JIM NELSON: the seeds of everywhere man

(Nicole McFeely)

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 about Everywhere Man (and Everything Else). This is part 1 of 2:

LITSEEN: So, did Everywhere Man exist at all before Invisible City, or was it written specifically for it?

JIM NELSON: So, I had written a four or five page short story in February of 2009 that was much more of a summary of these computer programmers trying to find this man. My whole concept for it was just this invisible—well not invisible—this man who is hidden in these photos that they’ve detected on the internet, and it was something I just kind of toyed with that I thought maybe was pretty good, but I couldn’t quite get it all together. Then when I worked with Tavia from Invisible City on the original tour in Oakland, she was taking tour ideas so I said Well you know I wrote a story about the cable cars; wouldn’t it be great to have a collection? And the first tour was a collection of short stories by different authors…

LS: Yeah, and the second, The Armada of Golden Dreams, is similar?

JN: Exactly, it was a collection of different writers. And I said, you know, what if we did one with the cable cars and we have a collection of short stories, and I’ve got a short story I could work with and try to get it paired down. And Tavia said Actually, I’d like to do a whole tour, a whole single author tour.

LS: That’s cool. So yours is the first single author tour that they did?

JN: Yes, and it was very cool, and it was very flattering, but it was also very scary because I had to expand this five-page short story into something much larger than I had conceived. So there’s whole aspects of the story—you hear more about the company, the CEO that runs it—that were not in the original story at all. So it’s very much like I sort of planted a seed 2 years ago and have now grown it into something much larger.

LS: So, you’ve been working on it for two years then?

JN: No, when I said that I wrote it in 2009 I kind of toyed with it, but I put it aside, so when I came to Tavia I thought it was kind of done. I wasn’t expecting her to say Can you expand this? So, I wasn’t working on it continuously, but every so often I’d kind of pick it up and change it up a little bit.

LS: So, how long did it end up being when you were done? A novella? A novel?

JN: Well, its not a novel. It’s a book. It’s a book of 8,000 words, and the reason is that… it had to fit into a 45-minute tour. So… it did end up being a word length issue, but that was incidental. It was: “you have to be able to read the entire story in 45 minutes,” and that wound up becoming, actually, a very big challenge. When I first expanded it, I completely went too far, and then I had to go back and back out a lot of stuff, but actually I think that was for the best. I mean, I think it made me really focus on each scene, each moment; each word.

LS: So, once she told you she wanted to do a single author tour, how long did you have to do the expanding?

JN: [Laughs] So that was in October or November of last year. I think it was October, and she wanted the first draft ready by March, March 1st—March 15th? So, you know, I work full-time, and like everybody else have a very busy schedule, but I knew that this was an amazing opportunity.

LS: What do you do for full-time work? You’re a computer programmer?

JN: Yeah, and that was a tough aspect too, you know: I wanted to talk about computer programming, but I didn’t want to overwhelm people with technobabble or jargon. I tried to imagine: What if I were leading a project, building a virtual cable car ride using photos off the internet. How would I design it? And I can’t say I’ve come up with a rock solid design, but I did have a design in mind, and then I used it as a reference to describe the machinery, and that was kind of fun because software is so abstract. We use concrete terminology, but it’s all highly abstracted-type stuff. But to describe the servers and to describe the program in terms of machinery and the way it sort of corresponds to the machinery of the cable car, which is absolutely ancient technology, you know—it’s 19th century gears and pulleys—there’s nothing electrical about them at all. Right?

LS: Yeah. I’ve only ridden them once. Did you have to ride them a bunch of times for your tour?

JN: Oh, I used to ride them all the time. So, when I was going to [SF] State… I was bartending. I wanted to get away from the computer world for a while, I was sort of tired of it. I kind of came out of the dot com boom pretty bitter about some of the things I had seen, and I wanted to get away from it, and also it’s hard to find part-time programming work… So I started bartending in North Beach just a block away from the cable car line, and then I lived downtown on Geary Street like two blocks from the cable cars, so it was actually the quickest route by mass transit to take the cable car. When I was a kid I grew up in the East Bay, I loved the cable cars. But, you know, who doesn’t?

LS: Yeah. It was one of the first things I wanted to do when I came here.

