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A working writer

Times Staff Writer

John NICHOLS can’t stop writing. He often produces 10, 20, 30 drafts of a book, some more than 1,000 pages long. Nichols saves them all and frequently returns to things he started decades ago. Threads of stories surround the writer like milkweed seeds with their gauzy fibers. His little adobe house in Taos is full of books and other projects. Overflow goes to one of several storage lockers.

Three years ago, a documentary filmmaker named Ariana Cardenas made a short movie about Nichols called “My Beautiful Storage Locker.” In it, the author, with his gray ponytail, beatific smile and finely articulated hands, guides us through drawers and shelves filled with 40 years of manuscripts, notes, photographs and letters from everyone he has ever known. There are the directors he has worked with: Redford, Pakula, Costa-Gavras, Ridley Scott and many others. Editors, politicians, other writers, old girlfriends and ex-wives. It’s been quite a life.

Now, as a high-desert wind comes through the kitchen door of his home and blows a pile of white pages across the floor, the writer -- normally placid and self-contained, who cares nothing for earthly possessions and spends most of his waking hours in the mountains around Taos or at his desk -- leaps to his feet, waves his arms and chases after them.

Nichols’ 11th novel, “The Empanada Brotherhood,” has survived many drafts and now weighs in at a tightly honed 208 pages that display the author’s gift for language and his ear for dialogue. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about it is that Nichols, whose outspoken progressive politics have been at center stage in almost every one of his books -- “All writers are morally obligated to overthrow the capitalist system and to end racism and chauvinism and sexism on the globe,” he told the Rocky Mountain News in 2006. “And stop preemptive wars and basically hold the feet of their country’s leaders to the flame” -- has produced a completely apolitical work.

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Of course, after struggling with his last novel, “The Voice of the Butterfly” -- a rollicking tale of environmental activism -- Nichols may have needed a break from politics. He rediscovered a draft of “The Empanada Brotherhood,” which is set in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s (Nichols lived there during that era), in one of his lockers and worked on it for nearly a decade before sending it to his editor, Jay Schaeffer, at Chronicle Books.

Nichols likens his writing process to looking for Mayan temples in the jungle. “You just start hacking,” he says. “You miss it, you hack, you go by it 30 times. You start out with big ideas and 10 years later stagger to the finish line just trying to salvage something.”

He likes the work. Once he starts a book, he feels obligated to finish, long after the pages “look like Jackson Pollacks. Write 500 words, cut 700.” As an example, Nichols mentions a 1,300-page novel he once wrote about a man who heads into the mountains to escape the chaos of his life. Decades later, Nichols cut the novel into a 24-page story, titled “Spoon Mountain or Bust.” Schaeffer has been known to say to him: “John, you’re not getting to the mountains soon enough.”

Nichols grew up on a 600-acre estate in Long Island. “I was a mistake,” he laughs. His mother, Monique, died when he was 2 of a heart condition, endocarditis, which Nichols also has. He’s had heart surgery and takes several medications. It doesn’t stop him, though, from hiking alone well above 10,000 feet in the winter. His father’s father was a naturalist and ichthyologist at New York’s Museum of Natural History. His father studied psycholinguistics at Berkeley. They used to talk about the failure of language, Nichols remembers, how it just doesn’t work. In his own experience teaching, he found that most students were remarkably imprecise with words.

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With “The Empanada Brotherhood,” Nichols felt it was important to get the voices of the characters -- a group of expatriates from Argentina whose social hub is an empanada stand on the corner of New York’s Bleecker and MacDougal streets -- just right. His narrator, a young man fresh out of college who dreams of being a writer, falls in love with a flamenco dancer from Buenos Aires. She treats him with disdain, calls him a “little gringo mascot.”

“So tell me blondie,” she says. “Do you yearn for a Latin soul?”

The kid admits it. And Nichols, who went to bullfighting school in 1960 at the age of 20 and for many years collected postcards of leading matadors, does as well. “The empanada stand was a great way to socialize without spending too much money,” he explains, shedding all pretext of fiction as he talks.

