Until It Isn’t: An Interview with Antonya Nelson

http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781620408612Antonya Nelson’s eleventh book, Funny Once, was published this past May. It includes the story “Winter in Yalta,” which appears in the most recent issue of ASF. Over a slew of emails, she took some time to talk to me, among other things, about the origins of her love of reading, obsessive fascinations, and the difference between therapy and writing fiction.

GT: Growing up, I liked to read, but it wasn’t with a genuine sense of curiosity. It was more of a two-dimensional kind of interaction. I’d consume the words and move on. It wasn’t until I took my first creative writing workshop as a Continuing Ed student that my relationship with literature shifted. The first week of class, my professor handed out a packet of short stories that included Grace Paley’s “Wants,” Junot Diaz’s “Fiesta, 1980,” Charles Baxter’s “Snow,” Robert Boswell’s “Brilliant Mistake,” and your story, “Happy Hour.” I’d never really read short stories, and I’d certainly never written one before, but I remember pouring over that packet in my apartment, after work that week, while my roommate and other buddies drank beers, smoked, and played video games in the living room. One after another, those stories punched me in the face. I was twenty-five, and though I wasn’t even sure I got them, for the first time, maybe ever, I felt keenly aware of being unmoored emotionally. I still can’t fully grasp it, but I’ve been hooked on that palpable agitation since. Do you remember how you got hooked? Was there a specific story or book that stands out?

AN: I grew up reading to be involved in a world. Often I was more involved in fictional worlds than I was in what you’d call my real world. I was taught to read early (thanks, Mom) and our house was chock-full of every kind of book imaginable, Real Lit and Junk Lit and porn and Mad magazine and so on. A smorgasbord! I read everything. I still sorta do. I think my involvement in—my love of and need for—fiction has probably always been the same: it offers validation (I will borrow that word from therapy) of many feelings, some of them quite dark. It provides company in darkness. It makes me laugh. I’d rather read than anything else; I spend ten times more time reading than writing. I am uneasy when I don’t have a book with me, when I’m not deep inside a story.

But they have to be compelling stories, filled with characters whose sensibilities I am interested in, in situations that pull me in. I’ve recently finished reading the Patrick Melrose novels, a series of five books featuring the same character through a lifetime. They are not all extraordinary, but they are fascinating, and the main character, as revealed through time, is a heartbreaking testament to the power of childhood trauma.

To answer your question, I don’t recall a time I wasn’t hooked on books. And lost in them, transported, invested. I wake every night around two and turn on my bedside light to read for a couple of hours. All alone, in the dark, yet completely lost inside a full world with people with whom I have deeply intimate relations. Weird, right?

GT: Maybe a little weird, sure, but I get the need to carve out morsels of alone time, in the dark, when daily distractions aren’t pulling at you. Do you have a similar relationship to writing? I mean, eleven books don’t just happen, but are you as uneasy with not writing as you are with not having something nearby to read? Does writing fiction offer the same kind of validation as reading fiction?

AN: I’ve been in therapy this last year (basically for the first time) and now feel qualified to discuss what seems like the difference between therapy and writing fiction. They pull from the same source—one’s history, one’s mysterious relationship with that history, one’s dream-like associative logic when putting together the elements therein—yet therapy (if the therapist is good) yields solutions, closure, answers. Whereas fiction ought not to. Fiction ought to announce the problems, dramatize the problems, display them. Yet offer no set answer. An answer would solve the mystery. Writing fiction, for me, is about putting on paper my obsessive interest in something mysterious. I may figure out the source of the mystery, the things that brought some action or image to my mind, but to make an equation of it would ruin the story. All this is to say: I write out of obsessive fascination for something in the world or in my mind. I write in my head, I compose sentences constantly, habitually, it’s the way my mind works. I am doing it all day long. And when enough of those sentences and images and actions have come together, I sit at the computer and frantically try to put it all together.

GT: My major hang-up regarding therapy is the fear that I won’t be able to confront the answers it yields. And while writing fiction forces me to at least stare down some of my BS, it’s comforting, for lack of a better word, to know my responsibilities as a writer fall short of providing answers. That said, obsessive fascinations, by their very nature, don’t exactly go away. One of the things that strikes me about your oeuvre is the deftness with which you keep coming back to some of your obsessive fascinations—family, marriage, mortality—while managing to keep the material vibrant and mysterious. I’m thinking, for example, of Andrea in “Happy Hour,” and Cara in “Winter in Yalta” (from the current issue of ASF), and even Birdie in Nobody’s Girl. Each of these women surveys their personal landscape and makes the very conscious decision to escape, to place their needs and desires above everything and everyone else in their lives—expectations, responsibilities, spouses, children. They escape in varying manners, but each of them relies on an uncanny inner fortitude, I think, regardless of whether they’ve mistakenly identified their needs and desires or not. Similarly, it takes a lot of fortitude and confidence to keep coming at material from different angles. Are you ever fearful of a misstep? Of conflating the sources of the mystery, as it were? Or do you believe that all material has the potential to be a bottomless well?

AN: I go to the same well pretty regularly, I know. And I worry about repetition quite a bit. In fact, repetition is the thing that kills any of the stories I’ve started and not finished: I bore myself because I feel like I’ve already written what I’m trying to write. So I start again. Some of my process is what I would call torqueing: taking the familiar stuff and turning it around until it doesn’t seem like something I’ve already explored and figured out. Changing a gender, changing a location, changing a relationship. Those things result in the unexpected discoveries, and that can rescue me from being bored with myself.

As for characters who escape, I think one of the great urges in anyone is to run away. We start doing it pretty young, don’t we? I ran away to Safeway when I was four. One can send one’s characters out to do what one doesn’t, in fact, do. I don’t know if it’s a mostly female thing, but prioritizing the self is pretty hard to do sometimes, what with one’s family of origin, one’s spouse, one’s children, one’s students, one’s pets. That said, I think my characters who “escape” often times have been pushed to some extremity that is life-threatening (either literally or psychologically) and in order to save themselves, they divest. They flee. They give up caring what others think. It’s liberating, but it’s also costly. Very. Who doesn’t have the fantasy of running away to Boise and becoming a waitress in a diner? Living with a cat in a trailer? Knowing nobody and liking it that way? No attachments means no possibility for heartache. That’s a protective move, a sad one, yet also an alluring one.

GT: Well, count me among the readers who are thankful for your torqueing. (It’s hard to write that sentence without feeling all Miley Cyrus-y.) I’d be hard pressed to name a favorite story or book, but I’ve come back to “Slickrock to Bedrock” from The Expendables numerous times as a reader, writer and teacher. Funny Once  is your eleventh book. And you’ve published dozens of stories. But do you have a favorite? A story or book that stands out?

AN: There are a few pieces that I am proud of (for no reason other than I believed in them when others—my agent, my husband, the editors at the New Yorker—didn’t) and still think of fondly. The novel Nobody’s Girl was built around the idea of genre novels (romance, mystery) having flawed narrative trajectories. I got to play around with literature (the character is a high school English teacher) as well as having her inhabit both a (doomed) romance and (insoluble) mystery. I am also attached to a couple of stories that I feel are smarter than I am—”Incognito” comes to mind. And I like the economy of “Stitches,” a story I wrote with a very proscribed time marker (a phone call) that had some hidden (to me) business that played out quite nicely. It wasn’t exactly planned.

I like it when I scare myself while I’m writing. Scare or surprise. I suppose I’ll revisit that earlier comment about therapy and say that occasionally a discovery in a story is not unlike a discovery in therapy: suddenly the world is clear where it was not clear before. Even if the truth is an uncomfortable one (an inconvenient one, to borrow a catchphrase), there’s something satisfying about naming it. Seeing it. Understanding it. And thereby having some mastery over it.

Related to both torqueing and emotional toil, since I write a lot out of my own life (and the lives of my intimates), my concern is frequently about how not to hurt anybody in the process. I have never consciously written in order to avenge anything. But I have worried that I was too faithful to the facts (in the pursuit of the truth) and that the work would be hurtful to somebody else. A lot of my revising practices are designed to prevent such betrayal of others. I’m fully willing to expose myself, but others? I have some qualms about that.

GT: I’d like to double back to building narratives around ideas and imposing structure, but can you talk a little more about not wanting to hurt or betray others, especially your intimates, in pursuit of the truth? As you touched upon, the truth is often a matter of discovery. Which means the path that gets you there can sometimes be murky. Do you have predetermined lines you won’t cross, or are those lines up for negotiation with each story/novel?

AN: Let’s say something happens IRL. And I want to explore its power over me. Well, I have the right to explore and reveal my own business, but that of my children? My friends? Maybe not. So my first job is to protect those loved ones meanwhile respecting my own need to conduct investigation into my fascination. In pursuit of this, I will change the identifying elements—locale, gender, age, relationship—if possible (and at least one of those is always possible). If the dead twenty-four-year-old girl can become a dead twenty-one-year-old boy, if the setting can be Wichita instead of Houston, if the death can be a car accident rather than a drug overdose, then I’ve managed to both honor the impulse and still be inventing a fictional story. Manipulating the facts in quest of truth is one of the very first and most significant parts of my process, an activity that takes place most often before I even set one word on the page.

GT: Many of your stories emerge from a central event or observation which, peeled back, reveals various spindles or layers that ultimately coalesce into a fully realized story. I mean, they’re not void of a beginning, middle and end, but I never feel set-up, or like I’m simply moving from a to b, or that I’m immersed in a world scaffolded by stringent boundaries. Yet you mentioned Nobody’s Girl  being built around the idea of romance and mystery novels. And, as you say, “Stitches” has a very proscribed time marker. How much “pre-work” attention do you dedicate to imposing structure? Is it as significant to your process as manipulating the facts in quest of the truth?

AN: Finding structure (whether in the form of borrowed architecture [a letter of rec, a diary, a re-telling of The Wizard of Oz], or having a time signature [a weekend, a phone call, a road trip, a day, a wedding, a summer, a friendship]) has been huge, for me, in making stories assume pace and weight and a clock. The clock gives me a container; what happens inside it, during it, in the course of it, is mostly unknown. But knowing that there’s a defined time provides me with formal constraints that allow everything else to be a bit mysterious and undetermined. It’s one of the most significant things I’ve discovered writing stories; it’s often what’s missing in students’ work, some sense of how long and at what speed the tale needs to be told.

GT: So . . . when I’m writing, I often hear your voice in my head, asking about the story’s clock. And it’s evolved over the years, to the point that it sometimes shouts, “Where’s the fucking clock?” In turn, I’ve often lifted your take on clocks and taken my own students (grade school kids, undergrads, continuing ed students) to task over the lack thereof. I’m curious, what’s the most useful and/or useless piece of writing feedback/advice you’ve ever received?

AN: I’m happy to hear that I’m shouting at you while you’re writing. I like the image.

A grad professor from long ago (C. E. Poverman) once told me, when I was seeking solace after a harsh workshop, that I better “get used to it.” That is, to get accustomed to feeling like I’d been kicked in the stomach. I thought he’d be nice to me; instead, he told me to pull up my socks. Well, it was good advice. It really was. Another piece of advice came from, I think, Elmore Leonard (?), in which he advised the beginning writer to develop a leather ass. On which you must be happy to sit for long periods of time. Doing the work.

If I were offering advice (advice that I wish somebody had provided early on for me) it would be to learn to revise. To learn to take pleasure in it, to trust the original impulse far enough and long enough to invest in revision rather than chucking the project and starting afresh. If you write short stories, you’re not going to have a million fresh starts. So learn to live in revision. Also, to quote Pam Painter when asked the same question about advice for writers: don’t hook up with a non-reader. And here’s what my editor Anton told me, when I was two-thirds of the way through my novel. He said “Just finish it.” That made me laugh and laugh and laugh.

GT: Prepare for stomach kicks. Develop a leather ass. Revise. And only bed readers. Might make for a good t-shirt. Oh, and just finish it. Or the Texas version . . . Git ’er done.

Speaking of, you’ve been in the state for over a decade now and Houston, in particular, has begun making its way into your work. Seems to me, place is an aspect of your writing that’s rarely—if ever—brought up, but your characters are very much intertwined with the various settings they happen to be navigating, whether expansive (i.e. the desert) or intensely particular (i.e. Happiness Plaza). Can you talk about your approach to setting? Do you need to know a place intimately (street names, native plants, a particular experience you had) in order to write about it, or are you okay with figuring details out as you go?

AN: I’ve always thought that the perfect situations for a writer to be in are: insider, or outside, regarding place. That is: the person who’s been somewhere so long she can write about it without thinking, or the person who’s just shown up and can write with a real feel for defamiliarization that brings the landscape to life. The dismal middle ground—neither insider nor outside, person who’s been there only long enough to have lost the ability to see the oddness yet not long enough to speak with true authority—is a situation I attempt to avoid.

Pragmatically, should I need, for any given story, a large city, well, the go-to location is Houston. If I need a place that I knew as a teenager, that would be in Kansas or Colorado. I haven’t made much use of New Mexico, and I can’t say why. Perhaps because Las Cruces, the city where I own a house and lived for twenty years, is one that most people know nothing about. It’s both large and small enough to be problematic: to name it is to become liable, to not name it is to be coy. What I’ve realized lately is that setting—the physical reality of a space—ought to be inhabited (by which I mean: I go sit in that place) to really come alive. I no longer write about a place hypothetically or in memory. I go occupy. And what results is far more convincing than what would have if I’d relied on memory or conjecture. If that place is familiar, I know the names of streets and vegetation; if it’s alien, I know how to describe the weirdness of the same.

GT: The physical act of going out and occupying a potential setting seems like a great way to stay present. I’ve always thought places, like facts, have a way of getting turned every which way when sifted through memory. Either that or some idealized notion of them becomes crystallized, which leaves the door open for nostalgia and sentimentality when writing about them.

That said, though staying present and steering clear of nostalgia and sentimentality are probably in a writer’s best interest, if handled correctly, having characters who are incapable of either can actually make for compelling fiction. For example, though there’s some hidden business that plays out quite nicely, as you might say, in “Winter in Yalta”, Cara’s main issue—at least the one I’m most drawn to—revolves around her inability to commit to being present in her own life, and by extension, her friendship with Rochelle. The struggle to stay present versus floating adrift wistfully is a fascinating, yet challenging story tension, mostly because it’s born from shaping rather than plot, I think. Do you draw a distinction between those two things?

AN: As a high school student, I was told that all stories had to have characters, conflict, setting, plot, and resolution. Most of these terms were not of much use to a writer like myself. (Conflict alone caused me much consternation, consisting, as it did then, of Man V. Man, Man v. Nature, and Man V. Self. Agh!) Anyhow, when I began teaching writing, I realized how much of the fiction I loved was really more about Shape than Plot. Very little happened (externally) in so much of the fiction I loved. Shape is a much more encompassing and useful term than Plot. A story can be shaped by a journey, by a ritual, by a day, by a weekend, by a relationship, by a physical object (such as a tour of a house). It is, perhaps, the most useful of the adjustments I made to my understanding of how fiction works. Which is to say: plot is a subset of shape, in the vocabulary I use to describe how fiction works. The action of a story (the events) for me are architectural props that support what is happening inside the character. As she navigates the only real conflict that interests me: Woman V. Herself.

GT: I love that you view your understanding of fiction as something that can be adjusted. It speaks to both the trial and error that’s so vital to actually getting good at writing fiction, and the fact that there’s no set course to follow. It also implies the lack of a finish line with regards to ability, accomplishment, and how much there is to learn. Do you envision yourself writing fiction until you drop? Or can you imagine a scenario where you set it down, and perhaps turn your attention elsewhere?

AN: I imagine writing fiction until it no longer obsesses me. When will that be? I don’t know. Sometimes I think the moment has arrived—and then a week or month later, something digs in and won’t leave me alone until I write it. The thing is, there’s plenty of things to read, plenty of books to discover, plenty of writers filling the necessary space that fiction occupies. If somebody forced me to give up one or the other—reading or writing—there’d be no contest. Writing would go, snap, like that. That said, I don’t have a Plan B for myself. My skill set is limited—cooking, parenting, making jokes. I’m a good driver. I throw a good party. Are those useful? I suppose if I could imagine myself fully happy just living in the moment—teaching, hanging out with friends—well, if that part of myself that is agitated when I don’t write could be made at peace, I’d embrace the feeling. I’d ease right into it.

GT: I want to delve into the joke making, and the undoubtedly nifty promoter name you’d take on if you went the professional party-throwing route, but that conversation might be best served with adult beverages in hand. Instead, I’ll ask about the novellas. Funny Once ends with one. And so does Family Terrorists. I love the form, but I also think of it as less, um, definable, I guess, than short stories or novels. Neither compact, nor expansive, I imagine the rhythm, tension and scope are a bit more difficult to pin down. How do you see the form working in comparison to stories and novels? At what point does a story reveal itself to you as a novella?

AN: The one good thing about being me, to me, is that everything I sit down to write is a short story. Until it isn’t. At which point it becomes a novella. And if it then turns out not to be a novella, then, and only then, will it become a novel. So mostly I think and feel in the short story mood. It suits my attention span, my subject matter, my ability to revise happily (which is to say: in one sitting, thoroughly).

That said, I really like those two novellas I wrote. I could have stretched them out into novels, I suppose, but somehow the novella form seemed more suitable. It’s modest, yet also expansive enough. Characters have room to grow but not, I hope, grow tiresome. The novella offers both the single sense and intensity of story, yet with the expansiveness and productive digressiveness of the novel. It is a beautifully hybrid form with fewer expectations (one would hope that it satisfies a need for both the small realm of a single character, as well as the wider and contextualizing contents of that character’s world).

There are some great novellas out there in the world. It’s a beautiful form.

GT: I really like those two novellas you wrote, too.

Ok, so I want to ask one final question. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with writing, and it’s a three-parter.

If you could choose any writer, living or dead, who would you want to a) interview, b) sit in bumper to bumper Houston traffic with, and c) meet for Friday happy hour?

AN: I would totally go William Trevor for the interview. I mean, first of all, he’s still alive. And he’s written more amazing stuff than anybody I can think of. And Mavis Gallant, in an interview I did with her, also championed that guy. Time is short, he’s pretty old. And his work is crazy good. As for bumper to bumper traffic? I think I’d go with Rodney Jones, a great poet, great story-teller, great guy. He’d keep us entertained without bitching too much about the situation. Finally, happy hour is a tough call. You want those people who understand what happy hour is really about, listening, telling, sharing the anecdotes that aren’t the written word but the spoken one, the preamble to the written word. I would go with my favorite grad students, for that, not unlike you, Giuseppe, and many others. Cheers. Tell me another.



Antonya Nelson‘s most recent book, Funny Once, was published by Bloomsbury in May, 2014. She teaches creative writing at the University of Houston and in the Warren Wilson MFA program.

Giuseppe Taurino’s stories have appeared in Epoch, New South, The Potomac Review, Word Riot, and elsewhere. He’s been awarded a Donald Barthelme Fellowship in Fiction and scholarships to the Bread Load Writers’ Conference. Currently, he lives in Houston, TX with his wife and daughter, and is Manager of Capacity Building Initiatives at the Houston Arts Alliance. He is also a Contributing Editor at American Short Fiction.

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