Author Interviews


The characters in Antonya Nelson's new book of stories aren't spies, sleuths or superheroes. The word shlub(ph) might spring to mind. They're often people adrift, fretful mothers, teenagers who become unexpected parents and people who chain smoke through their surgical bandages.

Antonya Nelson is considered perhaps the pre-eminent short story writer in America, telling stories that contain quiet dramas between four walls and two people. She's currently a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly Magazine. He most recent collection is called "Nothing Right." Antonya Nelson joins us now from the studios of WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. ANTONYA NELSON (Author, "Nothing Right"; Writer-At-Large, Texas Monthly Magazine) Thanks for having me.

SIMON: I want to begin right off by giving some people an idea the quality of your prose which has been widely, deservedly, acclaimed, and tip them off to the fact that your stories aren't a light hearted romp through (unintelligible) life. Could I get you to read a section which we selected about Hanna(ph), a mother looking at her teenage son?

Ms. NELSON: (Reading) Recently, she'd found herself disgusted by him. She didn't want to share a bathroom or kitchen, bar soap or utensils with her own boy. His brother, who'd passed through adolescence sobbing instead of shouting, had not prepared her for Leo.

The pure ugliness of a more traditional male's transformation to manhood, the inflamed skin and foul odor, the black scowl, the malice in every move, might eventually convince a parent to despair, to say that child you are dead to me, because it would be easier, more decorous, acceptable, to mourn the loss than to keep waging a hopeless battle.

SIMON: Ouch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I mean, those of us who've been teenagers, ahh.

Ms. NELSON: And those of us who've been parents, you know, it's awful to have to sometimes confess something that's not the conventional and understood feeling you're supposed to have for your children.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, and that raises the question of what can a short story do sometimes that a novel, a poem, an ad can't?

Ms. NELSON: I think maybe short stories operate in some of the same ways that poems do. They frame single or small moments and elevate those. They give you insight into more minor dramas maybe, dramas between smaller groups of people. I often think of the novel as a form that celebrates social groups, and the short story being a form that is capable of celebrating an individual or a sort of insular little pair of people.

SIMON: How did you discover that the short story might be your - forgive the expression (unintelligible)?

Ms. NELSON: (Laughing) I have a very short attention span...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NELSON: And I guess I also am inclined to write maybe in that sort of attention in the lyrical moment and observing something that, for me, has poignancy and resonance but would get perhaps a little lost in a large novel.

I also feel as if I'm plot-impaired to some degree, and you can craft and shape a short story, and fool the reader into thinking that there's actually - a plot has transpired when in fact very little has transpired in the way of plot, although there'll be some other movement.

SIMON: We should explain, I - certainly in your first story I think several of them - there are 11 stories in this book, the first story, "Nothing Right," there is the semblance of a plot. You've got a story here called "Party of One." Emily and Nicholas are in a bar. She is trying to persuade him to break up but not with her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But with her - with her sister. And she raises a question which I just want to share - would it be interesting to tend bar, Emily wonders, as the bartender observes her fight with Nicholas? Would it make you wise or just jaded? Were the two the same? Boy, I've been thinking about that ever since.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NELSON: Well, I guess jadedness is wisdom in the same way that I suppose sentimentality might be wisdom, you know. That there are on either end of a continuum we might want to name wisdom and availability to the world or a knowledge about the world that might include jadedness or pessimism, but also might take in those more mushy sentiments.

I'm a little hesitant to make my characters sentimental or to risk having the work labeled sentimental. It's something that I resist as a reader, and I don't resist it in life, I'm not an unmoved person by any stretch, but I think I don't want, I guess, indulge those kinds of things sometime in fiction. I can't tell you why exactly.

SIMON: Boy, well, I was just going to follow-up and ask why.

Ms. NELSON: (Laughing) I want to earn a reader's capacity to be moved. I want to earn that by ways of genuine understanding of characters, of understanding darknesses and desperate impulses, and I still want them to be moved, but I don't want it to be that easy, sort of Vaseline-lensed, you know. I weep at weddings, I'll openly admit it, but I don't know that I would want to put a group of characters weeping at a wedding in one of my stories because I'm afraid, myself as a reader, even as myself as a person likely to weep at a wedding, I'm not happy to see it happening in a story.

It may be just the self-consciousness of writers as a breed where we're always aware that, in order to make something feel fresh, you have to step back from or away from or find some new way to inhabit the cliche.

SIMON: May I share something with you that the gentleman on our staff, and now we're talking about someone who also read your book and liked it a lot. It's hard to find a really sympathetic male character.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NELSON: Hm-mm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: See, you laugh as if this has been pointed out to you.

Ms. NELSON: It has, yeah. I - you know.

SIMON: And I'm not - I'm not keeping score, you know, I mean, this is fine.

Ms. NELSON: It wasn't my intention to populate it with jerky guys. I certainly didn't mean that. I think everybody is a little weak. I think that guy in "Or Else" is a sympathetic fellow, and it's funny because I've gotten email and letters from people essentially saying I feel like that character is me. I like him a lot, too. He's a liar, but he's working so hard to belong to this family. And in a way, I think of him as being sort of like me, a kind of - a person who has to invent a story in order to feel as if he or she fits in.

SIMON: Ms. Nelson, thank you so much for all of your time.

Ms. NELSON: Thank you very much.

SIMON: Antonya Nelson, her new collection of short stories is called "Nothing Right." You can read an excerpt from her stories on our Web site,

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