Though he has 10 published books under his belt and was recently inducted in the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, native Nevadan Steven Nightingale remains quite shy about touting his accomplishments when he invites me into his office in Reno. We’re meeting to discuss the upcoming release of his latest book and the invitation-only event, “The Sierra Through Sonnets, Science & Song,” taking place this Friday, July 16, 2021 at the University of Nevada, Reno library.
As we begin discussing his writing career, it’s clear Nightingale is still humbled by and endlessly grateful for his ability to lead a writerly life. He credits the “extraordinary and legendary” Margaret Muth, his English teacher at Reno High School, for instilling in him his love of books.
“I was very primitive material as a teenager,” he recalls. “To put it in a phrase, she plucked me out of a trashcan and got me interested in really long and difficult books, and I am to this day grateful to her … she made clear that no matter what the vicissitudes of fortune in any of our lives, a book was a completely trustworthy friend, and that was a revelation to me.”
Nightingale went on to attend Stanford University with every intention of majoring in physics and becoming a scientist. Yet he continued to feel the pull of books and reading, which led him to take a course in poetry. “The teacher was so eloquent and so brilliant that it changed the whole course of my life,” he says.
He began what he describes as “a natural apprenticeship” in poetry, working his way through traditional poetic structures, eventually trying his hand at sonnets and falling in love with the form. Because Stanford permits students to design their own majors, he wound up with a combination of computer science and literature. He wrote an early version of his first book of sonnets, “The Planetary Tambourine” (a metaphor for the beating of the heart), in his late 20s, followed by many more, quietly accumulated over more than a decade. His love affair with sonnets did not wane; he went on to eventually publish six books of sonnets through Black Rock Press at the University of Nevada. It only took three decades.
“I think there’s a fork in the road where you decide that you’re going to do the work of writing because you need to in order to live, that without it you can’t live in any meaningful sense,” he says. “But as you know, writers also have problems putting food on the table, so we all end up working day jobs.”
For Nightingale, this meant a series of jobs ranging from dealing blackjack to waiting tables, all while writing on his own, purely for the love of it. Eventually, he landed in a career helping innovative startups as a venture capitalist, owed partly to his science and technology training and partly to his experience growing up with a father, whom he describes as “a man of business.”
He finds this career duality valuable, with the investment work fueling his writing. “It’s a chance to learn a lot of things because if you’re investing in new companies, there are always people around you who are brimming with ideas and speculations, and they’re very hopeful and energetic, so it’s a good atmosphere.”
Yet the writing has never stopped — only evolved to include a collection of short stories about extraordinary women, as well as two novels and a long essay about the city of Granada, Spain, inspired by the three and a half years he lived there with his wife and daughter (all published by Counterpoint Press).
His endeavors were recognized this spring when he became the 2021 inductee into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, an honor shared by such luminaries as New York Times bestselling novelist Robyn Carr; author, playwright, and songwriter Robert Leonard Reid; and musician and novelist Willy Vlautin, not to mention such historic greats as Sarah Winnemucca and Mark Twain.
“My reaction was thankfulness and extreme shyness,” he says of the award. “It means I’m in the company of some splendid and gifted writers, and I’m very glad to be in their company. As a friend in New York said to me, ‘Listen, you want to be on any list Mark Twain is on.’”
Notes from the Trail
Book number 11, The Paradise Notebooks: 90 Miles Across the Sierra Nevada, which Nightingale coauthored with friend and colleague Richard Nevle, deputy director of Stanford’s Earth Systems Program, is yet another departure from his previous work. It was inspired by a hike taken in summer 2017 with Nevle and both their families.
“It was a traverse of the High Sierra from west to east, and it was following a high-water year, when all the creeks had become torrents. So it turned out to be the most daft and perilous venture,” he remembers. “On that hike, Richard, who is such a remarkable scientist, and I were talking, and it occurred to us that there are scientific expositions of the Sierra Nevada, and there are poetic excursions, focused on various parts of experiences in the Sierra. But there’s not a book that weaves those together.”
The premise of The Paradise Notebooks is to accomplish just that. Described by Nightingale as “a mix of science and spirit,” the book is a collection of paired essays in which Nevle and Nightingale select aspects of the Sierra that each would explore, Nevle in scientific fashion, Nightingale in a more poetic and spiritual one. Subjects include elements — granite, clouds, snow, fire, and forest — as well as flora and fauna, including bighorn sheep, the mountain chickadee, and wolf lichen.
“Richard would write a short, lyrical, scientific essay on a topic, and I would follow that with a reinterpretation of that same element in light of the history of poetry and spiritual writing,” he explains. “It’s an attempt to understand the Sierra using the combination of our perspectives and understandings and devotions, and therefore to portray it in a new way.”
The project took three years to complete and is being published by Cornell University Press, with its release scheduled for 2022. The authors will present it at the University of Nevada, Reno, on July 16 at 7 p.m. before a limited live audience during “The Sierra Through Sonnets, Science & Song.” The event will feature stories and readings by Nightingale and Nevle, as well as an appearance by author Robert Leonard Reid and award-winning singer-songwriter Deborah Levoy. Though attendance is by invitation only, those who are interested may also livestream the event via Zoom from https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-sierra-through-sonnets-science-song-tickets-146830091757.
Meanwhile, Nightingale’s work continues to evolve as he explores other genres, and he shows no signs of slowing. “I write every day. I can’t help myself. I could not turn away from the opportunity to do so. And one day they will have to pry the pen from my stiffening fingers.”
Jessica Santina is an award-winning writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience contributing to numerous local and regional publications. Read more about her here. Support Jessica’s work in The Ally.