Local author blends reality, fantasy in new novellas

“Sometimes people get answers in the strangest places,” says author Thom Nickels. He’s referring to his new book, “Two Novellas: Walking on Water & After All This,” published by STARbooks Press this spring. Nickels hopes these two dream-like, phantasmagoric tales will entertain and enlighten readers.

In “Walking on Water,” historical personages such as Thomas Merton interact with the protagonist, Dennis, who can change his external reality at will but who also struggles with the guilt resulting from his desire to love other men and his desire to love God. Dennis reappears in “After All This,” a post-apocalyptic story that begins in a devastated New York City and continues in Philadelphia.

Although marketed as science fiction, both works defy genre expectations. “It’s not conventional science fiction,” the author said. “It’s more fantasy and has elements of surrealism. But in the bookselling world, everything has to be categorized.” On June 22, Nickels will read from this new work at Giovanni’s Room, 345 S. 12th St. The event begins at 5:30 p.m. and will be followed by a reception featuring wine, cheese and conversation.

This is actually Nickels’ ninth book. Past efforts include “The Boy on the Bicycle,” published in 1993, and “Philadelphia Architecture,” which received the Philadelphia AIA Lewis Mumford Architecture Journalism Award in 2005. Early versions of both stories in the current volume were first published in 1989, but Nickels has revised them so extensively that they amount to a new work.

A prolific author, Nickels writes on a wide range of topics, everything from architecture and LGBT issues to politics and travel. He regularly contributes to publications as varied as “The Spirit,” a local weekly serving residents of Philadelphia’s river wards, and “The Huffington Post,” an online journal of news and opinion reaching readers around the country.

Nickels, who was raised in Chester County, roams far afield in his nonfiction, which blends straightforward reporting, cultural criticism and social commentary. It’s the sort of writing that would be right at home in a European feuilleton. But even the most creative author of nonfiction is constrained by facts, which is why Nickels occasionally makes forays into fiction.

That choice seems apt for his new book, which tackles themes he’s been mulling over for quite some time: guilt, religion and sexuality.

In his early 20s, Nickels explored the possibility of entering a religious order, even going so far as to participate in a retreat at a Benedictine monastery to test whether he had a genuine vocation. Today, he continues to engage with religion, serving as spirituality editor of the “Lambda Literary Review.”

The fact that Dennis is drawn to a monastery in the opening of “Walking on Water” has clear autobiographical roots, as Nickels acknowledged. But, he also cautions readers against searching for a one-to-one correspondence between the author’s life and the work of fiction.

“As a writer, you want to make a book interesting to write,” he said. “Autobiography can be like straightforward reporting: You know what happened and where the story is going. Fantasy and miraculous elements take the story elsewhere.” In the context of these novellas, “elsewhere” has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, it is a good way to describe the setting. Historical figures and well-known locations give readers an illusion of reality, but Nickels defamiliarizes things by allowing Dennis to shift his landscape at will.

And on the other hand, elsewhere refers to the innumerable possibilities of what might have been. Unconstrained by biology or history, Dennis is not limited to one path in life. Reflecting on his situation, Dennis thinks, “When he was tempted to stop, he told himself that this place — this monastery — was just a dream and that, theoretically, he could do anything he wanted.”

Fortunately for readers, Nickels stuck to the path of becoming a writer.

Not one to rest on his laurels, he is already hard at work on two major projects. The diligent author is under contract to publish a book he affectionately refers to as “Legendary Locals.” This illustrated compendium about the lives of Center City denizens will include biographical sketches of both the noteworthy and the notorious.

He is also completing a memoir entitled “Harvard Square,” which will examine his service as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, along with other personal experiences from the heady days of the late 1960s. According to Nickels, both books are near completion.

Readers curious to keep abreast of Nickels’ work can visit his website, www.thomnickels.blogspot.com.