“I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer” is about the ups and downs and the ins and outs of John Nichols’ hectic life. At 82, Nichols, a New Mexico literary treasure, is still writing.
If one had to pick his most remembered book, it would probably be his 1974 comic novel “The Milagro Beanfield War.” It has long been a cult classic, but never a bestseller.
Its underlying conflict is over land and water rights. Among its colorful characters is a developer who wants to turn a recreation area into a chic vacation spot. Opponents of the development are a group of Hispanic farmers and shepherds from the fictional town of Milagro. Action is triggered when farmer Joe Mondragon illegally irrigates his bean field.
The book is based on the personalities and events covered by Nichols for the New Mexico Monthly on its Taos neighbors, and aspects of local Hispanic culture, particularly what he learned from the attempted residents to defeat a conservation district and a dam.
“I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer” is a rich, earthy memoir in which Nichols examines what it meant to him to be a writer. Not just the act of writing.
Nichols candidly describes his quirks, his joys, his family, his friends, his politics. They seem related to his writings, notably “The Milagro Beanfield War”.
“The novel was canceled out of desperation to keep my career as a fiction writer alive and to support my family,” he wrote.
The author and his wife, Ruby, separated for a year; she in Albuquerque, he in Taos, their two children sharing their time with their parents on the bus.
In the memoirs, Nichols recalls the frenzy of correcting and editing the first draft (“reading over and rewriting every page 30 times!”). He retyped the draft on a portable typewriter that bounced off the kitchen table with each stroke.
“I attribute much of my enthusiasm to the departure of American troops from Vietnam,” Nichols writes.
Nichols’ politics lean unabashedly to the 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 the day of publication the following year.
Nichols can barely live with himself: “Oh my god, this is horrible. Saved again by capitalism! How could I accept such hypocrisy?
His many friendships run through Nichols’ life. One friend was Rini Templeton, an artist friend from New Mexico, who critiqued many chapters of “Milagro.”
“Her laugh in many scenes spurred me on. She agreed to illustrate the part titles and jacket cover when I was done,” Nichols wrote.
Another friend was Marian Wood, his editor at Holt for about 25 years.
“Although I didn’t know it at first, she was going to give me literary life in the New York edition,” Nichols wrote.
“…the core of my career and modest reputation was created by the work Marian published with Holt…”
Besides “Milagro”, these books include “The Magic Journey”, “The Nirvana Blues”, “American Blood”, and “An Elegy for September”.
By 1969, Nichols had moved his family from New York to Taos, a town he had fallen in love with. He became the model for Milagro. If he painted Taos as almost idyllic, he confessed, he wanted to fix that impression: “We arrived on a migration of long hair from the counterculture to maybe a dozen sketchy communes around of Taos, an invasion that had become a hippie-Chicano war.”
The search for “Milagro” meant that Nichols had read at least half a dozen books on water lawsuits, land battles, culture, history and justice in New Mexico and the South. -west.
His literary production had begun with the previous novels “The Sterile Cuckoo” and “The Magician of Solitude”. In all, he has written 13 works of fiction and 11 non-fiction books, including “I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer”. He also wrote scripts and draft scripts.
What is the source of the subtitle of “I Got Mine”? The epilogue explains that years ago the publishing industry called him a “mid-range writer”, a mediocre jokester who never sold more than 10,000 copies.
His last 10 publishing efforts likely haven’t averaged more than 1,000 copies each, or less, Nichols notes. Which, to him, made sense, given his attitude towards money and fame.
A blue tone creeps into the rest of the book. Nichols has lived alone in his 800 square foot Taos home since his last divorce in 1996:
“Usually I feel optimistic, but lately the situation on earth makes me sad. And for the first time, I feel alone.
Perhaps the loneliness had to do with the hiatus from the six-piece band he played guitar in – Ricky and the Rewrites. They stuck for 14 years before the COVID-19 lockdown. Up to four musicians, the group returns to play every other Monday.
“I love it. It’s the players. I’m the pet monkey,” Nichols joked about his role in a phone interview.
Recently, Nichols has attempted to edit the hundreds of essays, speeches, etc. which he has written/presented over the years in a new collection.
He also organizes his manuscripts, journals, and correspondence for the archives of the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico.
“I have to put them in order before I croak. It’s a tribulation,” Nichols said.