There is a science to Jim Nelson’s writing, and I’m not just talking about the way he structures his sentences, paces his dialogue. I’m talking about perspective. I met Jim after watching him give a sneak peek reading of his first book and the newest of the Invisible City Audio Tours, Everywhere Man. In it, a mysterious stranger haunts a group of programmers responsible for converting millions of photographs tourists have posted on the internet into a digital tour of San Francisco. Present but faceless in every photo, Everywhere Man is the hole in their digital perfection. The tour invites readers to help solve this mystery by taking them on a journey through the story’s settings via San Francisco’s Historic cable cars.
A full-time computer programmer with both a BA and an MFA in Creative Writing, Jim manages to merge two seemingly disparate worlds: the hard science of code and the creativity of fiction. But these worlds aren’t so different, and in Nelson’s hands they come together with a balance that makes this fantastic story unusually real.
Everywhere Man launches on October 15th, just before the Lit Crawl, when Jim will accompany other Invisible City Audio Tours contributors in Clarion Alley for an extended reading from the book. I recently spoke with Jim aboutEverywhere Man (and Everything Else). This is the second in a two-part interview. Read the first part.
LITSEEN: So, tell me a little more about the book release. Is it just you who is going to be reading?
JIM NELSON: Oh no, there’s going to be readers from each Invisible City tour. So, Dan Sanders is reading for the first one. I forgot who’s reading for Armada of Golden Dreams [Lindsey Grant]. I’ll be reading, obviously, for Everywhere Man, and there are two more tours coming up. You should look on the website and get all the details.
LS: So do you have any upcoming projects that you’re thinking about for the future or anything that you’re working on now? I know you sort of just finished a monster project.
JN: Yeah. So, I’ve been putting off a novel for a long time. I’ve been working on short stories for quite a while now, and I’ve been fortunate with them, and this is my first book project. I have an idea that I’ve been tossing around for a couple of years. What I said about Everywhere Man—writing the story and kind of fiddling with it and putting it aside, coming back to it—that’s very common for me. I tend to work that way. I tend to let stuff stew for 6 months, a year, even longer, before I finally sort of get it nailed down. I think it’s really important. It gives me time to think about it. It gives me time to get away from it. It’s too easy to get your head deep in the story and lose sight of the broader picture, and it’s also amazing to come back to a story a year later and think “I wrote that? This is crap. God.”
LS: Or like “I wrote that. Wow. That’s a pretty good line.”
JN: [Laughs.] Exactly. I’ll tell you. Nothing is more of a back-patter than when you read a line, and you laugh at your own joke. You didn’t see it coming. Oh, that’s pretty funny.
LS: Exactly. So, do you travel a lot?
JN: I have recently. So, Everywhere Man came out of when I graduated in January 2009, my parents gave me a gift, I had some money saved up and I went to London and Rome. It was a great trip.
LS: Was it your first time?
JN: No. I’d been to Europe, but years ago. Many years ago. My first time to both of those cities, absolutely. And then, about the same time, I picked up this job, and it just happens that the conferences for the area of software that I work in all happen in Europe, and they pick a different city each year.
JN: Yeah. I know. It’s not lost on me how fortunate I am. So, I just got back from Berlin, and I have actually done a bit of traveling. Yeah. Tourism fascinates me.
LS: Now, when you travel, how do you tour things? Do you do the whole tourist destination thing?
JN: Of course. I’m not shy about it. I go to the places that all of the tourists go, but at the same time, there’s a reason why people go there. In Rome, everyone talked about Trevi Fountain. I had seen pictures of it, and I was fascinated because it’s a beautiful, beautiful piece of art, but it wasn’t until I came around the corner and saw it that I was floored. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. But at the same time I do subscribe to the idea of trying to sort of like temporarily live in the area rather than be a tourist there, so I do try to. I’ll find a local café, and I’ll have some days where I’m not walking around, I’m not taking photos. I’m just sort of reading a book, or I’ve got some writing to do.
LS: Everyday life stuff.
JN: Exactly. And I try to find local places and get to know people. But at the same time, I’m not the kind of guy—I’m a city guy. I don’t go out into the outback. I’m not that kind of person. I very much like art. I very much like architecture, culture and history. That’s really what I go to see. But the thing about tourism that fascinates me the most is you get there—I don’t know, maybe it’s just me—you get there, and you have all these expectations. When I went to London, I thought, “this is the center of the English language. This is the center of all of this literature and Shakespeare,” and all of that, and I get there and there’s trash in the gutters. You know? It’s reality still, and I think that’s what I’m fascinated with is this idea of this sort of escape. We think we’re escaping. We think we’re leaving behind reality, visiting this almost fairy tale place. I think San Francisco totally exudes that—the cable cars, the fog, the city.
LS: There’s definitely a romance to it.
JN: In fact, just last night, I was having a drink and met a couple from Australia. They went to New York, Chicago, Las Vegas. They came to San Francisco for three days only because they wanted to go to Alcatraz. Then, they’re off to LA for two weeks or something like that. Alcatraz.
LS: That’s what they picked, huh?
JN: I told them it was kind of rundown. It was kind of falling apart. You just see the look like “no.” I think it’s interesting in the way that it speaks to something that’s more in here [points to chest]. The need to escape, and why is it we have to leave our place? Why do we have to go someplace else to do that? Why can’t I do that here? Where I live. And I’m not saying I have any answers, or any big observations. I’m not even sure it’s a big question, but I know that I’ve done that. I know that I go to a place, and I want to sort of just soak it up and live in that world, and I know that every time I meet some asshole in a bar or see garbage on the street, it’s reality. Reality intrudes. Reality always intrudes, and what is it about that? I’m also fascinated because it really is a luxury of the well-to-do. The whole idea to leave and go someplace else and not worry about your job.
