Alumni Interview Series: Thad Nodine
After becoming entangled in the twists and loops of mapquest, I found myself on a pretty street so close to the ocean that as I stepped out of the car, my skin felt salty. It was my second to last day in Santa Cruz and I was becoming sentimental about the beautiful sea cliffs and quirky musicians and artists who lined Pacific Avenue and made the city come alive with sound and color. The late June heat was just beginning to press down as I made my way up to Thad Nodine’s front door, surrounded by the soft hum of summer and the smell of honeysuckle. Nodine greeted me with a wide smile and a glass of ice water as he ushered me into the cool comfort of a book-lined living room. Nodine exuded a quite, contented energy and I instantly felt comfortable and at ease.
Laurel Marks: Where did you grow up?
Thad Nodine: I grew up in Clearwater, Florida and lived there until I went away to college. I have roots in the south and north… I feel like a citizen of the United States and knowing the language and rhetoric of several different areas has helped me in my writing.
LM: Do you remember a moment when you said, “I want to be a writer?”
TN: That didn’t happen until much later. The moment I decided to become a writer was after college.
LM: So what made you pick up a pen and start writing?
TN: My first job after college I really thought I was going to be a lawyer so I took the LSATs, went to DC, and expected to work for a year and then go to law school. It was a good thing I did that because I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I got an entry-level job writing letters for a congressman. In that job I realized I was pretty good at writing and I actually liked it and I had some things to say. I was always interested in the public good and how people engage with each other and politics. By working in politics I realized that I wanted to have other avenues for talking about who we are and where we are going as a people.
LM: You’ve lived all over the country- what made you settle in Santa Cruz?
TN: I came to Santa Cruz to go to graduate school in literature. I had done my undergraduate work at Oberlin College in Ohio. I made my way west trying to write in various formats. I was a journalist, speechwriter, legislative correspondent, worked for a publishing company, and then I finally decided to go back to school to read and study more literature. After coming here and getting involved in the Santa Cruz community, we never left.
LM: Does Santa Cruz inspire you as a writer?
TN: I think it does. I think any place would inspire me as a writer though. Santa Cruz inspires me for a lot of other reasons besides writing.
LM: In my most recent fiction class with Micah Perks, we were talking about whether or not it was possible to write about a place if you had never been there. Would you have been able to write your “on the road” novel if you hadn’t traveled America so extensively?
TN: Touch And Go happens to be narrated by a blind person and although I haven’t been to all the towns he goes to on his road trip across America, I tried to write about the geography from his perspective.
UC Santa Cruz
LM: What was your experience at UCSC?
TN: UCSC was a lively environment where I got to delve into my passion for writing and fiction. There was a wide range of professors there that allowed and helped me do that. It was also a great place for me because I was interested in both politics and fiction so the political sciences department, cultural studies, American studies… it’s a university whose boards and departments do a lot of work with each other across cultures and disciplines. It was a good place for me.
LM: Do you think you needed to go back and get a PhD before you could really dive into writing?
TN: Well I was already trying to dive into writing but I needed a way to make a living. I was interested in teaching and I was interested in literature related research but it was new to me. I had been making a living writing after college but I wanted the opportunities that a graduate program could provide. Everything I’ve done since then would not have been possible without that degree.
LM: There are currently a lot of proposed cutbacks for the humanities at UCSC and many argue that writing is something that cannot be taught. Do you agree with that?
TN: No. I taught creative writing when I was there and I do think that writing is a craft that you can teach. I don’t think you necessarily have to go through a creative writing program to be able to write but I do think it saves a lot of time. I’ve seen cutbacks on a lot of campuses and I think that education is something that we need to value and fund more.
Touch and Go
LM: What inspired you to write your new novel Touch and Go being sold September 2011?
TN: It was a long process. I’ve been writing fiction for about twenty-five years. For about five years I tried my hand at children’s books. What that taught me was a lot about audience. You can fake it or pretend that audience doesn’t matter with adults, but with kids they’re either interested or their not. So you learn pretty fast whether it works. In 2005 I had the ideas of a road trip novel with these characters, and that was the germination of this book.
LM: It sounds as if your novel has changed drastically in the last six years- what is your editing process?
TN: I took the first draft to a writing group and since then I’ve worked with other people I know and provided them with drafts. After the manuscript won an award, I was able to get an agent. She gave me feedback, and I got rejection letters from different publishers that helped me edit. It’s gone through seven major rewrites in six years and it’s been a learning process.
LM: Jonathan Franzen said: “Touch and Go is a strong debut—a high-velocity vision quest that keeps surprising and surprising.” — How do other writers in Santa Cruz, such as Franzen, inspire or support your own literary career?
TN: Jonathan Franzen has been a great mentor for me and I’ve known him now for four years. As I’ve become more professional in my writing, and as I’ve tried to know more people in the field- to understand not just the writing but the business aspects including agents and publishers- Jonathan has helped quite a bit with the timing of the business and some of the people and introductions that you need. A creative writing program can also provide you with contacts and avenues into the field. I think no matter where you live as a writer, it is very important to go to workshops, different conferences, and do what you can to meet people in the field who are working as writers.
LM: How do you think it changed your process to be publishing later in your career?
TN: Well I’m proud to be able to say that I’ve always made my living as a writer. I wouldn’t have expected it. The way that I’ve written was to find places that need writers and write for them… Because I wasn’t published in fiction I had to pursue such things as speech writing, grant writing and other forms. I think that has expanded my field of expertise and what I know about the world. When I was younger I didn’t know enough about writing and now I’m humble and more experienced.
LM: What was it like to work with your publisher, Unbridled Books?
TN: It’s been a great experience both in terms of the content- the editing they’ve done has improved the book- and also around the actual design and the layout… I’m looking forward to the next few months!
LM: Do you remember a moment when you thought, “this is a done novel?”
TN: I remember twenty such times. I’ll convince myself one day “this is really good writing,” and the next day it’s not so good. My novel has gone from five hundred to three hundred pages, and a lot of elements have been taken out, but it’s a better book now that it’s been streamlined. Hearing the story through the eyes of Kevin, the narrator, has changed what this book is and the trajectory of why it matters and for whom.
LM: Do you get attached to parts that you later have to cut out?
TN: Because of my work in writing in other fields I’m not committed too much of anything, except to make it better and to make it work and to learn from it. Because of that I’m very open to change and that has helped. You need a certain distance from a piece to be able to look at it and see what is needed and what is not. Once you figure out what matters, for whom, and for what ends, then the writing can fall together.
LM: Have you started thinking about your next book?
TN: I have. I’ve begun working on it and I have a cast of characters and a plot I’m working through now.
Writing As a Practice
LM: Do you have a writing routine?
TN: When I’m working on a book I try to get up early and write in the morning. I try not to look at a blank page in the morning so I work from something I was writing the day before. I’ll work on rough material, then I’ll write some new material and at the end of the day I’ll sketch forward, moving my thoughts forward. I don’t feel like any of it has to be perfect writing because the next day I’ll go back over it and work through the parts that were sticky the day before. When I feel as if I have to get something perfect, it makes it harder to get going. A key element is getting there and starting working.
Future Dreams and Present Worries
LM: What is your wish for Touch and Go?
TN: My wish is that it gets read. Publishing is going through such an upheaval right now in terms of how to access writing and who publishes and to which audiences… What is the role of bookstores versus kindles versus ipads? There is a wide range of formats and venues so my goal is try to get read by as many people as possible… and try to get some reviews and get some buzz going on it. And my novel will be available both electronically and in book form.
LM: The world of publishing is changing in such good and bad ways- while underground publishers are popping up and it is easier to self publish with a simple word document- it is becoming harder to succeed as literature is overrun by genre fiction. Do you feel that these changes are positive or negative?
TN: Well I’ve been working through this publishing process for three years and it’s been very difficult. Another issue is the crash and the recession in the US and the publishers have been a big part of this. Publishers are scared to take on a new writer who doesn’t have a big following so there are risks involved in that. On the other hand, self- publishing is an option, but the problem with that is distribution. I feel lucky to be with Unbridled because they are invested in my book and convinced that it is going somewhere so I’m excited to be a part of that.
LM: So you are optimistic about the future of literature?
TN: Yes. The future of publishing is a different thing, though. I think people will continue to write and read, the question is what format will they read in? Currently the Internet allows a greater diversity of books, but how do you find the books that are great? Do you rely on a reviewer? Do you rely on the web? What makes it a good book? That’s been contested since the beginning. There are a lot of people writing a lot of great things and its fun to be a part of that whole environment. Now that I’m published I have a lot of people tell me they have stories to write and I encourage them to write. It’s one thing to have a story and it’s another thing to actually write it. For me it’s been a hard process and a learning process and, ultimately, a process of self-discovery. I think anything that gets people reading is good.
Advice For Up and Coming Writers
LM: Do you have any advice for up and coming writers, such as myself?
TN: Read and write. Learn about the business and writing as a whole. Find out what you like about it and do those pieces, but also find out what you don’t like about it and if you want to make a living at writing, you have to do those pieces too, or find someone else who can help you with those pieces. Contacts and mentoring is important. When I was young in my career I had a hard time asking for help. Do that, because people want to help. Now that I’m at the other end of it I’d be glad to help young writers
LM: So what steps would you take if a young writer brought you their work?
TN: Often they’ll need help with publishing or editing, or I could connect them to other writers working in a writing group. It’s good to ask in the beginning for help with craft, and one way to improve would be to read and write a lot. Figure out what you like to write, and what voices you can summon.
Thad Nodine seems to be at a jumping off point in his life. With his first novel hot off the presses and his career as a fiction writer finally taking flight after many years of hard work, he is filled with a palpable excitement. Nodine explores the weightier aspects of writing with the ease of a practiced hand as he succumbs to the voices of characters that guide his stories. Fresh from battle with the world of publishing and the shaky economy of literature, Nodine serves as a venerable peephole into the ever-changing world of fiction. After the interview I stepped back into the Santa Cruz sun with an image burnished into my mind: Thad Nodine sitting with the first copy of his novel on his lap, the crisp white pages yearning to be read. I drove away hopeful that in a world of cutthroat authors and narrowing literary interest, an older, self-taught author can still break onto the scene armed only with a love of writing and a passion for sharing his story.
I encourage anyone who has a story itching to be told or a long buried manuscript to contact Thad Nodine or any of the other numerous authors in the Santa Cruz area for inspiration and guidance.