Jim Nelson on Being Bold and Risking Real Failure
Jim Nelson lives in San Francisco. He is a member of the Flat Earth Collective and the author of Everywhere Man (Invisible City Audio Tours), an interactive audio mystery set aboard the Powell Street cable car line.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
My mother worked for a children’s publishing house when I was a child, which meant I was fortunate to have a steady stream of fresh books brought home every week. I devoured many children’s books I’m fond of but can no longer remember their titles. I’d greedily re-read them today if I could. I think what’s most interesting is the subversive streak in so many children’s books from the ’60s and ’70s, such as Daniel Pinkwater’s.
Every so often an editor or even an author would visit the office where my mother worked. Some of the editors were on good terms with her and would come to our home for dinner. These people were from New York and Chicago, and were so cosmopolitan compared to the suburbanites I was surrounded by. I had a vague idea of becoming a writer or an English teacher when I was 10. I knew that I wanted to be a part of their world, somehow.
It’s funny to realize today that these rather sophisticated urbanites were proofreading work like Clifford the Big Red Dog and algebra textbooks. At the time I thought they were Gordon Lishes, all of them.
What kind of writing do you most admire?
Anything that makes me sit up in my chair and think “I wish I’d written this.” There’s a lot of great writing, but only a fraction of it makes me want to put it down and get back to writing — and, of course, I can’t put it down because it’s so good. To evoke that kind of tension is exasperating and wonderful.
My friends are tired of hearing me talk about writers like Raymond Chandler, James Cain, Jim Thompson and Nathanael West, but this tension is why I admire their writing so much. Every story Peter Bagge writes I wish I’d written first.
Even if the writing doesn’t pull me in those two directions at once, the other kind of work I admire is writing that swings for the bleachers. Wikipedia’s advice for contributors is “Be Bold,” and that’s fantastic advice for writers of all phyla. I don’t mean experimentation for the sake of experimentation, but writing that takes real chances and risks losing the reader for it.
It’s often said that the act of writing is a risk unto itself. That’s something you confront every time you put pen to paper. That’s not the risk I mean. I mean writing that works hard to get the reader to a certain point and keeps making bold moves that then risk real failure: the reader shutting the book and never returning to it. To risk losing a reader who’s bought into the first 75 percent of your work, that’s really what’s at stake when an author puts the first word on the page. My admiration is for the writer who was bold from page one and didn’t soften up before the ending, which is unfortunately common.
Writers I’m thinking of in this vein are Burroughs, B. Traven and Paul Auster (specifically City of Glass). I’ve also become fascinated with Japanese gekiga for similar reasons, in particular the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
The first image that came to mind was the sand dunes at the southern tip of Gran Canaria, in the Canary Islands.
The island itself is a crazy mix of climates and landscape jammed together tight. There are fishing villages that look like they belong on the coastline of Greece, right down to the whitewashed buildings built into the cliffs and crusty old men in soft caps carrying tackle to the pier. Other areas are more colorful but weathered and distressed. The capital city has a wonderful Mediterranean piazza in the middle of town with cafes where African merchants hawk jewelry and one-hitters table-to-table. Driving up the switchback roads through mountainside vineyards and goat herds are pine forests in red clay dirt that look scooped right out of Northern California’s Gold Country. The top of the central mountain is a stark volcanic landscape, craggy with porous rock sprouting straight up 50 feet high like unfinished Martian monuments.
The sand dunes at the southern tip of the island are the strangest, however. I stepped out of the bus into this tourist trap of a town named after the seagulls, as I recall. The main street was lined with Irish pubs with football team flags for bunting, a British pub with the Union Jack and suit of armor next to the entrance, an Italian bistro and, most surreal, a squat one-story pagoda serving Chinese food. Down some creaky wooden stairs off the boardwalk I walked onto a rolling sea of wheat-colored sand dunes that stretched for miles. Without looking backward, it could easily have passed for the Sahara — not inconceivable as the islands themselves are just off the coast of Morocco.
I’d been told to keep walking, and so I did, although the peak of every sand dune I ascended only revealed more and taller ones ahead. I worried about hydration, but only in the sense that I should’ve purchased a bottle of mineral water from one of the snack stands I’d left behind. Still, I recall it being a bit of a trek. A map would not have helped. Past the first dune, there were no points of reference.
Then atop the last sand dune I looked down onto a flat wide beach washed by the gentle slithering tide of creamy Atlantic water. Folding loungers and the tanners on them were laid out in three orderly rows, with a large striped umbrella dropped in occasionally for effect. Men in soda jerk uniforms (but no caps, for some reason) pushed carts of ice cream and fruit and soft drinks on a black rubber sidewalk assembled like jigsaw pieces, ringing bells and calling out flavors in Spanish. After two days of exploring this bizarre island from north to south, it all just made me laugh.