LS: To escape.
JN: To escape. And the reality is that a lot of people in this country can now go travel around the world—and again, I don’t know if I have any answers or anything but observations—but what does that mean? Us uplifting ourselves and going to these other countries? I know in Europe, every conversation—every time I’d meet a European—every conversation is about how screwed up America is. I don’t think it’s because Europeans are idiots; I think it’s because they see something.
LS: From the outside.
JN: From the outside. And my hope is that maybe tourism—this whole idea of leaving and coming back—there’s a negative aspect to it, but a positive, perhaps, is coming back with appreciation. Like “oh, we’re not alone on this planet.” You know?
I think we’re going to see more and more countries on the rise like China and India. They’re going to come to a point where they’re going to start wanting to visit around the world soon, and what does that mean? I don’t know. I don’t know what it means. The other thing, too, is we live in a city where tourism might be the biggest industry.
LS: It’s huge.
JN: So when people complain about tourists, it’s like, Come on.
LS: You had to have known it was going to be this way.
JN: Yeah! And it’s also like, you know, if you have any friends that are waiters or bartenders or whatever, they could lose their job. If tourism were to dry out, this city would be a very different city. So you kind of have to take the good and the bad. At least see it. At least look at it and understand the economics are more complex than just, “I wish the tourists wouldn’t come here.”
LS: Yeah. One of the lines that everyone kind of snickered at the preview reading was toward the beginning where you were talking about the programmers trying to create a program that makes it possible for someone to not even leave—what you just said—to not even leave. You could see San Francisco in your office, or your home.
JN: Or your phone.
LS: Or your phone! Exactly. I got to thinking about this idea of digital tourism, and it’s like what you said about actually seeing the fountain, how actually seeing it is so different.
JN: Yeah. Absolutely. I don’t know why people were laughing.
LS: It was kind of one of those things where they were scoffing at it, you know?
JN: I wasn’t being tongue in cheek there, you know. Of course you have to ride a cable car to understand what it’s all about. It’s fantasy to think that you could just virtually do it, but, at the same time, this is sort of the way I think. I don’t think I mentioned it in the reading, but the motivation—at least the stated motivation—of the CEO who started this company is environmental. He said, This is unsustainable. Think if we ever get to a point where all 7 billion people want to travel.
JN: I mean, they’ve all got to get on planes and they’ve all got to stay in hotels. We can’t do it, you know? But, if you could bring the world to them, it would solve that problem. Now, I leave it up to the reader to decide if he’s just saying that to make a buck, or if he said it because he believes it. It could be both.
LS: It could. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
JN: Right. But I think what he’s saying is something I’ve thought about too. When I get on a plane. I think, “wow, how much jet fuel is going to burn just to let me go see Berlin?” A lot of jet fuel. It’s not something that we can keep doing forever. But I know one thing: I wouldn’t want to see Berlin through a phone.
LS: Definitely not. I mean there’s something that’s so limiting about it—all the technology and all of this knowledge. I was sort of thinking about the Everywhere Man as the blindspot of collective knowledge. The thing that, we all, for all of our—
JN: Could we print that on the book? That’s a great blurb. [Laughs.]
LS: Sure. Of course. I thought that was really interesting, though. I looked at that ee cummings poem as well that you mentioned at the end of the reading because you said, “this poem, I feel, kind of says something that I was trying to get across.”
JN: It did, and I encountered it at sort of the tail end of the first draft, and I sort of read it and was like “Damn, this is so good. Man, he nailed it in 14 lines. I need 8,000 words.”
LS: How would you sum it up? What he’s getting at.
JN: So, as you say, the blindspot of collective knowledge. It’s a great, a great phrase. I don’t know if it’s explored too much in the reading, but where did the Everywhere Man come from? How did he get to San Francisco? Why is he there? And I don’t want to start talking too much about the story because it’s kind of a surprise.
JN: Another aspect that I was very interested in is this idea of changing yourself, of becoming a new person, changing identity. So, there’s a book called The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, and that heavily influenced me as well. The Day of the Locust, though, that’s a crazy book, an amazing book that will never be replicated. It’s just so… singular. But, the characters are all people that come to Hollywood because they’re there to seek their fortune. They want to be actors, they want to be entertainers and that kind of thing, and they come to California and they discover it’s nothing like what they thought it was going to be. Which is sort of tying into what I was talking about with tourism. The whole idea of this being a dreamland, that things are different here. That orange juice comes out of the water fountain, it’s always sunshine here, we all have surfboards, you know?
LS: Right. And listen to the Beach Boys all the time.
JN: You know I always laugh. I always tell people: You can always tell when someone doesn’t live in San Francisco because they like the Grateful Dead. Nobody in San Francisco listens to the Grateful Dead. But the book really does focus on that. On the people who have lost out. The people who came to California and their dreams were smashed. When they got here, they had nothing. And that’s the aspect I felt the ee cummings poem sort of was bringing out. A sense of despair, hopelessness in the human condition, and in that very last moment when he says there’s this great universe next door, let’s go—
LS: The escape.
JN: Yeah! Let’s get out of here, you know?
LS: It’s like “but we’re the here.”
JN: Yeah, exactly, and what is the escape? And, what is this other world? You know? And I’m kind of suggesting that this virtual computer—this virtual simulation, rather, that they’ve built— is another world. That this world is very close to our own. It’s just a different way of looking at it.
LS: Which is exactly what Invisible City is doing.
JN: Exactly. I’m really hoping that when people ride the cable cars they realize that there’s much more to it than tourists lining up for an hour to ride a trolley or whatever. That actually there’s an amazing history to them and that history dovetails with the city in a really interesting way.