Nichols used to be a Hollywood favorite. His first novel, “The Sterile Cuckoo,” was turned into a 1969 film starring Liza Minnelli, and in the early 1980s, Robert Redford adapted his bestselling “The Milagro Beanfield War” with Ruben Blades, Sonia Braga, John Heard and Christopher Walken. He remembers Hollywood fondly, particularly all those checks for $50,000, $25,000, $10,000. “Writers love to whine about Hollywood,” he says, “but it’s like playing football and complaining about being tackled. Norman Mailer used to say that if you were going to be a hooker, you couldn’t complain about the clientele.”

In the early 1980s, Nichols worked on the Costa-Gavras film “Missing” -- which won an Oscar for best screenplay from another medium although he eventually went uncredited for his contributions. At one point, he was handed an envelope with $1,000 inside for expenses. He went to the 7-Eleven, bought a jar of mayonnaise and some bologna and bread and several weeks later returned $920. “When they needed a communist who spoke several languages,” he is fond of saying, “they called me.”

Over the years, Nichols has done his share of protesting -- the flowers in guns and baby brigades variety, where protesters brought their young children to keep the police from firing on them. When he first moved to New Mexico, the FBI would periodically appear at his door.

Now, he jokes that he is just a “misunderstood writer.” He says it’s fun to get bad reviews. (“The good ones can make you barf.”) He recalls angering other Western writers at literary conferences because they felt he was too raw, too strident in his politics. “Rage will kill you,” he says. “You have to pace yourself.” He has a little trick he uses to get perspective, which involves picturing himself in the here and now before, essentially, flinging his consciousness out into the universe. “Once you get through our atmosphere,” he chuckles, “there’s no meaning. If you start thinking it’s all so important, you’re really screwed.”

Nature walks

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For decades, Nichols has carried a tape recorder on his walks and recorded small changes in the environment -- when leaves turn or how many gray jays eat the raisins he holds in his hands. “I wound up like my old man,” he says. He has named mountains, hills, geologic formations and avalanches. He has written books and essays and stories on fishing, though he doesn’t do that so much anymore. He takes pictures of the mountains in various seasons and makes them into beautiful panoramas, which he sends to friends.

“I believe in biology,” he says simply. “Humanity is way too biocentric. Every life is as important as ours. Until we respect this, we’re doomed.” In reality, he thinks we’re doomed already, but he believes in humor. He believes in detachment, along with compassion and love.

On a crisp western fall day -- brilliant yellow aspens, blue sky and pines -- Nichols hikes up to Williams Lake, a few miles from Taos. The lake is at 10,000 feet and it is where he begins some of his favorite hikes. (“I’m a junkie for up high.”) It is also a place he likes to bring his granddaughters. He carries binoculars and searches the surrounding slopes for bighorn sheep.

When Nichols moved to Taos in the 1960s, there were 19,000 people living in the area. Now there are 30,000. “When I first came,” he jokes, “there were hardly any writers. Now you can’t walk into a cafe without hearing scribbling.” Along the way to the trail head, he tells stories, recounts the history of the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 and names plants (osha, witch’s beard, water hemlock, purple gentians, cinquefoil, valerian and subalpine evergreens).

His novel “An Elegy for September” started with personal observation and then veered into fiction, while “On the Mesa,” which is nonfiction, combines lyrical nature writing, doomsday ecology and radical politics. He’s done a few photo books, but he worries that “beautiful books are environmentally destructive.” Though he is grateful for the heart surgery that has prolonged his life, he believes that “keeping an American alive is destructive” as well.

Nichols often refers to a book by Paul Shepard called “Coming Home to the Pleistocene.” He says that all his work is informed by the idea that humans have been heading in the wrong direction for much of history, and it’s time to slow down, head back and start over. One way to do that is by getting to know his corner of the planet intimately. He calls to the gray jays, who zoom down and sit on his fingers, eating raisins.

They perch on his head.

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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