning, you know, '62, '63, I got to go to New York City and become a writer.
Ron Carlson: Right.
John Nichols: Yeah.
Ron Carlson: You had early success as a writer?
John Nichols: Well, you know, when I was in college, I wrote two novels a year, probably, and they were horrible books.
Ron Carlson: Okay.
John Nichols: But they didn't have any creative writing classes, so, you know, I didn't get any credit. And then when I got to New York City, when I was 23, I sold my first novel called "A Sterile Cuckoo," but it was probably about the tenth novel I had written. So I don't know whether you call that early success or not. Early success would have been when I was 15 years old or 16 years old, publishing one of them, right?
Ron Carlson: There you are, you live in the East. You've got a best seller. You've got this success.
John Nichols: It's not a best seller.
Ron Carlson: It's a good seller.
John Nichols: It sold maybe 10,000 copies, right?
Ron Carlson: But you still feel the call of the West?
John Nichols: Well, you know, at that time I really didn't. And I lived in New York city for six years.
Ron Carlson: Right, right.
John Nichols: And you know, I wanted to live in New York, because that's where Maxwell Perkins was, that's where Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway -- all of those people published books in the city. And -- but after six years, I got pretty burned out on New York city. I was married. I had a kid. It was hard raising a kid in New York.
Ron Carlson: Sure.
John Nichols: I had real early success with "A Sterile Cuckoo," and I published another book called "The Wizard of Loneliness." Sank like a stone. Then I got really politically involved in the anti-war movement, all kinds of stuff, you know, the anti-war movement, the Black Panthers, Puerto Rican liberation, all that kind of stuff, and got very political, kind of started considering myself a marxist-leninist, went into culture shock, hated, you know, the United States government for the war in Vietnam, et cetera.
Ron Carlson: Right.
John Nichols: And started trying to write novels that would reflect my new political orientation, and they were terrible books. I mean, they were very political, and they had a great social conscience, but they were really written badly.
Ron Carlson: Okay. Let's talk about your awakening. You've always been known as a social-political or environmental activist or aware or a leader in these regards. Did the light bulb go on in a single moment? Or was it just the Vietnam era and those things that began to -- because couldn't you have just made a compromise and gone on with your life and moved to the suburbs and let it go?
John Nichols: I suppose so. I mean, all of my life I always remember having some kind of social conscience that never really got triggered. I lived in the South. We lived in rural Virginia from my age of 11 to 17.
Ron Carlson: I see.
John Nichols: And I went to segregated schools, all white grammar schools there. I went to all white high school for one year. I was going to Herndon High School when Brown versus Board of Education passed in 1954.
Ron Carlson: Right.
John Nichols: I remember all of my friends coming to school the next day with like baseball bats, tire chains, brass knuckles.
Ron Carlson: So this was up front. This was a very personal experience?
John Nichols: Yeah, a lot of that, but it's like it never -- I mean, I grew up in a middle class Anglo family, right?
Ron Carlson: Sure.
John Nichols: So it never really banged me on the head powerfully until, you know, after college. Before I lived in New York -- Right after I moved to New York city, I went to Guatemala for just a couple of months to visit a friend.
Ron Carlson: You talked about Guatemala quite a bit here as being kind of a linchpin in your thinking?
John Nichols: Yeah, Guatemala was a place I went right after I sold "A Sterile Cuckoo" where, you know, the poverty, the misery, the military dictatorship was so obviously a creation of the United States government, that it really opened my eyes to kind of, you know, what makes America wealthy, and basically it's the poverty and the exploitation of a lot of the rest of the world. I mean, that's the way it hit me, you know, then. And I came back to New York city after Guatemala and everything happened. I was being offered -- like "The Sterile Cuckoo" was made into a movie. I was hired to write the screen play. It was a Literary Guild alternate. It got sold to paperbacks for like $37,000, which was a lot of loot, you know, in those days. And so the system was just throwing everything you dream about, you know, when you are young, everything you dream about.
Ron Carlson: This is a very poignant section in this book, as I see this young guy being teed up by society --
John Nichols: They give you everything, and then it's like suddenly you realize that it's all just, you know, it's blood money. It's -- it's -- I don't know, the whole value system collapsed for me. You know, I started reading about the United States presence in Guatemala, in Central America, in the Caribbean. Then I started reading U.S. history, because, you know, I got the best private education that money could buy.
Ron Carlson: Sure.
John Nichols: And yet, I didn't know anything about slavery. I didn't know anything about, let's say, genocide of Native Americans in order to establish, you know, the American nation.
Ron Carlson: Sure.
