Jim Nichols grew interested in fiction writing while working as a ticket agent for a commuter airline in Rockland. Born in Brunswick and raised in Freeport, Maine, Nichols has worked variously as a bartender, pilot, skycap, taxi driver, fence builder, orange picker, travel agent, and dispatcher for an air taxi service. His writing, which draws from his many experiences, has appeared in numerous regional and national magazines including Esquire, Narrative, From The Ashes (BR), The Clackamas Review, American Fiction, River City, and Night Train. He has been nominated several times for Pushcart Prizes, and his first novel, Hull Creek, was the runnerup for the 2012 Maine Book Award for Fiction. His novel Closer All the Time won the 2016 Maine Literary Award for Fiction. Nichols now lives in Warren, Maine, with his wife Anne, and their two rescue dogs, Brady and Jessie.
Thanks, Jim for agreeing to have this interview via email. It’s a real pleasure to be able to talk to you about your writing, your latest book, Blue Summer, and other topics.
It’s my pleasure; thanks for thinking of me, Jim!
Miramichi Reader: Jim, please tell us about your background, education, employment, etc.
I was born in Brunswick, Maine and grew up in Freeport. My family in Maine goes back about eight generations on my father’s side, both Nicholses and Strouts. My mother was born in Niagara Falls, NY; her parents were Canadians who’d crossed the river from Ontario. I went to Freeport High School and the U. of Southern Maine as a history and English major; didn’t graduate there but went on to get an Associate Degree in Marine Biology from the Southern Maine Vocational Institute in South Portland. I never worked in that field, however; had various jobs instead from bartender to taxi driver to warehouse “selector”, while trying to become the next John Prine. My musical career was brief and unremarkable, though. After I was lucky enough to marry Anne Sawyer, I gave it up and started working for Bar Harbor Airlines (which flew from Portland into several Canadian cities, like Quebec, Sherbrooke and Saint John NB). In 2004 I helped found Penobscot Island Air in Rockland with the late, great Kevin Waters, flying mail, freight and passengers to the Pen-Bay islands, and I stayed there until I retired in 2018. (I was mostly a dispatcher, but I did occasionally fly FedEx envelopes and such in a very small airplane to those islands.)
MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to become a writer.
Reading was a favourite pastime in my family home, and with nine children we were always swapping books and at some point, we began writing stories and poems and swapping those, too. So that was definitely a start. In school, I wrote for each class newspaper, just as a matter of course, it seemed. So my teachers must have been an influence. I know their praise was a factor. I continued this habit in college. At SMVTI I had a regular column in the school rag about a fellow named Wang Hoobler who was an orphan raised by harbour seals. That was mainly a running joke for the benefit of my cronies.
Anyway, I was always writing something, but I never thought about becoming a WRITER who wrote BOOKS until one evening in the early 1980s, working for Bar Harbor Airlines in Rockland and waiting for the last flight of the day to come in from Boston. I’d somehow forgotten to bring a mystery or sci-fi book to read and had picked up something a passenger had left behind, a little book of stories by Ernest Hemingway called In Our Time. I had never read much literary fiction, but desperate as I was I sat down with this small collection and was immediately entranced. It was so clean, so visual and accessible. The narrators and characters seemed to think and speak like the people I knew. I finished it too quickly, but a seed had been planted; if literature could be like THAT, maybe I could actually give it a try. Over the next couple of months – while reading everything of EH’s I could find – I did just that. I wrote stories that were more Hemingway than Hemingway’s, without of course being nearly as good. But one of them actually got accepted in a little magazine called Kennebec that was published by the University of Maine in Augusta, and once I saw my work in print I was a goner.
MR: Do you have a favourite book (or books), one(s) that you like to revisit from time to time?
Oh, lots. I read The Sun Also Rises every few years, and The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, and Alice Munroe’s and Tobias Wolff’s shorts stories. I used to re-read John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels intermittently, but it’s been a while; maybe I’m done with those. I’ve read Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist several times. Quite often I’ll think about or see something that reminds me of a book I admired and I’ll immediately set about to find whatever it is and read it again. It happened recently with That Night by Alice McDermott and The One In A Million Boy, by my friend Monica Wood.
