ONE OF NEW MEXICO’S most beloved writers left us on Monday, November 27. John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War, died at age 83. Born and raised in New York, he wrote his first novels there after college in the 1960s—The Sterile Cuckoo (1965) and The Wizard of Loneliness (1966)—and started a family. But Nichols fell in love with New Mexico after running away here for a week as a teenager, and he’d always intended to make it his home. He moved to Taos in 1969 and set about knowing it—the intimacies of its trails and streams, the interdependence of its peoples and cultures, and the complexity of its local politics.
He was a quick study. Nichols published Milagro in 1974, followed by the other two novels that made up the New Mexico trilogy: The Magic Journey (1978) and The Nirvana Blues (1981). In his signature blend of the humanist and the absurd, he conveyed the particularities of northern New Mexico’s land and water battles and chronicled other social issues, including in the pages of New Mexico Magazine. Critical responses to his work were mixed, as was the local reaction. Not everyone loved his depiction of northern New Mexico culture.
Although Milagro eventually became a cult classic and Robert Redford turned it into a movie in 1988, Nichols never made very much from his best-selling novel—nor from his other 23 books. He didn’t mind too much because he didn’t really care about money. Only the work mattered. He lived modestly in a small adobe a few blocks from the Taos Plaza, sleeping during the day and typing all night—a schedule he developed in his late teens and kept until the very end.
I met Nichols for interviews in 2020 and 2021, when I was writing for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was noticeably frailer from one year to the next, but unfailingly sharp. I realized the sometimes-wry quality of his prose was, in person, a determined kindness with an impish edge. He talked about getting his papers in order and preparing for death, a conversation his daughter said took place every fall. Facing his own mortality with frankness and humor was his style. His heart troubles dated to childhood and included open-heart surgery when he was in his early 50s.
“We’re extremely lucky he made it to 83,” says Rick Smith, Nichols’s closest friend and the owner of Brodsky Bookshop, in Taos. For years, Nichols stopped by on his daily walks to the post office and grocery store, and they talked about life and played music together. Lines for Nichols’s readings at the shop stretched down the block. “People would wait for 45 minutes or an hour for John to sign their books,” Smith says. “He took time with each person. You came to see him, but he wanted to know about you.”
Dorothy Massey, owner of Collected Works Bookstore, in Santa Fe, knew Nichols for almost 30 years. “He was one of the only authors that I ever allowed myself to truly love, because he took people in in a way that most professional authors don’t,” she says. “John the man was as brave, irreverent, funny, and strong in his opinions as John the writer.”
Both admired him as a natural storyteller who never repeated a tale. When I spent time with Nichols, he was working on his memoir, I Got Mine: Confessions of a Midlist Writer, which would turn out to be his final book, published in 2022 by University of New Mexico Press. (New Mexico Magazine’s review: “He may be a self-described ‘amoral selfish narcissist,’ as he insists any professional writer is, but he’s also pretty funny, and he’s lived a life worthy of a master storyteller.”) He was deep in his reflections on those afternoons we spent together, recalling painful parts of his childhood and railing against the U.S. imperialism of the 1980s. But he also talked at length about playing music with his friends, about a woman he’d once loved and her niece who’d recently written him a letter, and about the intensity of his writing practice and tireless revision process.
Along with the rest of the world, Smith is trying to get used to the idea that his friend is gone. He’s visited Nichols weekly over the past few years, after Nichols could no longer walk to the bookstore.
“He was getting lonely lately, but he didn’t believe in despair,” Smith says. “He’d say, ‘Don’t despair! You can get upset about politics or the environment, but you have to believe there’s hope, or what’s the point of getting up every day?’”
Nichols is survived by his daughter, Tania Harris, and son-in-law, Marco Harris; a son, Luke Nichols; and his granddaughters, Solana Harris, Sierra Harris, and Lucy Nichols.