Antonya Nelson is the author of six collections of short stories, including The Expendables (whose title story received first place in American Fiction 88, judged by Raymond Carver), In the Land of Men, Family Terrorists, Female Trouble, Some Fun and Nothing Right; and four novels: Talking in Bed, Nobody’s Girl, Living to Tell and most recently Bound. Born in 1961 and raised in Wichita, she now splits her time between New Mexico, Telluride and the University of Houston, where she teaches in the MFA and Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing.
Bound is a haunting exploration of autobiographical importance to Nelson: she was a teenager when the BTK (Bind Torture Kill) serial killer went on his first killing spree in her hometown. The novel is more than a scary story of sick man; it’s an empathetic journey of a woman whose best friend has died and willed her teenage daughter, Catherine, to Cattie, a woman who is as unsure of her ability to mother as Catherine is of being a part of her life. Yes, BTK has come back, 30 years later (as he did in real life), but this is not as central to the plot as you may think. It’s about domesticity — or the fear thereof. It’s about connections to our past, about envisioning new futures. The chapters in Bound are as well-sewn as any of Nelson’s best stories.
This interview was conducted over the phone while Antonya was with her family in New Mexico.
JAIME KARNES: You’ve written four novels now (your latest, Bound, was released late 2010) and six collections of short stories. Do you prefer one form versus the other?
ANTONYA NELSON: I think, temperamentally, I’m more suited to write the short story. I have a short attention span, and I like the story form. Maybe I think of it as a higher art form than the novel. I think the novel permits writers to hide a lot of flaws, or to be indulgent and sloppy. The short story doesn’t permit you to do that. I also think I’m focused on minor shifts in individuals; I’m attendant to family interactions and dramas that are relatively small — moments that I can empathize within a short story that I probably couldn’t in a novel. I also consider myself plot impaired, and I think you can hide that flaw quite handily in a short story.
KARNES: I’m curious about your plot impairment. As a grad student, I was constantly being told to plot. That plotting a story could save it. But I read somewhere that you teach your students to “shape” a story rather than worry about plot. Could you speak a bit about that?
NELSON: The great thing about reading the masters of the short-story form is you come to realize that often times those pieces are not particularly plotted, yet have a sense of rising action and intensifying conflict. In other words, something is making you forge ahead, and it’s frequently not plot. It’s been really useful for me to study how stories are created, to see how I can create a narrative arc and a sense of drama without it, perhaps, being plot driven.
KARNES: It must happen organically for you, because I would argue that many of your stories have a definite plot.
NELSON: I’m happy to hear that they succeed in some way, but it’s been nice for me to move beyond the early workshop comments I got in graduate school, which were always along the lines of “this is a nice vignette” or “you can write a good sentence, but nothing happens.” Until I began shaping my material, or understanding that a period of time needed to pass, or that some tense situation needed to be unveiled, I didn’t move past my peers’ comments. But those were the lessons I learned by reading, and reading like a writer, the masters of sometimes-oblique, non-plot-driven fiction, people like Ray Carver, Eudora Welty, or Alice Munro.
KARNES: Do you feel you pass this on to your students?
NELSON: I hope so. No one was telling me about shape; I figured that out on my own through teaching. I became a teacher — I’ve been in one kind of workshop situation or another since I was a senior in college — because I like the study of literature from the point of view of writing and writers. Once you start unpacking the stories you love and searching for the methods by which they work, they begin to make sense in a different way — instead of simply that visceral response one has in reading like a reader. Reading like a writer can strip away some part of reading’s pleasure — not entirely. But reading to understand methodology or to borrow technique or to emulate style — that’s different than being a person who enjoys escaping the world through a book.
KARNES: It’s odd that you mention Carver, though he is a master, because I would argue that stylistically you are nothing like Carver or Hempel or Davis. You’re not a minimalist.
