Interview Fiction 2009

Music and Lyrics

Kent Nelson, author of the short story “Alba” in the 2009 Fiction Issue, explains how the 1960s folk scene and the poetic language of James Joyce inspired him to become a writer.
Kent Nelson
Kent Nelson

If you were not a writer what would you do?

If I were not a writer. Well, unfortunately, I have a law degree, so I would probably be a lawyer. I went to Harvard Law School. I never practiced. Writing is so much more fun and interesting and fascinating. My goal, when I was coming up through college, was to be governor of Colorado. And that certainly changed when I started writing fiction.

Fiction is what changed your mind?

I went to Yale on a full scholarship and I took an amazing course in my senior year. I only took two English courses, and one was called Daily Themes, and you had to write a 300-word short story every day for eight weeks. And I just loved that course. I thought, Here is a way you could be curious about anything and everything and everyone for your whole life and make it your life’s work. And then I had a weird experience after those first 40 little stories, which were all terrible. Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes was sponsoring a fiction contest because he had a son, I guess at Yale, who had died in a car crash. And I entered a story in it and won the prize and didn’t even know—this is how ignorant I was—didn’t even know three of the judges, who were Ralph Ellison, John Knowles (who wrote A Separate Peace), and William Styron. That is how ignorant I was. They were all Mike Wallace’s friends in New York. But it gave me this idea: Hey, maybe you shouldn’t be governor of Colorado; you could write fiction.

What was the first thing that you wrote that made you realize you wanted to be a writer?

The story that won that prize. The story was about—it might have even been about a lawyer, a businessman or a lawyer, who is dissatisfied with his work and goes window shopping and imagines these other lives he might have had. It was a terrible story. But it certainly did me a lot of good.

Who or what has been the biggest influence on your writing?

I think I have been more influenced by music than by other writers, but if I had to pick a writer, I would pick James Joyce. When I was growing up, I was a big folk music fan. Folk music was both engaging in the message that it had, and it was also sort of alienating from people I knew, and it made me sort of a loner, I guess. I was certainly influenced by that, by being willing to be alone, to be by myself. Of course, that is what writers do. When I was going to be governor, I had actually some skills in conversation. And those sort of evaporated when I was starting to write fiction, being by myself for most of the day. Also, there’s a kind of lyricism to sentences, and I have always admired Joyce’s work for that. I think it’s quite musical.

What specific influences have you drawn from Joyce?

When I write page one of a story, I will often—I work on a typewriter—I will often type over the first paragraph a bunch of times, like 10 times, just to hear how the sentences work together. And it’s not—it’s almost not an intellectual thing, it’s an emotional thing. I never know how stories are going to proceed or how they are going to end or where they are going when I start out.

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