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The River Runs Through It

By Katy Kelleher

Author photo by Kevin Bennett

Author Jim Nichols talks about authentic Maine fiction

Jim Nichols’ writing career had a simple start: he ran out of things to read. It was the 1980’s and Nichols worked at the Knox County Regional Airport as a ticket agent and a ramp agent. The small commuter airport had few flights coming in, and just as few flights going out, which meant Nichols spent much of his time waiting. He spent these long hours reading science fiction and mysteries, books driven by plot and written without much care for the craft. Then one night, he ran out of books.

"I was scrounging around the airport and I came across In Our Time," he said. Published in 1925, the book of short stories was among Ernest Hemingway’s earliest published books (preceded only by Three Stories and Ten Poems.) The book dealt with the themes that would become hallmarks of Hemingway’s work—the lasting trauma of war, fear of death, emotional alienation—and introduced his semi-autobiographical character, Nick Adams. For Nichols, this tightly written book served as a catalyst, sparking a newfound love of literature—and a desire to write.

Jim Nichols. Author photos by Kevin Bennett

An urge to write like Hemingway

"I had never read anybody who could make that much of an impact with such spare language," he says. "I'm not a big fan of florid prose. It was a revelation that you could write what people consider literature without writing like an academic. I had no desire to write like an academic. But I did get an urge to write like Hemingway."

Nichols continued to write, and in the process, he began to refine his voice. Like his literary icon, he writes with simple, yet precise, language. There is a crystalline lucidity to his stories, a sense of immediacy and immersion that comes from his lived experience. A Maine native, Nichols grew up in a blue collar family; his grandfather raised chickens during the Great Depression and his father served as a pilot during World War II. He worked a variety of jobs, from bartender to pilot to tour guide, and many of these experiences show up in his fiction.

Over the past thirty years, his work has appeared in many publications, including mainstream magazines such as Esquire, and literary stalwarts like Night Train and Zoetrope ASE. In his 2016 novel, Closer All The Time, Nichols transports his readers to a small river town in midcoast Maine. This critically acclaimed book is his third, preceded by Slow Monkeys, a 2003 collection of short stories, and Hull Creek, a 2011 novel published by Carnegie Mellon Press. In Closer All The Time, Nichols combines the two genres, creating a novel told through a series of connected short stories set in the fictional midcoast community of Baxter, Maine.

To me, the river was a way to weave the stories together. It either runs through the stories, or right along the edges.

Baxter, Nichols explains, is "somewhat like Thomaston, but I rejiggered it a little bit." He moved the Desert of Maine north, from Freeport to Baxter, and renamed it. (As a boy, Nichols worked as a guide at the Desert, where he once met Bobby Kennedy. "He wouldn’t admit it, but if it wasn’t Kennedy, it was somebody who looked exactly like him," he said. "And he didn’t deny it, either.") Instead of placing his community directly on the coast, Nichols sets it on the banks of a brackish river. "To me, the river was a way to weave the stories together. It either runs through the stories, or right along the edges," he said.

A sense of authenticity that is impossible to fake.

Like the geography of his stories, which pull from the Maine landscape, Nichols’ plot lines are also mapped out along familiar lines, creating a sense of authenticity that is impossible to fake.

"Artistically, it is brave," said Joshua Bodwell, Executive Director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Award. In 2016, Closer All The Time was awarded the MWPA Award for Best Fiction after being reviewed by a selection of jurors. "Regardless of my job, I was excited to read Jim’s book," Bodwell said. In addition to admiring Nichols’ lucid prose, Bodwell also praises his work for its emotional resonance.

"When you write this sparely, it can have a nostalgic tinge to it, but it doesn't get Hallmark-y," Bodwell said. "It's a hard line to walk, and one that I really admire. There are some big-hearted stories in Closer All The Time. A lot of people say, 'Oh, I’ll have a story where two kids shoot a cat.' That's easy to write. But to write things that are quieter, where people are searching emotionally—that’s so much more difficult."

Nichols’ work has won him some famous fans, too. One of his early breaks came when he was still working at the airport. He happened to see Norman Mailer’s name on the flight manifest the day before the esteemed writer was scheduled to fly into town. "I knew he would be on the plane, so I brought my work with me," he explains. Nichols walked up the ramp, boarded the plane, and approached Mailer, magazine in hand.

"He couldn’t get away from me," Nichols says, smiling at the memory. "I said to him, 'I don't want anything from you, Mr. Mailer. I just think it would be cool if you read one of my stories. You can read it in the time it takes to fly to Bar Harbor, and when you're done, just put it in the seat pocket.'"

Cover of Jim Nichol's, Closer All the Time.

Mailer was "amused and skeptical."

Mailer was "amused and skeptical." He told Nichols, "Well, that's a new one." He accepted the magazine. When the plane flew back, Nichols checked the seat pocket. The magazine wasn't there. Mailer had kept it.

A few days later, Mailer flew back through the Knox County airport. “I didn’t accost him again,” Nichols says. “I just made sure I was the one who was there.” He stood, waiting for the passengers to embark, and then he saw a big, shaggy head sticking out of the door.

"'Jim,' he called to me, again with that big, amused look. He came down the steps. He was this little guy with a big head. And he told me he liked the story, and said, 'Do you have anything more ambitious?' I took the manuscript out of my pocket and he laughed."

Nichols stayed in contact with Mailer until Mailer's death in 2007. Mailer sent Nichols the occasional humorous sketch, with a note, "In lieu of a letter, I send you this drawing." Nichols sent letters and stories, mailing the New York writer little pieces of Maine, fragments of life inspired by the characters who populate his midcoast community.

One of the greatest strengths of Closer All The Time is its true to life depiction of Nichols’ home state. Through his interwoven stories, Nichols paints a vivid picture of life in a small river town. There are children who grow up in converted chicken coops, men who run from clam cops, alcoholic fathers, single mothers, and aging prizefighters.

"I know the people that I'm writing about," Nichols says. "If something happens, or if they say something that doesn't ring true, then I hear it." Many of his characters are fictionalized versions of family members—his difficult cousin, his taciturn father. Some of the plot points are lifted directly from his life, particularly his childhood.

The unknowable depths of human relationships.

In "Tomi," Nichols describes the emotions of a young girl who has just discovered her mother’s secret past. "The genesis of that story was me sneaking up to the attic as a kid and finding evidence that my mother was married before," he explains. "She was married to a royal Canadian pilot. They were only married two weeks before he was deployed, shot, and killed. So she went right out and married another pilot—my father."

This experience is distilled into a moving, intense story about the unknowable depths of human relationships. At one point, Tomi, the main character, tries to eavesdrop on her parents, but is unable to understand their fraught conversation. "Once her mother came out of the kitchen crying, and Tomi hadn’t heard enough to know any reason why," Nichols writes.

The poignancy of that moment is echoed later in the story, when Tomi catches her mother crying again: “Tomi’s mother straightened and stood looking as before. Then she covered her face with her hands. Her shoulders trembled as if she might be crying, but in the weak light it was hard for Tomi to be sure.” This is typical of Nichol’s fiction. He presents facts and uncertainty with equal measure, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions about his character’s motivations, while providing a rich and vivid setting for their troubled lives.

While his work is best appreciated by adults, Nichols speaks eloquently to the confusion and wonder of childhood. Even now, as a successful writer, he still thinks about his father, a man so handsome and likable he was elected to town council even though he never ran. “We all idolized him. People used to mistake him for actors all the time. But he never got over his childhood,” Nichols reflects. “He had good parents and all, but they weren’t affectionate.”

Speaking with his usual calm demeanor, Nichols adds, “No one I know ever really did get over childhood.”

As in fiction, so in life.

Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and contributing editor at Islandport Press. Her book, 'Handcrafted in Maine', is available from Princeton Architectural Press.