That Weird Bug Keeps Tanya Nichols Creating Stories
It took Tanya Nichols awhile to discover that she was a writer.
During the 10 years following her graduation from high school in Fresno, she moved to Southern California, married, had a daughter, became a paralegal and became a single mother. While she was living in Austin, Texas, her brother in Fresno said she should move back. He also told her to enroll at Fresno State and get her degree. She did both.
However, she had to work to support herself and her daughter, so she could only take one or two classes at a time. The first class she enrolled in was Creative Writing.
“I remember that professor asked me if I’d always been a writer and I said no, this is the first writing I’ve ever done,” Nichols said.
Not long after, in the garage at her mother’s house, she found a box of her notebooks containing stories and poems. One of her teachers had noted that she thought that Tanya might become one of the Fresno poets.
“I realized I was a writer,” she said. With all her life events coming between, she said, “I actually totally forgot all about those years when I was younger. So, I do have to correct myself because If you’re 12 or 13 years old and you’re writing poetry and songs and short stories, you have that weird bug in you, and somehow it finds its way out, even if you put it in a drawer for awhile.”
After about a dozen years, she had her bachelor’s degree in English, her daughter started college at UC Irvine and Tanya enrolled in the master of fine arts program at Fresno State. During those years, since her late 20s, she wrote faithfully and published her first story, “Cheap Therapy,” while in the MFA program.
“It was in “San Joaquin Review” and now I’m the faculty adviser or editor-in-chief of that journal,” she said.
It hadn’t occurred to her that someday that could happen. Back then, her only goal was to get a story in that publication.
“I used to read it when I was an undergrad,” she said. “I thought the people in it were heroes. So, when I got a story in ‘San Joaquin Review,’ I thought I could die happy.”
Of course, she didn’t stop there. She went on to publish stories in the “North Carolina Literary Review,” “Sycamore Review,” “In the Grove” and others. She won awards for her fiction and creative nonfiction. For the past 15 years, she has concentrated on writing novels.
Her first novel wound up gathering dust in a drawer after many attempts to sell it, so she took the advice of one of her mentors, David Anthony Durham, and wrote another, “The Barber’s Wife.”
Nichol’s grandmother was a surgical nurse in Oklahoma during the Roaring ‘20s, the era of prohibition and gangsters.
“She did actually treat wounded outlaws on the side,” she said. “And my grandfather was a barber. So, I kind of had this idea in my mind that that’s an interesting combination. He was making people pretty, and she was out in the field taking bullets out of people.”
Nichols also believed that people did not understand what strong women her grandmother and others like her were. She used these ideas as the kernel of her story, while emphasizing that the rest of the events are definitely not her grandparents’ lives.
The story centers on the barber, the nurse, a doctor and historical gangster Pretty Boy Floyd. Floyd’s life forms the historical framework for the story, and the actual events impact Nurse Mayme and Dr. Joe in dangerous ways.
When Nichols was ready to find a publisher for her novel, she checked the Poets & Writers database, looking for small presses. She started with the A’s and didn’t need to go to the B’s. Alternate Book Press responded, asking for the first 100 pages, then the full manuscript.
“To tell you the truth, when they accepted it, I thought it was some kind of a joke,” she said. “It couldn’t be real.”
She asked her experienced writer friend, Connie Hales, if it could be real. Was it a scam?
“Have they asked you for money?” Nichols said Hales asked. “No. Are they going to send you a contract? Yes. Well, if the contract asks for money, then you have a problem.”
But after she had “everyone” study the contract, she found that it was all legitimate and went with the press and has had a good relationship with them ever since, with her book publishing in 2014.
With this novel published, Nichols wanted another project. She kept thinking of her dusty first novel, wondering if it was salvageable.
“As I looked at it, I thought, I can see what’s wrong with it,” she said.
She spent a year reworking it, taking away things, adding others, changing the order of events.
“I became more aware of what makes a story work and what interferes,” she said. “Suddenly, it was more visible to me. I had needed to grow as a writer.”
The idea for “The Circle Game” came from the background of a friend who had been adopted at birth. When she was 12 years old, her adoptive parents died in a murder-suicide shooting. She was adopted a second time, sent to live with people she didn’t know.
“I was just so fascinated by this woman,” she said. “She’s a strong, very independent woman, and she was twice left without a family.”
This gave her the idea for the background of her lead character, Bernie. Nichols also made use of her own experience in the court system, making Bernie a lawyer, but otherwise the story is all fiction.
Except for one other important aspect of the story – Fresno and the characteristics of the San Joaquin Valley.
When Nichols was growing up, her family moved often. She changed schools 10 times, but always returned to Fresno. She graduated from high school with the same students who were in her kindergarten class. Even when her parents moved to Southern California, Fresno was the place she felt was home.
“I wanted to write a novel set in this valley – always,” she said. “I feel like Fresno gets made fun of. The only thing I hate about this place is the heat and the air. Other than that, I’ve been back here decades and I love my community here. I love my friends where I work, where I live. I love the ag all around us. It’s just home to me. This place feels comfortable to me. I wanted to set a story in Fresno that didn’t malign Fresno.”
Her third novel, which should be out later this year, also is set in the Valley. She and Bill McEwen, formerly a Fresno Bee editor, co-wrote “Stinger,” which gets its title from the deceptive sting operation the characters perform, plus the fact that bees play a prominent role in the story.
“It’s a story of revenge against a large ag industry by a person who thought their family farm was harmed,” she said. “It’s a valley story and also a very fun story.”
The novel is being published by Mark Arax’s West of West Publishing.