JN: Yeah, absolutely. You see them going up and everything. But I also think it’s interesting that plenty of people have lived here for ten years and have never ridden one.

LS: Yeah. It’s a tourist thing.

JN: Yeah. They go, “aww, it’s a touristy thing,” but… it wasn’t built for tourists. It was built as mass transit. It was built to solve a very concrete problem, and the reason it became famous is that the cable car became such a part of daily life. Everyone expected to ride the cable car to get up the hills, and I want people to remember that, and I also want people to remember that building that kind of system wasn’t… I have a lot of respect for people who take chances, and the guy that invented the cable car took a huge risk.

LS: Really?

JN: Oh yeah. He basically used his own money to build them, but he did sell them to the city—he got rich, don’t get me wrong—I don’t want to make it out like he was some sob story. …To me this story is so San Francisco, and the thing about it is I could be talking about the Google guys, I could be talking about Steve Jobs at Apple. Basically, this guy made his money not on the Gold Rush, but on selling equipment to the gold miners, and that made him wealthy. His name was Andrew Hallidie, he was an engineer and he developed this system where he erected towers, they were called tramways, and there’s still a few of them if you go out into Gold Country out in the hills, they’re just derelict. And they had pulleys on them and he erected a series of them from where the gold was mined to where the gold was collected and processed, and it was run by a cable on the tramways, and there was a bucket hanging from them, so it would go all the way down, and then the miners would just fill up the bucket, and then it would take it all the way back.

So he made a ton of money, and retired young, and lived in San Francisco, and the story is—this is when it was still horse-drawn carriage—he witnessed a horse collapse while it was carrying a bunch of people up the hill, and that horse brought down the whole team, and the whole thing slid all the way down Nob Hill, and it was just a horrible mess—these horses are all injured and dead, and people were injured and he said, “there’s got to be a better way…” Just like the Google guys. “There’s got to be a better way to search the web.” So, he invested his own money and built the cable car system, and all he did was he took that cable and put it under the street and he put the bucket on top on tracks and that’s the cable car.

LS: He just flipped it.

JN: Yeah, and I think that’s remarkable. I have a lot of respect for that kind of thing, and I’m fascinated as a computer programmer about the engineering aspects of it, designing it, the problems he had to work around. So, that’s something I wanted to write a story about, and it plays into the story, it plays into the book.

LS: So, how do you feel about tourism in general then? I hear a lot of people that have always lived in San Francisco or have lived here for a long time who have pretty mixed opinions about it.

JN: Actually, I’ve written about it before. This is my third story about tourism or [in which tourism] plays a role.

NM: Have you read “A Concordance of One’s Life?”

LS: No.

JN: “A Concordance of One’s Life” is also about tourism and, in fact, it sort of inspired Tavia.

LS: How?

JN: That story is about this small town in gold county and one of the locals publishes a book that becomes this huge bestseller, and so people visit that town because they want to relive the book, and they walk around with these tour phones, and when they get close to a spot that’s mentioned in the book, they can hear a quote from the book about that spot.

 LS: Ohhhhhh.

JN: Tavia told me that it stuck in her mind. That she loved this idea of people listening to stories while they’re traveling a city, so she found a way to make it a positve, not like the character of that story, and that’s where Invisible City grew out of. Just a little germ. Its her work, its her baby, but that was the germ.

LS: So how long have you known Tavia? You worked with her on the original Invisible City?

JN: Yeah, I worked with Tavia on that. Actually, I’ve known her, I think, at least six years. Maybe longer. I met her through some of the other students at State when I was an undergrad, before I was a grad student.

LS: Didn’t you also teach there?

JN: I taught one year as a graduate student. So, through them I met Tavia and Tavia became the coeditor of Watchword Magazine with Liz Lisle in Oakland and they published “A Concordance of One’s Life” in 2005, I think. And later, about two years later, they were designing a series, Watchword was, called Whole Story, and Whole Story was: they picked a story, and then they had all these artists read it and then produce art in response to it, and they picked that story for one of their Whole Story events, so I worked with Tavia on that, and that was phenomenal. I thought, “it can’t get any better than this” because, for a weekend, they had a whole gallery of artwork that had drawings of locations in my story. George Pfau and Alexandra Pratt they built these—they’re almost like cabinets that looked like a shrine might be stored inside of them with all this imagery from my story. A musician named Thu Tran wrote music about my characters. He was singing songs about the story, and they even had interpretive dance, so somebody was dancing out—it was crazy.

