Interview: Author Noah Cicero on His Newest Novel, Writing Process, and Favorite Western Writers
I read Noah Cicero’s new novel, Give it to the Grand Canyon (Philosophical Idiot, 2019), in one sitting. Protagonist Billy Cox is back in the U.S. after a stint living in South Korea. He’s still bruised from the recent termination of a long-term romantic relationship, and he has no family relationships or other obligations to speak of. He’d worked at the Grand Canyon National Park in his younger years, but they’d fired him for drinking on the job. But maybe they’ve forgotten, he thinks, so he heads back out West to start working there again. He drinks. He smokes. He runs into elk and looks at endangered birds. He scoops ice cream and is fascinated by tourists. He makes friends and hears stories and makes out with girls from Poland. Mostly he hikes in around the canyon, the only hole big enough to hold all the pain and bullshit and sadness that he has to pour into it.
Cicero’s fiction is what made me a fan of his in the first place, so I was excited to see another novel from him after a few years of publishing only poetry and non-fiction (which I also enjoyed, obviously). Give it to the Grand Canyon didn’t disappoint, and I was surprised at how much it felt like a continuation of the foundations laid out in Bipolar Cowboy, Nature Documentary, and Blood-Soaked Buddha/Hard Earth Pascal rather than the works that initially pulled me in, stuff like The Insurgent and Go to Work. It’s philosophical, spiritual, and celebrates the fucked up diversity of human experience. The book says, I think, that the main things that unite us as people are our feelings of pain, and our chance to experience and be moved by nature. It’s a Western novel. It’s a working-class novel. It’s the kind of book that Ed Abbey or Wallace Stegner would have written if they were on the internet. Give it to the Grand Canyon is Cicero’s most hope-filled work yet.
Noah and I caught up about this book over email. This is what he had to say:
This is your first fiction book in a while. The last ones have been poetry and nonfiction. How was your process for writing Give it to the Grand Canyon different than it was for writing those books?
I wrote Give it to the Grand Canyon the same way I wrote Bipolar Cowboy and Nature Documentary. I would go to the Starbucks on Lake Mead, put the headphones on and type. Let me reflect though. This is how I write: I write in my head for hours, take walks, write in the car, talk out loud to myself. I act out the characters, I imagine all kinds of things that never make it into the story. Then I sit down and write in a trance-like state. I don’t even look at what I’m typing, which is why I have so many typos, lol. If you saw it in third person, you would probably see my eyes aren’t reading what I’m writing, but just have a look of spacey concentration. I make lots of notes too. I will have little notepads located in my bedroom, kitchen, and car. I will write little notes on them and then use them to remember what I was thinking earlier in the day. I cannot do that thing where you sit at a desk and just write, not knowing where things are going. Impossible for me.
How has living in Las Vegas changed the way you write?
When I was younger I wrote in this angry violent passion, full of rage with this maddening need to express myself. I actually thought I would get famous, and I had all these other writers around me, talking in my ear. After I came to Las Vegas, those things were dead. I no longer feel angry, I know now I can never get on a top five press, and those friends I had are completely removed from my life. I became very free. I feel no need to impress anyone with my writing anymore. The thing that worries me is that I’ve made so many friends and have received such gifts in life because of writing, and I get worried those friends and opportunities will disappear.
There is an obvious break between Go to Work pre-Korea and Bipolar Cowboy post-Korea. It was important to me that I broke my career up into different periods. If an artist wants longevity, they have to let themselves die several times in their life. I remember being in the high school library looking at a book about Picasso, staring at the different periods, Blue, Rose, African, Cubist, etc, thinking, “That’s how you have longevity, allow yourself to change.” The next book I write will be starting a new period. I’ve been working in the legal world for three years and I’ve come to love Hannah Arendt, and these experiences have changed me considerably. I do not know what the results of this change will have on my writing.
Do you consider yourself to be a writer of the American West?
A Western writer to me, my mind brings forth Steinbeck, Kesey and Stegner. Hmm, in their books some work has to be done under a big sky, in a sparsely populated world. People are left alone out in a wild environment, the man vs. nature/man vs. work/man vs. no work tropes seem to be dominant. The people in a Western novel have internalized capitalism completely, their surnames mean nothing, European feudalism and aristocracy means nothing to them. Faulkner is completely dependent upon the Ideals of aristocracy to make sense. Hemingway loves Europe, its aristocracy and old traditions. Fitzgerald’s main book is about a guy who desperately wants to join an aristocracy. In Steinbeck, Kesey, and Stegner, capitalism and industrialization have been established, there is no question or worrying about aristocracy, their characters need to find work. You might own the richest lumberjack company or orange farm in town, but, like, that doesn’t make you aristocracy. You are still wearing blue jeans and have a suntan. The belief in aristocracy and royalty still lives in the Eastern United States — in the West, those ideas are dead.
