Here we are on the San Joaquin Valley train, riding from Fresno, California to Bakersfield, California with Nick Belardes: author, poet, news guy, and artist. What do you think about train rides, Nick?
Peaceful. Better than driving. Way better than a bus. The passenger train out of Bakersfield only heads northward into the Great Central Valley. We pass oil wells, emus in back yards, kids on ATVs slinging mud from spinning tires, and farmland like you’ve never seen. From Fresno it’s kind of the same thing, only today we might witness a gang shooting as we leave the station.
What were you doing in Fresno?
I headlined the Inner Ear Poetry Jam at Full Circle Brewery. In specific I was there to read a poem called “The Devil and His Goblins.”
What’s it about?
The Central Valley. (Which I’m also writing a book about. It’s titled City of Dirt: Critical Essays on the Southern Central Valley.) The poem is about the valley, a place with one of the worst foreclosure rates in America, hatred against Latinos, the threat to end the Modern Language Programs at CSU Bakersfield, and more. There’s also a rich legacy of Yokut Native American mythos and culture here in this 300-mile-long valley found within the poem. On top of that, the poem was intended as a performance piece for Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) in which I was painted like the Devil when I read it. The poem has made many rounds in academic circles worldwide and is now part of a cultural and heritage program that bridges the U.S. and China.
So really you’re not much of a poet?
Sure I am, although I can’t memorize them very well. At a poetry reading in Bakersfield I read a poem off my cell phone. I wanted to be the first in Bakersfield to do that. I try to be a claim to fame for as many meaningless things as possible. Like writing the first original literary novel on Twitter, or being the first on my block when I was a kid to crash a bike into a pole.
You just went on a book tour for your book of oddities, Random Obsessions?
Yes, I toodled around LA, the Central Valley and into the Bay Area. Newspapers and radio have been good to me. I got to go on TV news stations in Fresno and San Francisco. The TV stations in Bakersfield, though there are three of them, all ignored my book. But that says something about the state of the arts in the Southern Central Valley and their disconnectedness with television. I still have hope for KGET. News anchor Kiyoshi Tomono wears cool suits and he’s Asian. I hear Asian people love Random Obsessions. I’m not lying. I was randomly told by my publisher just recently that my book is hot in the Philippines. I thought I saw an old Chinese man wandering with my book in Chinatown in San Francisco. But it might have just been a giant fortune cookie. Either way, I’m holding out for Kiyoshi as that media bridge between television, the literary arts, and all the little old ladies who think he’s sexy on TV.
I keep hearing you say that Random Obsessions is the ultimate gift for Christmas, birthdays, Halloween and more. Why?
Well, just think about it. Every kid in America (and the Philippines I guess) loves trivia. They’ll pull my book out of their Christmas stockings (instead of coal and old gummy worms) and start reading these crazy facts about Mothman, devilish architecture in the nation’s Capital, weird cult movies, crazy tree-man diseases, and Thomas Jefferson’s ax-wielding grandson. They’ll literally blab this stuff while the yule log is blazing on TV in their cheesy living rooms, which are a metaphor for all that’s good and wholesome in America.
I read that there’s a tie-in with Random Obsessions and some of the people on The Nervous Breakdown?
Sure is. Brad Listi wrote the introduction. I interviewed Erika Rae about a bone-filled Ossuary and some weird haunted temple behind a Buddhist tower in Colorado. Apparently, she’s pretty well haunted too. I hear she lives in the Rockies like some kind of old hermit busting out babies and having them all work digging caves and cemetery plots. It’s kind of cool. I also talk about Jessica Anya Blau and Lauren Baratz-Logsted in the book. I’m still waiting for some free promo from all these people or at least the coupons for canned corn they promised me in the mail.
Hold on, the train is stopping. Does this happen very often?
Trains stop because engineers like to take a piss on the wheels now and then.
That’s interesting. So who is your publisher for Random Obsessions?
Viva Editions. They’re new and an imprint of Cleis Press. They write about sex. Viva is mainstream. And you want to know what’s odd? Brenda Knight, who is the Associate Publisher for Viva Editions is from West Virginia. People from her family knew Mothman! I think they played cards together. Smoked out. It’s all in the book. In fact, Mothman is sort of a bookie.
Is that a smashed-up coffee truck over there on that nearby frontage road?
Why, I think it is.
So the engineer just lied when he said we were just stopping for a moment?
Look at all those sirens!
