How I Write: Antonya Nelson
Published: June 14, 2001
|The kinds of anxieties about life that wake one in the middle of the night are often what drives Antonya Nelson's novels and short stories as she delves into the intimacies, mysteries and dynamics of family relationships.|
Born in Wichita, Kan., Nelson attended the University of Kansas and the University of Arizona, where she earned an MFA. Her work has appeared in Esquire, Redbook, TriQuarterly, Story and The New Yorker, which called her one of the best young writers of the 21st century. She received the O. Henry Prize for her short story "Dirty Words" and the Flannery O'Connor Award for her collection The Expendables: Stories.
Nelson teaches writing at New Mexico State University and in the Warren Wilson College MFA program in North Carolina. She is married to writer Robert Boswell.
Credits: Novels: Living to Tell (2000), Nobody's Girl (1999) and Talking in Bed (1998). Short story collections: In the Land of Men: Stories (1992), Family Terrorists: A Novella and Seven Stories (1994) and The Expendables: Stories (1990).
Why: I've always been a voracious reader, and I've appreciated the world through literature. I've learned about myself through writing and uncovered mysteries of how people behave by putting myself in others' shoes.
When: I often write when I have insomnia. I like the privacy and enclosed space of the night. I feel sheltered from interference and utterly alone. I don't write every day or night. I have to let things build up in me to the point that I have to sit down and write or I'll explode. I'm a sprinter, not a long-distance runner. But I seem to get a manuscript out every few years.
How: I live in a house with a husband, kids and pets, and I'm always distracted by my concern for them. Instead of lying in bed at night with anxiety, I get up, make tea and apply that energy to fiction. I play with writing in an unstructured fashion. I'm attracted to those things I don't understand. I may have many ideas I don't develop at first, but come back to them when I find the proper venue. I ponder the insistence and mystery of an idea. I write everything I know about it and begin to shape it.
Ideas: I grew up in a large family, in a large house. What interests me usually comes back to family. Writing is a process of unveiling my own obsessions and interests--images, overheard conversations, family anecdotes. When the external world and the internal self get into alignment, it's like
Advice: Two things: You really need to read a lot, and don't censor yourself. You need to get to the most honest material. Feeling uncomfortable is a good thing. It means you are touching something raw and honest that has to do with feeling shame or inhibition. It's not that you don't want an audience, but in the beginning you really need privacy and freedom.
Photograph by Jack Parsons