Thisbe Nissen grew up in Manhattan and attended Oberlin College, where she participated in the undergraduate creative writing program. She is a graduate of The University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and a James Michener Fellow in that program. She is the author of a collection of short stories, Out of the Girls' Room and into the Night and her recently published novel, The Good People of New York. Recently, while on her book tour in support of her recent novel, Thisbe posted a daily journal of her experiences on the road. Thisbe lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where she is at work on her next novel.
Robert Birnbaum: The title of your book could in some circles be considered provocative, as in, "What good people?" or, "Are there good people?"
Thisbe Nissen: Can I ask you what you mean by provocative?
RB: You're asking me a question?
TN: Yeah, now I'm asking you a question. Sorry.
RB: Normally, one doesn't put 'good people' and 'New York' in the same sentence.
TN: Okay. It's really funny. It came up a lot when Hillary Clinton was running for office. If you plug the title of the book into a search engine on the Internet, you come up mostly with speeches that either Hillary or Rick Lazio made during their campaigns, speaking to the good people of New York. It's such a pretension of that old fashioned "you good people who are coming out to vote for me." The final scene, which the phrase "the good people of New York" comes from, was actually an anecdote told to me where it was, actually not New York, but "the good people of Chicago."
RB: It is what the first Mayor Richard Daley would say. So the title of the book was arrived at late in your writing?
TN: When I decided to use that anecdote, that was it. I just knew that it had to be called The Good People of New York. There is something ironic about me writing a book with this title. I have spent a lot of years grumbling about the meanness of everybody in New York. Maybe it's me getting partially past that. I've been out of New York long enough that I have stopped and grown up a little bit so that I'm not putting so much blame on that city for making me the miserable teenager that I was.
RB: So it's a heartfelt title.
TN: Yes, it's a very heartfelt title.
RB: Do you mind that your book would be referred to as a comic novel?
TN: There are two notions in my head of a comic novel. One I really like a whole lot, and one I find a little fluffy and I'm not that big a fan of. A book like MOO—Jane Smiley's book—I would feel comfortable calling a comic novel. I wouldn't be interested in writing a book like MOO. It seems very much there for the comedy of it and the crazy escapades. I couldn't write a book like this; I don't think it would sustain my attention for very long. I think of someone like Lorrie Moore, who is one of the funniest writers I read, and yet she is horribly, horribly sad and real and poignant and yet there is an incredible humor at play there. I am always rolling when I read her...the word play and the sarcasm, it's hysterical and the characterizations are ridiculously funny. And yet it's a desperately, desperately sad book. In that way, I am so thankful for Lorrie Moore's sense of humor. You can't write a story like People Like That Are The Only People Here about the child who has cancer, and she does it with humor and it's all the more desperately sad...I wouldn't have been able to read that story if it was written strait-laced. My world operates in humor. I love people who tell stories that make me laugh and they can be horribly sad stories. I didn't want to laugh.
RB: I just thought of this: you can attach 'comic' to a novel but it sounds stilted if you say 'comic short story' or 'comic novella.' Anyway, does anyone consciously write a comic novel?
TN: Wouldn't imagine that Jane Smiley sat down to write a comic novel when she wrote MOO? I don't know why that's the only one that comes to my mind. I also have been thinking and talking a lot about David Schickler's Kissing in Manhattan that just came out. Which I loved and walked around holding this book to my chest for the weekend I was reading it, enchanted and enamored. I don't presume to say it...I don't think that David Schickler would say. "I wrote a comic novel." I'm not even sure it's a novel, it's a connected collection with novelistic tendencies. I was rolling. I was reading passages out loud and just couldn't keep reading for how hard I was laughing. They weren't supposed to be funny stories. People are funny...
RB: The hardest thing to do is write something funny. The intention is certainly a big hill to climb...
TN: I really have been known to say, quite defiantly, that I hate comedy. Part of me really does. Things that attempt—that set out to be pure comedy—are so tiresome. Half the movies in the movie theaters, these things that set out to be funny, I have never been able to watch. I've never been able to watch Saturday Night Live. I find it so heartbreaking when people are standing there desperately trying to get a laugh out of you. All it does is really make me cringe. I can't really stand it. And yet, I love comedy. Things that wind up being funny. From what you were just saying...this might be too broad a statement to make. But if you sit down to write something that you say, "I want to write a novel that is funny." That is probably the worst way to write anything funny in the world. I think you sit down and write and you see what comes out. And then you deal with it. Probably you get into the worst writing box you can get yourself into, if you knew, "I want my tome to be funny." Or anything for that matter. "I want this to be poignant and wrenching." "I want this to be deeply affecting." You are going to screw yourself that way.
