14 Questions with Philly Novelist Thom Nickels

The sci-fi scribe talks Luke Skywalker, Elizabeth Taylor and the "dragging vortex" that keeps sucking him back into Philly.

Philly-based writer Thom Nickels is back on the literary scene with two new novellas, the Hugo Award-nominated Walking on Water and After All This. The works, both binded into one neat book, follow on the footsteps of some of the writer’s latest offerings — sci-fi gems rife with paranormal, deliciously eccentric twists. The Bay Area Reporter describes Walking on Water as “a Catholic fantasy reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.” It concerns a Harvard student whose thoughts have the ability to alter reality. In After All This, Nickels conjures a post-apocalyptic Philadelphia, where a group of young people and a horse named Flash are among the only living beings. 

Nickels will read excerpts from both stories this Wednesday at the Independence Branch of the Free Library — the same branch that houses the Barbara Gittings collection of gay and lesbian materials. I chatted with him in 2010, when he published Spore, and had such a fascinating time that I had to circle back for his new releases. Keep reading to learn why he used to write Luke Skywalker’s name on bathroom walls, how he saved a famous Philly mosaic from being sold to a Vegas casino, and about the “dragging vortex” that keeps his wandering soul coming back in Philly.

What’s your Philly connection?
I grew up in Malvern when it was mostly farms. I’ve lived in other cities — like Boston, Baltimore and Boulder, Colo. — but have always come back to Philly. They say there’s a dragging vortex in that keeps people here.

I am happiest when …
I’m working, or packing my suitcase for the next travel-writing gig. There’s a definite “up” feeling that comes after the flight when you check into a new hotel.

What’s your most bizarre possession?
I have a long typewritten letter from Clare Booth Luce to my great aunt; a large Russian icon painted by a Russian prince; typewritten thank you letters to me from Elizabeth Taylor and Susan Sontag; an old Roman coin from 300 AD, and a piece of a dried Rocky Mountain flower my great aunt picked in the Rockies in the 1920s.

Why did Elizabeth Taylor write you a thank-you letter?
I wrote her when she was in town with Richard Burton [doing] the play Private Lives … asking for an interview. … The play left town. I never heard from her. Then, weeks later, a typewritten letter arrived in the mail on Elizabeth Taylor stationary. She thanked me for taking the time to share my thoughts, [saying] “I am sorry that my schedule was such that I just was not able to make time for a visit.” With all my best wishes, etc. (Real signature, too).

Describe the perfect night in the Gayborhood in three words …
Stop, Look, Listen!

Who would you rather swing your light saber at, Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker? And why?
My XXX rated dreams about Luke Skywalker years ago knew no bounds; in zanier moments I would even write his name with a blue felt tip pen on the wall of a men’s room stall. …. I’m coming to understand the attractions of Captain Kirk: stability, wisdom, cuddling, comfort, mind power.

For those of us who don’t have an extensive knowledge of sci-fi lit, which book would you recommend as a good introduction?
I avoid conventional sci-fi but like magic realism, such as the work of Garcia Marquez or Roland Firbank.

If your life was a sci-fi book, what would it be titled?
101 Uses of a (Sometimes) Venerable Motherboard

You’ve written about some pretty wild things. Where do you get ideas for your books?
Dreams are important to me but I think images from childhood form a solid basis. … I’ve always had a rich fantasy life which worked well in the farmlands of Chester County. Many ideas come from keeping a journal since the early 1970s. I would wager that my journal is as large as Anais Nin’s.

Where is your favorite place in the world?
In Lapland, Finland, sitting in a hot tub with a group of international journalists (all of them nude) after a group plunge into an icy river.

What do you consider to be your proudest achievement?
So far, the work I did with a friend in 1998 to establish The Arts Defense League, which essentially started the movement to fight Steve Wynn’s purchase of Maxfield Parrish’s Dream Garden mural in the Curtis Building. Wynn wanted to ship the mosaic to one of his Las Vegas casinos.

Who is your diva inspiration?
I take my inspiration where I can, because one source never has all the answers. There’s Susan Sontag, of course, but it can also be the moral character and strength of George Sand, the tough-as-steel survivor grit of Edith Piaf, the aloofness of Marlene Dietrich, the openness of Bruce Chatwin, or the mysticism of a Thomas Merton or Father Seraphim Rose.

What is your life motto?
Never be so arrogant as to say “I have no regrets.”

I feel gayest when …
I am attending a photography exhibit such as I did at the Sketch Club recently and discovered that almost all the photos on the wall were of nude women taken by heterosexual males. This is when I begin to think that the artists involved need a mind-expansion lesson. I mean, is there some unwritten rule that says male heterosexual photographers can only photograph females when it comes to nudity? Where does this limited view come from? At times like these I want the spirit of Robert Mapplethorpe to come crashing through the doors and shake things up.

Thom Nickels’ free reading takes place Wed., Aug. 28 at 1 p.m. at the Independence Branch of the Free Library (18 S. Seventh St.) For more info, call 215-685-1633. You can also catch him at the Penn Bookstore (3601 Walnut St.) on Wed. Sept. 18 at 6 p.m.

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