15 November 2013

Interview with author Scott Nadelson

Today I am positively giddy to be hosting Scott Nadelson on the blog. I met Scott at Wordstock last month. He was on a panel discussion called "Dangerous Memoirs" along with Jay Ponteri and Ariel Gore, all published by friend-of-the-blog Hawthorne Books

Only a few minutes after the panel had ended I ran into him in the exhibition room. I immediately broke out into a nervous sweat and started yammering at him. With good grace and far more self-possession than I'd be able to muster only minutes after being on stage in front of a packed audience, Scott not only refrained from calling security on me, but he actually had a brief conversation with me and agreed to do an interview for the blog.

And now I think I should present the interview before I get all fangirly and start squealing.
If someone offered you ten million dollars to never write another word again, would you take it? Why or why not? 
Are you offering? I wouldn’t mind the ten million, but I’d probably turn it down, to my family’s dismay. If I weren’t writing I’d get depressed pretty quickly, rich or not. When I was in college I was heading down a pretty self-destructive path, and writing set me straight, gave me an outlet that made life seem worth living. And though it drives me nut sometimes, it still gives me meaning that nothing else can—it gives shape to my thoughts and emotions, purpose to my days. It’s become second to breathing now. When I go a few days without, I start to feel off; a week, and I’m batty. 

If a supernatural being capable of altering the laws of reality said that they would make you madly prolific and, furthermore, anything you wrote from that day forward would come out perfectly the first time, BUT you could never publish or otherwise share your writing with anyone ever again, would you make that deal? Explain. 
I’d say no on a couple of counts. For one, I wouldn’t want things to come out perfectly the first time. How dull! For me writing is all about the pleasure (and pain) of the process, and I wouldn’t want to lose the discoveries that come with wrestling over a piece for months or years, all the surprises that come from the failures and false starts. But I also don’t think of writing as something I do just for myself, or at least not with myself as the only audience; I always think of literature as a conversation, and the impulse to write is to communicate with other people, with readers and other writers. I’ve never been one to write much in a journal. I write in order to speak outward from the self to the other, and even if no one is listening, I need to imagine that listener in order for the work to mean something. If I couldn’t imagine the possibility of an audience, I probably would stop writing (and start drinking). 

I really like what you say in your June 2013 interview on Necessary Fiction about knowing that you're done with a piece when you don't know what else to do with it and find yourself endlessly tinkering (mainly because that's my experience, too, and I found your statement validating), and I also love what you say about not being afraid to revise something even after it's been published: "But now I’ve come to think that it’s an exciting thing when a story comes back to life after I thought it was dead for me." I find it interesting that you describe a finished story as a dead story. Do you really think of them as dead once you're done-for-now? 
I don’t know that I think of them as dead right away but only after they’ve left my thoughts as something still open to possibility. Then they sort of fossilize—they don’t decay so much as freeze in place, lose their malleability. That doesn’t mean I no longer care about them; they can still live in a reader’s experience of them. But a story I’m still working on feels like a living creature taking shape in my imagination, opening up to discovery and surprise, growing in ways I might never have expected. That’s the life force of storytelling, and when it subsides I often go through a period of mourning; even if I’m glad to have finished a story and am satisfied with its shape, there’s also a deflation that comes with letting it go. 

Did you ever break out into a cold sweat when you were writing The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress at the thought that someone else might read what you were writing? 
Not while I was writing it; then, I was just having fun, making myself laugh at my own expense, trying to see how far I could push myself to reveal uncomfortable details from my life in order to explore the slipperiness of identity and the conflict between fear and desire. Only when it was finished and I knew it was going to be published did I start to panic. I lost a lot of sleep wondering what the hell I was doing, and in the months leading up to its release I was a total wreck and wanted to leave the country. Then those feelings settled down pretty quickly, when the book was out and I realized that just as few people were going to read it as had read any of my story collections—and then it was no longer so scary. 