MR: Let’s talk about your newest novel, Blue Summer, which was named a Miramichi Reader “Pick” in 2020 for an exceptional book published outside of Canada and written by a non-Canadian author. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Thank you all over again for that recognition. It was so much appreciated! Blue Summer grew out of a short story I’d written that was part of my previous book, a novel in stories called Closer All The Time. The story was about a girl who drowned and the boy who thought it was his fault, and I was still interested in that boy and what happened to him afterwards, how he dealt with the guilt. In the retelling the girl fell from the hayloft in a barn instead of drowning – I don’t remember why – and it expanded from there, both forwards and backwards in time. The musical aspect of the novel just sort of happened. I was writing about the boy – now a man, living in a trailer park – thinking about his sister’s death, and out of nowhere he started tapping his foot because this melody had dropped into his head, and then he picked up a trumpet that was lying around, and when that happened I knew he was a musician, and I had to go back and rewrite earlier parts of the book with that in mind. It turned out music – and especially this melody – was a big part of the tale.
MR: Blue Summer was a treat to read from a Jazz aficionado’s viewpoint. Tell us who your go-to artist and album are.
I like the trumpet best. It’s the most evocative jazz instrument to my mind (with the possible exception of the piano: those augmented and diminished chords!) My favorites are Clifford Brown and Chet Baker. Also Miles and Clark Terry and Lee Morgan…but I’m still discovering horn players. Bob Barnard, for example, and Jack Sheldon, the sitcom actor who unbeknownst to me was also a great trumpet player. Albums? Chet Baker’s “Chet”, partly because it’s entirely instrumental; I don’t like his singing much. Blue In Green, Miles. A big favourite is the soundtrack of the Broadway play Side Man, featuring Clifford Brown and with Lee Morgan, Roy Eldridge and Miles. And Art Pepper doesn’t play trumpet, of course, but I love his album with the Rhythm Section, Miles’s band. He was supposedly strung out during the recording, but his playing is still magical. Pepper playing “Everything Happens To Me” is about as good as it gets. Btw, he wrote an autobiography called Straight Life that was brilliant and amazingly honest.
MR: If you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who would that be, and why?
My father and mother. I’ve gotten very vicariously nostalgic about their lives since they’ve been gone. My father was a country boy whose father worked in a shoe shop and raised chickens to get them through the Depression. He intrinsically was an intellectually voracious person, but one who hated formal schooling. He was a Tom Sawyer sort of kid, the kind who got in trouble that was mischievous, not malicious, and so easily forgivable. When WWII came along he overcame his hatred of school in order to get through the training and become a Navy fighter pilot. He was also a musical savant who could play anything, but who favored the trumpet and piano. (He once played the famous Eagle piano, by request of his squadron leader during a tour of the White House.) My mother was a dancer and singer (and Canadian by birthright) whose first pilot husband – a Canadian RAF pilot named Gerry Barker – was shot down and killed, and whose name is on a monument in Italy. They were only married a week before he was deployed, and she never saw him again. Bravely, she married another war pilot – my father – a year after Barker’s death. She was an Army nurse who also could fly and who actually outranked my 1st Lt. father by the war’s end. An oddity was when my mother and father were stationed just a few miles apart on Tinian and Saipan in 1945…Dad was the envy of the squadron.
MR: What are you working on now?
I have the first draft of a novel to start revising, but I’ve only picked at it and thought about it lately, because I’m still in a lazy, recharging, post-publication state.
MR: What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I read a lot, always have several books going and piles of others to get to. I’m into golf and chess; I like to compete. (Online chess has been a godsend during the pandemic.) I spend too much time online. I play my guitar and toot on my Dad’s lovely Benge trumpet. Anne and I like to go hiking with Jesse, our flat-coated retriever.
MR: I’m going to put you on the spot here: Have you ever visited Canada, specifically our East Coast?
I’m ashamed to say I’ve never been to the Maritimes. I’ve always wanted to visit there and Newfoundland, but haven’t (yet). Quebec is a favourite place that I’ve been to several times.
MR: Finally, how would you explain Maine to a person who has never been there?
I would probably blush, apologize for being forward and suggest they read Hull Creek, Closer All The Time and Blue Summer. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of explaining Maine there.
MR: Thanks, Jim!
Thanks so much, Jim! It’s been a privilege.