Antonya Nelson is the author of four novels, including Bound (Bloomsbury, 2010) and six short story collections, including Nothing Right (Bloomsbury, 2009). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, Redbook and many other magazines, as well as in anthologies such as Prize Stories: the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. She is the recipient of a USA Artists Award in 2009, the 2003 Rea Award for Short Fiction, as well as NEA and Guggenheim Fellowships, and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program, as well as in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. She lives in Telluride, Colorado, Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Houston, Texas. You can read her story “One-Way Ticket” on Fictionaut.
Q (Meg Pokrass): As a reader, which writers do you feel closest to?
I love finding a writer whose sly sense of humor and humanity peek out at me between the lines. For instance, Beatrix Potter, or E. M. Forster, or Jane Gardam, or Richard Stark, or Eudora Welty, or any other writer who takes a moment to slip in a comic aside or a telling insight that makes me feel as if I’d like him or her. That I’d gravitate toward them at a cocktail party and feel right at home.
At different points as a writer, have you had mentors? Do you mentor?
I’m a mentee, a lifer I’d say. I have my grad school prof Mary Carter to thank for having my back at the U of Arizona, and my husband Robert Boswell for modeling a serious writing life. He’s really good at that, and I am forever the understudy. And as for mentoring, I love to dwell in the world of the manuscript in workshop, where everything is possible. The best workshops are the ones where everybody gets involved in the fantasy space the story or chapter has opened up, and we all start playing the collaborative, improv game that might lead to a next and better draft.
How do you stay creative? What are your tricks to get “unstuck?”
A great way to get unstuck is to write during, say, an English Department meeting. Or during any required yet very dull situation where you are not allowed to leave and must look as if you are paying close attention to the inanity all around you. Also, being given assignments, whether for pay by magazines, or for fun by friends or children. Nothing like a prompt to get you out of a funk. And, finally, I don’t write when I’m not inspired. Why? I can always read the inspired work of others, and have faith that I will return to the keyboard when I’m fully ready. Which is never a predictable time.
Favorite exercises you would like to share?
I enjoy dog walking. Also: lunges.
Suggestions for making characters live? Do you know who they are before you write or do you find out who they are in the writing?
I like to ponder my characters’ back stories. Secondary characters included. The benefit of writing (or preferring to write) short stories is that oftentimes a character’s only showing the pointy top of his iceberg-like self, but knowing the giant mass beneath him is quite helpful and interesting to me, his creator. And sometimes he might say or do something that only alludes to that hidden business, and that seems like a very realistic trait of people in the real (as opposed to fictional) world. Then he seems as real as that guy at the grocery who yesterday lost his shit in the dairy aisle because he “cannot handle the cheese made of sheep milk, man!” apropos of absolutely nothing.
Plot: how it evolves… anything on this subject.
“Plot,” said playwright Nilo Cruz to me once, “it’s so vulgar.”
But on the other hand, when I’m reading student stories, I’m often struck by how either the character or the fate (plot) is the problem. The character is great, but he hasn’t arrived at his proper fate. Or the fate (plot, story) is terrific, but happening to the wrong character. Adjusting one or the other seems to help a lot. “Lady with the Pet Dog” couldn’t happen to a more perfect character. That’s the point. I much prefer thinking of “shape” or “fate” than I do plot. Plots are for graveyards.
Being married to another writer.. can you talk about this?
As mentioned above, I am forever grateful for my spouse’s support. But sometimes, these days, 27 years along, I tire of the writing, writing, writing. During the summers, we are renovating an old structure in a ghost town in Colorado, and I realized one morning recently, as Rob was doing some death-defying trick on the raggedy roof of the place, that I felt happier being with Bob the Builder rather than Robert the Writer. Robert the Writer spends all day at the computer, and in the end, although there would be something to show for the effort, the tangible pleasure of a new window or Tyveked wall is much much much more impressive.
Tell us about what you are working on now. What is in the works?
I am writing a novel. In the first person. It is very half-baked. I always need to have a technical challenge in addition to everything else, and I’ve never written a first-person novel. I also decided to write a short one, a form I’ve grown to love in the last year. The constraint of it. Anyway, a first-person novel that will come in under 200 pages. Probably titled The Name of This Town.
I will say that teaching a book to others, re-reading it and re-reading it again and again looking for excellence is an aspect of my job that I treasure. I will always love teaching William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, and the Collected Eudora Welty, and E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, and James Salter’s Light Years, and Sarah Waters’ Night Country.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs athttp://megpokrass.com.