I don’t think I would define myself as a writer of the American West. I’ve been to all the hotspots in the West, to the Rockies, Santa Fe, Grand Canyon, Zion, Eugene, Portland. I’ve driven down I-90/80/70/40. I’ve even been on the dusty Winnemucca Road. I’m like, totally one of those white people who have been to Peru. I am one of those people, and I happen to write books. If people would like to define me as a Western Writer after this book, I will be happy to take that definition.
The humans in Give it to the Grand Canyon seem like flies buzzing around something they can never truly understand. The Canyon has been there for so long, and the blip of time that they will spend with it is so minuscule. Can a relationship with the canyon really have an effect on the humans’ chaotic nature?
When you grow up in a green wet world of deciduous trees, things get born and die quickly, you do not notice your own mortality. Your parents can plant a tree in the yard when you are 10, when you are 20 it is fully grown, by the time you are 45 the tree is dead. You outlive trees, you outlive your pets, your outlive mostly everything. For me, entering into the world of the Grand Canyon, mortality is real, you will not outlive the Grand Canyon, or the Redwoods or Bristlecone Pines. It reminds me of that scene from Vertigo.
There is peace in being humbled and acknowledging your insignificance.
(Just want to comment on that clip from Vertigo. Why is Jimmy Stewart wearing a suit in the middle of the forest? I’ve been to the Redwoods. A suit didn’t seem appropriate at all.)
How do you hope readers will respond to Give it to the Grand Canyon?
I hope they like it enough to tell their friends about it.
Who are the Western writers whose work you admire the most? How have they influenced you?
Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady’s enthusiasm have been a big influence on me as a person. Ever since I was young I have been obsessed with Kesey and Cassady’s bus trip across America. I’ve always wanted to do something that tremendously cool. I have never done anything that cool though, I’ve just ended up being myself and doing what I do. What Kesey and Cassady, and people like John C. Frémont, Mary Colter, John Wesley Powell, and the Mormons did, for them there was the ability to dream of new realities, that imagination is something beautiful and can be utilized to make culture that had never existed before, to be part of history.
I know this didn’t take place in the American West, but Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World to me is a great Western novel, even though it takes place in Brazil.
In addition to the Grand Canyon, what are some places and sights that are iconically Western to you?
Skinner Butte, La Plaza, the Narrows, the outfits the Mormon women wear in Southern Utah, the Tuba City flea market, the bookstore in Tonopah that smells horrible, sea urchins on the Oregon coast, the hostel in Flagstaff, the red rocks of Sedona, Death Valley, Bryce, Joshua Tree, the Congress and Seven Falls, the Salt Lake Temple, and tumbleweeds.
What’s next for you? Do you have another book or project in the works? Something planned?
I want to write the Great Las Vegas Novel. All the books that take place in Las Vegas are about prostitutes and showgirls. I am not a prostitute, nor are my friends. There was a prostitute that came to Sprouts when I worked there. She had really cool hair and loved almonds. There is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That book is really funny. I don’t think my life resembles Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
A great artist, to me, has a career that covers the variations of emotions. I watched an Eagles documentary and Don Henley said something like, “I wanted Eagles to capture the emotion of being a 14-year-old, it’s summertime, and you see a girl that just makes you go, ‘wow.’” It really made me think about the underlying emotion, the key the novel is played in. There are three pieces of music that are fascinating me. The first is Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” At 1:19 her voice does this very powerful “no”, then at 1:33 it starts this very powerful “yes.” The way she sings “say” rips through your upper everyday consciousness and hits something deep inside. It is infinitesimal in terms of time, yet it is the whole song. The next piece is Rail Yard Ghosts’ “A Month from Now/Whatever you Like.” I can’t stop watching these kids. I love them. “She got me figured out” just makes me cry, “I see the goodness in you but I’m not fucking with it.” I am not sure what that means, but it feels like the 21st Century. Maybe a professor can explain it in 2080, I just know I’m living it. At 2:50 Lynx starts singing, and it is just a shock to the system, I played this at work and people walking by stopped and were like “who is that singing?” At 4:02, Lynx makes a noise with her throat that just hits, like your heart skips a beat, whatever comes out of her throat, penetrates. The last is Bach’s Cello Suite performed by Pablo Casals. I learned to play parts of it on the guitar. I get lost in it, like I become it, there is no difference between me and the sound. I feel like this is the sound of the world.
Nathaniel Kennon Perkins is the author of the short story collection The Way Cities Feel to Us Now (Maudlin House, 2019), a short novel, Cactus (Trident Press, 2018), and the ongoing literary zine series, Ultimate Gospel. His creative work has appeared in Triquarterly, the Philadelphia Secret Admirer, Timber Journal, and others. He is the recipient of the High Country News’s 2014 Bell Prize. He lives in Boulder, CO, where he works as a bookseller and runs Trident Press. www.nathanielkennonperkins.com