Literature

Word Quest: Thad Nodine at Bookshop Santa Cruz

Thad NodineLocal author Thad Nodine takes on guns and dope in his second novel ‘Grow’

The ocean shimmers through one window in Thad Nodine’s second-story Westside studio. Embraced by books, files, artwork, and invisible literary mentors, Nodine is finishing up the second draft of Grow, the story of a washed-up Tea Partier who finds a second life growing medical marijuana. “Guns and dope play a central role in this book,” the lanky writer says with a grin. “And it’s a toxic mix.” Sounds perfect, given the 21st century context and West Coast political ecology.

Nodine—who works on a variety of writing projects, from novels to educational policy reports—seems to thrive on a steady diet of words. Born and raised in Florida, he started writing speeches for a senator in Washington, D.C. after graduating from Oberlin College. Turning his back on a law career, he came West and took up journalism. Santa Cruz suited Nodine, who raised two sons here with his photographer wife Shelby Graham. Completing a Ph.D. in American literature at UCSC, he started technical writing for several agencies in education policy, and now coordinates field research in competency-based education. “It involves a lot of interviews with teachers, students, and administrators,” he says.

The policy wonk in Nodine finds that “American policy in general is engaged in three hypocritical areas; education, drug policy—specifically marijuana—and firearms.” His novel-in-progress cross-pollinates those political strands.

Working daily on two computer screens, Nodine is close to the finish of his second book. “I used to think art was self-indulgent and that it didn’t address the public good,” he says. But Nodine has reconsidered. “Humans need that different depth that art provides. That’s how we empathize with each other,” he says.

Manuscript development requires tenacity—and patience. “Grow has five parts,” Nodine explains. “I spent a year on the first part. Several people read it, it went through multiple drafts. Once I felt it was on the right track I kept writing through the rest of it. First I sketch it through completely, so I have a sense of where it’s going. I write out complete bios of each character. I hope to finish the second draft in January. My agent is waiting for it!”

Process? “In the morning I work on what I wrote the day before, then in the afternoon I do original writing, figure out dialogue, timing, that kind of thing. Edit, then write. Edit then write,” says Nodine.

Nodine’s award-winning first book, Touch and Go, involves an unlikely road trip through the hurricane Katrina landscape. The protagonist is a young blind man with a sketchy past and a colorful cast of companions. “I enter the book through the characters—I have to know their stories,” says the author. “The characters contain a bit of me. With the book I’m writing now the plot structure involves 50 years of one family. And a marijuana harvest.”

Nodine begins working from the “little details” to the big ones. “Then I think of the characters in relation to each other, conflict, resolution—that’s why I think my best attribute as a writer is showing how characters interact with each other, and how they change over time,” he says. The novelist picks up a pile of yellow legal pads—“I write lots of notes,” he says with a grin. “When I have a chunk of it done, I give it to a colleague to read.” And he points to a neat shelf of folders. “I do a lot of research—on cannabis, guns, the Salinas River location, and, of course, online. The Internet is great for research,” he says.

Nodine even talks his book ideas into a tape recorder during commutes to education policy gigs. “I ask questions about what should happen at a certain point in the story, or what a character was doing. Often I wouldn’t even listen to them again, but verbalizing is important. It focuses the work,” he says.

Still interested in politics, such as the high-tech skills analysis he conducts with students in the Central Valley’s ag industry, Nodine long ago decided that a writer’s life was for him. “There are good days and bad days. There are days when the writing process is frustrating, slow, tedious, isolating, overwhelming, confusing, and full of distractions,” he says. “Writing a novel is like nothing else. It’s incredibly difficult to do well. In the challenge is the love.”


PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in journalism, painting, music, woodworking, winetasting, trail running, reiki, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir.

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