NELSON: Hempel and Carver were the people when I was in graduate school that made short-story writing sexy again. And they wrote stories in which very little happened. I think it gave an entire generation of writers the ability to explore their navels, which was tremendously liberating. Their influences may be less apparent in my work to my reader than they are to me, as practitioner. I don’t think stylistically, in terms of syntax or sentence structure, that I am like Hempel or Carver or any of the minimalists, but I think in terms of the emphasis on singular moments, I am. That and the fact that both those writers prefer the short form had some sway for me.
KARNES: So you’re more comfortable in the short form?
NELSON: I always start with the notion that I am going to write a short story. I don’t mind writing a novel, but I never set out to write one. For me, whenever I sit down to write, I imagine I’m committing to a short story, and when the material won’t conform to that, I know that I have to make it a novella perhaps, but when it won’t conform to even those restrictions, only then does it become a novel.
KARNES: Is that how Bound became to be a novel instead of short story?
NELSON: I knew early on that had to be a novel because I wanted the factual capture of a serial killer to provide a shape. But I was more interested in the fictional characters who inhabit the same landscape with him. Those creations had to converge in a context of historical accuracy. I didn’t want the serial killer to overwhelm the story, but I wanted all the parts that I included to be present. I wouldn’t have been able to do this in a short story.
KARNES: I think that most of the chapters in Bound read like short stories — they have those singular moments of which you spoke. Do you do that intentionally?
NELSON: No. I do not. I’d really like to be able to write a novel well, but I don’t think I’m inclined to be a novelist.
KARNES: Oh, I didn’t mean that as an insult — if anything I meant it as a compliment.
NELSON: I know. People kept telling me to think of it as a long story, and, that’s the thing: long stories can sag, and I think the novel is a difficult form for me because I think in story. I think of the cycle of day, so having to commit myself to writing a novel(s) was really difficult.
KARNES: Your collection of stories Nothing Right came out in 2009, and the novel in 2010. Do you work on stories simultaneously as you’re writing a novel?
NELSON: I usually only work on one thing at a time, and if it falls apart, I back away from it and start something new. Often times I end up merging stories. If one isn’t textured enough, sometimes it’s necessary to marry two fragments to make them work together, which I think of as a cool challenge that I enjoy. But to answer your question, I have a three-book contract with Bloomsbury, and the story collection was near completion when I signed that contract, so I knew that I had two years to focus on writing Bound, and I knew that I wanted it to be a novel.
KARNES: What is the third book?
NELSON: (laughing) It’s a novel. No, I don’t know what it is actually. I left it open-ended. But everyone in New York would prefer a novel. I don’t know what they’re going to get.
KARNES: Do you write craft essays?
NELSON: I thought that you said “crap.”
KARNES: (laughing) No, craft.
NELSON: (laughing) Occasionally. But, because I teach, I feel that I’m always writing craft essays in response to my student work. My end notes to students end up being thorough, so writing craft essays would be fairly boring. I feel like to write something is to discover something new, and, for me, writing about craft wouldn’t be that.
KARNES: Does teaching help with your own writing?
NELSON: It helps a ton. It forces me to read books. To reread books. It keeps my eye on craft, and I get to teach it to a smart group of people. I get to kneel at the feet of writers who’ve come before me, who seem superior in all ways from other paltry offerings. I love it as a discipline. It’s humbling, but it also feels passionate — a religious practice. I get to be the person preaching the religious study, the reverence of the written word. At a time when, it seems to me, English Departments have become loaded with theory and sociology and psychology, it’s nice to teach the real passion of the written word. Not to examine it through a critical lens. I find that type of reading tiresome and disappointing.
KARNES: And not helpful for the young writer?
NELSON: Not helpful for anybody. Studying writing as if it’s a sociological text is just boring. I’ve been to so many literature professors’ houses where there are no books. It’s appalling to me. I think creative writing is keeping some understanding of close reading and appreciation of writing as an art form alive.
KARNES: What advice do you have for the first-time novelist?
NELSON: I would say, first of all, be sure you’re temperamentally suited to it. The market might want it, but you may not be the perfect practitioner of it. I didn’t know what I was better at, and as a young writer, I believed the novel was the superior form, and that stories were little stepping-stones. First, you wrote stories, and then later, when you got better at it, you could write a novel. Now I know that’s a ridiculous way to think of the art form. I think there are people who are more tuned in to writing a novel; they think more novelistically; they think in terms of larger groups of people, larger environments and settings, larger spans of time — a social world. Whereas, I’m much more interested in confined spaces, one family or a singular relationship. I think if a writer, early on, knows that her best talents are in one form or the other, she should make peace with that, rather than working against her talent. I would say, find your strengths and work on them, don’t thwart them and beat yourself up in the process. It’s akin to saying, “I want that guy to like me, but he hates me,” instead of going with the guy who actually does like you.
KARNES: Sounds about right. I want to ask you the same question I ask most writers, and I know it’s fairly loaded — not easy to answer, but I was hoping you might share your thoughts on when you know a story is finished.
NELSON: These days, I have the sense of the beginning of a story or the middle or even the end, and, one of those three things I have a feel for, so writing is actually making the other two parts fall into place. For me, it’s organic, but I work them a lot. I go back through and through and through. I use that phrase — work them — the way a painter might. You have to keep going over the canvas — adding and subtracting until it seems complete. I also don’t like tidy endings, overwritten; like when a book has ten stop points. I don’t mind, in fact, I prefer books and stories that don’t do this. But peoples’ aesthetics are different, and they change over time, too. So I know a story is done when, for me, it’s reached a level of completeness that I can sense, and see and feel. It could be that the person who reads it doesn’t have that sense of it, and that’s okay.
KARNES: I read that you are interested in fiction that has been modeled from a previous work, work that pays a type of homage. I believe you cited Michael Cunningham’s The Hours as an example. Can you speak a bit more about this?
NELSON: Again, I’ll reference Carver; his story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is modeled from Chekhov’s trilogy of stories (“Gooseberries,” “Man in a Case,” and “About Love,”), which were modeled on Plato’s Symposium. I love the idea that a writer might have a response or an answer when taking on these classic works. There is a challenge in remaking. That’s what interests me the most. I like when it’s hidden but you recognize the subtly when reading the work. The technique, the borrowing, provides form.
KARNES: Now when you say form, are you referring to the shape of which we spoke?
NELSON: Right, but a form really. A beginning, middle and end. I’m attracted to that. Bound begins with a tape playing of Heart of Darkness, and I love that story, so I hope, in a way, that my book pays homage to Conrad.
KARNES: That model is invisible in Bound.
NELSON: It is invisible, but I know it’s there, and I wouldn’t really want anybody to make the connection, for it to be so obvious as to be trite. Yet the idea that people have this darkness inside is certainly at the center of my book.
KARNES: One last question: If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you do?
NELSON: That’s easy. I’d own a restaurant and bar. I love to cook for people, which is very opposite of writing.
KARNES: It’s not solitary.
NELSON: Exactly. But I love it. I cook every night here for a huge group of people. Our neighbors and our kids and whoever else stops by, and I love it. I love the atmosphere of collaborative chaos. It’s so unlike writing; you don’t want it to surprise you, like you want characters in a story to. You want the recipe to turn out exactly as advertised. Nobody wants the ingredients to take over and go in some opposite direction. But that’s a great thing in fiction. It’s such a powerful moment when the characters come to life and do something completely surprising to the writer. That’s just a disaster in the kitchen. It might seem weird to have that opposite impulse, so maybe if I were the owner of a restaurant, I’d be wishing I had some solitary existence.
Antonya Nelson’s short story “Chapter Two” appeared in the March 26th issue of The New Yorker.
Antonya Nelson author photo courtesy Marion Ettlinger