RB: Setting a certain kind of goal before you do it asks for a measure of contrivance...you are just setting yourself up?
TN: Maybe that's exactly it. I would never sit down to...I sit down with some characters. I sit down with a scene I want to get on paper. I sit down with an idea. I think if I sat down knowing...there's too much end product in that. Too much thought of, "I want this to be something that it is." I don't sit down with that kind of idea in my head at all when I'm writing. I'm sitting down and starting really, really tiny. I think if I even started think of this as a novel or a book that I'm writing, that's a little too much. You are in the scene; you are with the character. You're going where they go, you're doing what they do. If it's funny, it's funny. And if it's sad, it's sad. I have to stay so focused on whatever little thing that I am doing...it's up to someone else. Maybe that's the critic's place, in the end, to say, "It's a comic novel." Or whoever writes the jacket blurb. I don't think it's the writer's place at all.
RB: A book as funny as yours might lead to it being designated as a comic novel. And if that were the case, would that somehow ghettoize it?
TN: I haven't run into it yet. It hasn't been out for very long so I don't know what I'm going to run into. People have said, "You're funny." Or, "There are things about this that are funny." Most of the time when I am being funny I am not writing slapstick, it's not gratuitous humor. If it were purely gratuitous humor and actually now when I read back over it, some of it that I wrote so long ago, there is part of me that the editor comes in now and I'm reading and I think, "Oh, that is such gratuitous humor. And it was so fun to do when I was doing it. Does it really need to be there?"
RB: Do you write when you are sad?
TN: Yes. I probably write a lot better when I'm sad.
RB: Why is that?
TN: I'm more reflective...
RB: There is such buoyancy in your work. It's hard to think that it would be the product of an emotional setting in which you are not...
TN: I often feel when talking about my work in a workshop or with someone who has read it, I feel like I'm in intense psychoanalysis. I was for a very long time a decidedly not-happy person. I spent many years doing not much more than crying a lot. On the outside I came across as being buoyant, ebullient and bubbly. For a long time that wasn't at all what was going on inside. Now the outside and the inside are a little more in line. I know that in my personality there is a good deal of that. I am gregarious and I am a ham. I like telling funny stories and I like that buoyancy. No, it wasn't written in all happiness. It's me sitting alone and writing and conjuring.
RB: So how much has your immediate emotional state to do with what you are imagining?
TN: It very much goes both ways. Sometimes you are writing to get yourself out of whatever mood you are in. If I'm really low, if I'm not doing well in my own life, maybe I want to sit down and go somewhere else. Maybe I want to write about a ridiculous family reunion in Nebraska, to not be in whatever my present emotion is. Also, often times you sit down to work on something and the tone of what you are working on affects the mood you are in. The novel I am working on now, I keep thinking, "...the readers of The Good People of New York if they think they are in for a feel-good novel, god what are they going to do when they get this Osprey Island one?" It's not up at all. It's a pretty dark novel. It's turning out to be a pretty dark thing. It's been a little rough. We had a long winter in Iowa this year. I was hard at work in February and March and it was really messing with me. I was in perspectives of a woman who was about to kill herself. It was pretty knee-down in some places that weren't really nice to go at all. And it was hard for me to separate that. "Am I about to fall into a depression that I'm really scared to fall into? Or is this about the writing I'm doing and I'm going to be able to separate it? Am I falling down this hole with Lorna or is this me?" And I was trying to figure that out at the end of the day.
RB: Isn't that when you are most connected to your work? Is there anything more pure than that? How could you not suffer when a character is suffering?
TN: I am simply nodding. It is very affecting. Maybe you know you are really inside it if you are feeling that much. If you are able to dash it off and not be affected maybe you have to question what kind of veracity is going to come through in that scene. If I'm not affected by it, do I think a reader is going to be?
RB: Sometimes I watch something with my young son and he gets frightened, I say to him, "Oh it's only a cartoon or a video. It's make believe. Nothing bad is going to happen." When actually, he has it exactly right. How is it that we assign such weight to make-believe? You just wrote a story, made something up, and how is it that it has emotional impact that takes you one place or another?
TN: Because it so resonant with so many other things. Yes, you can tell a little kid, "Don't be scared. You can still go to sleep tonight." If you are looking at more complex forms of art, art that is attempting to be a reflection of real life and real emotions, then you are asking that people be affected. Even if we just stick with books, the books that I hold closest to me are the ones that bring me to different emotional levels. You are reading about something that is related to your life somehow...you're reading about the death of a character and it is affecting you because people have died in your life and you are bringing your knowledge of that to it. And you are coping with whatever you have been through by reading this story. It's why people talk to each other. It's why people tell stories. I feel like I spend more time than anything sitting down with friends where all we are doing is: "You tell a story. And I tell a story." And we are understanding our own lives through the stories that other people tell. I tend to cling to those stories and I 'm dying to hear everyone's stories about things they've been through and what happened. I'm able to understand my own choices, somehow through hearing about other people's choices. I desperately relate and I'm so thankful to them when I am incredibly emotionally affected. I will see that movie over and over again, the one that brought me to tears. "Why did it do that to me?" I'm back and I'm analyzing it.