John Nichols: I had no concept of the Mexican-American war. I mean, I really didn't understand our own history, you know? And so Guatemala was like the Pandora's box.
Ron Carlson: Right, sure.
John Nichols: You open that box, and it just expands forever. And then I started reading about, you know, United States presence in Southeast Asia, and so I became, you know, very active in the anti-war movement, and then just very active politically in a whole lot of areas. I mean, feminism. This was the '60s, right? The feminist movement. I got married. And my wife and I had been raised to believe that the man goes out and earns the living and the wife stays home, you know, and takes care of the kids and cooks. And all of a sudden we were in a culture where I was supposed to be a house husband, and she was supposed to go to college, get a degree, find a good job, right? That kind of thing.
Ron Carlson: Sure.
John Nichols: And so I was trying to write books and take care of Luke, my baby, you know, while Ruby was out going to hunter to get an education, degree, that kind of thing. So everything got turned upside down. I mean --
Ron Carlson: Well, in this transition -- I want to interrupt here to say that – so that's quite a load that you were taking on. You were educating yourself about these things that maybe had been glossed over in your education. Now, I've known you a long time, and talked to you through the years at various conferences or meetings we've had, and one of the things that strikes me is I understand your political awareness very well, but you are not a dark person. You haven't let these things climb up on you and make you gloomy. You continue to write. You are incredibly creative. You are incredibly active. I'm very interested in that part of it. For example, how -- you said you wrote some polemic or nonfiction books that were not as effective?
John Nichols: No, I wrote novels between 1965 and 1974. I wrote about seven or eight novels that were all supposed to stop the war in Vietnam, overthrow the capitalist system, reinstitute, you know, an egalitarian economic system worldwide, you now, that was also environmentally coherent and friendly, and the books – I was just on a soapbox screaming, ranting in all of these books. And so they were terribly written. I couldn't publish any of them. I went completely broke. I finally moved to New Mexico in 1969, having gone from being, you know, the bright young new talent in New York city, to being a nobody nowhere. And -- but, I had complete -- and I had also overthrown just about most of the foundations that I was raised on, to believe in, and that's a very traumatic process.
Ron Carlson: Then you began this other -- this second part -- I'm going to interpret this and then you can respond to it, that then you began -- some of those -- some of the ideas that you had began to inform the drama, that whole notion that all politics is personal, some of those novels that you wrote since 1970, “The Milagro Beanfield war" and others have that very effective balance. They are personal dramas first. "The Voice of the Butterfly," in a way, is a very personal book with its ideas.
John Nichols: Yeah, but they are all polemics. I mean, you know, what's his name? -- Nelson Algren once said, I submit that literature is made on any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by a conscience in touch with humanity. Heinrich Heine, the famous German poet once said, a writer should have on his tombstone a gun, not a wreath, to prove that he was, you know, an honest private in the army of liberation, that kind of stuff. I mean, in most countries in the world, the definition of art and of being a writer is to be political, you know. That's why people like Pablo Neruda or Miguel Angel Asturios or Nazeing Hickmann spent half their lives in exile or jail, right? You know? And -- well, ask me another question here.
Ron Carlson: Let me remind everybody that we're talking to the firebrand, John Nichols, about his two new books and his career as a writer. John, I'm still fascinated by the fact that we've known and we're both in a generation where Vietnam was a very powerful lever on our generation, and politics was part of it in a way that even today it's not quite as potent as it was in those days.
John Nichols: That's an understatement.
Ron Carlson: I was wondering how -- there you are, you are writing this book, and this book takes as its central issue, "The Voice of the Butterfly," this little town, this garden of eden – I think the road that is threatened by the new overpass is called willow lane. I mean, that's really pretty.
John Nichols: "The Voice of the Butterfly" is, you know, it's just a rant against the destruction of the planet. I mean, we live on a planet where something like 27,000 species go extinct every year. That's something like 74 species a day. We live in a planet where three billion people live on less than $2 a day. We live on a planet where 80% of the protein in the ocean, the large fish, is threatened. We live on a planet, you know, where something -- they say by 20 -- 2020, that a quarter of the species on earth will be gone, right? They will become extinct. I mean, we live in a major environmental, social catastrophe, right? That's what "the voice of the butterfly" is about.
Ron Carlson: I'm interested in how a writer uses that. This is one of the ways, writing a book like this, which you can -- it could be seen as a rant. It's hyperbolic.
John Nichols: It's a screed, yeah.
Ron Carlson: Why don't you read from it.
John Nichols: You want to read --
Ron Carlson: Yeah, read a little bit from it so we get a sense, because one thing about it, once the prose starts, it never stops. You do maintain a pretty high octane level stylistically throughout this whole story.