LS: That sounds awesome. Did you guys compile all of the art into one book with your story?

JN: Oh, yeah. They produced a chapbook, but it didn’t have the artwork in it. Yeah. That was phenomenal. I never thought I’d experience anything quite like it until last year, [when] Tavia said “I want to use Everywhere Man for this tour.” She has a lot of faith in me, and I’m really flattered by it. She’s sort of the kind of editor that every writer wants because not only is she a great editor, but she’s also been producing these projects with my writing at the core and, yeah, its phenomenal.

LS: I like how it seems that she’s been toying with this idea for a while, of getting a bunch of different artists and different media to respond to one thing.

JN: Oh yeah. That’s something she’s been interested in for a long time, and I don’t know where it came from, but I’ve heard her talk about that even before Whole Story. She talked about how there is an intersection of art and literature that’s not really being explored, and I agree. I think its an interesting idea.

LS: Yeah. The collaboration. You mentioned that. Actually, I read somewhere you were talking about collaboration. I think it was even about Everywhere Man.

JN: I think you’re probably thinking—I talked with Lizzy Acker about it. The best one, the story I love to tell is that it was the musician, Jesse Solomon Clark, who’s fantastic—this guy’s amazing. All the music from the tours is composed specifically for the tours, and Jessie’s got this really wonderful sense of aesthetics.

LS: Is it usually only one musician as well?

JN: Yes. Yeah. And actually, Jessie’s got a friend—and I don’t know his name, I haven’t met him yet [Cornelius Boots]—who plays the bass clarinet, and I haven’t even heard it yet. I was at Tavia’s house for a Christmas party, and Jessie was talking about how excited he was to write about it because the way that Tavia was initially sort of telling people was that…

Well, so if you were to ask me what writer I’m most inspired by I would tell anyone—and my friends have heard this a billion times, they’re sick of me telling them—it’s Raymond Chandler, the hard-boiled detective writer. He was an amazingly intelligent man. He wrote stuff that’s considered pulp, sort of tough guy stuff, but every sentence is working, every sentence there’s something smart going on. It’s not just violence and guns. It’s much more than that. And he received a British education, actually. He wanted to be a poet, and he had a very sharp understanding of British Literature. So, he was an American who moved to England and then wound up in Los Angeles, so he wrote about Los Angeles, and he wrote about it in a way I feel like no one had written before. Him and Dashiell Hammett and James Cain and Jim Thompson. Those are the four authors I keep finding myself going back to.

So Tavia thought, because I told her it was kind of a mystery… [that] it was going to be a hard-boiled mystery story, and I had to explain to her later: no, no, no, no, it’s not like guys in fedoras in the fog with guns—it’s nothing like that. It’s a very different kind of mystery, but it is a mystery of sorts. These programmers are trying to find out who this man is. No one dies. There’s no body.

LS: Yeah, but you have an eerie sense that something’s not right.

JN: Exactly. Exactly. So I told Tavia, “it’s not quite what you think” because she had told the musician, Jessie, and he said “I’m really excited about this. I’ve never written music for this kind of story.” And I was kind of backing up, going “it’s not exactly that, I don’t want you to be too… It’s kind of nerdy with the computer programmers and there’s no dead body,” and he said, “Yeah, but you’re going to have a chase scene right? Every good mystery has a chase scene, and I’ve always wanted to write music for a chase scene,” and I was like, “Yeah, there’s a chase scene.” I lied my way through. I totally lied. There was no chase scene at all that I had written so far, but I went back and wrote a chase scene.

LS: Right, when they finally decide to try to find him.

JN: Yeah, and they’re running through Fisherman’s Warf, and I was thinking of Dirty Harry. Imagine like a Dirty Harry movie where he’s running through the crowd and he’s trying to see over the people and there’s this bad guy and all you can see is the back of his head as he’s moving away. So, I thought—it wasn’t so much that I felt pressured, but I was just like “why didn’t I think of that? That’s a great idea.” And that’s one of my favorite examples of how it’s collaboration. But this isn’t art by committee, right?