RB: Why are people so fascinated by the writing craft and writers? Or at least those people that are fascinated...there's something about it that it's like a never-ending story. What's the special status of writers and writing? Is there a secret there?
TN: Do you have any answers?
RB: My attempt at an answer is that I agree about there being something essential about story telling and sharing stories. Which is really all human beings might have in common, might be the human essence.
TN: If we go on that train of thought, I wonder if the fascination with writers and writing is that when you sit down to share stories with someone you know—you were there—you have all the other clues, aside from the story they are telling you. You know what they are doing with their hands, when they are telling it to you, what their house looks like. You know what they are drinking in their teacup. You know that person who is sharing the story. When you read a piece of literature, you definitely feel a story is being shared with you and you have an emotional connection and experience, but you don't know who has shared that story and under what circumstances. Or what's brought that story into being. That's where the fascination is. I certainly have it myself. You read a book that you love and you want to know—who is the person who created it?
RB: Does that transfer to other narrative forms? Do you want to know the screenwriter? The newspaper reporter?
TN: It's murkier there. And it doesn't seem like such a direct connection. You read a book and there is one author. And you know that that person sat in their house or their coffee shop or their car or wherever they wrote that and they put every single one of those words down on paper and now I have it here. And it is a direct link from that person to me. Maybe they have it in a murkier way with actors. Because actors are so clearly putting on other personas which gets people confused.
RB: Movies stars are celebrated for their artifice...
TN: There is absolutely the artifice and that's part of it. There are actors, in my own life...I've seen them, the works that they have done, and feel, aside from crushes...I for a long time—if he had not died I would probably still—truly believed that River Phoenix and I would have lots to talk about. Despite the fact that he was adorable. That feeling of "I've seen that person's work. I seen something flickering there behind the eyes." Granted that I know that 80 million other teenage girls felt that they had a deep personal connection with River Phoenix. My mother wept for three days when James Dean died. And sent flowers to his grave and felt that she and James Dean had...With writers I would imagine it's certainly fewer people—the comparison of the number of people who read and who go to movies—there's a handful of people in the world that actually read books. Or read books to which they have an emotional connection.
RB: What happens when you go to a small town and you tell people you are a writer?
TN: They say, "Oh, a journalist?" "No, I write fiction." "Oh, like John Grisham?" "No, not really." People who know writers, there's still a fascination. For people who don't there's that, "So you sit alone in your house all day and you make up stories? That's weird." I was going to say something about that icon thing that's different with people in movies and actors. People do seek out the writer. I was at the BEA [trade show] and somebody introduced me to Richard Russo and this woman was waiting to talk to him. You had this sense that wherever he goes there is some woman waiting to talk to Richard Russo, to pour out their heart and feel like, "You have written this person that is me. How did you know?" This woman clearly felt as though she had a desperately personal relationship with Russo who gets to smile and say, "I'm so glad you are enjoying the book. Thank you." But there is that desperate connection...
RB: It's strange isn't it, that as a writer I suspect you want that strong reaction from a reader, but when you get it it's frightening...Don't you want your readers to be that connected to you?
TN: Absolutely. Absolutely. And most of the time you have the nice side of that, which is maybe somehow you hear through the grapevine or someone writes you a letter or something, that someone is having a profound experience because of something you did and you can feel incredibly wonderful about that. But when it comes to the face-to-face thing, it's like "Oh god I'm supposed to be back in my house hearing about this second hand." When people were saying, "Thisbe what are you going to do? Are you really gonna chat with every single person?" And I can't, not. I don't have that capacity at all, to put somebody off. Or say, "I'm just the writer who did this." I feel like if I write something and someone has had an emotional experience from it and they want to share it...
RB: You can't turn that off, is what you are saying.
TN: I could not turn someone away and say, "I'm just the writer who wrote this." Like I'm not interested that your father died of cancer. In some sense my fascination with stories does truly make me fascinated by hearing your father died of cancer, and thus my story meant something to you, and why, and what was it like when your father died, and how did you deal? I can't help my fascination with that. It doesn't bode well for the lines of people waiting to have their book signed because I'm not a speedy chatterer in that way.
RB: Isn't there something disrespectful and graceless when someone makes all sorts of assumptions that because you've written this poignant emotional tale that moved them that therefore you have an obligation to them to hear all about them? Okay, if you are a reasonably formed human being you pay deference to the writer, maybe you send a note, or you say thank you, this is great and then you move on...
TN: Yes, and that is the respectful and the kind thing to do. As a writer I would be very honored to receive that letter and those compliments. Maybe it's a very emotional thing like, "You did this to me and I want to tell you about it" and not realizing that a lot of people have the read the book...people over step respectful bounds often.
RB: I can see that the power of the emotional response to a work of fiction may obscure a reader's judgement about whether the world cares...
TN: You've probably have heard so many writers tell stories. It seems that there are so many stories circulating about people coming up to them and saying, "Thank you. You disguised the details about me well." And you are like, "I don't even know you." Or people coming up to you saying, "How did you know that that had happened?"
RB: Having witnessed the ardency of some fans, I can understand why the famous recluses like Salinger and Pynchon avoid society. In one of Julian Barnes's earlier novels he meditates on the question of why we want to know the creator behind the creation, why knowing the work isn't sufficient? But we do. Past reason...
TN: But we do. I am the most guilty of it...
RB: I am, too.
TN: Maybe it's something very human. I hate to make pronouncement about things that are human. Do we not crave emotional connections?
RB: It's hard to make an emotional connection to an inanimate object. As you are reading it, a book may be very vivid, even alive, but after that you are left with something else.
TN: Well, you are left with these characters who hopefully, if a writer has done a good job, live for you as real people. Maybe it's a totally misplaced and desperate attempt to keep a connection to these people who've become your friends or your loved ones or your lovers or whatever they've become, in the course of this book. And they are not people and they do not live and you grab to the closest fleshy thing, which is the person who gave those people life. And you say, "You're real. Can't I touch you? Can I get some of that emotional satisfaction that I'm craving out of you?" Misplaced, but wholly understandable, too. Salon.com has this table talk, little posting discussions going on, and they have a books folder and within that there's a short fiction discussion...a million discussions about short fiction. I happen to have become part of this discussion a couple years ago when it started and I check in everyday and see what people are talking about. There's this whole category, like Literary Characters You've Fallen in Love With, for people to go on about the characters they have loved. There is something that absolutely fascinates me about that. There are people going about, "I love Franny...I want to kiss her cute freckled nose." Actually, a guy wrote to me saying he really liked my novel, "I have to admit I feel a little like the high school English teacher [in the book]. Miranda was hot I kind of really wanted to hang out with her, too." This feeling like do I have pedophilic tendencies? And I'm fascinated by that. I read Charles Baxter's Shadow Play and...
RB: I loved that novel.
TN: I loved that book. You meet Wyatt sitting up on that rooftop sketching and I thought, "I love him." And he walks around with that pet rat on his shoulder and I thought, "I'm looking for Wyatt. Where is my Wyatt? I want Wyatt." When I then some years after met Charles Baxter, there was a weird thing that had to go on, "Oh he's not Wyatt at all. He's this lovely man." Wyatt was character. He doesn't exist.
RB: He is an example of a writer who if he lived in New York or on the east coast would be much more celebrated than he is living in a place called Michigan...
TN: He doesn't mind. He loves his life in Michigan.
RB: I'm sure. What have you learned in Iowa?
TN: I have learned to breathe in Iowa. Iowa has been a wonderful, wonderful place for me. I think I knew I was heading in that direction, really early on. I was a very unhappy person growing up in New York. And truly did blame it on that pace and the focus of life there. Everything was so fast and so superficial. There was so little interaction that happened on a regular basis that felt like it had any meaning, whatsoever. I really did flee. I was reading the college catalogues in ninth grade, ready to get the hell out of there. I wanted small town. I ended up going to Oberlin in Ohio and I wanted quiet and I wanted [a place] where when you had a conversation with someone it wasn't like seeing the same person on the bus for twenty years and you never acknowledge one another. Or you stop at the same coffee shop everyday, the woman says, "Thank you, have a nice day. Next please." I feel like I was a Midwesterner born in the wrong place. I got to Ohio and Oberlin is a little oasis. There's not too much interaction with Ohio at large, you are pretty much in your private liberal arts college.
RB: Wasn't Oberlin a stop on the Underground Railroad?
TN: Yes. It's a wonderful little town. And there is interaction between the town and the college. I don't mean to imply that it's just unto itself. I felt like I was making my way there. When I finally got to Iowa, I felt like, "Oh my God, I can really breathe here." And it may sound to other people quintessential Midwest quaintness. I don't experience it that way. I experience it as something very real. When I walk in to the Post Office, Leroy says, "Hey, Thisbe how are you?" And I say, "I'm good. How's it been here? Busy?" The Midwest is earnest. There is no fashion in the Midwest, there is no "this is the cool thing to do." Or the "cool place to go." You go to that bar because that's where your friends hang out. You eat at that restaurant because that's where you like the food or it's the only restaurant around to eat at. You talk to people because they are there. You smile at people when you pass them on the street because that's the nice thing to do. There is such a level of honesty about people's interaction. It is not superficial niceties or at least it's not the way I experience it. It really feels like people honestly living their lives and trying to be kind and respectful to the people around them.
RB: How does the thing that would seem to be a norm become so special? Tell someone from Wisconsin or Minnesota this...
TN: ...about how earnest they are, they would say, "What the hell are you talking about?"
RB: What have you learned at the Writers' Workshop?
TN: I learned a lot and mostly from the people who were in it with me, who were really serious about what they were doing. And they came to this little town in Iowa and dropped their life, whatever it was, because they just wanted to write and there were a lot of people who were really passionate about just doing that and about sharing their stories and trying to be the best writers that they could be and trying to help other people be the best writers they could be. That's the best sense of the workshop. That kind of community sharing and that's the part that I take a way from it and feel tremendously fortified. I also learned a lot about the shitty...
TN: ...pressures, competitiveness...
RB: Seven or eight hundred applications for twenty-five places...
TN: Uh huh, and then those twenty-five who are there, feeling like, "Are you better than me? Are you are worse than me?" Every story you pick up asking yourself, "Am I this good?" It's really hard to be in that sort of atmosphere and not feel that kind of competition creep in. And you fight it down however you can. Or you don't. For me I fought to stay away from it. I fought to try and say, "I'm in workshop to try and learn. Thank you all for reading this and giving me your opinion. Maybe your opinion is going to help, maybe not." You take what you can take from it and you find a place to leave the rest of it behind. I don't mean to put on rosy glasses about the whole thing. It seems very much the thing to implement to get you through something like the Workshop where there's a lot of criticism and a lot of stuff that could hurt or throw you.
RB: You say 'could'?
TN: It does. Maybe 'could' in the way that I'm learning now about having to deal with reviews. It seems like I want to listen to it all and then I want to know what can I take, what's going to be helpful to me. Is someone going to say something about my book and I go, "Oh god, you know what, they're right. I could have done that differently. I can learn from that."
RB: Of course. Don't you start out knowing that, of course, you could have done it differently? Given a different time frame and other things...if you wrote this book a year from now wouldn't you have written a different book?
TN: Sure, I wouldn't write this book a year from now. It wouldn't be the compelling project a year from now. But what can you learn for the next time, what resonates. There are people in the Workshop who I greatly valued as readers who weren't particularly sympathetic to my project at hand, who are going to say, "What are you doing, you're writing about little girls? Who cares?" But something about the way that they were critical was helpful. There were other people who were not particularly helpful. You get a story back and someone writes on it, "This is sentimental and nostalgic, and I don't know why I have to be reading it." And you say, "Uh! Thank you very much." You learn to take what can be useful to you and to find a place in the yard to bury the rest and hope it doesn't come back in the next flood to haunt you.
RB: I was recently reading a 200-page novel and having a tough time with it, but since I was going to talk to the author, I had to finish it. And on page 162, I came upon a passage that, BAM!—I, all of a sudden, understood something as if I had cracked a code...was it bad writing before? Was I in a bad mood? Am I stupid? Am I obliged to like all that I read? What is the benchmark of respect one accords to the work? I don't know what the question is here, but I hope you know what I mean. Isn't the best you can do to have some level of honesty?
TN: Yes, exactly. And you learn who the people are whose exchanges do that. Maybe it would help that person to hear that, "Something happened right here on page 162 that..." And they can look at it and go, "Hah, you know what I know what I started doing."
RB: Maybe they were doing it all along?
TN: Possibly. Then they can dismiss you and say, "Clearly, you just didn't get it." It's up to the writer to say or to know what to take in and not to take in.
RB: Lots of 'maybes'.
TN: It's all 'maybes'. How's it ever going to be anything but 'maybes'?
RB: Aren't there rules? Is it daunting to watch other writers who just keep plugging away, plugging away, barely being acknowledged?
TN: Yeah, sure. So many of my friends are writers. It is incredibly frustrating to watch people keep plugging away. I'm also seeing some people get recognized for what they are doing and that's incredibly gratifying. People who didn't get acknowledgment along the way are now are selling their novels. I have some great faith that maybe if I didn't have it, I don't exactly know how I would get up everyday, but that things go as they are supposed to go. That something that is truly great is going to be recognized.
RB: Is it a signal of your own future that you go to a major trade show in Chicago and Sonny Mehta takes you to the Chagall exhibit at the Art Institute? You could be the next big thing based on just that kind of thing. Which is, of course, extra-literary, right?
TN: I fell like people have been tremendously good to me. I really feel like I have been amazingly fortunate. Which doesn't mean I don't look over my shoulder waiting for the piano to fall on my head? I have been tremendously lucky.
RB: Are you prepared for success? I'm told your novel is already in its second printing.
TN: I don't really know what that means. I'm not sure if that's what they expect to do. Like do they print fewer copies...I don't know the politics of the book business enough to know that.
RB: The question is about whether you are prepared for success...
TN: I think I'm taking every piece...when Knopf bought this book, I was—I don't think there's any other way to describe it—except I felt such relief that I was not going to have to go scrounging around to pay my rent for another year. It was this feeling of, "Oh god, thank you." Like I can just breathe a little more easily and just get to writing and not have to worry so much about everything. The total elation—sure there are moments of total elation—there those really nice moments of "I'm okay." You know, Sally Fields at the Academy Awards, "You really like me!" Those are all tempered with feelings of "I suck. This is a fluke, I will never do this again. I'm going to be a has-been. The next one will surely be crap, if this one's any good at all." Or that feeling when someone writes a lousy review and you think, "Ach, this book really must suck, and everyone who is buying it is probably dumb anyway. How did I pull the wool over their eyes?" It must be born into the fabric of my being that I must question absolutely everything.
RB: Having completed this novel, forget about anyone else, what do you say?
TN: I feel proud of it. I feel I wrote the story that I wanted to write. I wanted to address a mother and a daughter. At age 29 I have come to a really nice relationship with my own mother which was really fraught with a lot of crap for a long time. Maybe part of that is sitting down putting it all that down on paper and I finished and I felt I could give it to my mom and I could say, "We are okay now." Of the product itself, if there were no other world out there. If there were no people reading this book I would say, "I did it. I wrote the story of Roz and Miranda and I feel really good about that. I don't quite know what to do with the rest of that and the world and people coming in and saying, "Oh, it's kind of slow going in the beginning and then at about page 100 it really kicks in." And I think, "Okay, page 100 wouldn't be there if there wasn't the beginning." Am I supposed to apologize for the first 100 pages then?
RB: You are not supposed to read the reviews...
TN: That's what people keep telling me.
RB: Everyone has something to say and that's great but...
TN: You write a story and there's that few-minute span of time between when you have pressed "Save" and when it's spooling to the printer, where you think, "Oh my god, I'm brilliant." Like, I've done it, I've written the story I've always wanted to write. By the time the printer spits it out you are already thinking, "Oh my god, what am I doing, this paragraph is crap." I finished this book a year ago. I was done with the emotional upheaval of writing it a year ago. It feels in the past in some sense now. And I feel very proud to have done it and very satisfied with that accomplishment. I'm on to new projects, trying to do what I do as well as I can do it and doing something that's...
RB: That's now?
TN: That's now, and that makes me feel like I've done something at the end of the day.
RB: So here you are, on tour with the added dimension of writing an online diary of the tour. How conscious are you that as you do whatever you that you will be writing about and posting it immediately? Were you kidding when you said it's mostly about the food?
TN: It feels like that. I feel like I am living elementally, right now. Let me get enough sleep, get a good meal into myself. It's not changing at all what I do. If anything I feel a little...it's a little bit of an exercise.
RB: Is it fun?
TN: Yes, there's a degree of it that's fun. I'm a journaler. And I haven't actually been journaling lately. I live with my boyfriend, and when stuff happens I tell it to him. Now I am out on my own and sort of a nice feeling to come in and journal at the end of the day. The thing that's not nice about it and makes me feel a little disingenuous, part of it is the publicity thing, but I am putting something out there on the Web for people to read. So, no, I'm not putting all my true personal feelings about everything. If it all sounds a little sugar-coated, I feel like I know that. But I can't say, "God, that reviewer was a schmuck!" I don't have it in me to be a Dave Eggers, to be out there fighting my battles with the world. My life is my life and what I put out there, I'm really happy to do it and chronicle what it's like to be on a book tour and here's how exhausted I am.
RB: Are you thinking you have an obligation to be totally honest? Does anybody expect that?
TN: I hold myself to an incredibly rigid sense of being honest. If I'm not honest, what am I doing in the world? I don't have enough space for lying or telling untruths. The world is complicated enough, I need to tell it as straight as I can or I'm getting myself way too tripped up into stuff that I don't know how to deal with.
RB: Is there an unexpurgated version of your road diary?
TN: No, there's barely time to get in what there is, "I went here. I drove there. I had three popsicles."
RB: We've been talking about an hour, shall we go on?
TN: All of my interviews...this is my other greatest problem with myself is the desire to yammer endlessly. Turn of the tape whenever you don't want to hear me yammer anymore and I'll stop yammering.
RB: We were talking about disingenuousness.
TN: The tour diary started...I did this tour for the first U of I Press version of Out Of The Girls' Room, where I cold called all these bookstores around the country and said, "I know you don't know me but I have a lot of friends who live in your town and I swear I'll fill your bookstore if you let me come do a reading." I borrowed gas money from my parents and spent two and a half months on the road driving around doing these readings. I was driving back into Iowa City, my final stretch and I was listening to NPR and This American Life was on. I love This American Life. It's an incredible radio show and it was a whole episode where they gone to this Bible camp down south. And I said, "Why didn't I do this? I have just been traveling around the country for two and a half months, why haven't I been recording all this?" I mentioned that to the publicist at Knopf and she said. "We should totally have you do that. Whether it turns into something else later or not that would be a really fun thing to do."
RB: That sounds right.
TN: I understand the part of this that's me. I am a personality, that someone might like me and want to come to a reading. I get to go to a bookstore and that I can be me in a way that people want to hang out with me because they are my friends. People in the audience may say, "That was really fun to hang out with her for an hour." I don't know if any one is going to want to read this tour diary. Except for the people at Random House.
RB: As you are writing it do you think that in six months you might want to make something more of it?
TN: Not at all.
RB: It's just a fleeting document?
TN: Absolutely, not all something...
RB: Just brain dumping.
TN: Absolutely. I'm not thinking of this as any literary construction in any sense.
RB: It could be. But you don't have the time...
TN: Or the inclination. I'm not really interested in making anything literary out of my own life. My mom might be thrilled to read it, my friends might find it fun to read. I'm thinking of it as anything more than something that might be entertaining for a little bit.
RB: If you weren't doing the tour diary on this lengthy tour, would you be writing something else? Writing on the road?
TN: No. There is not the time or the focus for that, at all. The diary is brain blither of the first order. That is not composition for me...
RB: Is it possible what you have written will have surprised you?
TN: You are talking to someone who has thirty volumes of journals on the shelf of my room. I don't know if it will surprise me.
RB: Do you reread those?
TN: Occasionally, I'll go back to certain times. What was it like when I was in love with so-and-so?
RB: Do you call writing in journals writing?
TN: No, not really.
RB: Is it preparation for anything?
TN: Sure, I always knew I was a writer. There are times when writing fiction feels like journaling. Those times when I am just getting into somebody's head and spewing out what's going on in there. Journaling for me is like having conversation with someone, if no one's around I'm having the conversation with myself.
RB: Your reaction to Dave Eggers isn't common, but I think it may be prescient. Is it because there is an undertone of crusade and self-righteousness about him?
TN: I wouldn't presume to guess what's in his mind. From my vantage point on the outside he seems to have put so much out there that's gotten him into this fray with people that I could never handle. I don't enjoy combat and conflict, so I look at the position that he seems to be in and maybe he thrives off of that. Maybe he thrives on this level of notoriety and conflict that he's got going with the world. I have a hard time imaging that anyone is smart enough to have that much control or design to the way they live their lives. Part of me thinks that Dave Eggers is flailing through his the way everyone else is flailing through theirs and what he's doing isn't anymore thought-out or orchestrated than any of our lives are. This is how his goes or that's what gets his blood pumping.
RB: I don't want to belabor this but he is talented, his web site, the books McSweeney's has published, his own book, these are creditable works. He's doing good things. There seems an incongruity between his work and the kind of prickliness of his attitude to his celebrity...
TN: There are different personalities. From what I have seen he seems...I don't imagine Dave Eggers and I would like each other very much. I certainly don't imagine that he would like me at all. This is ridiculous because people have conversations like this, "What would Dave Eggers think of me?" He's created that somehow.
RB: I guess you can conjecture about the Dave Eggers that is a media construct. Which I think he is very conscious of having created whether it plays out the way he plans. Maybe you are right. Nobody is smart enough to predict that.
TN: The whole thing makes me feel like a clique in high school where everything that was going on made me say, "You know what, I just want to find a few nice friends who I enjoy spending my time with. I don't really want to do that." Eggers is a tremendously creative, motivated, intelligent human being, from any indications that I've had of that persona, I don't particularly want to spend any time with him. There is a line about that kind of person in The Good People of New York. Who seems to be able to establish themselves as part of some in-group. He decides if you are cool enough to join or not and it puts everyone in that person's presence feeling like they are auditioning for something. And you can give someone that power. They depend on you to give them that power. You can also turn away but it's hard to because of the charisma.
RB: And you end up loathing yourself for watching.
TN: It's so stressful. That's what New York is like for me. I go to New York and everybody looks so good and there's such an aura of, "We are doing the coolest thing. We are seeing these films at the cutting edge of everything. The music that's going on here. What's happening in New York is everything that's really happening." I have such a sense of inferiority. It seems like that's what it would be like to live around a Dave Eggers personality. You would be trying desperately, constantly to live that coolness.
RB: When Harold Ross started The New Yorker maybe he had to have some contrived sense of exclusivity. So few people get anything done in that sense. That if you want to do something as ambitious as a magazine or movie or something that it requires a single-mindedness and determination. Perhaps that's part of the package?
TN: It depends on what you are doing. Ms magazine didn't establish itself as, "We're cool. Don't you want to hang out with us?"
RB: In the late '80s, Details magazine had an ad campaign that proclaimed, "If we were a club, we wouldn't let you in."
TN: I've come to a point in my life where I am tired of trying to bang down the doors of a clubhouse that you don't even want to do what they are doing in there in the first place. That is so exactly why I live in Iowa.
RB: Will you spend the rest of your life in the Midwest? How do you see your future?
TN: Hard to say. I could never say I'm going to spend the rest of my life in Iowa. Though I say it all the time because it is a nice prospect to think about. The thing that looms a little bit for my future, I wonder if this isolated writing thing is going to be a little more than I can handle. And I'm really going to want to go back to teaching. I loved teaching. I enjoy that kind of community. I enjoy a sense of community, and I have that right now in Iowa City. I like academia and educational communities very much. I think everything should be an educational community. That seems to be one of the healthiest ways to live. Be nice if the whole world was like that.
RB: Maybe University of Iowa is different, but haven't you noticed that education institutions have become big businesses?
TN: Certainly. I have spent a lot of time reading about Black Mountain College. That's where my interests are, and when I think about wanting to teach, I think about really wanting a community that's trying to do more than just churn people out of a program. At some point I might need to look for a teaching jobs, which could take me away from Iowa.
RB: Is there any reason for you to have to think about this?
TN: Sure. They gave me a lot of money, but it's not going to last forever. I'm going to have to do something. I sort of go under the impression that this was sort of a fluke and that nobody is ever going to buy another book that I write. I know I won't go to a city, but I have to see where a path is going to take me. I could see wanting to have children. I'm not right there yet. That's going to be a really big thing for me. I think having a kid is going to be a really big deal in terms of what I'm doing with my life and where my focus is. My goals are really small. I liked to have a vegetable garden and I'd really like to learn how to can stuff for winter. I think about community and sustainability. I'm going to be writing no matter what I do, so when I think about future it's not about career direction. At some point I'll write a book and I'll have to take off a few months, from whatever my life is, to go do a book tour and I'll get my hamminess and my latent musical theater performer out of me and then I'll go home and start canning the vegetables and doing the real stuff that makes real sense to me on a very practical level.
RB: You make it sound so reasonable and balanced. Sounds perfect.
TN: I feel like all I've ever been looking for is how to live a life that seems sustainable to me. That has emotional fulfillment and feels productive and feels like I'm doing something in the world and at this point my writing has felt like that. For every e-mail I get from a girl who is a high school junior somewhere that says, "Thank you so much. This meant something to me. Thank you for writing this." That's emotionally fulfilling. Somehow I'm doing what I love to do—which is writing these crazy stories, listening to people's stories—and somehow someone else in the world is having a connection and finding them useful to the living of their life. It makes me feel like I am part of some sort of connection in the world, that I doing a little bit of my part. Those are the things I really think about, how can I do the least damage and the most good? I sound like a stupid flaky flower child...
RB: Perhaps you feel like that because that seems not to be part of the dominant public discourse? People don't seem to be talking about moral imperatives in their lives or doing good.
TN: If they talked for long enough, wouldn't they start talking like that?
RB: That's very sweet of you. Maybe there's some connection there with Mark Twain's notion that within all of us there is a secret kindness?
TN: I used to dream about getting stuck in elevators with people. I thought if you gave them long enough they would become a real person. You'd get to what made them tick. I've spent my life putting myself in circumstances like that on wilderness trips.
RB: You are saying the longer you spend with someone the more likely you will get to the real them?
TN: Maybe long isn't it. There has to be the desire on their part to share.
RB: To quote Gertrude Stein, "Sometimes there is no there, there."
TN: Now I'm into that realm where my thoughts have taken over all of that and I think how does this work and all the little things start firing too quickly. And I think, "That's it. Stop."
©Robert Birnbaum 2001
All fotos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing.