In our continuing Q & A series, the museum of americana caught up with Nick Fox to chat about travel, his childhood reading habits, and how photography, memory, and the physical act of writing are integrated into in his process. Nick’s essay, “On the Trail of Jack London” appeared in Issue Nine.
As your essay mentions, you’ve been a mule driver, a sailor, and an emcee for burlesque shows. You write about your childhood desire for a life full of impossible stories. What prompts your travel experiences and how did your routine of frequent travel begin?
NF: The earliest trip I can remember was a ride to North Carolina (from Florida) to visit my grandmother. I was four years old. My dad was about to get in the car to drive up there by himself and I asked if I could go with him. It was probably the most spur of the moment trip I’ve ever taken, but I think it’s an indicator that something in me always wanted to see new things, even at an early age.
I’m not sure why movement feels so natural to me. Maybe it’s because I lived in so many different houses as a kid. Maybe it’s because of the instability of my home life at that time. Maybe it was the fact that my family liked to travel and liked to take me with them. Or it could just be that I’m an American. But I’ve never considered travel unnatural. As a species, we roamed from place to place, following the seasons, for millennia. In some parts of the world, humans still live this way. The idea of living a “settled” existence is a relatively recent phenomenon. Maybe I just didn’t evolve that way. I’ve never owned a home, and I suspect that my ideal home will probably have wheels under it.
I can’t say there’s anything that prompts my desire to travel. It’s just the first thing I think to do when I know I’m going to have some free time, and it’s the first thing I want to free up my time to do. It always has been.
Your essay touches on many writers who have influenced you. As a child, you read out of a desire to escape your home and, as you’ve said, to “inhale the world.” Would you tell us more about your experiences reading as a child and how these have influenced your writing?
NF: When I was two years old, my parents bought me a set of World Book Encyclopedias, and it was possibly the best gift I ever received. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, those were my go-to guides for information on anything I became interested in. And I’m interested in a lot of things. Whether it was the Roman Empire, fish of the Pacific Ocean, gemstones, whatever, I had a ready resource for the information I wanted.
Much of my love of books comes from my mother. She was an enormously talented, charismatic woman with a deep love of reading, travel and music. She would read to me every night, and constantly pressed new books on me. I was already reading at a high school level by the time I was in the first grade, and I have her to thank for that.
She was also a drug addict, and that monster lived in every corner of the house. So many of the things I am passionate about today come directly from my mother’s influence, and so much of what frightens me and paralyzes me comes from her as well. I wonder sometimes if there were two versions of her that were at war when it came to her children. One sucked all the oxygen out of the room and left us gasping, the other gave us the means of escape. It’s a strange thing, but for all the ugly parts of my childhood, I also feel my mother was giving me the keys to live the life I would eventually lead. She was always giving me the tools I needed to lead the life that she couldn’t. I wonder if she knew she was doing that—I choose to believe that she did.
As far as the books that influenced my writing the most, I have always been drawn to adventure stories and mysteries, largely, I think, because of their pacing. It’s all about the story, and in mystery novels, it’s also largely about the way people talk. I think there’s a good reason why mystery writers make good screenwriters. You have to tell a story through dialogue, and everyone is always hiding something in the way they speak and the words they choose. I’m very drawn to language, idioms, creative profanity, and the kind of jargon you adopt when you know a great deal about your chosen field. I’m a story guy, and the kind of writers I’m most drawn to (many of whom were journalists at some point in their careers) know how to get down to the business of storytelling.
What is your writing process while traveling? How do you gather and store information, and how and when do your essays take shape?
NF: I have a hard time writing when I travel, because my instinct is to keep going outside rather than sit somewhere and write about it. I’d never kept a journal on my travels until I began work on the travel blog. It was just a fun thing to do at first, but as time has passed and memories have faded, I’m starting to find how valuable it is.
I’ve never been a writer who saves his old work. It used to drive my ex-wife crazy. Her point was that you never know when you’re going to want a piece of that old machinery again. I think she’s right, but I’ve always believed that whatever work I did, whatever insights I had, were stored somewhere inside the framework of my body, ready to be called up when I needed them. I have old notebooks I’ve hung on to, but I never look at them. Writing in them was the important thing. It was a form of storing the memory through a physical act. Once that act of writing was done, I could let go of the idea. I have to believe the best thing I’m going to write is the next thing. It helps keep me moving forward.
The essays take shape in other ways. I always have my ears open for stories. A lot of them just bounce off me, but every now and then, something worms its way in. Once that happens, I start chasing it. I don’t have to know why. I just have to know that I’m interested. A headless chicken that lived for two years and became a national sideshow attraction? Sign me up for that one. Once I have a hold of that thread, I keep following it until I have the story. It doesn’t always play out that far, but it usually does.
In the last couple years, I’ve discovered that the most valuable tools for my writing is a camera. I’m not a very good photographer, but that’s not why I take pictures. Photographs serve as catalysts for my writing. I will sometimes arrange a couple photographs, then connect them through words as best I can. When I get lost in the essay, I find another photograph that relates to what I’m writing about and start writing about that subject. Sometimes the photos get tossed out once I have the writing, and that’s fine. I rarely take a photo that I’m immensely proud of. They’re just pins to hang the story on. That might change as I learn more about photography—and about social media—but I always lean on my writing first. Everything else that goes into the blog, or into the essays, is simply supporting material for the words.