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Author John Nichols, who believed that writing was a radical act, dies at 83

John Nichols wrote more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, most centered around his adopted home of northern New Mexico. He was a photographer as well.
Susan Crutchfield
/
University of New Mexico Press
John Nichols wrote more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, most centered around his adopted home of northern New Mexico. He was a photographer as well.

Author John Nichols began writing stories when he was 10 years old, and by the time he got to college he was writing at least one novel a year. "Never for credit, never for a class," he said. "It was just one of the things that I did to amuse myself."

Nichols went on to create more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, most centered around his adopted home of Northern New Mexico. He is best known for The Milagro Beanfield War and The Sterile Cuckoo, both of which were adapted into films.

Nichols died Monday at home in Taos, N.M., his daughter Tania Harris told The Associated Press. He had been in declining health linked to a long-term heart condition, she said.

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 teenager (played in a film adaptation by Liza Minnelli) who forces a love affair with a reluctant college student.

After he wrote The Sterile Cuckoo, Nichols took a trip to Guatemala, and was shocked by the poverty and the exploitation he found there. He described the link between that country and the U.S. as a "kind of personal satrapy," and returned from his trip "really disillusioned about being American."

Nichols moved from New York to Taos, New Mexico in 1969 where he went to work at a muckraking newspaper. 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 1988 film adaptation.

"He took the politics very seriously," says Bill Nevins, a retired professor of Literature at the University of New Mexico. He believes Nichols will be remembered for his clear-eyed view of human nature — and the human destruction of nature.

"I think people continue to go back to his books ... to get a sense of what it's like to live in a multi-cultural nation that's evolving," Nevins says.

In 1992, Nichols said he wanted to create literature with a social conscience, but he also wanted to create art. It was a political act, he believed, to work at keeping language vibrant and vital.

"I think that 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 painting pictures of sunflowers — is committing very political, radical acts," he said.

Nichols said it was "the beauty and the tragedy and the wonder of our lives" that he wanted to capture in his work.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Vitale