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Tony Cohan returns to San Miguel with novelist Peter Nichols

By Carole Schor

Like Brad and George or Huck and Tom, the bond between Tony Cohan and Peter Nichols is a friendship that feeds on mutual respect and admiration. To sit with them is a unique experience, one finishing the sentences of the other, complimenting one another’s work, with a frequent reference to some literary or philosophical work, a delightful give-and-take of ideas and conversation.

Literary Sala Special Event
Tony Cohans On Mexican Time
and Peter NicholsA Voyage for Madmen
Mon, Mar 31, 5pm
Hotel Posada de la Aldea
Ancha de San Antonio 15
100 pesos (50 pesos for Literary Sala members)
Complimentary wine reception


Tony Cohan, well known for his classic account of moving to San Miguel in On Mexican Time and his sequel, Mexican Days, has been living nearby in Guanajuato for 10 years. He is now writing his first work of fiction about Mexico, a multi-generational story of a woman who grew up in Michoacán with a demented filmmaker father accused of murdering her mother.

Peter Nichols wrote the bestselling A Voyage for Madmen, plus Sea Change: Alone Across the Atlantic in a Wooden Boat, a memoir; and the novel Voyage to the North Star. He taught creative writing at NYU in Paris and Georgetown University, and has just finished writing The Rocks, a novel. After years of living on boats and sailing around the world, Peter has turned his attention from boats to life. “Writing for men and sailors is all about chain and mail and anchors and stuff,” he told me. “I’m more interested in how people are loving and hating each other in the cabins.” Tony describes The Rocks as, “a wonderful novel, set mainly in Mallorca, about a family and spanning generations. It’s an interesting way to do a book, going back through layers of time.”

The two writers will discuss their recent and new works, and will discuss and answer questions about the writing life.

For Tony, writing about a place other than San Miguel has been exciting. “I try to remind myself that each person begins a journey where he or she begins it, and then doors open along the way. The whole process of coming to San Miguel (in 1985) and discovering it and writing about it… it’s over for me. But that doesn’t mean another person can’t come and open his or her own doors to discover a sunlit morning. Meanwhile I’m opening new doors that give me a sense of wonder. I try to remind myself of this when I come back here and find a place that is much transformed.”

For Peter, writing this novel about a land-based family is a new exploration, one inspiring excitement mixed with fear. “In a sense, I’m at the beginning of my career. It’s terrifying and exciting. If you’re on a tightrope without a net, it’s terrifying, but it’s more thrilling and it takes you to a different place in your head.”

I asked them both about the discipline of writing. Tony: “I wake up in the morning, have a cup of coffee, and here you go. I get as much done as I can in that day. I try to stop when I feel myself running out of steam. It’s like running a marathon. Eventually you’ll get to the end of the book.”

Peter: “Most writers I know have an absolute discipline. You never wait for it; you just do it. It’s your job. I go for a long walk for an hour or so every morning, and that kind of gets me going. And then I just hit it. Take a walk. Then do it again in the afternoon. In the evening I feel lobotomized. I usually can’t do anything else.”

About being a writer, Peter says, “I write because I must. Now I’m grateful for whatever I get down. I write because that’s what I do. That’s who I am. I have books in my head.”

Tony: “I’m always writing. Usually I’m working on the scene I’m working on. I get up in the morning and see what I have down and go from there. Even if we’re sitting here talking, there’s something going on under the surface.”

Regarding the idea of writers’ groups, Tony believes, “Writing is kind of a solo voyage. I went to college and took writing courses, but I was never comfortable. I found that writing was something I had to carve out for myself. On one level or another, sooner or later, you have to do it by yourself. You can’t do it in a crowd. You certainly can get started in a group, but at some point you have to get up on the board and dive.”

Peter believes writers’ groups are for people who need deadlines in order to produce, who know they have to turn up on Wednesday with something written. “I have such an anxiety about not producing that I just produce. I have to do that. Nobody could make me write faster than I write. No group, no editor, no whatever. I have kind of a great discipline, or maybe the fear of not getting it down. Fear is a huge motivator for me. Is it going to be good enough? Am I going to get it finished? Is it a worthwhile project? Will I make any money? Am I living a meaningful life? It’s all fear driven, it’s not confidence driven.”

Writing advice for aspiring writers? Peter: “Ninety percent of it is showing up and doing the work. Everybody has ideas. The people who make it are simply the people who don’t stop. Your prior success means nothing. What matters is moving on as a writer and writing something new. This is what has inspired me in my work. It’s a compulsion, an obsession.”

Tony: “Write! It’s the hardest thing in the world. Make a leap. Sit down and begin to write. People who write, write all the time. They write regularly. They write intensively. They write when they’re frightened. They write when they’re ill. Write. Don’t think about writing. Don’t ask how do you do it. Just begin doing it. Every writer faces writer’s block every morning. You sit down to a problem you haven’t solved yet or something that bedevils you totally. You really need to sit down and start doing it. That’s the hardest thing. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it. So my answer really is, write!”

At the Literary Sala’s special event on Monday, March 31, Peter and Tony will each discuss their current projects as well as their lives as writers.


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