LS: Right.

JN: This isn’t like we all have to agree. Tavia has given me so much free range as far as what the story was about. She basically sight-unseen said “write this book.” She didn’t read the short story. I don’t think she did, and she didn’t make any requirements as far as it has to be about this or I want it to be like this.

LS: Just: it has to be 45 minutes.

JN: Right. 45 minutes. And, like I said, it’s not art by committee, it’s art by collaboration. And I just feel fortunate to be working with so many talented people. It’s so great, you know? It’s the best feeling in the world.

LS: It totally is.

JN: Well, it’s in the top three. [Laughs]

LS: Yeah. Collaborative art is interesting because it will never be the same if, you know, when you put different people together. I was talking to someone about this, and I was like “it’s like a baby.” No two other people could have composed that same thing.

JN: Yeah. Absolutely.

LS: That chase scene gets good. You cut it off right at the crucial part, and I’ve been thinking about it since I heard it, trying to cut through all of the tourists in Fisherman’s Warf. So speaking of, back to tourism.

JN: Ah, yes. [Laughs]

LS: When I tell people about Invisible City, and I try to describe it, they’re always like, “wait, what is it? What do you mean Invisible City Audio Tours,” and I always end up saying “it’s kind of like alternative tourism.” You know? Like tourism for not-tourists or really cool tourists who actually want to get the feel of the city and the place they’re in through the art of people that live here.

JN: Yeah. I think that’s a great way of putting it. I certainly don’t expect like Ma and Pa Kettle from Omaha to download this and listen, although I would love it if they did. If for no other reason than—I think of it, I think of it in a few ways. I think of it kind of first of all as a way to see the city with new eyes. You know, you’re standing in a location—and Armada of Golden Dreams is a perfect example of this—you’re standing in the Financial District, and it’s just big, tall buildings, and there’s not a whole lot. Even on weekends, it’s kind of Deadville out there, right?

LS: Yeah.

JN: There’s not a whole lot going on, and you’re standing there, and any other day I would think “why am I here? I need to keep moving,” but then you’ve got these earphones on and you’re hearing someone tell a story about a ship that’s right beneath your feet, thirty feet underneath you if even that, sitting there, that carried a hundred men all the way around the world who abandoned ship and went up to the hills to seek their fortune. That kind of thing. I love that stuff. And these stories aren’t necessarily just historical.They’re also very interpretive fiction, you know? What was it like to be that person on that ship? So suddenly it’s a little like the Matrix. Suddenly, the buildings change form. You see what’s underneath.

I also think what’s wonderful about being in the city—and I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about the other tourists—it’s almost like a snapshot of the San Francisco literary scene today. There’s a lot of people who come to San Francisco for the literary scene of the 1950’s and 1960’s. They want to see the beatniks, they want to go to City Lights and get Howl, they want to hang out at a cafe.

LS: Caffe Trieste and sit outside and listen to the locals talk about Ferlinghetti.

JN: Exactly. I mean, it’s amazing how much money comes in for that reason.

LS: Literary tourism.

JN: Literary tourism, absolutely! And I’m guilty of it too. I went to Hemingway’s house when I was in Key West. But I guess what I hope is that people come to San Francisco and hear what the literary scene is today. It worries me that our literature is stuck in amber. Don’t get me wrong: the beatniks produced great stuff. I don’t want to knock it, but we’ve moved on. There’s a new breed of writer in the city today, and maybe this is a way to get that exposed to people who don’t know about it. They don’t know. How would they? If you’re North Beach—I hate to say it, but—if you’re in North Beach, you’re not hearing the latest fiction, the latest poetry. You have to go to the Mission, go to the Haight, and go to these other spots. That’s where it’s happening. They don’t know that.

LS: It is true. We are kind of stuck in that. I’m guilty of that too, like you said. I moved here from LA county/Orange County, that was really the draw of even visiting here to begin with. I really liked Kerouac, you know? And Ferlinghetti. I was all about Coney Island of the Mind.

JN: Yeah. That said, I still think it’s great. I still like the idea that people are coming here for literature. That gives me some hope for the world. People are still reading and still want to read. I just want to expose them to more.

Read part 2 here. Or, check out more on: