The Rumpus Interview with Jim Nelson
Jim Nelson once watched an acquaintance light a 50-dollar bill on fire for the hell of it. He was not impressed. Living and working as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley during and after the dot-com boom left him with plenty of reasons to be fed-up and slightly disgusted. So much so, in fact, that he penned an essay called “Corporate crap hits the cyberfan” that kicked off an entire web zine dedicated to the darker side of Silicon Valley Ad Nauseam ran for two a half years and received an unanticipated amount of attention, including a webbynomination in the “weird” category. Encouraged, Jim enrolled in the creative writing program at San Francisco State University, where he eventually obtained his BA and MFAand, perhaps more importantly, met fellow student Tavia Stewart-Streit.
As coeditor of Watchword Press, Tavia decided to use one of Jim’s stories as the basis fora Watchword Wholestory event— a series thatasked artists of various mediums to respond to the same story. “It can’t get any better than this,” Jim thought upon seeing a whole gallery filled with art dedicated to “A Concordance of One’s Life,” the story of a small mining town that is destroyed when a local’s book becomes famous. Hoards of literary tourists flock to the scenes touting TourPhone wands that relay information to them as they approach significant landmarks related to the story. Something about the idea of fictitious tours so affected Tavia that she was inspired to create Invisible City Audio Tours a non-profit that produces literary-based, self-guided audio tours of created and forgotten histories throughout the Bay Area (and now beyond).
After helping with the first tour, Jim heard Tavia wastaking ideas for the future, so he pitchedher anewly completed short story that involved San Francisco’s historic cable cars. Instead of producing another multiple-author tour, however, Tavia asked Jim to expand his story to span an entire 45-minutes. Slightly overwhelmed but unwilling to let such an opportunity pass by, Jim feverishlyexpanded “Everywhere Man,” as it is called, to the required length in only a matter of months. The result, an 8,000-word book, tells the tale of a group of computer programmerswho have been commissioned to create a digital tour of San Francisco by compiling photographs they obtain from the Internet. All is going as planned until they notice the Everywhere Man—a mysterious stranger whose face is always obscured despite the uncanny number of photographs they find him in.
In order to finish the tour and solve the mystery, the programmers must fix this hole in their digital perfection by uncovering his identity. Participants of the Everywhere Man tour are invited to help solve the mystery by boarding the cable cars and following the story as it unfolds.
I recently spoke with Jim about Everywhere Man, which launches on Saturday, October 15th as part of Litquake. Here’s a snippet of our conversation:
The Rumpus: When I saw you do a preview reading of Everywhere Man back in June, you also read an ee cummings poem you said “summed up what you were trying to get at.” With the release looming, how would you sum it up now?
Jim Nelson: So, as you say, the blindspot of collective knowledge. That’s a great phrase. I don’t know if it’s explored too much in the reading, but: Where did Everywhere Man come from? How did he get to San Francisco? Why is he there? And I don’t want to start talking too much about the story because it is kind of a surprise… But one aspect that I was very interested in is this idea of changing yourself, of becoming a new person—changing identity. So, there’s a book called The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, and that heavily influenced me as well. The Day of the Locust, although, that’s a crazy book, an amazing book that will never be replicated. It’s just so… singular. But, the characters are all people that come to Hollywood to seek their fortune. They want to be actors, they want to be entertainers and that kind of thing, and they come to California and they discover it’s nothing like what they thought it was going to be. Which is sort of tying into what I was talking about with tourism. This whole idea of this being a dreamland, that things are different here. That orange juice comes out of the water fountain, it’s always sunshine here, we all have surfboards, you know?
Rumpus: Right. And listen to the Beach Boys all the time.
Nelson: You know I always laugh. I always tell people, you can always tell when someone doesn’t live in San Francisco because they like the Grateful Dead. Nobody in San Francisco listens to the Grateful Dead. But the book really does focus on that. On the people who have lost out. The people who came to California and their dreams were smashed. When they got here, they had nothing. And that’s the aspect I felt the ee cummings poem sort of was bringing out. A sense of despair, hopelessness in the human condition, and in that very last moment when he says there’s this great universe next door, let’s go.
Rumpus: The escape.
Nelson: Yeah! Let’s get out of here, you know?
Rumpus: It’s like “but we’re the here.”
Nelson: Yeah, exactly, and what is the escape? And, what is this other world? You know? And I’m kind of suggesting that this virtual computer—this virtual simulation, rather, that they’ve built—is another world and that this world is very close to our own. It’s just a different way of looking at it.
Rumpus: Which is exactly what Invisible City is doing.
Nelson: Exactly. I’m really hoping that when people ride the cable cars they realize that there’s much more too it than tourists lining up for an hour to ride a trolley or whatever. That actually there’s an amazing history to them and that history dovetails with the city in a really interesting way.
Find out more about the creation of the cable cars and about Jim’s creative process here, and find out more about Everywhere Man here. Catch the tour (be sure to download the audio first!) on Saturday, Oct 15 at the Powell Street cable car station.