INTERRUPTION. ENGINEER. INTERCOM: “SORRY FOLKS. LOOKS LIKE WE HIT A COFFEE TRUCK. WE’RE JUST GOING TO GET THEIR INSURANCE INFORMATION…”
Insurance info? Good idea. A train wreck! Inspiring! Wait a minute. Some guy is hitting on a woman behind you. That’s odd.
Definitely. And tweetable. I’m on Twitter. Let me just poke fun at all of this and post a photo. There. Oh, let me add: “Dude using train wreck as excuse to hit on chick.” That ought to make my followers laugh.
Oh that’s good. Let me try. Can I?
“Chick sounds like an opera singer the way she’s shrilly talking to that dude.” This is fun. So, on Twitter you just post your thoughts and anyone can read them?
Oh yeah. It’s fun. You can say, “Fuck off, Obama” and feel pretty confident he’s not paying attention.
Nice. You promote a lot through Twitter?
Of course. You have to build an audience every way you can.
Like how else?
Well, I have a bit part in a movie called The Lackey which is written and directed by Shaun Piccinino of Spike TV. It’s this crazy gangster film and I play this hitman boss named Dimitri who tells a guy nicknamed “The Russian” go and off some people. I think there’s going to be some nudity in my scene. Not me. But hey. I’m not complaining. T & A sells. I’m also on Facebook and I do a lot of writing for other news sites to get my name out there.
Why is someone screaming your name on the train? Do you have fans everywhere?
Well yes, I do have a lot of Filipino fans, but they’re usually in their island nation. Some of them kill each other over politics. Though I hope my book isn’t inspiring any of that crap.
Excuse me, Nick. There’s a woman standing next to you. She has a phone with your photo on it. She’s saying, “I follow you on Twitter.”
I know. Shut the heck up for a second. Let me talk to her.
To woman: Hi. What’s your name?
Woman: Samantha KnJoi. I follow you. I’m an opera singer.
Uh, you do? You are? You’re serious? Did you read everything I just tweeted?
Not yet. But I’m about to!
How did you find me?
I recognized your glasses. See ya.
Interviewer. Hey, Nick, she’s gone. You’re an idiot. She’s going to know you were bagging on her. I thought you said Twitter was safe?
Yeah, I thought it was. I mean, I didn’t expect a train wreck or that a random opera singer would be following me on Twitter. Maybe I should go try and get a lift with that coffee truck. One of those fire engines might take me the rest of the way to Bakersfield.
Maybe you should make friends. Give the girl a book or something. Try to pull it off that you’re a comedian of sorts.
But I’m not a comedian.
You’re not much of a poet, either.
Bite me, asshole. Fine. I’ll give her my books. But I’m not signing them. What the hell would I write? “Nice train-wrecking with you”?
Well, before you do that can we finish our interview?
OK. Hurry up. I’m getting seasick.
So you have written some top news for CNN.com and other news sites?
Yes. I’m a journalist and a master of news site strategy. I once wrote about a family of beavers that was going to be terminated. I think 300,000 people clicked on that story in one day. I’ve also written about Captain America, plane crashes, orange water, pesticide drift, and the Bakersfield band Korn, all of which graced the home page of CNN. I’ve also written popular creative nonfiction here on TNB with titles like “The Magical Pig of Akron,” “Underwear Dreams,” and “Ancient Story of the Samurai Rat.” On Bakotopia I wrote about Harry Potter that made their second-most popular article ever, and, I once wrote about bugs in peanut butter clusters that made CNN and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno all in the same day.
Do you make much money at it?
Not really. But it’s cool to say that I wrote a news story that got picked up by mainstream television and embarrassed a man who just wanted fairness from his local 99-cent store. I mean, he didn’t ask to almost eat bugs. By the way, his story, though weird, wasn’t even weird enough for my book. I mean heck, in Random Obsessions you can read about bridge disasters, hen-sized dinosaurs and microscopic killer worm bugs.
Boy that coffee truck driver sure is screwed out of his Xmas bonus for trying to beat that train…
Goodness, that’s intense. What else are you working on?
A documentary about myself as a writer, the book of essays I mentioned, possibly a trivia book on the Central Valley, more movie scripts. I just wrote one called Two Suit Killer and working on another titled Journeyman. A book by Jonathan Evison coming out titled West of Here has some of my map illustrations in it. I wrote a kid’s book titled Timothy Egg. Mostly I’m working on a YA series (young adult) with the first book titled A Serendipitous Garden Of Lies. I held an event in Bakersfield at Russo’s Books recently where I read the whole backstory for it, a piece titled, “The December Scribe.” It was standing room only. The people loved it.
OK, that’s it. I have to go to the bathroom.