John Nichols: Yeah, but we live in a culture that maintains a high-- I mean we live in a culture where every minute is like halftime at the super bowl. You know what I mean? I mean, it's like every time you turn on the television set, not public television, God forbid, but every other TV set, there is just this sort of shrill, hyperbolic, crazy eddy, ranting, selling you, selling you, selling you, selling you, so the sitcom -- so the book was an attempt to use the lingo of the culture, the hysteria of the culture, you know, the cartoon-type image of the culture, you know, like jurassic park, batman, where you have just unbelievable explosions and fantastic fabulism that's meaningless, but to use that in some way that has meaning, you know?
Ron Carlson: Right. Well, you've got that so chock full of cultural references, too. I understood that there is a kind of parody going on or a kind of hyperparody.
John Nichols: It's a cartoon. It's an attempt to write a cartoon that, you know, is an anti-imperial, anti-capitalist cartoon.
Ron Carlson: Read some of it. Let's talk about the cartoon idea. That's very fascinating to me.
John Nichols: Well, this is in honor of Phoenix, right? I get off the plane. We are in a traffic jam instantly. You know, we drive out of the airport. So anyway: gridlock. The American way of death, right here in suicide city. Welcome to the Twenty-first Century, you clowns: Honk! Honk! We build fast cars with slick wind-resistant space age bodies and speedometers reading up to 130, whose average speed over a lifetime of what is jokingly called "travel" is approximately 12.3 miles per hour. But hey, don't knock it, rocket, most of the social life in downtown suicide city took place in traffic jams. Yo, there's reactionary Marsha Stonebutter Crawford in her aluminum-green 1993, hermetically sealed Dodge Shadow, with Alex and Gwyneth in their kiddie-proof Allstate-approved car seats and crash helmets in back, talking on the cell phone to Patty Gusdorf up ahead, our town's only certified puppy psychiatrist, looking right smart behind the wheel of her white 1998 hermetically sealed Lexus with tangerine leather grill bib and "alligator eye" recessible headlamps. And here's Billy Joe Bob Fagerquist, a buck-toothed surveyer (and second born of Clarence and Willa's IQ challenged boys) in his 1996 hermetically sealed lobster red Ford Dynamite x8 with extended bed, vanity cab, booster shocks and oversized "concrete" demolition bumpers (with gitzo winch attachment), talking on his cell phone to pert, fresh, and lively Kathy Gaverdine, the christian daughter of Gladys and Elton Gaverdine (the business manager and corpse prepper at Manjo Poddubny's Body Shoppe) next door in her maroon Honda Accord (1996) about the latest Mookie Dirigible CD Randy Featherstone has just played on
WPNX, his mein kampf trilogy album, especially the hit "Voodoo Homage to Wagner," winner of this year's Tipper Gore seal of disapproval. Behind Kathy sits the mayor's
silicone wife, Tammy Sue Clendennon, in her snazzy 1999 Mustang convertible; she's wearing a skimpy aluminum pink bando top so full of la de dah it oughtta be declared illegal or a living treasure. And down the line is that insane malevolent grifter, Billy Watrous, Jr, in his firegreen Chevy S10 boombuggy lowrider amped to the max with the late Rapper J.J. Crave at 8,000 shuddering eardrum shattering decibels driving everybody within earshot crazy. They're all sucking up 10,000 liters of carbon monoxide every 20 minutes like it's zyklon-b but so what? La de dah. The whole bunch of them is oblivious." America, love it or leave it.
Ron Carlson: It's perfect. It's perfect. I haven't had a sample read here by a writer that gives a more clear sense of what that book is.
John Nichols: It makes you want to run right out and buy a thousand copies, doesn't it?
Ron Carlson: When you read that, though, I could hear the meter. Let's talk about the making of such a book, the idea – the plan was to use the hyperbolic cartoonish quality of a certain life to write the book. Now, that wasn't a first draft, what you just read?
John Nichols: Duh.
Ron Carlson: So you want to be angry, but you want to polish it. Let's talk about the making of the book. Did you conceive of it as a –
John Nichols: I conceived of the book as, you know, a cartoon. I -- the book is predicated on putting a highway bypass directly through a town, putting an enterprise zone on the highway bypass, all of these movers and shakers trying to make billions of dollars, right, exploiting the people in this little valley by destroying the valley with the bypass. The bypass depends on a mill levy in the November election, right? So the book always had the structure going to that election, a little group fighting the bypass, people trying to put the bypass in.
Ron Carlson: Voice of the butterfly?
John Nichols: Yeah, oh, and there's a little -- thank you for mentioning that. There is a little itty-bitty endangered butterfly that lives in a little habitat right in the way of the highway bypass which the protesters to the highway bypass try and use to stop the whole project. First draft of this book was like 1,300 pages long. It was going to be this massive macroscopic overview, right? Of this entire town, 400 characters in it, which I like to do, you know. You want to try and teach people --
Ron Carlson: That's a lot of people.
John Nichols: You want to have a lot of people. But over the years -- and I started this book in 1988, when the Writers Guild was on strike. I was working on a screenplay about the life of Poncho Villa and the Mexican revolution and then they went on is strike for eight months. And so I started this book. I kept rewriting it and rewriting it and rewriting it. I cut it from 1,300 pages to 800 pages, from 800 pages to 500 pages, from 500 to 300, 300 to 200. Then I threw the whole thing out and started again. I never could find a way to write the book the way I kind of envisioned it, you know, in my head. I just -- it's like -- I didn't really know how to make people believable as cartoons, that kind of stuff. Finally, after about 9 years, working on this book, my editor retired, went to another company, my agent retired, right? Nobody was interested in this stinkin' book, and I finally found another agent, and she said, I really like your book, John, this is a great book. I can sell this book. I would like you to do just one thing to it. And I said, cool, what's that? And she said, you have it narrated by a woman. I don't think that works. I think you should rewrite the book from the male point of view, i.e., start again from scratch, completely. And I said, well, this is the first person in 9 years who is even interested in this book, because my editor at Holt had rejected it five, six, seven, eight times, whatever. She didn't see any hope for it, you know. She never encouraged me. She said what are you doing, John, this is nuts. So I rewrote the book from the -- putting the narrator as a male character. Completely changed.
Ron Carlson: Charley Mcfarland?
John Nichols: Charley Mcfarland, yeah, gave him a wife who was this stoned alcoholic, which was really difficult for me to do.
Ron Carlson: That's tough.
John Nichols: She's Kelly Mcfarland is -- you know, I said, Jesus, I have a reputation for writing good female characters and now everybody is just going to pound me with rocks. It's going to be like Sharia in the literary world, you know. They'll say Nichols, he used to be a political person, now he's got this stoned alchy female character. Anyway, I rewrote the book like that. It's like 6-700 pages. I gave it to the agent. The agent xeroxes like 40 copies of this book, which costs me like $4,000, and then she sends it to everybody in New York city, and the book gets rejected like 26 or 27 times in the first six weeks of 2000 -- of the year 2000, right? And I just said, stop, you are destroying my reputation completely. I said this book still isn't working, you know? And I finally have this lightning bolt hit me that says, you know, if you got all of these cartoon characters, you just can't sustain the cartoon for 800 pages, you know. Nobody is going to read the cartoon like that, cut it. Cut it again, you know, seriously. And I chopped it down to about 250 pages or 300 pages, gave it back to the agent and she finally sold it, you know. It took 12 years. And I don't know -- and for most of those 12 years, it's a terrible novel, and for some reason, you know, you get a bug up your nostril and you just don't want to quit, and so I didn't. And I've done this before in my life where I've spent 10 or 12 years writing novels, and they don't work out and they are sitting in boxes in a storage locker, you know. So -- and I don't know why I can't articulate how the book is going to be before I write it, plot it out carefully, and then write it.
Ron Carlson: You use the writing to find the book?
John Nichols: Yeah. It's like I create, usually, a thousand pages or something, and it's like clay.
Ron Carlson: Right.
John Nichols: And then you start molding the clay.
Ron Carlson: You create a lot of work for yourself.
John Nichols: I create an awful lot of work. And one of the problems is you make all of these terrible structures –
Ron Carlson: Right.
John Nichols: -- and then you spend the next five years trying to break down those structures and find something that works.
Ron Carlson: Right. I want to -- I don't want this to get away without -- I want to ask you, are you still an optimist?
John Nichols: Yeah, I mean, you know, there's -- I don't think there is any meaning in the wider cosmos. I know that the sun is going to burn up the planet in 2 billion years and it's over. In the meantime, being alive, being involved, and particularly struggling for a better world makes you an optimist, yeah. As long as you are striving to change things for the better, you've got to be an optimist.
Ron Carlson: Well, talking with you as always is bracing. I'm so grateful for your being here, and you are a little tough on your book, because I enjoyed it awfully, and it's called "The Voice of the Butterfly," John Nichols' new novel, and also "An American Child Supreme," his personal essay about his life as a liberation ecologist. I'm Ron Carlson. I want to thank you for watching Books & Co.