What I really admire about you, Jay Ponteri, and Ariel Gore (all featured in the "Dangerous Memoirs" panel at Wordstock) is that your writing comes across as frighteningly vulnerable and honest. It inspires me to be more honest, which is something I really want for myself. But to what extent is this a misconception on my part? On a scale of 0 to 10, where a 0 is Not At All and a 10 is Couldn't Be More So, how honest are you in your writing, and to what extent do you feel you have a choice about it? 
I really do strive for honesty, whether I’m writing story or essay—emotional honesty above all else. To me that seems to be the entire point of literature, to see as clearly and honestly as you can and try to translate that vision to other people. That’s not to say I always make it. Human beings are capable of incredible degrees of self-deception, and I’m no exception to that—I have my blind spots for sure. But vulnerability is what excites me about reading and writing, and it’s what I want to feel at every stage in the process, from early draft to finished piece. So I give myself an eight out of ten for effort. I don’t come anywhere close to that Ponteri guy, though; he’s off the chart.

There are a lot of us out here who would really like to make some money off our writing. What do you have to say to us about that?
I think that’s great; I want that for you, too. I have no idea how to do it, though. I had to acknowledge pretty early on that I wasn’t going to make any money at this. It’s just not in the cards for a writer of stories and essays, and that’s okay with me. I’ve been lucky enough to work my way into a teaching position that pays the bills and supports my writing habit, though it puts a squeeze on my time and energy. But I do believe artists should get paid for what they do. I wish we had a culture that valued writing economically as it does other cultural products. But the truth is, it’s tough to make much money at it, so it’s probably best to keep expectations low.

Why did you decide to publish traditionally instead of self-publishing your books? 
When I started publishing (my first book came out in 2004), self-publishing was still very much on the fringes of the mainstream, so I never really considered it; it didn’t seem like a viable option then as a way to get my work into the hands of readers. I know other people who’ve gone that route with mixed results. It’s tough to build an audience without the infrastructure of a press, even a small one; and I’m a reluctant and not terribly successful self-promoter, so it probably wouldn’t have gone very well for me if I had started that way.

How did you find your publisher, Hawthorne Books?
I was very blessed to have Hawthorne find me early on, in 2002, when I was shopping my first book manuscript. I’d been sending out the book for about a year by then without much luck and was doing my best not to be discouraged. Hawthorne was still quite new then—they’d produced one season’s worth of books and were looking for more, and they saw my name on a list of Literary Arts fellowship winners. They called me up and asked if I had a manuscript; I sent it to them, and they took it less than a month later. And I’ve been with them now for more than ten years.

In which writing/writer communities do you participate and why?
Right now my participation is mostly through the writing itself and through teaching—the press and journals I publish my work in, my students and colleagues both at Willamette and in the low-residency MFA program I teach in at Pacific Lutheran form the core of my writing community these days. When I lived in Portland, I had a great community of writer friends and a writing group that went strong for several years, but now between teaching, writing, and family life, I’m stretched pretty thin. I still keep in touch with a lot of writers and keep track of their accomplishments on Facebook, but writing has become a mostly solitary activity for me lately.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?
At the beginning of the fall I finished a novel I’ve been working on for the past few years, an episodic existential comedy about a nebbish, a nobody, in suburban New Jersey. Since then I’ve been floundering, trying to find a new project that will sustain me for a while. So far it’s mostly been false starts, along with a few short essays and the beginnings of some stories. But it always takes me some time to settle into something new, so I’m just trying out different things and staying open to possibilities until something sticks.

Finally - and I know you kind of already answered this in your Necessary Fiction interview, but I have to ask - what advice do you have for new or aspiring writers?
I can’t remember what I said to Necessary Fiction, so we’ll see if I repeat myself, but here goes: The best advice I can give is to love what you do. Find the joy in it every time you sit down to work, even on those terrible days when nothing goes right. Remind yourself what it is you love about writing, what gives you pleasure in the process, what you love to read. Remember that fame and glory is fleeting, and one day you’re going to die anyway, and the likelihood that anyone will read your work after you’re in the ground is slim—so you might as well just enjoy yourself. Take the work seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously. And also remember that you can quit at any time—there’s no shame in walking away if the writing no longer does give you joy. Keeping this in mind will most likely free you from those unnecessary doubts and pressures that prevent you from reveling in the secret giddy pleasure of sitting down in front of a blank page and making something out of nothing.

Scott is an Assistant Professor of English at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon and currently has four books out, all published by Hawthorne: three collections of short stories - Aftermath, The Cantor's Daughter, and Saving Stanley - and a memoir, The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress. You can find out more about Scott and his work by visiting his website.

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