It’s not a car chase so much as an escalating argument: An interview with Antonya Nelson

Event: Dec 24, 2011

Portrait of Antonya Nelson by Marion Ettlinger
Portrait of Antonya Nelson by Marion Ettlinger

By Sara Slaughter

Antonya Nelson is always the first to admit that she’s not good with plot. Her latest novel, Bound, begins with a car crash, and centers around characters who live in the same time and place as the serial killer known as BTK (Bind, Torture, and Kill). The action slowly escalates, but never quite reaches a climax. The drama in Bound stems from Nelson’s subtle exploration of what we believe we know about our loved ones, our friends, ourselves, and the world around us. She asks readers to interrogate our notions of love, friendship, fidelity, and family as forces capable of creating bonds between individuals.

Nelson is presently the 27th Zale-Kimmerling Writer-In-Residence at the Newcomb College Institute of Tulane University. She is the author of nine books of fiction, including Nothing Right, Talking in Bed, Nobody’s Girl, and Living to Tell. Her work has been widely published in magazines such as The New Yorker and Harper’s and in anthologies such as The Best American Short Stories, and she has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment of the Arts grant, and other awards. She is married to the writer Robert Boswell and lives in New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas, where she holds the Cullen Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Houston.

Nelson will present a reading in the Kendall Cram Room of Tulane’s Lavin-Bernick Center at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 26.

Room 220 recently had the pleasure of speaking with her about place, plotlessness, closure, and characterization. This interview was conducted via telephone on March 15, 2012.

Room 220: Most of your work centers around problems that are rooted in the family. What is it about family situations that calls you back?

Antonya Nelson: It’s where I’ve spent most of my time, dealing with my family. When I was a kid in Kansas, we had a fairly big family that was pretty close, several generations. I grew up in a house full of books, and my parents were English professors. Our family was fairly liberal in a place that isn’t very liberal any longer, and I think when you’re in a community where you’re marginalized by having an opinion other than the one that the majority holds, you might become closer to your family. That combination of things has probably made me somebody tuned into family and to literature.

Rm220: You’ve moved around a fair amount. How has that affected your writing?

AN: I have always felt most comfortable writing out of familiarity, out of houses I’ve lived in or locales I’ve wandered. I think that the insider’s view of things is a really useful one because there’s a kind of authority in it. Even as you’re imagining fictional people inhabiting that place, you have the sturdiness of the place that is familiar. But I also feel like when I move to a new place, that place has the cool aspects of a stranger in a strange land for a while. You can notice things that can be taken for granted by somebody who’s been there so long that everything’s familiar. The outsider sees it afresh.

When I first went to Tucson for grad school, for instance—the place can’t help but sort of shock you when you first show up. The desert, the saguaros. Those cactuses are so odd-looking. After I lived there for a while, I wasn’t an outsider, nor was I an insider, and so it became a location I didn’t write about as much. I like those positions—the insider and outsider—and I’ve been in Houston just long enough now to feel a kind of familiarity, a kind of sturdy appreciation of and claim to it. I can write about it a little less like the stunned person who gets called ma’am everywhere.

Rm220: Your characters often seem to be reckoning with something subtle or pervasive that extends beyond plot twists, and I’m wondering what, for you, holds a narrative together when it is not entirely plot-driven.

AN: The plot question for me is probably responsible for my preferring short stories to novels in terms of writing. You can get away with plotlessness in short stories, and I don’t think you can very frequently in novels—or, you have to be a lot more talented than I am to make it work. Over the years I’ve studied other people’s stories that I love, and I can see the shaping devices that are beyond plot or that use plot as one of their components but are not plot-based. The effect of the story is produced by means other than watching the characters act and react. It has more to do with the way the writer has shaped the material to conform to a kind of story that fools the reader into thinking she’s experienced something that plot is typically accomplishing. The stakes have been raised by means other than plot—it’s not a car chase so much as an escalating argument or coming darkness or any number of other gestures. I would say that on a pie graph of the stories I like, the ones that operate by means of plot mostly are about nine percent of the pie, and the other ninety-one percent are some other element that the writer is capable of bringing to the page.

Rm220: You mentioned escalating gestures. Characters don’t always reach clear resolutions in your stories, and I’m wondering what gives you a sense of closure in the absence of resolution.

AN: I guess a feeling of there being complex irony. It’s harder for me to evaluate my own and easier for me to name what other people’s stories accomplish for me. Sometimes it’s a sense of recognition of some human dilemma, that I can see myself somehow in the situation and being given choices, and then rooting for the character to do one thing and realizing the character can’t do that thing or won’t, and then, the sort of sad feeling: “That’s what he should have done, but he didn’t.”  That’s a pretty common end point in a story, and there’s almost always the sense in a story that somebody has come of age in some way. A coming of age moment is one where you make contact with something you didn’t know before, and knowing it now, you can never un-know it. That is both thrilling and awful, and I feel like that is at the heart of most stories. Somebody figures something out they didn’t know before, and coupled with that is almost always a desire to go back. Maturity and coming to terms with things, having an epiphany, it’s almost always true of the stories that break your heart.

Rm220: A few years ago at the Los Angeles Festival of Books, you were on a panel with Ron Carlson. You said that you were working on an idea for a story that was based on the image of a woman who was staring in her kitchen window, looking at herself with her hair on fire. Has that found its way into your work yet?

AN: That story is called “Funny Once,” and it’s coming out in this issue of The Colorado Review. I totally followed through on that. It had its origins somewhere else, but it’s set in Houston. That’s funny. She still has her hair on fire. Pretty striking image, right?  Absolutely out of that moment, and I had to figure out how it got on fire and what happened after. I did a lot of research into burn victims, and it ended up being a lot less severe, and other stuff happens, but it was enough to make a story.

Rm220: Is there a word or a phrase that you tend to go back and edit out of your stories or novels?

AN: Some student of mine a long time ago was trying to be a good reader. It was kind of an annoying thing to me, but she told me, “I noticed that you have three instances of people with acne in their eyebrows in this selection.”  I thought, “Wow, I have to watch out for that acne in the eyebrow thing I do.”  Like that?  That was a mistake. You should’ve been my editor at that book company that put that book out. That shouldn’t have appeared more than once in any collection. I do repeat things, and it’s fine when they’re in individual stories. When I finally have a book of stories, I have to go through and start yanking out those images that pop up.

I almost think I would be well served by trying to make a collection in which the same sort of images or tropes or motifs occur, and then I play with them and emphasize one at a given time and one at another time, sort of like that Lorrie Moore collection, Anagrams, where it’s the same circumstances, same situation, and then each story is a re-envisioning of those elements. It’s hard to explain, but I know that it’s something that I have to hide and on the other hand, explore, because clearly it means something to me.

The most recent one is: single mother of teenage boy reckoning with the fact that he’s going to be leaving her soon, leaving her home, and thereby, leaving her solitary. My own kids just recently left home. It makes perfect sense to me that I’m writing about this, and I’m putting a character like myself in extreme situations: no longer with a husband, no longer with something tangible in the world to hang onto, and usually on the verge of something self-destructive. It’s like all of these impulses within me are faint, and within my characters, they’re much more exaggerated. I do have to beware of certain things being repetitious, but on the other hand, until I’m done exploring that particular situation, until I’m bored with it, until I do feel like I’m repeating myself, that’s going to be my material. That’s been true since the beginning.