Way back when I was a teenager, I spent summers at my dad’s house outside of Cortez, Colorado. I had a job, but it was just part-time, so I spent a lot of time at the house, by myself — all of my friends lived in Durango. It was so damned hot, that I’d have to ride my bike or go running or hiking early in the morning, leaving many days free. I spent a lot of that time reading. In fact, one particular summer, I challenged myself to read at least one book for every shower that I took. I know, that’s gross. But I succeeded.
I devoured words, ninety-five percent of them being fiction. Novels by Marguerite Duras, Ed Abbey, Jim Harrison, Tony Hillerman, John Updike, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Short stories by Shirley Jackson, Richard Brautigan, and every fiction piece in every old New Yorker that my dad had laying around. Inspired, I would then sit down and pound out my own short stories. Most of them sucked, but at least I tried. My first long form fiction was a serial called The Adventures of Fishgut Malone. It ran in the El Diablo, Durango High School’s newspaper. Fishgut and his countercultural buddies were engaged in a war with Muffy Izod and her preppie friends, who were allied with the jocks and the school administration. There was something in there about giant snails, too, but I seem to have blocked that part out. Fun stuff.
Even as I was penning the Fishgut Malone series, I was also getting into journalism. I was the assistant editor then editor-in-chief of the El Diablo, where I shifted from fiction to scathing editorials and news stories. I resumed my journalism career after college, when I went to work as the reporter and photographer at the Silverton Standard & the Miner newspaper, which I later ended up owning for a while.
My fiction writing lingered on the sidelines. When I started the Silverton Mountain Journal, I also started a serialized, meandering novel of sorts on the back page of every issue called Sultan’s Secret, which starred Malcolm Brautigan, Eliza Santos, and a motley crew of eccentric mountain town characters. That was followed up by White Noise, another serial with a slightly more well-defined plot. And then there was the Atomic Rooster, about a guy abandoning his rooster and, well, never mind. But for the last dozen years or so, I pretty much dropped fiction writing altogether. I just didn’t have time or the creative energy.
Then I wrote River of Lost Souls, and during the months that passed between the completion of the last big rewrite and the book’s release and book tour, emboldened by the fact that I had put together ninety-thousand words in somewhat coherent fashion, I started writing something new, something different, something fictional — a novel. Just a couple of weeks ago I finished the third draft and sent it off to an editor, who is now considering whether it’s worth publishing.
It was hard. It was fun. And it took some major adjustment. It felt foreign and kind of odd just to make stuff up, to create a world and people it with my imaginary friends and enemies. But strangely enough it also felt like I had more freedom to tell the truth about the places that I’ve researched, thought about, loved, and written about for decades.
The working title is Behind the Slickrock Curtain. Malcolm Brautigan and Eliza Santos are revived. Brautigan has fallen from grace as an environmental journalist and, disillusioned, has become a purveyor of fake news — and a damned good one, if you ask him. Santos, an artist and librarian, who happens to be married to Brautigan’s old friend Peter Simons, calls Brautigan out of the blue one day to ask him to help find Simons, who has gone missing behind the Slickrock Curtain in what is now known as the Bears Ears region of southeastern Utah. All kinds of zany hijinks ensue. There’s a corrupt Interior Secretary who is working with a Russian oil company to develop tar sands; a Sagebrush Rebel local politician who opposed a new national monument but is now profiting off of it; a secret and potentially world-changing uranium mine; and a little bit of time travel, perhaps. There’s also a helping of sexual tension running through it all.
After finishing the latest draft, I plummeted into that typical postpartum pit of despair, self-loathing, I’m-going-to-trash-the-whole-thing-and-start-over sort of mood. So, to keep myself from indulging too much self-pity, or going back and rewriting and tinkering the thing to death, I simply started a new novel: Snowscreen. I mean, why not? Malcolm Brautigan is back in Silverton, taking over the Dandelion Times for the winter while the current publisher, Matt Jaramillo, gets a little sabbatical. Brautigan falls right back into the nutty world of mountain town politics and personalities, gets entangled in old romances, and struggles to put out a paper every week. But not long after Brautigan arrives, the snow safety director of the local renegade ski area is caught in an avalanche. At first it seems like another random tragedy; another powderhound dying doing what he loved. It turns out to be anything but …
I’ll keep you updated on my progress, and who knows, I might even run an excerpt or two here. So stay tuned.
Jonathan P. Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Get a copy of River of Lost Souls.
“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”
— Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine.