Nathaniel Bellows was born in Boston in 1972 and attended Columbia University’s writing program, earning an MFA in poetry. His poems have been published in, among other publications, The Paris Review, The New York Times Book Review and The New Republic. His debut novel, On This Day, was published in 2003. Nathaniel Bellows lives in New York City where he writes book reviews for Publisher’s Weekly, The New York Times and The Boston Globe. He is at work on his second novel.
Bellows has written of himself, "All my life I have worked in the creative arts. As a child I was constantly writing: journals, stories, fables, myths, jokes, and reports. I explored every kind of visual art I could find…At age seven I began taking piano lessons and continued for eleven years. Even when I was young all of these pursuits felt very connected and related to one another…I have maintained all three interests—writing art music despite the repeated suggestions that I focus on one, leaving others in the background…I am committed to working in these artistic realms and they have helped me create work that so far has proven meaningful to myself and others. I will continue to test the boundaries and collaborative potential between them.”
On This Day tells the story of a brother and sister, residents of a small town in Maine, who lose both parents—one to cancer, the other to suicide. The narrative explores the perennial concerns of memory and truth and in the case of Joan and Warren, after their crushing losses, a reorientation towards the meaning of family. As Jay Parini has opined, "An acutely wistful novel about love, loss and recovery, written in supple imagistic prose. It tells the story of a brother and sister mired in grief, desperately exploring their memories and experience for points of contact that will save them."
Robert Birnbaum: I’ll ask the irrelevant questions later. Is there something that you prefer to talk about, that’s on your mind?
Nathaniel Bellows: It’s been an interesting experience doing a new set of readings for the paperback because a lot of the time people who come to the readings have read the book. People approach me afterwards, and it’s been very moving at times—when people are affected and then they come and tell me about it—and I see the benefit of the risk, in some ways, of publishing a book and putting something out there.
RB: Moving people and making them sad?
NB: Not so much sad but just—
RB: They weren’t sad?
NB: They were sad, but one of the good things was that I was able to see that what I tried to do, which was to balance a sense of grief and a sense of hope and play with that dynamic and hope that at the end they come out okay. People leave the book with sense of resolution. It seems like most people feel that way–at least when they talk to me.
RB: The people who are most affected—if you have any sense of a gradation of effect, do they indicate whether they are orphans?
NB: It’s more, "I have a sibling that I am really close to," or, "I lost somebody close to me, and this was similar to my experience, and I felt this way." There is some thing, some part of the dramatic parts of the narrative that appeals to people. Many of the questions are: "Are you an orphan?" or "Did this happen to you? Is this your story?"
RB: That’s an understandable view of a first novel. People expect it to be autobiographical. Why do you live in New York City?
NB: I grew up in a rural atmosphere, and I went to college in a rural atmosphere, and I love that. I flourished in that environment, but then I wanted something new. I wanted a different environment. So, I figured when I went to graduate school, I would either go to the West Coast or go to an urban environment.
RB: Where did you go to school, Columbia University?
NB: Yeah. It was a perfect way to move into the city because I had a context for being there.
RB: I won’t betray my own feelings about New York City other than to say—
RB: —that looking at the facts of your life, I would not have thought that you would have written this kind of a book. I would have expected that you would have written more of a "Bright Lights, Big City" book.
NB: Yeah, the urban scene.
RB: So the first surprise is that this book takes place in Maine and there isn’t one brand name mentioned.
NB: No, no. [laughs]
RB: In fact, you make no reference to any books, nor is any music (even when Warren takes piano lessons) mentioned.
NB: That was purposeful. I wanted to explore the themes of this story in a closed sanctuary without the infringement of popular culture and timely references of what was going on today. I didn’t want the potential for those interpretive components to affect the way these kids [in this story] are being read. In some ways, that was okay for what it was. One of the criticisms of the book is that it is too hermetically sealed.
RB: Let’s stop here for a moment. You are aware of the criticisms of your book?
NB: Oh, yeah.
RB: Reviews or anecdotal? Conversations with people you trust?
NB: Everything. [both laugh]
RB: You are paying attention to all this—isn’t that hard on you?
NB: Yeah, but I always just want to know. I want to know the good with the bad. And I accept it. I don’t think that I am perfect. I have a lot to learn, so the more I can get, good and bad together, the better.
RB: So you know, there will be some digressions here.
NB: That’s all right. I am all for digressions. [chuckles]
RB: When you mentioned going to school, I had wanted to ask who your teachers were.
NB: I went to Columbia for poetry.
RB: I have heard of poetry.
NB: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RB: I know one or two poets.
NB: Just so you weren’t expecting some illustrious fiction writer—
RB: As opposed to some unknown—
NB: —obscure, illustrious poet. [both laugh] I am definitely glad I went there.
RB: Is there an opening day speech that whoever is head of the program makes, suggesting you find another career?
NB: Well, yes and no. Not at the opening day but the closing day [both laugh]. You go in there and they sit you down—and there were ten people in my year—and they do make a big deal about saying, "Here you are. Lucky you." It’s self-important in a way that galvanizes your sense of confidence.
RB: Meaning everybody believes in what they are doing?
NB: Yeah, if only on the base level of being accepted. I didn’t love being there. [laughs] I went right from undergraduate to graduate school—and I am really glad I did that—but I was there to learn, and I was there to get this experience and to work with people that I felt would help me. I wasn’t there to improve my social life. I had a lot of friends in NY already. So I just went there for the sole purpose of getting the degree and learning. In that way I had an incredible experience. The person that was my main man, the guy who was really—
RB: You don’t want to use the word ‘mentor’?
NB: Yeah, he was sort of my mentor. He would hate that term.
RB: Is there another term he would prefer?
NB: Probably some French term. [He is] Richard Howard.
RB: Even I have heard of him.
NB: [laughs] I went there, and Lucie Brock-Broido was the head of the poetry division. She’s amazing. She is a very strange and alluring character and an amazing poet.
RB: How else would a poetess survive in the world if not having those qualities going for her?
NB: Oh, you should see her! She is every bit the poetess. She is amazing. But Richard Howard was the teacher that really supported me. When I was there the climate of the program was more lyric poetry, which is Lucie’s school of poetry. And I write narrative poetry.
RB: In the biographical sketch provided in the press materials, you are very serious in talking about your dedication to your work. You are interested in art (visual art) music and writing, and not emphasizing one over the other. That’s a very large boulder that you have placed on your shoulders, yes?
NB: It doesn’t feel like that. I would never describe it like that. It’s not oppressive and doesn’t impinge me, in any movement.
RB: I guess this is where my years betray me. From my end of life [both laugh], hearing the combination of interests that you have assumed for yourself, I see my own legs buckling under the weight. But, you are strong and young and hopeful. [laughs]
NB: I think of it as very empowering because they are very connected for me, and, I think, in engaging in all three forms, it makes them more complicated and more interesting and more challenging. It’s a huge source of inspiration for me to work in those different media.
RB: I try not to get caught up in these weblog debates, but I was looking at one I like very much called The Reading Experience, and there was a comment on reading some advice to young writers, which the web-logger, Daniel Green, took exception to. It was arguing that young writers acclimate themselves to the vagaries of the publishing-quote-unquote industry. That may be a legitimate issue, except I don’t see the industry as a monolith, at least from the writer’s point of view. You are a first-time published writer; what’s been your experience in getting the world to know your book and talking about your book? Help or obstacles?
NB: I had an atypical experience in getting this book published. I had been working on it by myself in secret for a couple of years, and then I had an agent at the time who I had gotten based on my having published a lot of poetry, and she was supportive, but when she read the book, ultimately she said, "I don’t know how I could sell this. It’s too bleak and depressing. I don’t know who is going to read it." I admire how frank she was with me. But it was not a good day. I felt good about it [the book]—I used to work at the New Yorker, and I asked some friends of mine there if they had any suggestions of who I could send it to. Within a short period of time, I ended up getting another agent. He was great, and then I worked on it a little bit more with him. He served as editor and an agent.
RB: Things have changed, haven’t they?
NB: Yeah. He never told me, "Change this, change that. You need to take out about 200 pages." It was about 550 pages at that point—"You can put them in at some point, but you can’t test the patience of the people who will be reading the book." I would rip out more and more pages and then we sent it out, which was on December 18, 2001; on the 22nd, the guy who would be my editor called me at home and said, "I think this is the best book I’ve read in ten years."
RB: How’d you feel?
NB: I was in shock. I thought it was a friend.
RB: That someone was goofing on you?
NB: Yeah. So that was a whirlwind, and it was obviously a good experience, and you get dropped into the context of this new step—the new way the book will be received and the identity for the book. It was shocking, but it was interesting, and the best thing about it was that Daniel Menaker was the editor at HarperCollins.
RB: He’s now at Random House.
NB: He was very open to me and to my input and my ideas. From the first day I met him and we started working together, it was a really positive experience. They [publishers] knew I had a lot of art background. I had all these drawings, and they were interested in those, and I had a pretty healthy, balanced mixture of expectations and being open to what was going to come. I didn’t know enough to really feel I could assert myself and be bossy. I had a really good relationship with all the sales people. My publicist was great. There are always parts where you feel that you wish you had gotten more coverage here. There are always minor disappointments along the way, and there continue to be, but I still have to pull back and say, "I had a really good experience. I got some really good reviews. I have people who are still behind the book."
RB: How has the thing we might as well call the “business” affected your writing and attitude about writing?
NB: The only thing that has changed about my relationship to my work is that I am more aware now when I am working on something new—
RB: —that there are readers?
NB: That there are readers. That there are reviewers and that there are aspects of the book that become part of the larger process of the business of publishing. Will there be an excerpt that could be a first serial rights deal? Will there be interest in a film deal based on this? Is there a cinematic quality to the book? I am aware of how the book is composed, based on how it could be received, in ways I that never knew about.
RB: I would bet there are people who would argue that is not a good thing.
NB: It’s not good if you let it determine the way you are producing.
RB: It’s almost like saying you are ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
NB: Right. Which is why I like to think that I have a balanced understanding of how that works. First and foremost, to me, is doing my work and writing about what I am trying to write about. And then hoping that there is somebody out there that wants to support it and is interested in—I write quieter books. I don’t write gimmicky, flashy, pop-culturey type of narratives.
RB: No Nannie Diaries.
NG: No Devil Wears Prada, science fiction—nothing. And that’s the way it is. I have a hard time conforming to other people’s expectations.
RB: You have friends that are writers?
RB: Any of them pissing and moaning about their experience?
NB: Which is why I am always able to sit back and say, "I’m fine." Any time I get a little bit ornery about something. Or I get bitter about something, I think, “You’re alright, don’t worry.” And the way to handle that is to just keep on working, just keep it going.
RB: Without going into a dissection of the book, I did note a summary of On This Day that suggested that both the character’s aunt and the sleazy, sociopath uncle from Canada were unscrupulous and devious and were after Warren and Joan’s inheritance. I didn’t read the aunt that way. Did I get her wrong?
NB: No, I mean it’s up for interpretation whether or not her motives are suspect or whether she is in cahoots with the uncle. Many people feel really sorry for her in the end. She kind of gets screwed. She becomes this product of a larger decision they have to make about who they are keeping in their lives. I think she is a sympathetic character. She’s strange, and she has always been strange, and they had to reevaluate the way she was and how they knew her to be their entire lives, and who she is now, with this new circumstance. Warren has more patience to try to figure out who she really is.
NB: Warren isn’t dealing with the same body of information that his sister Joan is.
NB: Right, most of the time.
RB: And the one big piece that you introduce, that Joan is aware of and he seemingly is not, is what explains her undertone of anger. Why did you want to write this story of two young adult orphans?
NB: I wanted to write about grief. And I wanted to write about the light behind grief that makes it as dark as it is. And the balance between those two forces. And I just chose this story as a way to explore those.
RB: You began our conversation saying that it was gratifying that people understood that there was this grief and terrible circumstances and yet there was hope. In my perception, the only thing that was hopeful was that they were young, that they had much of their lives ahead of them to live and to overcome what had happened. In their present lives, what is hopeful?
NB: The bond that they have together and the relationship that they are constantly figuring out. And that they are each choosing. The past is educating the present tense the entire time in the book. So, you are understanding what the current state is based on what took place in the past. It’s just this evaluative mechanism, where they remember things. Warren remembers things and has to decide if they are worthwhile, and taking them on and moving forward with that, or just leaving it. They figure out ways to cope, and they figure out ways to survive that are authentic and meaningful rather than just artificial gestures of stabilizing themselves.
RB: There is a distinction between surviving and thriving. Is that what you are saying, in a sense?
NB: The hope that is built in, is the fact that, in the present-tense parts of the book, you see them deeply connected, you see them laughing together and having a good time together. Considering their circumstances, there is a lot of meaning to that, a lot of significance that they are so closely bonded in a really honest way even though they are very different. And you know, hopefully, that when you finish the book, you don’t feel they are still entrenched in this terrible situation. That they won’t go anywhere and nothing will happen, or they will be used up and worthless. At the end, you have a sense that Warren has a direction and a future and Joan does, too, but they have very different expectations for what it is going to be.
RB: Might you visit this story again?
NB: No. [laughs] They wanted me to write a sequel. They wanted to know what is going to happen with these two people.
RB: What is your reason for not?
NB: I like the way this ends. I like the way—like I said, it’s somewhat hermetically sealed. I don’t think it would make much sense for me to—
RB: I bring it up because I have heard that before. Julian Barnes didn’t intend to continue the story of Talking it Over but ended up writing Love, Etc. And Richard Ford, after Independence Day, said he was not going to write another Frank-such-and-such story. Sequels do seem cliched and perhaps commercial: you wrote what you wrote and ended where you thought appropriate. On the other hand, the characters might haunt you.
NB: Yeah, so at this point, I would say no. It’s funny; many of my preoccupations came into writing this book, and a lot of ideas I wanted to write about. I feel relieved of those after having written this, so it feels good to move on, do something different.
RB: Other preoccupations?
NB: I was definitely preoccupied with writing about grief and writing about loss. I don’t don’t feel that anymore. It was cathartic.
RB: Did you have a happy childhood?
NB: Yeah, I mean, I had a childhood, yeah [both laugh], which is saying something. This was helpful.
RB: Does anyone have a happy childhood?
NB: No. Like I said, I think you are lucky if you have one. Some people don’t.
RB: That reminds me of a Richard Prior character, Mudball, and his riff where he says, "There are no old fools—you don’t grow old, being a fool."
NB: I am writing something new now, someone could look at it and say, "Oh, did you have a happy childhood?" I just like writing about people, writing about families. I like writing stories about the emotional lives of people. That’s interesting to me. Why people are the way they are, in a family or not.
RB: Have you figured it out, or is it an ongoing attempt?
NB: Yeah, why they are, based on who they have been and who they are related to and where they live, and in this circumstance [On This Day], who they will be, based on a completely new context that will take place. I think that’s interesting.
RB: What you are working on now, is it a story or a novel?
NB: A novel, yeah.
RB: So it’s poetry and long-form fiction?
NB: I write a lot of book reviews. [laughs]
RB: What do you call those?
NB: Non-fiction. [both laugh] I do a lot for Publisher’s Weekly. I have done them for the New York Times, and I will be receiving a book today to review for the Boston Globe.
RB: Do you have a critical theory that you approach reviewing with?
NB: I have a sensitivity to reviewing because of my experience, to the task, and to the weight of what a review can do, and how it affects all the different parts of publishing—the writer, the agent, the publisher. My approach, whether a book is good or bad, I try to figure out what the book is attempting to do and whether or not it is successful in doing that. Rather than I thought it was stupid. Or it failed in this regard. Or it’s not like the books I think it should be like. I only read non-fiction for Publisher’s Weekly, which I really enjoy because I like a little bit of a break.
RB: Are you aware of the teapot tempest regarding the New York Times Book Review and the amount of fiction/nonfiction they were/are reviewing?
NB: I’m not actually.
RB: Two women called the Book Babes at Poynter.com asked Bill Keller of the New York Times about the future of the Book Review as a new editor replaces Charles McGrath. And apparently, he said that there would be more non-fiction reviews, which upset champions of lit fiction who feel that there is already a skewing toward nonfiction. Does it matter whether a book is fiction or non-fiction in terms of what you read? Isn’t it still about good writing and telling a story?
NB: Good writing is always gratifying, but I definitely go to each genre with way different expectations and with different sets of emotional needs. You read fiction for more of an escape. You allow for more.
RB: I don’t see it that way. I am reading The Darkest Jungle about the first US Naval expedition to the Darien Gap in Central America in 1854. This reads to me like an Andrea Barrett novel. Talking to physicist Brian Greene about string theory, and especially about Time with a big “T”, was not a dull recitation of theory and facts.
NB: I am not saying they are mutually exclusive in terms of the product but in the way I approach it—what my expectations are.
RB: For me, it’s all escape. Opening a book is stepping out of this present moment and—
NB: Because I write more fiction than non-fiction—they seem to educate me in different ways. And I have to apply different sets of receptors.
RB: Do you read historical fiction?
NB: Not devotedly.
RB: I came across the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 a number of times in novels before I realized it was a real event—a fifty-foot wall of molasses escapes from a tank, killing thirty people and incurring much property damage—and now there is a book, The Dark Tide, which focuses on it. So, somehow, something that seemed fictional finally is fixed as a historical reality, but the story’s weight doesn’t change. Tom Mallon, Darin Strauss, Andrea Barrett, David Liss, Daniel Mason and others write wonderful stories based on some historical event or setting and my response or need to distinguish fiction from non-fiction is less urgent.
NB: Like Memoirs of a Geisha. I read that and I felt like I was learning about geisha culture as I was learning about the efforts to make these people real. It’s fascinating when it’s done well. Writing a historical novel is not what I am setting out to do at this point, though I do and have always loved history and have always loved those things that seem like fiction and that they actually really happened.
RB: As long as I am pursuing my own agenda—
RB: In so many ways, I see a failure to understand the richness of narratives everywhere that we decide that only certain places or contexts are sources of stories. Wasn’t A Beautiful Mind a compelling story as potent as any novel?
NB: The story translated to the cinema makes it even less real, meaningful.
RB: What is the reality we are talking about?
NB: Right. I am reading non-fiction because I like to learn about the things that I otherwise don’t know. One of the best historical novels I have ever read is The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. She is one of my favorite writers, anyway. She writes about historical characters and figures without any regard, essentially, to being historically accurate, though she is—her research is flawless. But she is much more interested in telling a story of, in that case, of a love that is determined by an intelligence rather than a passion. When it’s seamlessly done and beautifully done like that, you are being educated and seduced at the same time. There’s nothing better than that.
NB: I haven’t read that, but it sounds great.
RB: What is your everyday routine? Writing, going to a coffee shop?
NB: Yeah. No, I write in my apartment. I have three books going, to read and review. I am writing short fiction now, and I had a story taken at the Paris Review, which is nice. I am always trying to get myself published in one way or another. I am always trying to get poems published.
RB: How’s it going?
NB: It’s going well.
RB: I just found out my subscription to the Paris Review is imperiled.
RB: I guess it’s their way of saying I should renew. You are obliged or contracted for the second novel? No pressure?
RB: Your book was a critical success, what about sales? Was the publisher happy?
NB: They had really big expectations for it. It came out at an awkward time when the war happened and my editor left, so it had a slow start.
RB: That is what many writers complain about—that the editor that signs them is not there when the book is finally published.
NB: Yeah. I don’t blame anybody. I felt like it was just the circumstance. I would feel more upset if it didn’t get good reviews. I would have been much more disappointed. They have high hopes for the paperback, and I try not to get too worked up.
RB: Is pride a factor in living in NYC? Would you feel defeated if you couldn’t navigate its demands?
NB: I went there because I really wanted to live there. I really wanted to be there.
RB: As so many aspirants to various stations in life do.
NB: And I felt like it was the place out of anywhere else— that it was the place where I could do all the things I wanted to do. And that would be acceptable. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. But I knew that I did all these different disciplines and that if there was one place that would possibly embrace that, it would be NY. Not that I am a huge success, but it’s been going pretty well. It was the right choice. I went to school in Italy for a while, and I loved living abroad and having that experience. If I moved from NY, which I still think about sometimes, I would move back to my rural roots. I wouldn’t go hallway.
RB: It doesn’t seem like there is a necessity to physically locate in NY given all the methods of communication and information conveyance we have.
RB: So what really is driving people to NY? It hasn’t slowed the immigration of young hopefuls from all over?
NB: People do come there for various—
RB: To avoid loneliness?
NB: You can feel really lonely—it’s just a really exciting place to be, and it has different identities of excitement and in every little area you go to. Where I live—uptown near Columbia, has its own vibe. A lot of my friends live downtown, and you go down there and it’s a totally different scene. I feel like you can be—if ever I feel overly urbanized, you can walk in the park.
RB: Aren’t you glad people thought about including that in the city?
NB: Fredrick Law Olmstead, yeah. I do like getting out of the city, especially in the summer, and I feel lucky that I can.
RB: I expect we will meet again over the course of your career, and I will be interested to see how your love affair with NY plays out. My own sense is, it is about how much energy one can devote to the urban life.
NB: When people come and visit me who don’t live there — it is natural for me to walk somewhere or take the subway; that’s just my life. But it isn’t an everyday occurrence for most people. The subway can be dirty and it can be intimidating, but it’s so great. You can walk down the street in the richest and most fashionable area and see ten different types of people. Where else can you get that?
RB: Maybe it comes down to how long will it be new information?
NB: When I have a family, I think it will be a hard place. Not only because it’s so expensive, but because I grew up in a rural setting and that was meaningful to me. I would like to have a family away from the intimidation of life there. I don’t feel jaded and embittered, and I think my family wouldn’t say I was. New York hasn’t changed who I am. You definitely have to have a way of dealing with living in the city.
RB: Perhaps it’s because you are a poet?
NB: I wrote this book about rural, pastoral Maine in New York. All the poems I write, I don’t write about the city, all that. I write in NY. Maybe it just hasn’t affected me, seeped into my sensibilities to the point where it erodes.
RB: Well, thank you.
NB: Thank you.
© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing