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Remembering author John Nichols


Author John Nichols has died. He was 83 years old. Nichols published more than 20 books, most of which were set in his adopted home of northern New Mexico. Tom Vitale has this appreciation.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: In 1992, John Nichols told me he began writing stories when he was 10. He said by the time he attended Hamilton College in New York, he was already a seasoned writer.


JOHN NICHOLS: During college, I wrote probably a novel a year at least - never for credit, never for a class. It was just one of the things that I did to amuse myself.

VITALE: Nichols was born in 1940, in Berkeley, Calif., and raised in New York. When he was 24 years old, he finally published a book, his eighth novel, "The Sterile Cuckoo," about an eccentric girl who forces a love affair with a reluctant student. It begins like this.


NICHOLS: (Reading) Several years ago, during the spring semester of my junior year in college, as an alternative to either deserting or marrying a girl, I signed a suicide pact with her.

PARKS: The novel was adapted into a film starring Liza Minnelli as the desperate co-ed.


LIZA MINELLI: (As Pookie Adams) Well, I - you know, I've really been making a terrific effort to be friends with some of the weirdos around here. I mean, I even apologized to Helen Upshaw.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Listen to me.

MINELLI: (As Pookie Adams) And I told Lillian Lerner (ph) that I didn't know that she wore dentures, that it was just an accident and a coincidence. I don't even remember saying about them, Helen. I mean, just give me another chance, OK?

VITALE: John Nichols said after he wrote "The Sterile Cuckoo," he took a trip to Guatemala...


NICHOLS: And was really shocked by the poverty and exploitation in Guatemala and the connection between the United States dominance of that country as its kind of personal satrapy and its misery. And I came back from Guatemala really disillusioned about being American.

VITALE: Nichols moved from New York to Taos, N.M., in 1969, where he went to work at a muckraking newspaper.


NICHOLS: New Mexico was kind of a perfect area for political work because it's so poor that it's much more like a colonial country than sort of a first-world state in the United States.

VITALE: In 1974, he published his best-known novel, "The Milagro Beanfield War," about one farmer's struggle against the politicians and real estate developers who want to turn his rural community into a luxury resort. Robert Redford directed the film adaptation, which featured John Heard as a crusading journalist addressing a town meeting.


JOHN HEARD: (As Charlie Bloom) Once wealthier people from out of state move in, they want things. They want new schools for their children, not necessarily yours - for theirs. And for all of these things, they are able to pay. But at the same time, you also are going to have to pay.

BILL NEVINS: He took the politics very seriously.

VITALE: Bill Nevins is a retired professor of literature at the University of New Mexico. He says John Nichols will be remembered for his clear-eyed view of human nature, as well as for his clear-eyed view of the human destruction of nature.

NEVINS: And I think people continue to go back to his books, especially the New Mexico trilogy, including "Milagro Beanfield," to get a sense of what it's like to live in a multicultural nation that's evolving. So it makes it very relevant to our present time.

VITALE: In 1992, John Nichols said he wanted to create literature with a social conscience that was useful, but he also wanted to create art.


NICHOLS: I think it's very political to kill yourself to keep language vibrant, vital, alive. We live in such a nihilistic and almost fascist culture that anyone who contributes positively, you know, who has a love of the culture at some other level, even if they're only, like, painting pictures of sunflowers, is committing very political, radical acts.

VITALE: John Nichols said he wanted to write about the beauty and the tragedy and the wonder of our lives.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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