My first introduction to Antonya Nelson was in The New Yorker, and later as a friend raved about her as a teacher at Warren Wilson. I’m thrilled that she was able to share insights into her writing process with us.
Who has been a major influence on your writing?
I have always been a very voracious reader, and the books that I loved as a young person certainly have played a role in my writing life. I loved, then and now, the clever syntax of Beatrix Potter and the gentle humor of Winnie the Pooh. As a teenager, I was drawn to works that provided me access to adventures I couldn’t quite pull off in my real life — Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Catcher in the Rye, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s hard for me to separate my writing life from my reading life, to be honest; I spend much more time reading than writing, always have, and continue to be fed, both in life and in writing, by the works of many, many very fine writers.
Can you give us insight into your creative process?
My “process,” inasmuch as I have one, is not one I’d recommend to others. I am not somebody who writes every day (at least not fiction) and who has to be patient with allowing material to slowly accrue in me. It builds up (like a clogged drain) until I can’t not write. So the sink overflows. Or whatever. And then I have to work until I’m finished with the story. And then wait for the build-up again.
How has teaching impacted your writing?
Teaching has been a huge gift, as far as I’m concerned. It’s forced me to focus on the making of the stories I love, to read and re-read with an eye on design and manipulation and sheer artistry. Seeing how the masters do what they do has given me the best kind of guidance about my own (and my students’) work.
What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice?
I’m a little suspicious of this “voice” notion, as I think it implies that writers have some unique way of saying what they say. Which isn’t true, in my experience. Rather, I think writers have a set of obsessions, a unique way of thinking, and a variable degree of discipline. Honing those things — and others — allows the work to prosper.
How does being a short story writer and novelist influenced your work in the other genre?
I would far rather write short stories than novels. And the one thing about me that I know for a fact is that any time I’ve written a novel it was because the material wouldn’t conform to the limits of the short story. When I say “limits” I mean only that the story I was telling wouldn’t feel finished in fewer than some 200 pages. The reader — and the writer — needed to spend a longer amount of time with the characters and their situations before the thing would be finished.
Many of your stories cover the dynamics of the modern family. How is this theme important to you?
There’s my central obsession, in a nutshell: family life. And the many ways that an unconventional understanding of it fascinates me. Mostly I like to take some conventional wisdom and overturn it, explore the ways in which tedious platitudes — “beauty is only skin deep” for instance — might be something to interrogate. I am bratty, at heart, and my brattiness began when I was a child in a large family. I’m still worrying my way inside and out of that character trait.
Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?
A lot of my stories have scared me by vaguely predicting something happened later in my life. That’s not exactly what you’re asking about, but it’s the first thing that occurred to me. To write truthfully — honestly, scarily — is to know things that might not be altogether happy or wholesome.
What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?
Hmmm. Well, let’s say I’m at a party full of extremely famous folks, of whom I am in awe, and I would love to be able to engage in some lively conversation, but odds are, I’m either in the kitchen with the caterers or upstairs with the banished children, because, in fact, those people in the end are far more likely to be funny and sweet and interesting to me. I’ll leave the famous writers alone, read and admire their work, and hang out with pets and kids and the help, whose irreverence is refreshing. But I think anybody who knows me already knows that?
About the Author:
Antonya Nelson is the author of four novels, including Bound (Bloomsbury, 2010) and seven short story collections, including Funny Once (Bloomsbury, 2014). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, Redbook and many other magazines, as well as in anthologies such as Prize Stories: the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. She is the recipient of a USA Artists Award in 2009, the 2003 Rea Award for Short Fiction, as well as NEA and Guggenheim Fellowships, and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program, as well as in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. She lives in Telluride, Colorado, Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Houston, Texas.