Interviews | September 01, 2000

  • Jennifer Levasseur Interviewer
  • Rabalais, Kevin Interviewer

An Interview With Antonya Nelson

Interviewer: You’ve been called a master of the domestic drama because most of your work focuses on problems anchored in the family: adultery, illness, anxiety. Why have you, throughout your career, tended to explore family situations?

Nelson: Most of what one feels compelled to write stems from a deep emotional uncertainty. In my life, as is the case with many people I know, the most uncertain things are relationships with those I’m close to. I have family members in the small nuclear unit, as well as the larger unit, toward whom I have a great deal of affection, and there are others toward whom I have tremendous antipathy. It’s typical in family situations to be forced into contact repeatedly with people you don’t particularly like. You work out your future social abilities and relationships based on what you learn when you are young. For me, these relationships have always been familial. I’m not entirely sure why I write about family, but I do know that it hasn’t stopped interesting me. You meet and leave other people at different stages of your evolution, whereas family is made up of people who are constant links in your life, who know you over the course of time and have your complete curriculum vitae in their heads.

: How is this related to the family as our main battleground, as you’ve called it?

Nelson: People question this subject matter because young workshop writers often write about their families and homes. This is because the family is where they’ve experienced conflict. American kids aren’t being recruited into guerrilla armies at the age of thirteen. In some other countries, drama exists elsewhere, outside the house. Most often in America, the trouble seems to come from within the household.

Interviewer: In what way have you been called upon to defend your work on a specific level—as a woman writer, for instance?

Nelson: There are plenty of men who write about family, but when I’m asked to explain what I do, it often seems there’s some implicit suggestion that novels or stories that tackle political or societal drama a more serious. It’s not necessarily that the treatment of characters these works is a masculine one. It’s just that the terrain outside the home is considered more important. I don’t think it is.

Interviewer: Much of your fiction is written in third person. Of the first-person stories, many are told from a male point of view.

Nelson: Even in third person, I feel close to a male point of view. Most of the time, the narrator in my first-person-male stories is in a state of confusion about his relationship with a woman. It’s not often that I write in the first person, but inhabiting the third-person point of view of man doesn’t seem to me strikingly difficult. People occasionally say, “That must be quite a challenge, to write from the other gender’s poin of view.” I think there are larger challenges that have to do with class or age. Empathy is not as complicated when you have some aspects in common with your character; it’s not impossible to know someone who’s like you in many ways but different in one. This is true especially if you are a reader. Reading makes you accustomed to inhabiting other lives and sensibilities. But if you try to create and inhabit a person who’s different in every way, then trying to write from that character’s point of view is much more difficult.

Interviewer: Where do you start?

Nelson: I think about and study people. I think I make people uneasy sometimes by being so curious as to why they do what they do. I find myself thinking about this fairly obsessively, and I can’t stop until I’ve found an answer. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the correct answer for that person. For me, it has to be an answer that appears to be true; it has to make sense to me.

Interviewer: In light of that, your story “Unified Front” comes to mind. In your note on that story in The Best American Short Stories 1998, you say that the event you write about-the theft of a twin baby-came from a news report. Did you follow that incident until you figured out the story for yourself and melded it into your own fiction?

Nelson: Actually, I needed only one article for that story because what happened in fact became less interesting to me than what I imagined. The woman who kidnapped the twin was nuts, and I’m not interested writing about characters of that nature. I was much more interested in creating a person who had lived through many years of desperate desire for a child. There are fewer ways to identify with insanity than Zere are to identify with desire. By the same token, I didn’t want to write from her point of view, which seemed to me fairly straightforward. I situated her at the point of making her decision. Her husband’s decision to go along with the kidnapping was a moral quandary that I could tackle. I needed to find a way to place myself in the story. I would never steal a baby, but I certainly could understand someone’s desire
to do so. That is precisely the husband’s position. I had to make this his story. It couldn’t be hers or a casual observer’s or the mother’s. The story didn’t necessarily have to be told from the point of view of her husband, or a man at all; it simply had to be somebody who was loyal to the person making the decision. It illustrates the entangling nature of family. In the end, gender doesn’t matter as much as the engagement one character has to the other who is under stress.

Interviewer: Much of the tension in your fiction comes from what the characters and reader never know or are able to learn.

Nelson: Most of our conflict in life resides in not knowing. That is why a single or a limited point of view can create tension and cause the reader to have some stake in watching the character do the right or wrong thing.

Interviewer: You’ve also experimented with the mystery genre, especially in Nobody’s Girl, which in some ways is an antimystery. There’s a great buildup of questions and puzzles that can’t be untangled, and we realize, as the character does, that the solution is not the point.

: I love mystery novels. One of the criticisms I have of a lot of literary fiction is that its writers don’t seem to understand the human wish for mystery and suspense that genre fiction has exploited. I started Nobody’s Girl out of the desire to write about a particular character. I had two different stories in mind and decided to force them together—the story of a teacher, Birdy, who has an affair with a student, and the story of a writer, Mrs. Anthony, who has no writing talent but who does have a great story to tell. The elements of mystery and subversion of the genre came to me in the second draft of the book. By then I was trying to delve into the romance genre, too. Our expectations of these two genres are that mysteries will be solved and that the romantic figures will eventually be together. But of course, by solving one mystery, you open ten others in the process, and one successful romantic quest does not equal a happy life because the more satisfying relationships are often tangential. The shape of the book turned out to be the process of a character growing up, but this can’t be accomplished by solving a mystery or by having an affair. To grow, she has to be able to see her-self as somebody’s protector and champion, as opposed to being some-body’s lover. That was always the arc I had in mind for the book. The reader’s expectations in solving a mystery—and even the character’s expectations in solving one or having a romance concluded—might be enough, but I wanted to undo these expectations. I don’t know if I pulled that off. I hope so. I’d probably write that book again if I had a chance. I would have liked for the reader to come to the same realization I did, which is that the true shape of the book is to come to envision being a parent. This is the huge transitional state for Birdy. Mystery and romance, and many other genres, were fun to play with because Birdy, as an English teacher, has such disdain for bad writing. Even as she’s trying to create a more literary story, she finds herself in the middle of several genres.

Interviewer: There’s a nice paradox here: Birdy has the knowledge and background to write a literary story, but she says she can’t write because she has read too much; and Mrs. Anthony, who has a dramatic Cory—the mysterious deaths of her daughter and husband—has no writing talent.

Nelson: Yes. I liked being the character Birdy for a while. I liked being in her dark sensibility and having her talk about literature. One of my least favorite things about writing is that I’m not supposed to write about books. Characters aren’t allowed to read often or to think about literature in a serious way. As a writer, I’m always looking for analogues in art. It’s sometimes irritating not to be able to build on the enormous amount of influence literature has on a character. It’s not often a shared reference. I could write, “He read ‘Sonny’s Blues’ and started weeping,” and the reader would be clueless. It is a much more shared experience if I dramatize a situation that generates the same emotion.

Interviewer: Do you often think about rewriting a story or book? Do you keep characters in your mind even though the book is finished?

Nelson: If the book is finished—published and on the shelf—I do not think of revising it. But if I’m not finished psychologically with characters, they will recur, either as themselves or as new, slightly altered manifestations, and their same issues will reappear. It’s a matter of the subject and emotional investment and my own obsessive thinking about various issues. Given the opportunity to rewrite a novel or story, I’m afraid I would do more damage than good. I’m not in that space anymore, and I can’t get myself worked up to be where I was fifteen years ago when I wrote the stories in The Expendables. I do know that I will revisit whatever issues weren’t resolved for me in those first stories. It’s an unconscious process. To say that a single story is not done isn’t quite true. A story can be finished and judged successful or not by somebody else, but if the issue is not done for me, I can count on its reappearance.

Interviewer: You have written several stories about one group of people, the Link family, including “Bare Knees,” “The Control Group” and the novella “Family Terrorists.” Is there an advantage to using the same characters for a story cycle rather than writing a novel about them?

: Well, it gives me the opportunity to bail out pretty quickly. If I write one or two stories, they can claim their place, but it doesn’t commit me to the kind of insecurity that a novel does for two, three or four years. Story cycles in general are enticing. They’re also more difficult than most people would imagine. You don’t want to repeat yourself, and you don’t want to have the movement of each new story replicate too closely the movement of the last story. You don’t want the stories dependent on each other when you’re sending them out for publication, nor do you want them to be mirror images when they’re sitting next to each other in a book. For me, writing a few connected stories seemed to be a nice bridge between writing stories and writing novels. It also works well because you can present one story in the point of view of one character in a family, then another story from somebody else’s point of view. This gives you the position, as a writer, of wandering through the house and observing everybody’s relationships, how they influence, harm and help each other.

Interviewer: You had three collections of stories published before your first novel. Your third collection ends with a novella. Was that the true chronological progression—from writing stories to writing novels?

Nelson: That was the true progression; they appear in the order they were written. There are some stories that I withheld from Family Terrorists that I hope will be published. They are stories I’m attached to. There’s also another story that is the next chapter in the Link family. I was not quite done with them at the end of the novella. I wrote a final story that takes place after the wedding that occurs in “Family Terrorists.” A large family with a long history and a propensity for disagreement makes for a lengthy involvement. I didn’t fully engage that family until Living to Tell, at which point I felt qualified. Even the two previous novels, which feature smaller families and fewer point-of-view characters, seem like steps toward this latest book. Maybe every current project partakes of the ones previous.

Interviewer: Do you know the full histories of these characters, even though you give us only glimpses of them with many-year gaps in between?

Nelson: One of the complicated things for me to do would be what Larry McMurtry has done so admirably in his work. He has novels in which primary characters of other novels appear in subordinate roles. He wants a full secondary character who has a whole life that he can immediately call up to make the most temporary appearance on the page convincing. But on the other hand, his characters’ histories can be crippling. You can make big mistakes by doing this. You realize, suddenly, that a character couldn’t have come back at this time because you wrote another story where he was off in the war or in the asylum at that moment. I don’t know what happens in the gaps between my stories. If I wrote too many stories with the same characters I would spend an awful lot of time making maps. It’s better to erect a new family, which is precisely what I did in Living to Tell. There are some basic similarities between the Mabie family and the Link family, but I didn’t want to be bound by the Link family history. The central defining events of that family would start taking on weight that I wouldn’t want to deal with in this novel.

Interviewer: It’s very playful that you’ve chosen the name “Mabie” for the family in Living to Tell. In one passage, you write: “Winston Mabie wasn’t going to belly flop on the landing strip. . . . Winston Mabie would survive. Oh, maybe all of this was useful.”

Nelson: I’m a huge fan of stand-up comedy. I’m not a huge fan of puns, but I do like things well put. Typically, I like a mix of diction in writing. That kind of success can be measured in a person’s ability to persuade or entertain, to be able to go high and low in the same sentence or thought, and thereby to create some way of arresting the attention of the reader. When this is done, the reader is never sure what the next word will be. I’ve read since I was very young and have been captivated by the way things are expressed, almost to the exclusion of what is being said. Again, the character Birdy Stone in Nobody’s Girl gave me material I could play with. She’s often very critical of how Mrs. Anthony writes, and because Birdy focuses on her grammar, Birdy is ignorant of what is being expressed. I can forgive meanness if the person being mean is also being funny. I can treasure the humor and forgive the meanness just to be entertained. It’s understandable that people would criticize this trait in me; I criticize it in myself, via Birdy.

Interviewer: Does this phrasing come to you in a first draft, or is it something you work toward in subsequent drafts?

Nelson: A lot of my editing occurs in the process of writing and constructing the sentence. My husband, Robert Boswell, describes his writing process as constantly pursuing the story in the way that someone would chase a car—that is, without a lot of thought about how it looks, just running as fast as possible. I don’t think about my writing that way. Things occur to me in phrases. If something doesn’t compel me by how it sounds, it is unlikely that it will make the page. This is not to say that I’m not influenced by images, but I rewrite them to sound good to me. For me, the process of writing is an entertainment. I’m more entertained by interesting language than I am by an interesting story. I read aloud. I try to make my prose economical. When I read my students’ work, I always have a pen in my hand. Even if I’m reading something that I know I can’t mark, I have a pen in my hand; it’s almost symbolic. Somebody will use a word, and I’ll think, “That is such a great word.” Yesterday I was reading an article about a man who killed someone and was sentenced thirty years later because one cop pursued him. The writer quoted this Hell’s Kitchen character who used the word “individual” in such a great, tough-guy, James Cagney sort of way: “He’s an interesting individual.” I thought, “What a great way to use that word.” Using “individual” as a replacement for “guy” or “fellow” seems to me so terrific and funny that I made a note of it. The writing I find the most tedious to read is the kind where the writer simply conveys information and makes no attempt to entertain or to be good at it.

Interviewer: Your parents were not prohibitive with your reading material when you were growing up. Was this from an early age?
Nelson: Our house was very open. My parents taught literature at Wichita State University. They were connected to their graduate students and to the politics of the times. They marched in peace protests. Lots of people, including writers, passed through our house. My father was friends with Allen Ginsberg, who wrote a series of poems set in Wichita. There’s one poem, “Wichita Vortex,” in which Ginsberg claimed that I am the little four-year-old girl. Our house was always full not just of books but of the notion of writing—and not just writing but cutting-edge writing. My parents allowed me to read anything. I read Valley of the Dolls and then Emma. I can remember reading The Naked and the Dead, and I can also remember finding my father’s pornography library. That kind of freedom, that kind of trust that was developed, is rare. My parents permitted their kids to be exposed. Ironically, they didn’t have that trust with food. They were a lot more restrictive with that than with my reading diet. My eating habits, I should point out, are horrible, while my reading habit is terrific.

Interviewer: Your parents were both teachers in the same department, and now you’re married and you teach in the same department as your husband. Does it surprise you that your life echoed your parents’ this way?

Nelson: Sometimes people say, “Of course you’re a writer. Your parents were English professors.” But I have four siblings who don’t write. I’ve channeled in this direction because I had a desire to please my parents and because I have an inclination to read and write. I have a brother and sister who are both psychologists, and this comes from the same background and the same type of interest: to sit around and hear stories all day, to be invested in human stories at a high level. All three of us have that inclination. My mother also writes fiction. I think she’s proud of me, and I know my parents understand what it means that I’m a writer. Occasionally, it would be nice to have that generic, parental, “Very nice. Congratulations. I saw your last article.” Robert’s mother is supportive like that. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable because my mother knows the difference between William Morrow and Alfred Knopf, while Robert’s mother doesn’t know Knopf from Knickerbocker. His mother was so funny when Crooked Hearts went out of print and was remaindered. She didn’t realize what that meant. She was at a Wal-Mart in Arizona and saw a stack of the book marked down to $1.98. She took the whole stack in a cart to the manager, outraged, and said, “This book costs $24.95. How dare you sell it for this price?”

Interviewer: Have your other family members read your work?

Nelson: I sent my first book to everybody. Every time another book is published, I send it to fewer people. When The Expendables came out, my grandmother, who is a Southern Baptist, told my cousins it was smut, although she did display it on her living room table. The most terribly moving responses have been when family members read my stories or novels and understood that, for whatever reason and in whatever way, the person being exposed the most in the books was myself. When family members don’t see obvious connections with my life, it makes them feel, to an extent, better. My latest novel, Living to Tell, is set in Wichita, where I grew up, in a house very much like the house I grew up in. By a strange set of circumstances, the bound galleys arrived while I was there for Christmas with my family. I had the opportunity of watching my family sit in chairs all over the house reading the book. Nobody said one word to me about it. They told Robert they liked it. But nobody said anything to me, which is exactly how family is.

Interviewer: How do you and your husband work together?

Nelson: Fortunately, we write very differently. He’s helpful when he reads my work because he can step away from it and say objectively what I’m trying to do in the story. For instance, he’ll narrate through the plot and allow me to see that there is not a cause-and-effect relationship between what happens and what the characters experience. For him I’m much more useful as a line editor. He occasionally has a tendency toward silliness or sentimentality, which are some of his best qualities, but maybe not the best qualities of a fiction writer. When he starts straying in those directions, I help bring him in. I probably read ten times as much as he does. This helps me to be able to tell him if something seems familiar, if it sounds like something else I read recently. I have a superficial way of obtaining information, while he deeply absorbs what he reads. This is related to how we address each other’s work. For the most part we are each other’s first readers. We don’t pull punches with each other. There’s no one else I would be as frank with; we have already established a mutual trust and respect, whereas in a workshop situation you have to prove to the people whose work you are addressing that you have their best interests in mind.

Interviewer: When you lead a workshop, what writers do you focus on as instructive in craft or style?

Nelson: I use many different writers when I teach workshops. One of the classes I’m teaching now is a graduate class called “Form and Technique in Fiction.” I’m teaching E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India as an illustration of the exemplary omniscient narrator. I use many other books as exemplars of various techniques and forms. I often get quite specific about this. I use David Shields’ book Dead Languages as an example of an exemplary first-person novel in the way that Lolita is, though Dead Languages is much more approachable for students. I’m teaching Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and right after that I’ll teach Michael Cunningham’s The Hours to talk about modeled fiction. I’m very interested in fiction modeled from a previous work that pays homage as well as creates its own discrete brilliance.

Interviewer: How do you approach the teaching of creative writing?

Nelson: In workshops, the students’ stories are always up for discussion, but I also use published texts. I especially like to go through short stories and point out organic unity, the way it’s being told and what this tells the reader about what it is. I’m always directing students to read other work. When I approach their fiction, I first attempt to figure out what matters to the student who wrote the story, not necessarily where the story comes from, but where the emotional heart of the piece resides and if that is successfully communicated to the reader. If there is a pattern of scenes that has been disrupted or jettisoned or truncated, then the reader is disappointed and whatever the writer started with initially disappears or is buried. I talk a lot about shape. Shape is one of the issues that students feel least comfortable figuring out. They have learned, erroneously, to equate plot with shape. And so when their work isn’t going anywhere plot-wise, they think the story is a failure, when in fact all they really need to do is reimagine the terms of the story. The shape then becomes something other than plot. That was an enormous discovery for me, one that made a huge difference in how I write. I think plot is a minor part of stories.

Interviewer: Are you able to write while you teach?

Nelson: Yes and no. I take a lot of notes. I work on stories. I usually write one or two stories in the fall and winter. If I’m working on a novel, most of that gets accomplished in the summer in Colorado, where I have sustained time sitting down alone. Teaching is one of those occupations that won’t quit at five o’clock, which is a good and a bad thing. I always feel that the writing and discussion of literature is very present. But when I’m thinking about somebody else’s story and reading other work, it’s harder for me to think about my own writing.

Interviewer: What was it like for you, as a young writer, to learn that Raymond Carver had chosen your story “The Expendables” as the first-prize winner in the journal American Fiction in 1988?

Nelson: It was great. I don’t know what to say beyond that. By all accounts, he was a very generous man who read voraciously and had enthusiasm for a lot of people’s work. At that time I had a new baby. I was thrilled, but the award wasn’t the biggest thing on my mind. When my first story was accepted by Mademoiselle, that was a huge step. When my first book was taken, and when The New Yorker accepted a story, were watershed moments that resonated. The thing is that I always keep raising my own bar. It becomes a desire to not just have more but to do more, to do something different. I bore myself if I repeat stories. I wrote Nobody’s Girl with the notion that there weren’t many third-person novels with a single point of view. It seemed to me that that is what everybody thought of as the default mode. Most novels are written from first-person or third-person multiple points of view. In creating that project for myself, I was able to up the stakes and have something new happen inside of myself.

Interviewer: You won that award, and eleven years later you judged the 1999 issue with your husband. What are the benefits of working together on a project like this?

Nelson: We often get invited to go to conferences together because they can put us in the same room. I don’t know why we guest-edited American Fiction together. It was nice to be invited to do it. We drew on our individual talents as readers. I read all the stories and selected four or five finalists, and then Robert chose the winners from those. We read a lot of the same fiction of our students, and we talk about it together. Our tastes are not identical. He has a great passion for The Great Gatsby, for example, which is a novel I appreciate and like, but it isn’t one of my favorite books. I could name twenty-five other books I prefer. He makes a good case for it, and I think I make good cases for other books. Possibly, what reading has done for us is to remind us of what our individual aesthetics are. It’s like having a ready-reader and a ready-critic in the house. If I ask him to read something, he will give it a very good reading and often point out things that don’t work that I wouldn’t have noticed. I can be seduced by style very easily. He’s more invested in characters’ actions, the moral quandaries they are faced with.

Interviewer: You’ve published an equal number of novels and collections of stories. Are you more at ease with one form?

Nelson: When I began writing, I wrote stories because they seemed more manageable than novels. But I also feel that many people are encouraged to write novels when what they have on their hands is a short story. When I made the transition from novella to novel, I was doing so because I needed to for the story. I tried to write a story, but the material wouldn’t conform to the boundaries of that form. From there, it became a project that I named a novella for a while, and then when that wasn’t sufficient, it became a novel. That is one of the great things about feeling confident in both forms, or at least a little confident in both forms. I start with the notion that I’ll write a story. My first two novels started as stories, but wouldn’t stay. Nobody’s Girl was a story called “Sadness,” and I really liked the character, so I blew the story up larger and larger until it was a novel. Living to Tell is the exception. I knew that it had to be a novel. As a result, I had a hard time starting out. The New Yorker excerpted one of the chapters, but I couldn’t have found a contained story in that book myself. The story I’m working on now, which may become a novel, started out as nine pages long and is now twenty-four. I have a lot to insert in it, and I have a feeling that it will grow into a novel. I’m happy to write a good story. I don’t feel like everything I dream up has to be set within the novel form. I always have a few projects going on simultaneously, so when I’m out in the world, whatever hits me, whatever I encounter, I can put some-where. It’s sort of like when you play bingo and have more than one card; a number is called and you see that it’s not on one, but it might be on one of the others.

Interviewer: Writing is a solitary act. You go into a room and create worlds through sentences. But then it becomes public. How do you balance these extremes?

Nelson: I wish it were a bit more public! I have a laptop computer, and I can be alone when I need to. My kids are old enough now that I can tell them to scram when I need to write. If I have an idea, I can tell my husband that I’m going away for a little while. He understands. I also get up in the middle of the night and write. That feels to me like the most private time of the day. No one is going to phone or knock on the door; the mail is not going to come, and the kids are asleep and safe. I can be alone with the computer. That privacy is necessary to me. I like that sense of being in a dark world, where the only source of light is the screen. It’s a way of having a short conversation with myself. It’s so private and exclusive; it’s nearly masturbatory. That private moment, that series of moments, over the course of however long it takes, eventually turns it into something I want to show somebody. The emotional side is messy, but then I can make sure that the technique, form, shape-all of the elements that are craft-related—are in place. The sentences have to sound good. There has to be a balance between characterization, summary, memory and action. All of those things line up. That procedure lets me approach the work from some distance, so that when it’s finally printed and I hand it to Robert, I don’t feel like I’m confessing things or writing things that I don’t want anyone to see. I become bulletproof by employing what I know about craft. Then he evaluates it, and because he’s close to me and I trust him, he permits the next level of modification, so it can go out into the world to another reader and be less of me, less exposing, because it has passed through these stages. Then if somebody critiques it, fine; if somebody accepts it, excellent. The private emotion of a public piece goes through stages, like a naked body being dressed.

If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.